By Ben de Buen
“Ten years ago it was still okay to smoke inside Greek hospitals. In Australia you can’t even smoke in a bar.”
These are the strongest feelings being shared by Liverpool-Chelsea punters during the cold transition from Sunday to Monday. They are on the outside tables of a Lygon Street venue, killing the mid match breather with nicotine and tar.
Last July, Liverpool drew a record crowd into the Melbourne Cricket Ground, but on this night there is only a handful of people in this venue and half of them are at the billiard tables. The bar has that last option vibe to it, with some choosing pool in their tracksuit pants over sleep on a Sunday at midnight. Other than this assortment of men, decoration consists of flags for every well-known team from every well-known sport as well as American number plates hanging on the wall.
It sounds like the better part of those 96,000 fans that went to the MCG last winter are at another pub in the city, which must play the part of neutral grounds or a Hague for EPL owls.
There are two authentic Liverpudlians in our small crowd who have a genuine interest in the result. A win for Liverpool would leave them just within reach of their first Premier League title in 25 years. It’s been a good year for football in that respect, with Atlético de Madrid close to breaking the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly of the last decade in Spain.
Football has struggled to overcome the petrodollars and the nip-tuck-silicone jobs that have transformed some teams from sources of weekly and earnest frustration into international contenders. And it must be heartbreaking for the supporters of those clubs who, while embracing their new silverware, fail to recognize themselves in the shiny reflection. They must wonder: where is my club?
While it is important to state one’s involvement with a match to avoid being labeled a tourist or an opportunist, it is still okay to watch other teams play. Especially when the stakes are high. Anyone who braves overseas football in Australia, especially in Victoria, should be granted an exemption from all of these harsh labels. Seasons climax right at the moment when the winter cold strikes, and those watching European leagues are sacrificing valuable warmth and sleep on school nights for the possibilities of something more exciting than dreams.
Which is why Mourinho should be banned from parking the bus behind the keeper, in this case Australian keeper Mark Schwarzer, source of minimal sympathy for the Blues.
It was sunny on the Anfield pitch, in the literal sense, strictly, while we froze on a deserted strip of Italian restaurants at that hour when traffic is reduced to empty cabs.
A blunder from Reds captain Steven Gerrard in first half injury time gave Demba Ba a solo run to 0-1. Gerrard worked hard the entire match but did not succeed to tear down the blue wall. Chelsea created a buffer zone around Schwarzer, who was only troubled once or twice and responded with sure hands. Another counterattack at the very end of the second half led to Chelsea widening the difference to two goals. This time it was a breakaway from Fernando Torres, who would have last been a starter when he was at home at Anfield. He seemed to have remembered this as he gave the ball away for one of his teammates to put his name on the scorecard.
By then an aroma of espresso filled the Lygon St bar, a smell reminiscent of midnights in airports and coach terminals, of trying to stay awake. We were a few beers in and it was time to go. Watching football in this time zone is proof of many kinds of stubbornness and dedication, as well as a sign of the distance from the rest of the world. Win or lose, you walk out of the pub and turn the corner, and aside from your own bright or glum feelings there’s no evidence the match ever happened. It is only cold and dark and you wish you were home. Or in a Greek hospital, ten years ago.
You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BdeBuen