I caught up with a friend of mine recently at a coffee shop on Bourke Street. We talked about the previous year, the ailing fortunes of our respective football teams, the lack of sun in the beginning of January and, of course, our Christmas holidays.
I listened as my friend told me about his Christmas. According to him, Santa made it to his little brick-veneer home in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. He visited in the dead of night, and, as is often foretold, supped from the bounty that was left for him beside the plastic pine tree by the front window.
On Christmas morning, his eleven-year-old son, Alex, excitedly tore open a freshly wrapped box and was overjoyed to see a brand new Adidas Brazuca replica ball resting in a nest of tissue paper. As kids do on Christmas morning, Alex bounded out the front and called for his friends and neighbours to see his wonderful gift, challenging them to a quick game of kick-around.
“After lunch,” said his father, curtailing the child’s excitement.
Mid-afternoon finally came and after a lunchtime feast where he barely mustered a nibble, Alex gathered up his mates and ventured to the local park, ready to bamboozle them with his footballing wizardry.
As the warm afternoon breeze crept through the eucalypts surrounding the oval, Alex stood proudly in his Socceroos jersey, the word “Cahill” emblazoned on his back, also a present from Santa. His foot was planted firmly behind the Brazuca, measuring the shot as his other friend lay in wait, squinting into the sun. He was no longer Alex, he was Tim Cahill, and this wasn’t some park in Bundoora; this was the Maracanã in Brazil. As his foot struck that new ball, a dirt clod struck him in the back of the head, causing him to mishit his shot, the ball dribbling off to the right.
“Get your shitty wog-ball away from here…it’s cricket season,” came a nasally cry from behind him.
Alex stood incredulous, not having experienced anything like this before. Another clod whizzed past him as an older boy, around fifteen, and the owner of the nasally voice, told him to “Fuck off you dumb wog or we’ll smash the lot of ya!” while his lackeys cackled behind him.
I know Alex. He is what I would call a brave kid, always ready to get stuck in when needed to, especially on the football pitch. But above all else, he is a smart kid, and he knew that he and his small group of mates were odds-on to receive a pummelling if they chose to stay, so he took his new Brazuca and left, his Christmas ruined by a dirt-clod throwing bigot.
I listened in silence as my friend told his tale. It brought back bad memories to a racist past, to my childhood…the ‘80s. As the words fell from his mouth, I saw myself, standing in front of my cowering brother, arms holding onto a battered football, the scent of mown grass, pollen and fresh blood from a cut lip. The scent of spring.
We grew up near Mildura in Victoria’s north-west. We tried, hard, but couldn’t fit in. We were different to everyone else. Our parents spoke a different language, ate different food, and listened to different music. We were wogs, but a different kind. We weren’t like second and third generation Italians or Greeks that had farms and played Aussie Rules. We had hard names to pronounce, we were there to be made fun of, we were gypsies. At school, I was known as “Eddie Fuckoffyoubitch” or “Eddie Sucksondick”. Classy, I know, but we could deal with it for the most part, until we started playing football.
My dad, who did his best to assimilate – he even barracked for Collingwood – told us that we had to play football. “It’s our sport, our tradition,” he’d say, reminding us that he used to play for NK Zagreb back in the old country. So we did. Every Sunday morning, my brother and I would don our Irymple Zagreb kits and play football. We weren’t much good as footballers but we loved playing the game. We practised constantly; in our backyard, in the street, at the local park.
I remember the rundown park in Westcliffs, the bad part of town where the Housing Commission people lived. The grass was brown from another year of drought and I stood in the late afternoon sun, trying hard to shelter my nine-year-old brother with my body as neighbourhood kids rained stones, sticks and anything else against my back, legs and head; my brother’s quiet sobs more damaging than the chorus of insults and bruises I received.
This is just one moment among many. I don’t recall how often this happened that first year we moved into town, but it was often enough.
I remember watching through tears as an older boy stuck his pocket knife into our football, sneering while his friends laughed. I remember trudging home with bloodied cuts and my brother weeping at my side. I remember the anguish on my mother’s face and the rage in my father’s voice, and I remember telling them that we were never going to play football again…and we didn’t.
At first, my friend’s account of his son’s Christmas woe troubled me. I couldn’t fathom that this sort of thing still happened in the “multicultural” society our leaders wax lyrical about.
Surely we had evolved beyond this kind of xenophobia? The more I thought about it, the more it angered me, as if enduring the beatings and the pain all those years ago was for nothing. I asked my friend why he didn’t go down to the park and find the little shits and teach them a lesson. He told me it wasn’t worth it. I asked him if Alex still wanted to play football. He said, “Yes of course, but he won’t play in the park. We just play at home or at the neighbour’s house more.” Understandable, but comforting too.
Like I said, Alex was a smart kid; he wouldn’t let one idiot kill his passion for the game, he just removed them from his life.
Originally published at: http://www.shootfarken.com.au/a-wogball-christmas-soccerphobias-hold-on-the-australian-psyche/