I’m not ashamed to admit that last Sunday afternoon I reached peak football freak – a state of being that is reserved only for the rarest, most magical of occasions when everything falls perfectly into place.
Ideally, there are a few key ingredients that are required before one can ascend to this higher plane.
Firstly, one requires a long, long, long run of utterly hopeless mediocrity. Only when you have experienced the most pitiful and unrelenting depths of despair can you truly appreciate the wonder of that special victory.
Secondly, you have to fully and truly believe deep within the essence of your soul that no good can possibly come out of the game you are watching.
Next, you have to find some glimmer of hope to cling to, some ray of light that gives you a nagging sense that there’s still a tiny possibility that things might go your way.
Then you have to have that light you had pinned all your hopes on snuffed out like a cockroach whacked with a claw hammer.
And then finally, somehow, some way, from that pool of body parts and puss, there has to emerge the most unlikeliest of unlikely triumphs.
And when that happens, words can’t describe the feeling of euphoria that fills every fibre of your being. That’s what being a football fan is for. That’s why we all do it.
This post celebrates five occasions that make everything else worth it. My top five freak outs and the freaks who inspired them.
5 – Armantino Mancini
“Si, si, si…”
My poor cousin… It was my first trip to Italy. Despite my Italian name and my Italian passport I was for all intents and purposes a tourist. When I told him I had tickets to the Rome Derby he was worried about me, despite the fact that I am in love with the mortal enemy in his eyes. “Be careful, don’t wear Roma colours outside the stadium, look after your money, come straight back, I will be waiting at the station to meet you when you get off the train afterwards to make sure you’re safe. And remember – forza Lazio!”
When I got inside the Stadio Olimpico, my eyes were popping out of my head. I had been there a week earlier for a Champions League game, but this was quite different. It was packed to the gunnels with 80,000 people and my seats were much closer to the Lazio section than I had anticipated they would be. About 20 meters away there was a line of military police in full riot gear and on the other side of them was a teeming hoard of ‘burini’. I could see the whites of their eyes and they could see mine. We looked at each other and I knew they only wanted one thing – me dead.
They only got more fired up when their hero and talisman Tommaso Rocchi fired them ahead early in the match. My heart sank. This was not the voyage of discovery to my Tūrangawaewae that I had planned… Watching Roma lose then getting killed trying to escape in the aftermath…
Thank goodness for Armantino Mancini!
The Brazilian winger was a stunning footballer back then even though he was and is an appalling excuse for a human being. Jailed for two years in 2011 for a rape that took place at Ronaldinho’s house during a drunken party, I would never call him a hero but Roma hasn’t seen a creative midfielder anywhere near his quality since his departure and on this occasion he was virtually single handedly responsible for saving my bacon.
First he combined with Montenegrin striker Mirko Vucinic in a stunning piece of interplay – back and forth they passed between each other before the number nine worked himself into a scoring position and in it went. 1-1.
Then Mancini did it all himself to grab the lead, and after half time he provided a stunning ball to Vuninic who slipped it to Simone Perrotta with an empty net at his disposal. 3-1.
Cristian Ledesma potted a free kick with plenty of time left for Lazio to complete a comeback of their own and they looked for all the world like they were going to do it as they pummelled our goal, but my defining memory of the game itself was Mancini doing step-overs to kill time right near the sideline where we were sitting just as the final whistle sounded.
The Burini were apoplectic with rage but the Carabinieri line held firm and I got out in one piece, zipping up my navy blue EPMU jacket over my Roma shirt and beating a hasty retreat.
I didn’t want any trouble on the way home considering both sets of fans are known for being quite stabby… So I held it in, held it in, held it in, held it in… But by the time I got off the train at Latina Scalo I was wound up like a spinning top and had no choice but to let it all out – arms open wide, singing Roma’s victory song ‘Grazie Roma’ at the very top of my lungs… “Graaaaaaaaaaazie Roma. Che ci fai piangere abbraciaaaaaaati ancora!”
And my poor old cousin, good enough to come and make sure I was ok, at 1am I might add, staunch Lazio to the core, intensely pained expression etched all over his face, just said “si, si, si…” (“yes, yes, yes…”) and off we went.
4 – Fergus Neil
“In the stands, the home crowd scatters, for the turnstiles…”
Music and memories go hand in hand.
Sometimes great music is ruined by the memories you associate them with. Like a song you are listening to during a bad break-up that is forever tainted by the trauma of bad memories that surface every time you hear so much as the opening bars. But other songs take you back to a happy place…
One example for me is Neil Young’s ‘For the Turnstiles’ from his classic blues album ‘On the Beach’. I was listening to it in the car on the way down to Cambridge to watch my favourite New Zealand men’s team (while it existed), WaiBOP United, play Canterbury United at John Kerkhof Park – and now every time I hear the song it reminds me of one of the greatest games of football I have ever witnessed.
If a good victory is one where you see your team come from behind to grab a win, and a great victory is one where your team comes from behind twice, what do you call a victory that sees your team come from behind three times and score the winner in the 90th minute? I call it near perfection.
Add to this the fact that it was only the second time I had ever seen a Waikato national league entity collect three points in the ten year history of the NZFC, and what we have here is a very special day indeed that I never thought would ever be surpassed by a team from my home province.
Waikato football is littered with tales of ‘the one that got away’. I’ve lost count of the number of leads I’ve seen blown, injury time winners I’ve seen scored against us, and open goals I’ve seen missed when the heat is on and a semi-final place is on offer. Choking – it’s just what we do!
Not this time though…
When Fergus Neil slotted that winner, I leaped into the air and punched the sky with glee. And as the home crowd scattered for the turnstiles, I was still rooted to the spot where I had landed. I wanted to savour that feeling and remember it in every joyous detail – knowing full well that I would never again experience a Waikato Bay of Plenty win that would compare to this in any way, shape or form let alone top it.
But I was wrong…
3 – Leanna Ryan
“Hey, excuse me Enzo, sorry to bother you but who’s that number six? A group of us over there have just been saying how good she is, she’s even giving CJ lots of trouble!”
“Oh, that’s Leanna Ryan! Isn’t she fantastic?”
One year and 315 days later, another WaiBOP team managed to do what I never thought would be possible – top that day in Cambridge.
Sometimes teams you love are packed with talent and seem to be really going places but then somehow it all comes unstuck. Other times you know it’s a rebuilding stage and any success is a bonus that probably won’t happen.
Since I started following WaiBOP in the National Women’s League in a serious way a few years ago, they have had teams with much more recognised talent than this year’s team. Players like Helen Arjomandi have been backed up in the past by the likes of Rebekah Stott, Kate Loye, Issy Coombes, Paige Satchell, Eiliesh Hayes, Kate Carlton, Naomi-Beth Carter, Sarah McLaughlin and Tessa Leong to name but a few. I mean no disrespect to the current squad, but those aforementioned players are all either Football Ferns or on the fringes of higher honours. If you blanked out my memories of the last five seasons, showed me all the squad lists of all the WaiBOP national league teams male and female, and asked me to pick which one made the semi-finals, I doubt I would have pointed to the 2016 women’s team. Unless I suspected it might have been a trick question…
In fact, at the start of the season I predicted that they would finish fifth out of seven teams! Yet with one match to go in the regular season, they were still in mathematical semi-final contention – which was already more than could be said for any of those other more fancied WaiBOP sides of the past! But their final round opponents were a star studded defending champion Northern side. Beating them was never in the script.
And the script was certainly followed in the first half. It wasn’t a contest. To say that Northern’s 2-0 half time lead was flattering to their opponents would be an understatement. They battered the WaiBOP goal like there was no tomorrow and the score was only kept down by their own wastefulness.
WaiBOP were a lot better in the second half but the contest was still a little lop-sided. Leanna Ryan pulled one back for the visitors early in the spell. A parent of one of the Northern players even approached me and asked who that zippy winger was who had the audacity to score and was causing a champion like CJ Bott so many problems on the left flank?
But I had been through far too many situations like this to get too excited.
Five minutes from time, I was still in the mode of thinking how surprising it was that Northern had not extended their lead back out to two goals and beyond. Then the unthinkable happened. Ryan struck again and all of a sudden the scores were tied.
Then, deep into injury time, something even more unthinkable happened… Ryan forced a corner which was whipped in onto the head of Hannah Reid who headed home and just like that, for the first time ever in my life, I was cheering my guts out for a WaiBOP team that had made it to the playoffs.
I screamed myself hoarse, I ran around the pitch and onto it where I got a big high five from assistant coach Stephen Cox. As I left the ground, a Northern fan muttered “I suppose you’re happy” at me and I basically confirmed his thesis by dancing a jig right in front of him.
And almost a week later I am still grinning from ear to ear.
It simply doesn’t get much better than that!
2 – Alessandro Del Piero
“We’re going to Berlin!”
Most of the time clubs are everything and international windows are the devil’s spawn. But when it comes to World Cups, national teams leave clubs for dead.
Given my undying love for gli Azzurri, you might think it’s strange that the 2006 World Cup final isn’t the number one peak freak on this list. The reason it’s not is a simple case of the worst luck ever – Struck down with man-flu on the morning of the final, I was reduced to watching the game at home under a duvet in a pool of my own snot. I loved it. I cheered and I cried and when Fabio Grosso slotted the winning penalty it was a moment in my life that I will always treasure – but I simply couldn’t reach peak freak in the condition I was in.
But that doesn’t matter because the semi-final provided me with all the freak I needed from that tournament!
When the final whistle blew in Italy’s second group stage game, a 1-1 draw with the USA, it had become quite clear to me that I would never live to see gli Azzurri lift that famous golden cup. But after wins over the Czech Republic, Australia (HA HA!), and the Ukraine, I found myself where it all happens – Gina’s Italian Kitchen where most of Auckland’s Italian community go to watch big World Cup games – with another final within our grasp.
We were up against Germany, the hosts, and in our back pockets we had the confidence of knowing they had never beaten us at a big tournament. Perfect records are stressful though. Nobody wants to lose them, and this German team was super good – riding a wave of national love that hadn’t been seen there since before the Second World War. “We’re going to Berlin!” their fans sang.
It was 0-0 at full time, and Italy had not been playing particularly well, despite the makeshift defence holding strong. Matterazzi and Grosso were never first choices in the back four but they were playing out of their skins. But we weren’t going to win the way things were unfolding. Something had to change.
At half time in extra time former Juventus coach Marcello Lippi turned to his bench and his eyes fell kindly on a faithful old servant – Alessandro Del Piero. He tols his assistant “you watch, he’ll go and win the game for us now” and by the time he was done, the German lyrics had changed to “Stuttgart is nicer than Berlin anyway” as the playoff for third was all that was left for their fans to sing about.
When the final whistle blew about 100 crazy and delirious with joy Italians (including this one) ran out onto Symonds Street waving flags and singing Inno Nazionale. We stopped traffic on one of Auckland’s busiest roads.
I can only imagine what it was like there after the final…
1 – Mark Paston
“I wanna know, have you ever seen Bahrain, score a goal on a windy day?”
When Italy plays New Zealand it’s gli Azzurri all the way, but even so, and even after what went on to happen at South Africa 2010, I still rank this as the granddaddy of all my peak freaks to date.
As I walked into Westpac Stadium in Wellington to watch the All Whites play in the second leg of the playoff to determine the final remaining qualifier for South Africa 2010, I was, for once in my life, proud to be a kiwi. The All Whites had managed a 0-0 draw in the first leg in Bahrain. So here they stood, on the verge of being only the second New Zealand team ever to qualify for a World Cup, and what’s more, it felt just like it should – a party atmosphere.
I have been to plenty of top level rugby games in New Zealand. They have a very different feel from real football. Kiwis expect the All Blacks to win every game they play. Arriving at a rugby game, you are surrounded by quiet confidence verging on smugness. I thought a big New Zealand football crowd would be something like that too – essentially a whole lot of big old sour faced fish out of water. But somehow, by osmosis perhaps, everyone got it.
There was singing, there was chanting, there was dancing, there were funny costumes and there was nervous excitement. Everyone understood that our world ranking was in triple digits, and they knew just how high the stakes were. World champions at rugby or not, if we won this one game of ‘wogball’, simply by qualifying for a world cup, tens of millions of people around the globe would hear the words ‘New Zealand’ for the first time in their lives.
The opening stanza was tight and tense, as you would expect. But then, right before the ref was due to blow his whistle for half-time, Rory Fallon, son of ’82 All Whites Assistant Manager Kevin, went and scored.
As things stood, the tie was ours – all we had to do was keep a clean sheet. We had managed it for a whole game in Bahrain. Surely we could do it for half a game at home. We can’t throw it all away now, can we? Can we?
We almost did. In the 51st minute the All Whites conceded a penalty. Our hearts sank. Nobody in the 35,179 strong crowd was under any illusions as to just what this meant – Bahrain only had to convert, and the tables would be turned. The away goal rule would give them the upper hand. But cometh the hour, cometh Kiwi goalie Mark Paston!
And there, in that stadium, at a game of football in a country that might as well be called New Rugbyland, I hugged perfect strangers – every single man, woman and child in my immediate vicinity. I hugged them and they hugged me. We were delirious. But the game still had 40 minutes to go. It ebbed, it flowed. Bahrain had their chances and the tension just grew and grew as the amount of time we would have left to salvage the tie should they score shrank away to nothing.
But in reality, their spirit was broken by that penalty. With ten minutes to go shirts came off and what it must have looked like to the Bahrainis, used to a hot climate in the Middle East, on a cold evening in the early New Zealand spring, in a town known as ‘windy Wellington’, to see 30,000 bare chested maniacs dancing around in the stands… I suspect they just wanted to get out of there as soon as humanly possible.
Out on the town in Wellington afterwards it was the closest thing that I’ve ever experienced to what being in Rome when Roma wins a Scudetto must be like. That night, I lived in a football nation. I had always wanted to be a part of one of those.
Categories: Other Football Topics
A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/