By Rod de Lisle
Picture this. A day in December. An oldish guy (me) trying to get the better of a young fella with skills to burn and the pace of a whippet. That would be a young Marco Rojas at the Melville summer 5 a-side a few years ago. He was already marked for stardom.
Defending against him was trying to stop a lightning bolt. And you often knew what he was gonna do but couldn’t do a darned thing about it. One of my agricultural attempts at a tackle was met with a stern frown and a waggle of the finger from his granddad on the sideline. Marco just skipped away to score yet another goal.
Skip forward a few years and here I am at the A League grand final to watch Rojas step up to take a penalty for Melbourne Victory in a shootout against the home side, Sydney FC. The winners to take it all, including the toilet seat shaped trophy. It’s tight and the crowd is hushed.
It was purely by chance that Trina and I booked a trip to Sydney for a week’s break which happily coincided with the A league final. I honestly hadn’t foreseen this. Chris Playle, my cousin and our host, had mentioned he had season tickets for Sydney Swans: there was a game on and did I want to go? Having never attended an AFL (Aussie Rules) game, naturally I leapt at the chance to watch a match.
Last week as I watched Melbourne Victory dispatch Brisbane in the A League semi final I mused about MAYBE trying to get to the final. Marco had been on fire during that game with touches that had the match commentary dripping with superlatives. How cool would it be to see the final!
I hit the internet. The stars were aligning as my research showed me that that Sydney Swans game happened to be on at 1.10pm and the A league final was at 5pm. Aha, so how far apart ar the respective stadiums? Half an hour? Perhaps more. No according to Mr Google, just 1 minute walk. Cha-Ching!
Rodi Rojas (Marco’s dad) very kindly organised tickets and things were sorted for a day of football, Oz style. Trina opted for the chance to go shopping, despite the attraction of crowded stadiums, screaming fans, weak beer and over priced food.
The day early started with a morning match out at Queen Elizabeth Park, Concord, where I watched Chris’s daughter, Lucy, turn out for the Russell Lea Women’s Under 16’s. Their game was against arch rivals, Hurlstone Park. Both teams were unbeaten at this point in the top division of the Canterbury District league. Lots of red tape for football team to cope with at this level. All coaches and managers are all required to have identity lanyards and wear road-worker flouro vests and even the players have identity cards. Woe betide any one who doesn’t play by the rules. Chris and I were seconded into last minute assistance, to help put up the nets and sideline ropes.
Russell Lea saw off their opposition with a 2-1 win featuring a couple of great goals after being a goal down. The day was balmy and the players and parents baked pleasantly in the autumn sun.
Chris and I then departed by bus into the city, heading for the Sydney Cricket ground. With a May parade on and two big sports events, the bus was required to take a circuitous route, it was slow going. “Still better than driving” Chris said. “The car parks take forever to get out of and besides, we can enjoy a few sherbets”.
The SCG is one of the iconic sporting venues and the Swans attract big crowds normally but after 6 straight losses the attendance was only around 25,000. But they still made lot of racket as we watched them overcome the Brisbane Lions 135-81 with their star Buddy Franklin kicking 8 goals, which apparently is very good. At half time Chris had a mate, Richard, sneak us into the members stand and lounge. The oldest part of the ground, it ooozed history from its well-worn pores. You could just picture Don Bradman strolling through the door after knocking another double century. The only downside was the price of a pie. $7 Australian. The Don would turn in his grave.
After several beers (don’t ask the price) and a stroll on the hallowed turf after the game (AFL is a family friendly game and encourages kids and parents to kick a ball on the field after the game, how good is that? ) we departed for the minute walk to the adjoining Allianz Stadium. Google was wrong, it took us two minutes, but hey.
Here was a totally different vibe to the AFL game. The atmosphere was a bit edgier and even a little aggressive. The locals take their footy very seriously. A bigger crowd, as you’d expect for a final, of 41,500: not a spare seat to be had.
After the red and white masses at the AFL, here the colour du jour was blue. Most fans were clad in the light blue of Sydney but we ended up sitting near the traveling Victory army in their dark navy blue. I had donned my Leicester royal blue (champions!) shirt which sat nicely in the middle of the colour range. Normally sartorially this would very suitable, because as a Phoenix fan I’d be on the fence, but our boy Marco was playing, so it had to be a Victory victory!
Chris, the local, was rightfully backing the light blues. He’d met one of the team, Rhyan Grant, who had visited the Russell Lea girls at training one night and taken them through various drills. “Watch Grant” Chris advised prophetically.
The stadium slowly filled. We brought some more overpriced beers. And boy was it noisy! As kick off approached the tension was palpable. Rodi and his family were sitting behind us and obviously looking forward to Marco’s performance. The singing and chanting of the Victory fans was matched, and more, by the more numerous Sydney supporters in the “Cove” (read Sydney’s version of the Kop)
Victory stuck to my (preferred) script by dominating the first half and leading with a goal to their star forward, Berisha. Could they do it? Marco’s mum told me at halftime that she was nervous. I guess she was right to be but I thought it was looking good for the visiting side. However the second half belonged to Sydney and they equalised through, yep, none other than right-back Grant to send the game to extra time then eventually penalties.
You all know the outcome. Marco missed his penalty (bugger!) and Sydney scored the next one to ensure their win. Perhaps lucky but to be fair they had dominated the normal season and finished well ahead of the pack.
Rodi sank back into his seat, Chris and I had to scarper to get the bus and I had to suffer his rejoicing the whole way home. The next day Monday I read the tweets, the posts and newspapers article. Some were scathing but generally people were kind to the losing team. Berisha said he didn’t feel animosity to the unsuccessful penalty takers. He commented “I’ve missed many penalties myself.”
We all felt Marco’s pain, even Chris. However as Rodi Rojas said, “It was a great game. Sorry for Marco and us, but that’s football.” I agree. And Rojas is still young and he will win many honours in his career I am sure. After all any kid that can skin me like a rabbit at 5 a side must indeed be a classy player. Trina says there must be a lot of classy players around.
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/