Ask Paul Mavroudis. I do keep falling in football love. And it's a long list:
- Bob Jane Stadium (sigh, and fuck you Eddie)
- Kevin Nelson (a goal a game and still not good enough for South fans)
- Fernando de Moraes
- Mitch Langerak (he hadn't even circumnavigated his penalty area at Kington in his debut warm up and I knew he was going to play for Australia: "Safe as houses!")
- Hobart soccer in general and Shae Hickey in particular
- A kid who plays for my son's futsal team who makes me smile all the while he is playing and who will also play for Australia (I won't name him)
A couple of things have changed that perception markedly in recent times - aside from the Cevaps at North Geelong which were definitely something of a head turner. One is the first Croatian soccer identity I have met and got to know, Pave Jusup. An office-bearer with the Melbourne Knights, he is a calm, intelligent and peaceful young man who has his foibles but lets others have theirs. What's more he can write. I wish many of my writing students could write as well as this cultivated Western Suburbs wog electrician. He loves his club passionately and is always thinking of how to defend it (sometimes pre-emptively with rhetorical aggression). For this, social media sometimes turns him into a kind of fire-breathing monster out to wreck Australian soccer only just rescued from the wog abyss by the new breed. He's not. It wasn't.
And it makes sense. How can a community be identical with the representations a sensationalist media makes of it? Of course some people at his club behaved and still behave on a scale between bad and despicable. Meeting Pave has made me realise that I was too influenced by the stereotypes without ever getting to know the people behind them to make a proper judgement.
I hope this doesn't disappoint Pave, but I haven't fallen in love with him, merely developed a strong fondness.
My son found his team mates and I wandered into the club, guided by the welcome sign (left) above the entrance. "Welcome", not "You are entering our territory" or "We are shit hot!". Inside the door were two things that caught my eye. First was an old soccer ball in the trophy cabinet. It reminded me of the ones I used to kick around when I first started playing.
The second item was something I'd never seen at a Melbourne soccer club, a well-placed noticeboard (right) both welcoming opposition players and parents and giving a timetable of the day and ground layout. A magnificent example that is a lesson to all.
Tracing my way via the odours wafting from the canteen I found myself in the clubhouse proper: a hall that might hold 300 people or more, a stage, a bar and a food servery advertising some pretty amazing fare. The cevap roll was not offered on Sunday so I had to make do with a bacon and egg roll. I will be going back with a friend or two to order the $80 plate.
I looked at the walls and saw some fairly standard paraphernalia but was blown away by the wall on which were mounted the shirts from present-day A League players and socceroos, Viduka, Culina and Franjic. The A League players were Dugandzic, Kalmar, Kovacevic and several others.
The Socceroo shirts were in pride of place, as was a poster in the entry declaring support for the Socceroos. The first thing that came to my mind was that this was a club with pride. Pride in being Croatian, pride in being Australian, pride in being a valuable contributor to the game in Australia and elsewhere, pride in being a soccer breeding ground.
The next thought was anger. Anger at those who would dismiss St Albans Dinamo as a bunch of wogs living in the past with no relevance to the future of Australian soccer. I wanted to round up everyone who had ever dismissed 'ethnic' clubs and drag them through an impromptu guided tour of this place of history, culture and dignity combined in a most perfect way. Indeed I was falling in football love.
On marshall duty for the day, I wondered whether my new-found respect might be tested by the locals (Our parents were not going to be a problem I tell you. I had to ask them to make some noise at one point.) On the contrary, it was a day of mutual respect and a hard fought game between two teams knowing that this game would be one of their few chances of a win this season. Even the linesmen were brilliant. Theirs was excellent (at least 4 offsides called against his team); ours was OK, missing a couple of offsides (yes, when I saw his AFL umpires jacket I was a bit worried).
The conversation I had at the end with the other marshall was the clincher. A lovely bloke who expressed concern for our kids and gave compliments as he saw fit. He was pleased with the win but commiserated with us. The Dinamo kids were overjoyed. They sang the first verse of the victory song "Oh when the saints etc" but trailed off when the second started (it was the first time they'd sung it this year).
I'd had a great afternoon in what has been a nursery of Australian soccer. It will be a great mistake and a great tragedy for our game if it ever loses that aspect. If I had any influence at all I would get those who want to 'fix' the game down to a day at Dinamo to see just how valuable, progressive and, yes, ethnically diverse this club is.
As I was leaving I sung a song to myself borrowing from Johhny Cash: "St Albans I love every inch of you," without his irony.
Since the day I have wondered about how much AFL star Ivan Maric's presidency has had an impact on the club. Maybe a lot; maybe not much.
Maybe it'll soften my heart to AFL . . . Though perhaps that's a love too far.