What I consider my biggest ever strike of good fortune, I think about how lucky I was to grow up in regional Victoria, the north east to be more specific. I was the only boy among a sea of sisters within my family, belonging to what you would loosely call a small town. The setting was nothing short of idyllic, yet if it wasn’t for my Italian heritage, football (or soccer depending on your preferences) could well have remained anonymous right up to this current day.

Despite the small community I grew up in, AFL was religion. The local team has been a dominant force in their respective league throughout my entire life. From seniors right down to the juniors, the same goes for the clubs netball team. During the summer it was all about cricket, playing at a different ground but for a club of the same name. It wasn’t until my parents, predictably pressured by my Nonno, a staunch Juve supporter, threw me into “Rooball” when I was in early primary school. I wouldn’t have known it then, my parents wouldn’t have known it then, but the few weeks spent with other kids kicking a ball around the park would be the start of a lifelong romance.

You can fast forward a few years to middle high school, the golden age where you and all your friends are going through their most awkward stages, only you don’t truly realise it until you’re well into your twenties. Rooball had developed into playing for a team in the local league, something that meant hour-each-way trips to training a few times a week, and an away day just short of a three hour drive away. Getting sent “into town” for high school united me with teammates, and those from rival teams. My cohort outnumbered the number of students within my entire primary school; a cohort that was still dominated by AFL and cricket, but a cohort that brought a new friendship group that shared a similar love for football. Lunch time was spent playing five-a-side on the tennis courts, while after school was 1v1 or 2v2 games played in driveways. FIFA on the original xbox or Rai highlights if the weather meant our grandparents or mothers wouldn’t let us catch a cold. It meant that rather predictably, the afternoon leading into the second leg qualifier against Uruguay was full of talking about the nights game, and a little less about what Mr Demamiel was trying to teach us in English class (I think it was Shawshank).

Lunch time was spent playing five-a-side on the tennis courts, while after school was 1v1 or 2v2 games played in driveways.

That night, with my cousins up on the farm from Melbourne, we sat huddled around the TV, Les Murray and Craig Foster hosting the nights proceedings on SBS, now described by my older cousins as “the only channel you should watch”. I remember the celebrations around the room following Kewell’s “genius assist” which led to Bresciano putting it in the back of the net, and the tense moments leading into full, then extra time.

Four years earlier, despite going into the second leg in Montevideo 1-0 up and brimming with confidence, we got utterly trounced by the Celeste on their home turf. The footage of Richard Morales running down the touchline, waving his jersey in the air after scoring his first goal. Uruguay’s second was the footage that delivered naive little me my first footballing heartbreak. This time around we were closer, we were on the brink, yet with the whistle going for the start of extra time my dad sent me to bed. I had school in the morning.

Despite the lack of television footage, once in my room I sneakily tuned in to ABC radio, the voices normally commentating the AFL matches of the winter chattering their way through extra time, fumbling their way through the pronunciation of the Uruguayan players names.

There I was, laying on my bedroom floor almost with the radio as a pillow, the volume at a level that wouldn’t alert my parents that I hadn’t gone straight to sleep. I simply lay in complete silence, which with the completion of extra time, turned into frozen silence. If watching it on tv isn’t hard enough, listening to it in complete darkness and on your bedroom floor with lack of visual reference is nothing short of terrifying. From Harry Kewell stepping up to the spot, and for the ten minutes following I lay on my side in complete shock, unable to move. It wasn’t until Aloisi put the ball in the back of the net that I dared move, rolling onto my back and staring at the ceiling with a smile on my face.

The next day set a new precedence. In World Cup’s past, Australia not making the big dance had affected us, but we always had our country of heritage to fall back upon; namely Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland – but this time the Socceroos took centre stage. Beneath school uniforms, hidden as to not break our schools uniform policy were green and gold jerseys. Scarves were donned even though it was the middle of November, and our 5-a-side on the tennis court swelled with others wanting to join in for the first time. Beyond our circle of already football mad friends, of our extended family and of our teammates, Australia began to take notice of football.

  • ••

It was pouring rain in Sydney, but a beautifully sunny afternoon in Melbourne – rare for June. After a few years of university in Riverina NSW I’d moved south for another course, reuniting with my friend Daniel who attended Rooball at the same time I did all those years back. A new club in Clifton Hill, and a new, ever growing friendship group made all the better by the cultural vibrance of Melbourne meant that football was back to being an every day topic. There was training and games on the weekend. It was talked about at work, while at home we played FIFA, watched old games, or went for a kick down at Gosch’s Paddock. It was the everyday constant.

I’d seen football grow to be more widely accepted and followed, but moving to the Riverina, with all its wonderful and unique qualities, including playing a few seasons for a local side I still miss dearly, was barren earth compared to Melbourne. Hell, at times, even compared to back home. With a move to Melbourne I knew immediately that the footballing passion among friends would return to my life, but it wasn’t until that rainy night in Sydney, the beautifully clear night in Melbourne, that I realised how much things had progressed.

We were in Moonee Ponds, a suburb with the social makeup of a blank piece of paper. And if that wasn’t vanilla enough, we were at the Sporting Globe, not really your go to football bar, a place normally packed out with Essendon fans every home or away game, bless them. For the most part, the place was packed out with the same people who would turn up in droves in their black and red on weekends, only that now they were here midweek to watch the Socceroos. That was when it the enormity of the occasion, and the progress football had made in Australia began to sink in.

Nerves before the game only grew greater and greater as the game progressed, where a win was needed to guarantee us a place in Brazil. Who knows what the alternative outcome would or could have been if it wasn’t for Josh Kennedy, a product of my local team back home, and his big old head popping one past the Iraqi keeper in the 80th minute. It brought the place down, and immediately after the final whistle, with my friends old and (made that night) new spilling out onto the street, we closed down traffic on Mount Alexander Road. There were exchanges of high fives, hugs, and probably kisses. There was screaming, shouting, and chants were being led. Considering the only other busy day of the year for Moonee Ponds is Cox Plate day, there was a good chance local residents out enjoying a mid week Butter Chicken were left a little shocked.

What followed once we were in Brazil was something new again. In 2006, just like Korea-Japan, I’d sit at home in an empty lounge room fixated to the television, watching what limited coverage SBS could offer us country folk at the time. In 2010, while in the Riverina we tuned in at The Tourist, our local pub which opened extra early to put on a show for Australia’s games. You’ll remember what happened, but as you can imagine in a country town, interest waned rapidly following our opening game defeat to Germany. This time around, with the worst possible outcome by way of time zones, my friends and I were huddled around a number of couches in my friend Jack’s living room. We met in the earliest hours, taking in the match between Spain and the Netherlands largely with our jaws on the floor. Our opening match against Chile would start with the rising sun, and despite the scoreline, the goal and our performance had us up and about, in the lounge room of a townhouse in inner- suburban Melbourne.

It was the World Cup where my social media lit up like never before. The people that had complained about my incessant posting during South Africa 2010 (justified tbh), the people who through high school or the later years were vehemently against football; were tweeting, posting, snapping their own World Cup experiences. Right before my very eyes, I was seeing the Australian community become the Australian footballing community.

At work we were blessed to have an abundance of connected devices at our fingertips, such is the beauty of working at an Apple store. Adding to the beauty of it all was that we required microphones to run the show, the sounds of thousands of customers coming through the door making normal human communication between staff near impossible. It also opened up a useful avenue between whoever had a livestream going out the back, to those out front – whether they wanted to know the score or not – something tested successfully during Ivory Coast’s come from behind win over Japan. Unhealthy, no way; unproductive, sure; but this romance bordering on obsession with the sport, and with the spectacle of the World Cup had boiled over to well and truly enter day to day life.

  • ••

A lot has changed in my life since the last World Cup. We won the Asian Cup for one, on home turf no less. We weren’t at the game, but in a sports bar at Crown (boy oh boy was there a scene). Bars were being danced upon, and my friend Adam, headed for the door to take a piss as Troisi scored the winner sprinted back to our group, launched himself over a table and crowd surfed as if he was at a concert. I’ve stopped playing – for now. Part lacking motivation to travel across town for games (ironic given the distances travelled “back in the day”) and part wanting to work on my career, something which rather unsurprisingly involves football.

A masters degree at the best of times can be a pretty stressful thing to put yourself through I’m sure. I wouldn’t really know, I managed to merge my two first loves: football and design – and merge them into a research project that seemed like a hobby. You’d think, as I did when I began drafting my proposal that I should tread carefully, as it could very easily have led to animosity towards the sport, and have me feeling all burnt out. Fortunately that wasn’t the case. Studying the history of the sport, of particular teams, and of footballs context within Australia helped me realise the kinds of shifts in evolution the sport can, and will continue to take. It made me realise that I’ve been living through its biggest shift while I’ve been alive, something that with great comfort know will continue on. I spent study breaks from writing out my thesis playing FIFA, I studied the history of Real Madrid home kits like there is more than a single shade of white, and don’t even get me started on Cardiff City and their club colours. I wrote and designed my way through a masters with the sounds of Socceroos matches and the goddamn Gunners (shout out to Arsenal FanTV) as my late night study soundtracks. And at the end of it all, it was well received, it was deemed relevant. Would I be here now in 2017 doing what I do if Australia hadn’t beaten Uruguay that night back in 2005? Maybe – a bit of luck getting kicked out of physics and forced into art helped a bit too, but John Aloisi’s spot kick has certainly helped football. The FFA has its problems sure, even as someone who’s schedule is unfortunately a little too busy to attend A-League games I can realise that, but thanks to 2006, 2010 and 2014, football has grown for the better.

I’m sure I wont be the first to admit that I was conflicted in supporting Australia and only Australia in the early 2000’s – something that I guess comes with the role of being a descendant of European migrants who insist you must support the motherland. No better example was after the boot of Francesco Totti, a moment that left me stunned but a moment that was long forgotten in the breakfast revelry of their World Cup final win a few weeks later. But as things; the sport, the side, the culture have progressed, so too has my love for the Socceroos. It’s been watching them on TV, crowd surfing through Crown during the Asian Cup final, and while not the prettiest of games (vs. Thailand); seeing them play live for the first time this year. In a country like ours, there will always be the former AFL players dropping a line and giving everyone their two cents, and god knows there wont be an end to the shitstorm that is the Fox Football comments section every single day, but to see the way football has grown since Morales dashed our hopes and ashed his rig to now, that’s something to be grateful for.

Tonight, much like that night four years ago will have a seriously nervous tension to it. By the looks of things, the weather forecasts have been reversed, but having seen what the Melbourne sporting public is capable of, that won’t scare off many. The thoughts up until 2005 had to have been a long, hard “what if?”. Since then, the question has remained the same, but it’s also placed in front of a second outcome. What if we don’t qualify, and we don’t make it to Russia? What will happen if we do? How will the sport, and how will the average punter respond? Who knows. But tonight after work, I’ll walk around the corner to the pub, and with friends who are largely new to the sport, we’ll find out.

Words by Adrian Zanardo