By Edward Carmine
Covid-19 has put a halt to fans attending football matches the world over, but what about those that have nothing to return to when the masks eventually come off?
As the tram lurched its way under the bridge and into the CBD, my work-weary eyes were drawn to the advertisements stuck to its chipped brick pylons. In the spaces usually reserved for posters billing tours of bands further past their use-by date than grey ham, a familiar candy-striped shirt arrested my gaze. My interest faded like an ageing winger once I read â€˜CITYâ€™ in foot high font.
The man in the red and white stripes was strange, as was the badge gaudily slapped over the place where an octagonal heart once sat. However, the American mustard shade of his opponentâ€™s jersey, complete with its heavily plagiarised crest, was as familiar as the stench of the menâ€™s toilets after a half-time rush.
Painful, old wounds that were once cankered and scarred were beginning to open again.
How was it that a gaudy kit from a team that played just shy of a thousand kilometres away had switched on the internal super 8 reel of nostalgia, rather than that of a team that played five minutes down the road? Later that evening, after a few blood-stemming beverages, I reached into the depths of my wardrobe in search of the only replica kit I owned. One rightfully adorned with a misshapen cardiac muscle.
On Friday, 8th November 2019, Melbourne City celebrated â€˜theirâ€™ ten-year anniversary during their week-five match against the Central Coast Mariners (if youâ€™re thinking Usain Bolt, youâ€™re on the money). In the lead up to this warped birthday, the now flush City marketing team had a sea of A0 posters pasted around town with their players donning a red and white kit rather than their standard baby blue garb. Something they had been previously opposed to from the outset of their cash-backed coup.
For the first four years of the teamâ€™s existence, they were known as Melbourne Heart. A name voted for by those that called Victoriaâ€™s capital home and a team that I called my own.
Prior to the Heartâ€™s inaugural season, I had only followed football from afar. World Cups, internet highlights, magazines and history books were the extent of my fandom. It was the announcement of their red and white kit that led me to dip my toe into the world of Australian football.
Sunderland, Stoke, Atletico Madrid, Melbourne Heart. Their desire to simply look the part of a professional club was enough to have me standing in line every second week for a discounted student ticket onto the home terrace â€“ the Yarraside.
I immediately felt at home amongst my new family of former strangers, brought together over our common desire to follow a fledgeling, below mid-table team. Soon a vast majority of my meagre eighteen-year-old self’s income was spent on pints at the pub pre-game. My capacity to speak became severely limited after afternoons and evenings singing with the Yarraside chorus. My trainers became speckled with paint after constructing tifos in an underground car park big enough to house a Sunday league side of Trojan horses.
My move from dilettantism to dedication was complete.
Despite being in the lumpy milk stage of their careers, a myriad of household names wore the red and white jersey with aplomb. Ageing Socceroos such as Harry Kewell, John Aloisi and Josip Skoko finished their professional days in Melbourne. Joining them were a series of imported players ranging from the flightless Dutchman Gerald Sibon to the sprightly Brazilian Alex Terra.
All showed fleeting glimpses of their previous peaks but often had us scarf clad enthusiasts either reaching for our weak stadium beers to muffle expletives or visualising something harder from across the bar post-match.
From 3rd March 2013 until 17th January 2014, the Heart set an A-League record of nineteen consecutive games without a win. This repugnant stretch was finally broken at home in front of five thousand people who should have found a better way to spend their weekends by then. I have been told that Ikebana offers a rewarding challenge.
Amongst the frustration and despair, there were a smattering of reasons to smile. The pair that still sits at the forefront of my mind is our only finals match against the garishly purple-clad Perth Glory in 2012 and Orlando Engelaarâ€™s 2014 goal scored from a length equal to that of the proletariatâ€™s face. Naturally, both games ended in defeat.
Despite appearing as attractive as a Marouane Chamakh haircut, the money men of Manchester saw us as a prospect. Just as a bear does a salmon before it callously guts the defenceless fish to fuel its already ample figure.
When the twelve-million-dollar cheque was cashed in 2014 and the Heart was transplanted, I found myself unable to support the facelifted, financial juggernaut that had replaced my team. A team who in pediatric terms had only just moved onto solid foods.
The warp speed shift from ragtag team to fragment of a conglomerate based seventeen hundred kilometres away and owned by near trillionaires another seven hours away by air was enough to give me motion sickness. I guess football really is the ‘world game’.
Even when City won the FFA Cup and enticed World Cup winner David Villa with a gilded carrot to jog around for six weeks, my eyebrow was barely raised.
Money had talked and so I walked.
Globally, fans of all sporting codes are trapped at the bargaining stage of their grief in being isolated from their teams. Only the individual can ever know the extent of the deals they were willing to make in order to roar a late winner home in person.
At least the majority will have something to return to when some level of â€˜COVID Normalâ€™ allows for attendances. This pandemic has shown that nothing we engage in should ever be taken for granted. Hopefully, new lessons now understood by even the most obsessive supporters in this period of necessary captivity can be applied after shock home losses and relegations.
At least there will be a next week for most.
For better or worse, football fans have a lifelong romantic attachment to their team. Hazy recollections of their first match, vivid memories of silverware and giant-killing victories can have even the sanest of us smiling when the world seems its bleakest. I guess I am just bitter that my budding love affair was never afforded a chance to bloom. Much like if the Capulets upped and moved across country after Julietâ€™s first semester at Verona High School. Perhaps I just avoided an inevitable poisoned chalice.
Whilst reading the newspaper last November, curiosity did eventually get the better of me. I flicked through the sea of pages promoting Melbourneâ€™s Spring racing carnival until my gaze again sat upon a red and white kit. City had beaten the Mariners 3â€“1 at home in front of a healthy crowd, a victory that would have them sitting atop the table at the weekâ€™s end. This certainly couldnâ€™t have been my team â€“ they had played with too much heart.