by Ben de Buen
This Sunday woke like many Sundays: I grabbed my smartphone to look at the time and saw a number of notifications from Spain’s Marca app, informing me that Cristiano Ronaldo had scored and scored again. And then again. When it is not CR7, that robot, it is usually Lionel Messi.
There was a time when I would wake up in the middle of the night to search the browser on my old primitive Nokia—it still had a keypad rather than a touchscreen—to look for an important football score. Otherwise it’s impossible to sleep wondering what might be happening on those green old-world prairies. Browsing the Internet half asleep on a tiny screen required some skill—one eye closed the other still seeing blurs—to avoid waking my significant other but also to conceal how a football result in Europe could not wait until after sunrise in Oceania. If Barcelona, Mexico, or Pumas were winning, or had won, a smile to self would be enough self-congratulations to go back to sleep.
It is important to prove one’s credentials when admitting to supporting the world’s most popular team. I first saw Barcelona play in the Camp Nou in 1999, during the centennial year. I was in town visiting a friend. She had to go to work and I found a spare 5000 pesetas in my bank account. Minutes later I was on the train to Collblanc station. Those were the days of Figo, Rivaldo, Kluivert, Guardiola, Cocu, Luis Enrique and the de Boer twins during Louis van Gaal’s first and more successful stint at the club. Barça defeated Deportivo Alavés 7-1 and I was hooked.
I became a regular reader of Marca online after taking the rumours of Figo moving to Real Madrid, quite personally. Florentino Pérez had won the elections at Real Madrid, and vowed to take every Golden Ball winner, and any famous player to the Bernabeu; this policy was known as the Galácticos. Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham, Owen, began a trend that has included CR7, Bale, Kaká, James Rodríguez and so forth. During his first stint as president, Florentino brought bling to Spanish football. It took a number of years before Barcelona had a reply and when they did it was like nothing anyone had ever seen before. So Madrid voted Florentino back, and now on match days—which are mismatched with Australian clocks—I wake to confirm that Barça and Madrid have ruined football by annihilating every nameless rival before them in a game that was usually a matter of only winning or losing. That old celebratory smile in the dark is only likely to appear when they lose to one of those nameless rivals. It’s not fun anymore. It’s like knowing all the moves in FIFA.
Strange but true: The Sunday afternoon match between Melbourne City and Brisbane Roar revived the long lost childish expectation of going to the stadium to witness football. I knew what I was up against. It had been raining all day, City and Roar have had negligible seasons; city bound trains bore no signs of anything else than the hollowing of the metropolis as the weekend came to a close.
Only 7,700 attended the match. None of them seagulls. And it doesn’t include the numerous cops on the grounds or the three Etihad airhostesses in full uniform who welcomed players aboard the mild joys of football. The same airline had provided eyeless masks of City players as part of an advertising gimmick, masks that can be disconcerting if used out of context.
“Is it over yet?” a policeman asked during halftime. He could not see the beauty of unremarkable football, of a 0-0 on a wintery summer day in Melbourne.
City took the lead early in the second half from a penalty.
Former Brisbane midfielder Massimo Murdocca entered the match with ten minutes to go. Back when Luis Figo went to the Camp Now to play against Barcelona, mementos of his treason flew from the unforgiving and angry local crowd, mostly the usual water bottles and lighters, and a pig’s head, now an icon of those turbulent times.
“Massi-Massimo Murdocca!” the small Roar following chanted for their former player.
“You can have him back!” A local fan replied.
The small crowed raised their arms in triumph after Melbourne City won their first home game ever. It wasn’t a great match and there were probably better options for this Sunday afternoon, but City v Road had the unpredictable virtue of honest football, nothing like the notifications that will appear tomorrow after Barcelona’s match on my phone.