Same Crap, Different Bucket
An Englishman's adventure in the land that Chocolate Digestives forgot.

Aug
18

In a week when the FFA has announced a new Socceroos coach (Holger Osieck – no, me neither) and national hero Mark Schwarzer edged closer to becoming Arsenal’s latest butter-gloved goalkeeper, the talk in Australian football circles has been dominated by one subject: the overcoat of extrovert North Queensland Fury coach, Franz Straka

His striped beige sports jacket resembles something Larry David would wear whilst remonstrating with a dentist’s receptionist; an effect that was enhanced when Straka gesticulated wildly to the crowd in the closing stages of Fury’s deserved 2-1 win over Sydney FC on Saturday evening. 

Straka was entitled to be excited – after an off-season that saw the Fury come close to extinction, most pundits had written off their chances before a ball had even been kicked. Despite having an abstract approach to defending, their attack has pace, mobility and a youthful zest. Chris Payne in particular shone against his former team, who were punished for their frustratingly conservative approach. 

Sydney’s poor start to the season was mirrored by Melbourne Victory, who went down 2-0 at home to Perth Glory. The match was Victory’s first at the new AAMI Stadium, which has the pleasing external appearance of a Bond villain’s moonbase. To mark this occasion, the organisers pinched one of the more annoying visual elements of the recent World Cup and had the players file past a plinth with the match ball atop. For one delicious moment, it seemed that the referee had forgotten to pick up the ball – something I’d wanted to happen at every match in South Africa – but it was just part of a convoluted ceremony that involved Archie Thompson presenting the ball to the officials. Life really is just one long series of minor disappointments, isn’t it? 

In celebration of the 40th anniversary of theVictorian government ‘s decision to make the wearing of seatbelts mandatory – and I’m not making this up – Melbourne’s shirts incorporated a white seatbelt design. The obvious joke, and one which I’m not above making, being that Carlos Hernandez’s kit also featured twin airbags and a sizeable rear bumper. 

The match itself was notable for the extreme levels of unpunished violence. Perth’s captain Nathan Burns killed eight men in the first half alone. Despite having the appearance of someone who should have a row of colour-coordinated biros along his breast pocket, referee Gerard Parsons was surprisingly lenient. Regardless of protests about Perth’s physical approach, Melbourne were out-thought and out-played. The away side took the lead through a header from Jamie Harnwell (although some letters had peeled off the back of his shirt, so it may have been Harnv ll), and then sealed the points with a long-range shot from Mile Sterjovski, which was followed by an unsettling celebration that featured the whole team squatting by the corner flag as if preparing to deliver a steaming critique of Parsons’ refereeing performance. 

The previous evening, Wellington Phoenix and Gold Coast United played out a highly-entertaining 3-3 draw in monsoon-like weather conditions. Playing on what is essentially a bog may not be an issue when the occasion doesn’t warrant the ball being on the ground (rugby matches or New Zealand internationals, for example), but is reasonably fundamental for a football match. Wellington adapted quickly and raced into a 3-1 lead, thanks in part to a brace of goals from Chris Greenacre (who knows what enabled the Wakefield-born Greenacre to be so comfortable in this relentlessly bleak environment?). But as the game progressed, Gold Coast United’s players realised the futility of trying to gently pass the ball through ankle-deep surface water and modified their approach accordingly. Jason Cullina directed a late header into the bottom corner to earn a draw after a resurgent Shane Smeltz had earlier scored two fine goals – clearly he was one of the six people who read my criticism of his performance last week. 

Later that night, Melbourne Heart claimed their first A-League point in fortuitous circumstances at Newcastle. Having broken the record for the longest a new A-League team has gone without scoring, and falling behind to a soft Jeremy Brockie strike, Heart appeared to be heading for another defeat. However, under no pressure, Newcastle defender Ben Kantarovski scooped the ball past his own keeper, perhaps succumbing to the kind of impulsive urge you sometimes get to slap your boss in the face during a perfectly civil conversation. Or is that just me? Either way, no-one seemed very impressed. 

An exciting weekend of action was rounded off at the Bluetongue Stadium, where Central Coast Mariners drew 1-1  with Adelaide. Something interesting probably happened, but I wouldn’t know as I was watching old episodes of Deadwood. Ian McShane is good, isn’t he? Week Two and I’ve already given up on Adelaide. 

Remember, you won’t get A-League analysis like this anywhere else on the internet. Keep reading, Smeltzy.

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Aug
12

Season six of the A-League kicked off last weekend with a slew of hard-fought draws and a Central Coast Mariners win that had the party-pooping qualities of a drambuie-soaked children’s entertainer crafting obscene shapes out of balloons.

Their 1-0 win at new club Melbourne Heart on Thursday night was deserved though, and came almost a year to the day of their comfortable win at Melbourne Victory in the opening fixture of last season. The Mariners contained Heart competently and rarely looked troubled after Alex Wilkinson had headed them into the lead – a goal that came while Heart keeper, Clive Bolton, appeared preoccupied by the Velcro on his gloves. What dark, unspoken,Velcro-related incident haunts his past?

Amidst the celebrations, the cameras cut to a small group of teenagers in Melbourne Victory shirts, celebrating the downfall of their newfound rivals. It’s the kind of action that results in you being fed your own shins in some countries, but nobody seemed to mind too much here. 

Despite pre-match fears of a sparse turnout, a decent-sized crowd of 11,050 made the effort (piss-taking adolescents included). This was also the case in Perth, where over 16,000 fans (an A-League record for Perth), witnessed an entertaining 3-3 draw with North Queensland Fury.  Those who were there simply to catch a glimpse of Robbie Fowler saw a largely anonymous display redeemed only by a couple of defence-splitting passes that deserved better finishes. After coming from behind, Perth looked to have sealed the points when Mile Sterjovski nodded them in front with 12 minutes left. However, Fury equalised in injury time with a Chris Grossman header from a free-kick near the corner flag. Their goalkeeper, Justin Pasfield, should take some credit, as his presence in the opposition area caused the kind of distraction only usually seen when a dog gets into a primary school playground. 

Another 3-3 was played out at the Sydney Football Stadium in a re-match of last season’s Grand Final between Sydney and Melbourne Victory. The home side appeared to be in complete control when Terry McFlynn put them 2-0 up after 53 minutes. Victory captain, Kevin ‘Muskie’ Muscat had earlier been at fault for Sydney’s first goal; dispossessed whilst attempting a Cruyff turn in his own penalty area.

At that point, I came as close as I probably ever will to feeling sorry for him – it was his birthday after all. Thankfully, my sentimentality evaporated as he reverted to type: kicking and shoving opponents and hectoring the referee for the rest of the match, spraying him with advice and scorn. It wasn’t long before I went back to wishing he’d fall into a volcano. 

In the space of seven calamitous minutes, Melbourne exploited the vast gaps in Sydney’s defence to score three goals. The youthful Mate Dugandzic (has there ever been a more appropriate first name for an Australian?) was a constant menace, neatly taking one goal and showing immense composure to set up the third. It took a late free kick from Shannon Cole to salvage a draw for Sydney, the real merit for which should really be attributed to my companion Simon who sighed, ‘he hasn’t scored a free kick in about two years’ seconds before the ball was whipped into the top corner. 

The surprise performance of the weekend came from Brisbane Roar. They limped to the end of last season and then lost a number of key players, yet were clearly the better team in their 0-0 draw with Gold Coast United – only negligent finishing prevented them from taking all three points. United looked jaded and lacked inspiration. Shane Smeltz loped around the pitch with the resentful air of Harold Steptoe – he’s had a glimpse of the bright lights, but now he’s stuck back at home and his dad’s having a bath in the kitchen sink. Fortunately for Smeltz, the transfer window doesn’t close for a couple of weeks, so there may still be time for him to secure a dream move to Plymouth Argyle or whatever.  

Finally, consummate entertainers Adelaide United and Newcastle Jets stuck to the old showbiz maxim ‘always leave the audience wanting more’ with a plain goalless draw only briefly lightened by the sight of Newcastle’s Michael Bridges and Marko Jesic performing a comedy double-take as a quick free-kick was taken while they formed a bickering two-man wall.

The real question is how long will I keep up these weekly updates? My prediction? Early September. Optimistic, I know.

Aug
05

The vuvuzelas have barely droned their last parp and the bruises on Andres Iniesta’s shins are still pansy purple, yet here we are on the verge of another football season. Football widows rejoice – it’s back already. 

However, fans of Hyundai A-League clubs have had a longer wait than most to see their clubs in action again. Over four months have passed since Sydney FC won the championship with a penalty shoot-out win against bitter rivals Melbourne Victory in the Grand Final. It still seems a bit soon though. Not enough time has elapsed between the end of the World Cup and the start of the new season to build up the requisite levels of anticipation. Most A-League teams were already playing friendlies while England were still in the competition. 

This is a big year for the A-League. Last season, average attendances dropped to their lowest since the competition began in 2005. A disappointing performance by the Socceroos at the World Cup will have done little to win over casual fans, and the season starts at a time when the inexplicably more popular football codes of Aussie rules and rugby league are still in full flow. The FFA will be banking on A-League newcomers Melbourne Heart to provide added interest and bolster flailing crowd figures. 

Heart and Central Coast Mariners kick off season six tonight. The newest franchise have assembled an impressive squad, including the spine of Sydney’s championship-winning team (goalkeeper Clint Bolton, defender Simon Colosimo and creaking national treasure John Aloisi) as well as Socceroo Michael Beauchamp and the highly-rated Josip Skoko. Coach John v’ant Schip has declared that Heart will play a 4-3-3 formation in the ‘Dutch style’, presumably without the chest-cavity-crushing martial arts moves. Heart will be vying for local fans with Melbourne Victory, already established in the city and with a fine A-League record. 

For the first half of the season Victory will be without their main source of goals – Archie Thompson. Still recovering from a serious knee injury sustained in the Grand Final, Thompson last week reported that his rehabilitation has included time in the swimming pool made famous by Eric the Eel at the 2000 Olympics: ‘It’s no use”, he complained, “black people can’t swim”. We look forward to hearing more of his views on racial conundrums as he recuperates (white men can’t jump, Asians can’t drive, Mexicans can’t play snooker etc). In his absence, Victory will look to the promising Robbie Kruse and 2010 player of the year Carlos Hernandez to fill the void. Hernandez is a throwback to the era of salad sceptic mavericks – as capable as whipping a free kick into the top corner as blacking out while watching someone fill out a gym membership form. 

Victory also have problems at the back. Talented goalkeeper, Mitch Langerak has departed for Borussia Dortmund and pantomime toe rag Kevin Muscat looks increasingly vulnerable when faced with opponents boasting the full compliment of legs. He will, however, be motivated to stamp his authority all over of the first fixture (probably while the referee isn’t looking), as it comes against his arch nemesis: Sydney FC.

Despite the departure of several influential players (and John Aloisi), Sydney fans are optimistic for a repeat of last season’s achievements. Much of this expectation rests on the shoulders of creative midfielder Nick Carle, who has returned to the A-League after three years in Europe. Judging by his alarming tangerine hue, Carle appears to have spent much of this time in the tanning studios of South London, but his pre-season performances have been encouraging. 

Vítězslav Lavička’s team is well-organised and effective but not always riveting. At one fixture last season I watched a middle-aged woman studiously completing a colouring-in book as Byun Sung Hwan and Stephan Keller rolled the ball back and forth to one another for what felt like a significant period of time. Hopefully, Kofi Danning, an enthusiastic but raw winger, will provide some excitement and hold the attention of Sydney’s felt tip pen wielding fans. 

Before completing the signing of Carle, Sydney briefly made bedroom eyes towards Robbie Fowler, who found himself on the shelf when North Queensland Fury ran into financial grief and terminated the contracts of six players, including Fowler’s (he’s now suing the club and the FFA). Mercifully, before the millionaire property tycoon was forced to sell his children for spam, Perth Glory stepped in and signed him.

Much is expected of Perth Glory this season, as it is every season – they are the closest thing the A-League has to a sleeping giant. Whether an ageing Fowler is the right person to bring glory back to, um, Glory is questionable, but one thing is certain: the sale of Liverpool replica jerseys will provide a massive boost to the economy of Western Australia. Who needs the mining industry when you’ve got a legion of muppets willing to spend $100+ on lurid polyester garments?

Finances were also an issue for Gold Coast United during the off-season, with the publication of the 2010/11 fixture list being put on hold whilst the FFA sought assurances from controversial owner, Clive Palmer, that he would continue to bankroll the franchise. Last season the team coped admirably with the distraction of Palmer’s rich Texan routine, and remained in the title race until the final few weeks. United’s challenge was largely down to the passing and vision of Jason Culina and the goals of Shane Smeltz – the league’s top scorer. His prolific season, coupled with his energetic performances for New Zealand at the World Cup, earned him a transfer to Chinese club Shandong Luneng. However, just five days into his new contract, he had an attack of the ‘Joey Beauchamps’ and returned to Australia, claiming his family were unable to settle. Just how bad can Shandong be? Smeltz has now re-signed for United, but would be well advised not to take any holidays to Shandong in the near future (not that he would, obv). Assuming Clive Palmer doesn’t announce he’s turning their stadium into a monster truck water park, Gold Coast will again be a threat.

Before he realised how hard it was to get a Bondi Burger in China, Smeltz spent much of the summer with the coach and players of Wellington Pheonix in the form of New Zealand’s World Cup set-up. Ricky Herbert’s Pheonix are more attack-minded than Ricky Herbert’s New Zealand and less reliant on long punts to a pointy-elbowed centre forward. Pheonix play an intense pressing game and are a formidable prospect at home. In Paul Ifil they also have one of the league’s most exciting players. Yes, Paul Ifil. He’s all drag-backs and nutmegs and thirty yard screamers these days.

Central Coast Mariners’ failure to qualify for the 2010 finals series resulted in a coaching re-shuffle. Lawrie McKinna was ‘moved upstairs’ and former national coach Graham Arnold was hired. He’s since signed a group of largely unfamiliar players, including Patricio Perez from Defensa y Justicia in Argentina, which sounds like the kind of place you used to get sent to for criticising el presidente. Further up the motorway, Newcastle Jets will aim to build on last season’s Finals finish under Branko Culina. Newcastle haven’t escaped the drain of talent to Melbourne Heart, losing their captain Matt Thompson. However, their prospects are bolstered by the return of striker Michael Bridges – a man whose injury record makes Samuel L Jackson’s brittle-boned character in ‘Unbreakable’ seem like Joe Jordan

Brisbane Roar endured a torrid end to last season, plummeting down the table amid managerial controversy (Frank Farina was sacked for drink driving offences) and player revolt (old hands Charlie Miller and Craig Moore flouncing out of the club after falling out with replacement coach Ange Postecoglou). Since then, they have lost their three brightest youth prospects (including ‘The New Harry Kewell’, Tommy Oar) to FC Utrecht, and their top scorer, Sergio van Dijk to last season’s bottom club, Adelaide United.  

2009/10 was Adelaide’s worst season in the A-League so far, but it ended positively with consecutive wins and a creditable display in the Asian Cup. Following their own financial meltdown in 2009, the club are currently run by the FFA who, in keeping with their fascination with all things Netherlands, hired Dutchman Rini Coolen as a replacement to coach Aurelio Vidmar, who took up a role as assistant manager for the national team.  Adelaide should improve on last season’s insipid showing, but their fiscal situation remains a concern. 

With no clear favourite, plenty of fresh players, a host of mysterious foreign coaches and a brand new club playing in a proper rectangular football stadium, it promises to be an intersting season. Now let’s just hope that some buggers turn up to watch it. Paaaarp!

Jul
08

Here in Australia, TV station SBS has had the exclusive rights to broadcast the World Cup. They’ve done a pretty good job. Their presenters are well-informed, engaging and enthusiastic. Coming from the UK, I’m not really used to this sort of thing. It’s been a treat to watch a tournament without having to endure updates from the England camp during the half time interval of every match and suffer endless speculation about Wayne’s ankle, JT’s groin or the looseness of Stevie G’s stools. Unlike ITV, SBS have even managed to screen all the games without cutting away to adverts at crucial moments. There are, however, a few things I’d like to share. 

For reasons only known to them, SBS decided to hire former-Sky Sports boxing presenter, Paul Dempsey, to anchor the majority of the matches. It’s been reported recently that SBS is undertaking a range of cost-cutting exercises, but you’d think their budget may have extended to employing, say, Craig McLachlan or a plate of lime jelly. 

The main thing to know about Paul Dempsey is that he has mesmerising hair; it’s like the fibre optic lamp my parents had in their living room in the early-eighties. It gently bobs under the heat of the studio lights, entrancing sleep-deprived eyes. If it wasn’t sat on the top of Paul Dempsey’s head, I’d almost be tempted to describe it as wondrous. His presenting style though, is pure Alan Partridge. In the aftermath of Australia’s defeat to Germany, he asked a bewildered panel of former Socceroos ‘How do you cope when you’re shipping punishment like that?’  Shipping punishment? Even panellist Ned Zelic, once described by Ray Wilkins as being ‘as versatile as an egg’, was left floundering. 

The commentators themselves are mostly B-list announcers familiar to British viewers: Gary Bloom, John Helm, Dave Woods. I’ve often wondered where British commentators not contracted to the BBC or ITV go in World Cup summers. Finding out that they freelance for foreign TV stations has destroyed my theory that they moonlight in ice cream vans or hibernate in hollow trees.

John Helm’s commentary largely relies on statistics, puns and one-liners. It evokes in the viewer the feeling of being trapped at a bus stop with a talkative pensioner who occasionally offers opinions that make you feel a bit uncomfortable (e.g. “Boulahrouz… you can tell from just looking at him that he’s of Moroccan descent”). His way of finishing each sentence with an audible wheeze is more distracting than a million vuvuzelas and it comes as a genuine surprise that he doesn’t close each match by saying: ‘that was cracking; more cheese, Grommit?’.

The highlight of the opening week of the World Cup was undoubtedly Craig Foster’s sweaty-lipped rant after Australia’s 4-0 defeat to Germany, during which he called for a squadron of former Socceroo captains to march into the dressing room and overthrow coach, Pim Verbeek. With his perfectly-set hair and smooth features, Foster looked a bit like an angry Thunderbird. Thankfully, the spittle-flecked Craig Johnson was sat adjacent to him and was able to placate Foster with a soothing hand to his forearm. 

The contrast between the laid-back Johnson and the uptight Foster worked well. Johnson’s suit and limp ponytail gives him the air of a corporate hippy, perhaps one who manufactures smoothies with packaging that tries too hard. Foster, meanwhile, provides a slick, self-righteous fury. Whoever decided to put him in a hot glass studio alongside the tactile Johnson deserves industry recognition. Once the distraction of the world cup is over, the two Craigs should probably think about making a buddy movie together. 

SBS didn’t bother with the pretence of impartiality for Australia’s matches; instead they decided to kit their presenters out with green and gold scarves. My main criticism with this was that it provoked in me traumatic flashbacks to Jimmy Hill’s St. George cross bowtie at Euro ’96. Australia’s failure to advance beyond the group stage was met with quasi-fascistic platitudes about a never-say-die attitude supposedly unique to Australians – none of which had been in evidence against Germany, when the team collectively gave up in the second half. Host Les Murray opened the following night’s highlight programme with a quote from a Churchill speech, no doubt designed to lift the spirits of a demoralised nation. Luckily, most of the nation had already cheered itself up by fucking off back to watching rugby league. See you in four years, chaps. 

It could be worse though. People in North Korea only got to see one live match and although British football fans have been able to see all the games, they have to suffer the opinions Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson. Disappointingly, I understand that the BBC is basing their World Cup coverage on idle and dismissive xenophobia, presumably in an attempt to curry favour with the Daily Mail now that they’re back in power. This is daft – the Daily Mail probably hates curry.

Jun
09

I’ve started collecting Panini World Cup stickers

It’s a habit I thought I had licked; I hadn’t peeled a sticker since Mexico 86. Yet within hours of receiving a free sticker album with a World Cup Guide, I found myself marching into the nearest newsagents and asking: “Hi, do you sell World Cup stickers? My son has been looking everywhere for them”. Addiction begets lies. It wasn’t long before I was back home, surrounded by expended packets, breathing in the familiar adhesive musk and shuddering like Gary Oldman’s character in Leon

I’ve overcome the initial social discomfort of purchasing stickers and no longer feel the need to fib to newsagents about fictional children or attempt to cover my purchase with less embarrassing items (“Two packets of World Cup stickers and a copy of Massive Jugs Enthusiast please, shopkeep!”). However, finding people to swap duplicates with is a challenge. 

In 1986, my main source of procuring swaps was the school playground. Sadly, modern society has judged it inappropriate for 35-year old men to loiter in schoolyards, rummaging through their pockets and rhythmically breathing “Need! Need! Need!” as small boys discretely reveal their wares. We live in cynical times. 

I’m not alone though. I’ve bullied a colleague into starting a collection; gradually breaking his resolve with weeks of Bart and Lisa Simpson-style repetition (“Have you started a collection yet? Have you started a collection yet? Have you started a collection yet?”). Today he appeared at my desk and reported, “I’ve found somewhere else that sells them. I got ten packs”. I responded in the only way I know how: “show me”.

 The internet is also alive with forums populated by people from all corners of the globe arranging exchanges and listing swapsies. Who would have thought the internet would be employed for such nerdy activities? Thousands of people who should probably know better are meeting up in dark corners in a desperate attempt to complete their albums. I’ve read tales of grown men nervously approaching other grown men in pubs and whispering “are you… a collector?” 

As you’d imagine, the web is also a breeding ground for conspiracy theories on the distribution strategies of Panini. In a recent Guardian article, Panini denied there are any regional differences in the distribution of stickers, but if that’s the case, why are people in Australia reporting a complete absence of Chile stickers? Why Panini, why? You get us hooked and then you try to fob us off with an inferior product. I’ve seen The Wire, I know how this shit goes down. 

My partner has been fairly understanding throughout all this. Certainly more understanding than I would be if she started spending $5 a day on, say, Property Ladder stickers. She even treated me to twenty packets recently. It was only when she saw my eyes glaze over and witnessed the fevered manner in which I ripped them from their packets that she questioned whether this was really something she should be encouraging.

If anyone who knows where I can get my hands on a Yuji Nakazawa sticker, you know where to find me.

Jun
08

I fear I’ve overdone it with the friendlies. Apart from the three Australia games, I’ve also watched all of England’s warm-ups, France’s defeat to China, and even managed to squeeze in half an hour of Serbia v New Zealand. With four days left to go before the World Cup, I’m already a bit stuffed. I’m concerned I may not have room left for a wafer-thin group game between Honduras and Switzerland.  

On Saturday night, I found myself watching Australia take on the United States, just four days after seeing the Socceroos participate in one of the dullest things I’ve ever witnessed (note how I haven’t restricted this to football matches, or even sporting events. Frankly, I’d imagine it would have been more entertaining to watch my own colonoscopy). Thankfully, unlike Tuesday’s turgid spectacle, this game didn’t make me want to run at full speed into a wall. 

Despite concerns about the quality of the playing surface, the match again took place in the idyllic surroundings of the Roodepoort Stadium, Johannesburg. After ten minutes the pitch began to visibly disintegrate and by the end of the match it looked as if it had been trampled by a marauding herd of impala (possibly startled by one of Lucas Neill’s numerous wayward passes from defence). 

Only the constant din of hundreds of school children blowing vuvuzelas broke the illusion that the match was being played in secret in the middle of a national park. A wide brown river flows parallel to the far wing, and throughout the first half a thick plume of black smoke billowed on the horizon – if anyone from the production team of Channel Seven’s ‘Today Tonight’ was watching, we can expect more editorials about the perils thousands of Aussie soccer fans face in the most dangerous place in the universe. 

The bus loads of raucous children were joined in the crowd by David Beckham, no doubt on an important scouting mission for Fabio Capello. I can empathize with Beckham’s frustration at writing something no-one will bother to read; I get stats on how many people actually download this rubbish, you know.   

For USA coach, Bob Bradley, the fixture provided an opportunity to prepare for their World Cup opener against England. However, it is unclear what he could possibly learn by playing against a team who frequently surrender possession, are over-reliant on one star player and only pose a threat from set pieces. Ah. Clever man, that Bradley. 

Meanwhile, much of the talk in the Australia camp had centred on the fitness of Harry Kewell, with one local newspaper even running a daily column written by his groin. Apart from a few gentle jogs down the running track, Kewell and his groin spend the duration on the bench. 

Pim Verbeek has a serious demeanour. He also has the hairstyle of a man who has recently been attacked by a baboon. His hair springs from his scalp in wispy clumps as he frowns into the distance, perhaps recalling a ruined afternoon at a safari park.

It’s no surprise he looks so concerned; the United States cut through Australia’s brittle defence with frequent ease. As early as the third minute, Grella was brushed off the ball by the sprightly Buddle, who charged on to spank the ball past Schwarzer. Ten minutes later, the defence was exposed again, with Dempsey slipping a pass through to Findlay. Despite skipping past Schwarzer, Findlay could only screw his shot wide. Pim creases his forehead and scribbles some angry notes on the back on an envelope. 

Remarkably, Australia then draw level, as Tim Cahill volleyed home a corner kick which the US defence watched float across their penalty area as if dreamily spotting shooting stars on Makeout Hill. 

The USA restored their lead after half an hour, with Buddle heading in a perfect cross from the right foot of Cherundolo. Moments later, Kennedy missed an almost identical chance to equalise at the other end. From there on in, the US dominated – only some timely blocks from Schwarzer and the generosity of a linesman prevented a heavier defeat. By the time Hercules Gomes tapped in a third goal in injury time, the match was over as a contest. 

Until this match, I had thought Australia may provide a challenge to their Group C opponents. Although uninspiring going forward, they appeared well-organised in defence and industrious enough in midfield to constrict the creativity out of more gifted opponents. However, the ease with which the US cut through the Socceroos defence with simple passing and movement will cause Verbeek more headaches over the next few days than any imaginary primate attacks.   

Here are the goals from the match with Spanish commentary and a generic house soundtrack.

Jun
04

Taking the bins out. De-scaling the kettle. The music of Jack Johnson. An evening with Michael Owen. Digesting a Ryvita on a rail replacement bus service between Reading and Didcot Parkway. Putting your hand through a carrier bag to retrieve a wet dog stool. 

Eltham train station on a Sunday evening in January. Eltham train station on a Sunday evening in June. Traffic control systems on the A319. Going shopping for work trousers in Bromley. Perusing the recipes in the Mail on Sunday Magazine in a doctor’s surgery waiting room. The ten minutes it takes to get off a plane when everyone goes a bit mental trying to get their bags from the overhead lockers. Banging your elbow. Picking a scab. Blasting someone else’s skidmarks off the back of the toilet bowl with your own piss jet. Dido. 

The CDs they sell in post offices. The Australian Rock Paper Scissors Championships. Bleeding gums. Jester hats. Interest rates. Lilt. The pattern on the seat upholstery on the District Line. Kevin Rudd’s spectacle frames. Damp manila envelopes containing tax return forms. The sound of a vacuum cleaner repeatedly hitting a skirting board.  Mark Bosnich’s laugh. A lost child in Debenhams.  Tripping over a paving slab. Pushing cotton wool buds too far into your ear canal. This blog post. 

Watching Australia v Denmark. In the Belconnen Premier Inn, Canberra. On the eve of a workshop at the Australian Bureau of Statistics on data collection policy.

May
30

So, Swindon Town lost the play-off final. In truth, the 1-0 defeat was a fair result. Millwall were the better team and thoroughly deserved their victory. Swindon’s only chance of note fell to Charlie Austin, but he was unable to find the target, as the ball bobbled off the Wembley turf a split second before he connected. It would be erroneous though to blame the state of the pitch for the defeat. I’m already over it and looking forward to next season. I’m not going to mention another word on the subject. Instead, with meteorologists forecasting a week of heavy rain for Sydney, I’m going to talk about golf umbrellas.

I think you can broadly divide people into two categories: those who are happy to keep their heads dry under a conventional umbrella, and those who prefer to brandish something the size of a wedding marquee. As soon as it starts to rain, walking through Sydney’s Central Business District becomes a perilous exercise. Those not quick enough to flex their bodies out of the way, Matrix-style, run the risk of having the pupils plucked from their eyes by wayward metallic tips. I mean, you’d think that when you were spending hundreds of millions of pounds on building a football stadium, you’d at least give some consideration to laying a pitch that didn’t resemble the bottom of a fucking quarry. 

Um, sorry; lost my flow a bit there. Golf umbrellas, yes. How much of a surface area do these people need to keep dry? I can understand their desire to protect their head from the elements, and I agree that it’s unpleasant to be sat in the office in wet clothes, but is it really necessary to keep the area one metre around you dry too? It’s probably already wet anyway. I do accept though that there are some surfaces that it’s important to protect from inclement weather. Surfaces like sports pitches, for example. Sports pitches in the middle of obscenely expensive stadiums. Sport stadiums that are marketed as being the best in the world. Sports stadiums that you are led to believe are so mind-blowingly awesome that upon passing through the turnstiles, you expect to be ushered to your seat by the re-animated corpse of a fallen sports hero, who will then gently cup your balls and whisper sweet melodies in your ear. Sports stadiums where they charge you a fiver for a pie that tastes like it’s fallen out of a otter’s cancerous arsehole but where apparently there isn’t the spare cash to invest in a roller to flatten the fucking pitch. 

Do people who carry golf umbrellas actually play golf? Some must, obviously. I bet most don’t though. What’s your handicap? Oh, being a selfish, inconsiderate tit, I see. Most walkways are undercover in Australia anyway. Who cares if your hair gets a bit wet, it looks rubbish anyway. What is that, a perm? Jesus.

 

May
28

Tomorrow, Swindon Town take on Millwall at Wembley in the League One Play-off final. As an exiled Town fan, this is both thrilling and crushing in equal measure. That they wait until I leave the country before deciding to start playing like Santos is absolutely typical of the emotional trauma they have caused me over the last 25 years. Well done, Town, you’ve made me proud, you cruel useless bastards.

Living in Australia has forced me to change my matchday ritual. With games usually kicking off at 2.00am on Sundays, following their progress has impeded less on my weekend plans and caused fewer domestic fixture clashes. At the start of the season, I would regularly stay up to listen to games broadcast over the internet. A succession of draws in which Swindon conceded late equalisers stunted my enthusiasm and I settled into a new routine of just checking the score online the following morning. I have no idea how people coped 20 years ago. My grandad occasionally posts me clippings of the league tables he cuts out of the Sunday Mirror. This is how people must have survived before the internet – reliance on the kindness of relatives.

As the season progressed, results improved and Swindon found themselves firmly entrenched in the play-off places. Experience had taught me to expect a collapse and I awaited the inevitable slide back down into the familiar comfort of mid-table anonymity. It wasn’t until a fine 3-0 home win over Leeds United in January that it started to dawn on me that they might actually bloody do it. This led to the obvious question: how the hell am I going to afford to get back to London to watch them in the Play-off final? The answer, of course, was ‘You can’t afford it, idiot, and even if you could, flying all the way back to watch the final would be the absolute sure-fire way of ensuring defeat – they used to lose heavily when you only travelled as far as Stoke”.

A series of impressive results around Easter (1-0 at Southampton, another 3-0 thrashing of Leeds at Elland Road) made it seem possible that they would even grab an automatic promotion spot. But with the finishing line in sight, the team looked down and suddenly realised how high they had climbed. Struck jelly-legged by vertigo, they set about winning only one of their final five matches and finished the season in fifth place.

The second leg of their Play-off semi-final with Charlton was screened live on Australian television. Getting up at 4.30am on a Tuesday wasn’t really conducive to a productive day in the office, but I knew how fortunate I was to be able to see the game at all. The tension of extra time and a win on penalties reduced me to a shivering white mess, but if I’d had to discover the outcome via pop’s newspaper clippings, I’d have been a drooling disgrace.

And so, I’ve had a couple of weeks to come to terms with the fact that I’m on the other side of the world as Swindon play at Wembley for only the fourth time in their history. I’ve followed the progress of ticket sales on the official club website, read the preview specials on the website of the local newspaper, and dishonestly joined the Facebook group claiming I plan to attend the final. I’ve sent messages of congratulations to friends who have emailed me to confirm their tickets have finally arrived and smiled when someone sent me a photo of their ticket – even if it was a bit like Charlie Bucket texting Augustus Gloop from inside the Great Glass Elevator to say I M FLYNG FATTY! PWND ;-p.

The match kicks off at midnight Sydney-time, by which hour I plan to have numbed my pre-match nerves. I’ll be watching with a fellow Town fan and will be in contact with Swindon supporters in California and Bangkok, where my friend Paul will be forced to defy a military curfew if the game goes to extra time.

Those of us who can’t be there in person can take solace in two facts: firstly, we won’t have to deal with Millwall fans on the Bakerloo Line, and secondly, unlike those at Wembley, we won’t be forced to listen to that bloody Black Eyed Peas song at any point in proceedings.

On the subject of music, I’d like to finish by directing you to the below video, made to celebrate Swindon’s previous appearance at Wembley in 1993. Be warned though, if the haunting synth intro doesn’t get you, then the power and emotion of the lyrics will. Lennon and McCartney never thought of rhyming ‘belong’ with ‘strong’.

Come on you reds!*

*whites

May
27

The World Cup is nearly upon us and like the coaches of the 32 competing teams; I have been busy making last-minute preparations. My annual leave requests have been signed by a perplexed line manager; two world cup wall charts are blue-tacked and primed for studious completion; and the internet has been trawled for a dubious selection of potentially harmful pep pills (“May contain petrol”? who cares? It’s only once every four years).

On Monday evening Australia played their final pre-tournament fixture on home soil, against a New Zealand team still celebrating their own qualification. The match presented a last chance for coach, Pim Verbeek, to run the rule over his preliminary squad and to make decisions on who to leave behind. And so these two great sporting rivals gathered at the MCG in front of an enthusiastic but sparse crowd – the damp weather clearly presenting a hazard to the locals’ challenging hairstyles and threatening to shrink skinny jeans to circulation-restricting sizes.

Fox Sports may not have the broadcasting rights for the World Cup, but in screening this fixture they showed that they know what lies at the heart of the tournament: rampant commercialism! Yay!

With the match being first sporting event to be broadcast in 3D in Australia, who better to tell us all about this exciting technological advancement than a representative from a major manufacturer of 3D televisions? A really nice man in a charcoal suit informed us that consumers have voiced just two concerns about 3DTVs – quality and content. Before I had a chance to smash an enraged fist into my own face, he reassured us that both issues have been addressed. Phew. His brainiac colleagues have taken care of the quality, so that’s okay, and by screening sporting events of this magnitude there can be no complaints about content. Meaningless fixtures between international gnatweights are what will establish 3DTV.

Viewers were then treated to a film of the Socceroos stars, Tim Cahill and Lucas Neill, watching a 3D television, extolling its virtues and stating they would never watch anything in crappy old two dimensions ever again. This is convenient, as they are probably the only two people in the whole country who can afford to buy a set. The rest of us plebs will be forced to sell our internal organs on the black market in order to finance such a purchase. Thankfully, the trauma of backstreet surgery will reduce our life expectancy to such an extent that we are unlikely to see any hi-tech developments that render 3DTV redundant. Double phew.

“It’s just like being on part of the game”, said Cahill. This illusion of an alternative reality must have been familiar to Socceroos front-man Scott McDonald, as the match completely passed him by – the crushing sensation of seeing the substitute board raised and Pim’s pointing finger no doubt enhanced in glorious 3D.

Once this shameless marketing exercise was exhausted we were treated to a dazzling array of Australian celebrities giving heartfelt video messages of support to the World Cup-bound heroes, none of which seemed in any way contrived. Well-wishers included a swimmer, a netball player, a rugby player, a shock jock, a prime minister, an international cricket captain who appears to have done something alarming to his hair, a swimmer, a swimmer…

Opposition leader, Tony Abbott leered his way through his good luck message, looking as natural in a tuxedo as an Alsatian in a waistcoat. “We’re not all soccer fans”, he started, ominously, “but when the team take to the paddock, we’ll all be barracking for you”. If nothing else, it at least provided the first, and probably only, opportunity for Tony Abbot’s name to appear in the same paragraph as Barack.

My analysis of the game itself is obviously compromised for the fact that I watched it in 2D. I haven’t even got HD. I don’t deserve to have eyes, let alone an opinion. However, even if the match had been broadcast via cave painting, it would have been painfully obvious that the Socceroos  have problems.

Their system of employing one striker is common, but other teams don’t have to rely on Harry Kewell to lead the line – a man who lives his life in a perpetual late fitness test. His latest ailment – a gammy groin – kept him out of contention for this match but his omission  presented a chance for Scott McDonald to stake his claim for inclusion in the squad. His failure to bury an early half-chance hardly helped his case, but it was his inability to control a long ball, which ultimately led to Chris Killen opening the scoring for New Zealand, which probably did more to seal his fate. It was announced the next day that he wouldn’t be going to South Africa.

The Socceroos’ great creative hope, Tim Cahill, contributed little beyond a reckless lunge at Leo Bertos; a red card challenge on any other occasion. In a competitive fixture, Cahill would have been joined in the dressing room by Vince Grella, whose earlier two-footed assault on Bertos (whom I can only think must have questioned the achievements of Jessica Watson in the pre-match warm-up) was as petulant as it was late.

Elsewhere, Rory Fallon was causing havoc in the Australia defence; exhibiting an aerial dominance that no doubt revised memories within the international football community of his imperious performance for Swindon Town at Luton Town on Easter Monday 2004. Verbeek has just two weeks to organise his defence to cope with more gifted opponents (Rory was never quite the same after he signed for Swansea City).

The inevitable flurry of second half substitutions sucked any life out of the game. Australia eventually ran out 2-1 winners, but the score was academic. The relentless Victorian drizzle provided a fitting backdrop as the team shuffled around a lap of honour. Amidst the gloom though, there were some straws for Australian supporters to cling on to.

Firstly, Australia have form for this kind of thing – their farewell game before the 2006 World Cup was an equally uninspiring 1-0 win over Greece. Secondly, Jason Cullina was excellent in midfield, delivering an industrious performance which culminated in a precise chipped pass to Brett Holman to score the winning goal. And finally, you have to expect that Tim Cahill can’t play this badly again.

The selection problems that Verbeek faces are age-old. The dearth of attacking options cannot be resolved by simply going out and signing Diego Milito. The most acurate summary of the challenges faced by international managers I can think of was provided by a character in an Irvine Welsh book, who, in sympathising with Craig Brown’s lack of choices for the Scottish national team, lamented: “you can only pish with the cock you’ve got”.

You won’t hear cold-eyed analysis like that in the Fox Sports studio.