My football career hadn’t reached any notable heights. In my first season at Williamstown Soccer Club (aged 8) I played at centre half, in a team that scored only one goal in a winless season.
The only success we had was the cevapi and onion rolls we got after each game.
My main offensive weapon, in truth my only weapon, was bludgeoning the ball as far forward as I could.
In our second season we finally got our first victory. Werribee City were the vanquished, going down 2-1 at our bitterly cold and windswept home pitch. I remember the parents being in tears as we finally went home winners.
And cevapis were on the house.
Given those humble beginnings as a player, I never thought I’d get anywhere near the Melbourne Cricket Ground turf. But that day came.
It came not in the traditional way – a semi-naked drunken streak followed by a $5000 fine and a night in the Richmond Police Station cells – but with the responsibility of bearing the flag of Australia, on that cool September night when Lionel Messi and I made our MCG debuts.
I was in Year 10, sixteen years old and mad about football. Argentina was coming to Australia to play a friendly against the Socceroos at the MCG. The game was to take on a greater significance for me when one of my teachers, also football crazy, announced a week before the match that he was looking for volunteers to wave the Australian flag before the game out on the ground.
The flag wave would happen while the Australian Children’s Choir sang “I Still Call Australia Home” – Qantas’s anthem at the time – as the players warmed up. One of the men responsible for the choir taught at our school.
The director, who had the dubious task of controlling 20 teenage boys while isolated on the MCG turf, stressed to us the importance of spreading the flag out at an even pace, to maximise the visual affect.
Each time he gave us an instruction he was drowned out by chattering boys, causing him to gradually sink his nails deeper and deeper into the notepad he clutched.
I listened to him when it suited me, but mostly I was jealous of the player mascots who would walk out onto the field with a player each.
Before the game we were given an old change room in the Great Southern Stand to get changed and then wait for our cue. There was a box of those horrendous mass-made sandwiches that are ubiquitous at sporting venues, along with a box of Powerade – not that we needed the extra sugar. One of the boys had brought a ball and so in the 20 minutes before our cue we banged it about, denting the already decrepit lockers and rebounding off the well-worn walls.
As the choir sang, or rather, mimed “I Still Call Australia Home” we unfurled the flag to some semblance of a cheer from the half-full MCG. It was a melodramatic piece of choreography, featuring a video on the big screen showing Qantas’s red tailed jets flying over Australian landmarks.
While I am sure their executives in their corporate boxes would’ve been excited by the exposure the airline would get I was not so thrilled with mine. It was an anti climax, I was still jealous of those damn kids who got to walk out with the players when the 80,000 fans had turned up for kickoff.
But seeing Messi would make up for it. While he had yet to establish his super human aura the MCG was treated to something special.
The Socceroos scurried round the pitch and tried hard too not be blown away by Argentina. They were not embarrassed, however when it came to skill, flair and brilliance, they were easily covered.
We flag unfurlers could not believe how fast the Argentines played the ball. It seemed our attention, which the notepad clutching director could not hold was being suitably occupied by Messi and his mates on the field.
My friend sitting next to me had money on Marco Bresciano for the first goal and he absolutely lost the plot when Bresciano slammed a free kick into the Argentine cross bar.
One moment of the game has stuck out in my mind since that night as the most thrilling and highly skilled piece of live football I have ever seen.
Messi, long haired, long sleeved yet short in stature took possession of the ball just forward of the centre line. David Carney advanced to try and stop him but Messi whizzed in a straight line toward goal. Leo then halted and Carney dived in, at which point Vince Grella had come to support his bewildered left back, taking the initiative in the battle, trying to corral the Argentine away from the dangerous area.
But Leo could have the ball next to the guy selling pies on the third tier and still be in a dangerous area. He maneuvered both players so fluidly he might’ve been attached to tracks. Then using his low centre of gravity and Velcro-like touch shifted possession to his left foot and from meters behind the ‘D’ shot into Mark Schwarzer’s left upright.
My seat in the stands was a spectacular vantage point. Its low angle made the field look compressed and the player’s look bunched together. Seeing Messi navigate that density live was something to never forget.
From there you could imagine the stands changing to worn apartment blocks, the monolithic MCG lightowers to the South American sun, the perfectly cut turf to gravel and the international footballers to street kids. All that remained the same was Messi.