What a long, sad day it’s been. I really, really need to get all my emotions out because as my workmates and those on the message board could testify, I was very upset by the result of this morning’s game against Italy. The result may be the same as a week ago against Brazil – a defeat – but the emotions it evoked was the antithesis of last week’s match.
My overwhelming response for the day was that we were robbed – robbed by a penalty that should never have been, robbed by a team who were very far from models of fair play.
Yes, Italy has skill and experience. Yes, both teams were hungry for a win, but in a fair world the Italians would have gone for a win by fair means – a goal, or in the worse case, the penalty shootout. But obviously it was not to be and the fair team lost.
And at the centre of all this is, unbelievably, Lucas Neill. He fell, Grosso rolled over the top of him and it was all over. I really, really feel for him. His expression of disbelief and anguish said it all.
That it happened to him of all people was too cruel. He had, in my humble opinion and the opinion of many others more knowledgeable than me, been Australia’s player of the tournament, who had before the penalty been the man pacifying the best attackers in football.
It may sound stupid, but I feel the overwhelming need to console him, but what can I do? What can I do to console a team who had worked their hearts out, who had been truly inspiring? The only thing to do is to support them in my own little way. Support the Socceroos when they compete in the Asian Cup (which I’m sure they’ll do brilliantly in), support the individuals as they play for their clubs.
I’ve learned today just how cruel sport can be, but despite the obvious injustices in the game the Socceroos truly embodied how football is meant to be played – with enthusiasm and hunger, with skill that entertains, with fairness and great team spirit. Were we naïve to go in with this attitude? Perhaps, but it’s teams like Australia that keep the game vital and exciting, and unfortunately it’s teams like Italy that kill it.
We may have to work harder than other nations to succeed, and there’s certainly plenty of work to be done on all levels, but what Guus Hiddink had shown us in 11 short months was that we’re not useless, in fact, we’re not behind at all. Success is possible, and what greater achievement could there be in world sport than to show the world that success and fair play can go hand-in-hand in football?
So you might have guessed that I had gone through all 5 stages of grief in the last 24 hours, and in the last 2 weeks experienced all the highs and lows that come from passionately following a team, my national football team. In the end there was a lot to be proud of – the team’s tenacity, their truly attractive brand of play, their positively infectious attitude, and their graciousness in defeat.
All of the above qualities were displayed by all of the team, but particularly in Lucas Neill. Although you very well know that it was not his talent that first attracted me, it’s his talent and sense of self that won out in the end. He is no doubt a gifted and intelligent player, but he is also a leader and the perfect role model for a sport professional – competitive, fair and humble.
I hope that he goes back to Blackburn spurned and not disheartened. I hope that he will soon go to a big team like Barcelona, that he will one day captain the Socceroos, so he can show the world just what he and Australian football is really made of. Recognition has already started and finally the world as well as Australia knows that football is strong and here to stay.
So thank you Lucas, thank you Socceroos, and thank you Guus for showing Australia the way.