The streets were choked with cars, and soccer fans had brought traffic to a standstill. But the incessant call-and-response of the car horns was a fanfare to Italy versus Australia, rather than a sign of frustration.
‘Have you ever seen so many Italians outside of Italy?’ Stefano asked me as we were picked up by the wave of soccer fanatics in Leichhardt and washed into Norton Street, Sydney’s Italian Quarter.
For days, red-white-and-green hung beside the radiant Southern Cross outside Italian-style cafÃ©s all over Sydney. Italo-Australians were quoted in the media as saying their allegiance lay with both countries a win-win situation.
But sport always ignites a patriotic flame inside the spectator, and tonight was no exception. The same fuel which unites, can also burn a divide. Italy or Australia? Hearts were worn on sleeves, and faces, and around necks. ‘True colours’ appeared side-by-side. An Italian flag worn as a cape by Australian-born Stefano, ruffled as we walked, his heritage the ‘tri-colore’ band around his head.
Police on horseback looked almost regal as they lined the streets. Those fans who had got into the crowded bars spilled out onto balconies, watching the masses below, like toffs in the boxes at the opera.
Photo by Claire Aird
But below, on the street, the song was far from melodic more of war cry than an aria. A deep-bellied ‘I-tal-ia! I-tal-ia! I-tal-ia!‘ boomed from a teenage group of first and second generation Italo-Australians the squad dressed like the ‘Azzurri’ who where the stars of the show. The chant crescendoed before giving way to a staccato ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie; Oi! Oi! Oi!‘ from a different group, this time wrapped in green and gold. A band of Anglos, indistinguishable because of the same coloured paint smeared across their faces, had earlier marched through the crowd, beating a snare drum.
But by the time the tide of fans pouring into Norton Street dried up, you could feel the warm breath of the supporter beside you.
Eyes were lifted to the big screen overhead.
Les Murray’s voice sounded over the quietened crowd, Australia were playing the ‘Aristocrats of soccer;’ commentators were optimistic; and ‘win, lose or draw, Aussies have made us proud.’
National anthems rumbled from speakers, distorted slightly. ‘Italian brothers, Italy has arisen let one flag, one hope bring us together ‘ a group of Italian expats sang in their native tongue swaying, while their flags swept across the crowd.
Longnecks of VB were clinked as revellers’ voices came in, slightly behind, with the familiar tune: ‘Australians all let us rejoice in history’s page let every stage, advance Australia fair.’
But ‘history’ as we’d been reminded over and over during the World Cup coverage was against us. It’s the first time since the Cup’s humble beginning in 1930 that Australia had even ‘advanced’ into the pages of the second round.
Australians had been anticipating the match that would test whether roots ran deeper than home turf since a jubilant Friday morning when we’d drawn with Croatia. The crowd in Norton Street had been waiting in the icy air for hours.
And then the screen went black.
Coverage interrupted the commentator’s voice creating the only picture of the game drowned out by a mass expression of disbelief. The tension rising with the sound of angry chants. Hands in the air, foreheads creased.
And the screen flickered back to life. A cheering crowd satisfied by technology.
As the cheers subsided and the game began on screen, behind me, a young voice said, ‘I hope it’s nil all!’ I turned to see two Italo-Australian girls, no flags, no face paint, smiling. They were wedged between the ‘Azzurri’ boys and the band of ‘Green and Gold.’
Italy and Australia were both on their game. Attempts at goal by Alberto Gilardino and Lucca Toni were superbly blocked by Schwarzer, causing a stir in the divided masses. But as half time came, the scoreboared remained empty. A lone voice singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’ rose above the tight pack, before being lost in the morning sky.
Photo by Claire Aird
I was beginning to think the neutral supporters’ diplomatic wish might be granted, until a red card signalled a potential end to Italy. Italy’s supporters groaned. But even minus defender Marco Materazzi, Australia couldn’t take advantage of their numerical strength.
As time ticked on, Australia’s fans came to life. Italian solidarity gave way to anxious bursts of support and frustration. With just eight minutes remaining on the clock, Australian coach Guus Hiddink made his first player change. As Mile Sterjovski bowed out of the game, a close-up shot of the face of his replacement the determined John Aloisi lifted the crowd. Could he be the one to strike Australia to victory?
Hope restored, fans held each other, shouting. A voice from behind yelled, ‘Yes, yes, get ready to jump’ but still nil all. NIL ALL. Emotions strung out, like the flags stretched between supporters hands.
And then came the fall.
As nearly everyone in Australia now knows, in the last seconds of the match, the referee ruled Australia’s Lucas Neill fouled Fabio Grosso and awarded a penalty.
On the night, in Leichhardt’s Little Italy, a flare exploded. Pink smoke floated over the crowd filling our nostrils and covering the screen as Francesco Totti faced goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer and kicked the ball cleanly into the top left corner of the net. Italy 1, Australia 0.
The tears pooled at the corners of my eyes surprised me. And for all the Italian support before the game, a strange silence descended on the crowd in Norton Street.
Eyes were still glued to the screen. Hands were raised to hold long faces. Disbelief and disappointment could not be hidden even by face paint. Defeat cut.
As I turned to walk away, an Italo-Australian was crouched on the ground, head down, mourning.
Patriotism runs deep, but perhaps it’s too difficult to separate blood and soil after all.
The mass began to move, slowly, surreal. A few boys in Azzurri colours hung from poles waving the red-white-and-green and the expats danced in a circle while those around them, hands in pockets, heads lowered, moved on.
History may have been against us, but by playing against the ‘aristocrats of soccer,’ Australia has written its own.
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