Another Bout of Sudden Death Sickness with the Socceroos

I had forgotten this feeling. The toxic mix of hope and dread that used to come every four years when the Socceroos reached the final World Cup play-off. It’s called Sudden Death Sickness. You won’t find it in a medical journal, but symptoms include insomnia, delirium, hysteria, and yelling at the TV in a whisper, trying not to wake anyone else in the house.


We’ve had it way too easy in the last few qualifying campaigns. Safe in the comfort of the Asian Confederation and its four full places in the World Cup, we’ve forgotten what it was like to crawl out of bed in the early hours of the morning, to watch the Socceroos through bloodshot eyes, as they played on the other side of the world for one shot at the World Cup.


Last Saturday when I shoved the whole family into the car at 7am on what was meant to be a relaxing family weekend at the beach, then tore down Princess Freeway so we could make it to Queenscliff to watch the kick-off against Honduras, I realised that the Sudden Death Sickness was back. (For the record we made it seven minutes into the first-half and that’s only because our ten-month old projectile vomited in the car near Laverton, which I swear had nothing to do with my constant lane-changing because other cars were blocking my clear run).


My first bout of Sudden Death Sickness was in 1997, when Australia played Iran in Tehran. I was at a friend’s eighteenth birthday in Doncaster, and a few of us snuck away from the speeches to watch an old wooden TV in the front room with such bad SBS reception the players looked like white smudges on the screen. We were only caught when the raucous cheer after Harry Kewell’s goal in the 19th minute interrupted the Dad right in the middle of his toast to his son. I’m not going to mention what happened a few days later at the MCG, because all Sudden Death Sickness sufferers know you have to be careful about reliving certain traumas.


The second bout came four years later when Uruguay destroyed us in Montevideo. I spent most of the game curled in ball on the floor of a friend’s lounge room, swearing I would never go through it again.


The symptoms returned in 2005. And it had spread through my whole friendship group like a plague. Ten of us bought tickets to that game in Sydney hoping that it would be easier to endure together. Also we’d gone to school with Marco Bresciano, which seemed like a good omen (looking for omens is another symptom).


As a poor student, the only flight to Sydney I could afford was a budget Jetstar from Avalon (I think I still owe my sister for that early morning lift, which must be worth at least three separate trips to Tullamarine). Even at 8am in that tiny airport on the outskirts of Geelong, a town that has never welcomed any colours except blue and white, the departure lounge was full of green and gold jerseys, scarves and faces painted with zinc cream (which seemed a bit odd because it was 8am in the morning, and the game was going to be played 12 hours later, at night).


Some parts of that night I remember with total clarity, while whole sections of the game are as blurry as the picture on that old wooden panelled TV. That’s what Sudden Death Sickness does. It attacks your memory cells, isolating moments of pain and joy and causing everything else to blur. Twelve years later, these are the scraps of memory I’ve hung onto:


Our seats are twelve rows back directly behind the goal. Viduka kicks off and the ball moves back and forth as both teams size each other up. Each time Australia moves forward the crowd cheers, and when Uruguay counters we gasp. The stadium sounds like a piano accordion. Around 30 minutes Harry Kewell is subbed on. He hits the pitch like a blast of electricity. His first touch drives us forward and he charges into the box and gets it back from Viduka directly in front of goal. And he miskicks. The ball spills to Bresciano, who sends it soaring into the back of the net. The whole place goes insane. Bodies fly everywhere. Total strangers fling themselves at each other. The only Australian who doesn’t move is Bresciano. He just stands totally still, like a statue of some Roman God, as the players all converge on him. Our omen has paid off. Or at least that’s what we try to tell the slightly confused people sitting behind us, as we repeatedly yell, “We went to school with him.”


Through the excruciating second half we all know it will end with penalties. If Australian Soccer had taught us anything, it’s that everything must happen the hard way.


After full time, and extra time, we go to penalties. The goal is at our end. We’re close enough to see the player’s faces before each shot.


While every Australian supporter has watched John Aloisi’s goal hundreds of times, this is how I remember it: Aloisi walks to the penalty spot. The crowd goes silent. I can see his face through the net. He steps back. Looks at the goal. Glances sideways at the referee. Looks back at the goal. Then he runs in and I hear three sounds: the thud as his boot hits the ball, the “Pffft” as the ball hits the back of the net, and the scream as the whole stadium realises we’re into the World Cup. All around us people are crying. And we know we’ve been cured.


I’ve since watched that replay, and the crowd isn’t silent as Aloisi lines up. And so many people tell me there’s no way I could have heard the sound of the ball hitting the net, but I don’t care. This is how I remember it. And this is how I’ve told it in the 9000 retellings of that night.


So this Wednesday, twelve years after that game, six of us that went that night are returning to the stadium. There’s a different coach, and a different team, aside from Tim Cahill who will still be playing for Australia when he’s a decapitated head rolling around in the box. We couldn’t get the same seats behind the goal, because the Ticketmaster “Best seats available” option doesn’t care much for nostalgia or superstition. This time I’m catching a Qantas flight from Tullamarine and won’t ask my sister for a lift. Twelve years after the night I thought I was cured forever, the Sudden Death Sickness is back. And I’ve really missed it.


Read how Declan Fay helped end the Kennett Curse – HERE


  1. Tom Riordan says

    Great recollections Declan.

    I find watching these matches to be a dreadful experience. On this occasion especially; I have such high expectations about the Socceroos’ performance tonight. Based on the away leg and the consequences of the Hondurans’ uncomfortable journey to Sydney, a catastrophe would have to take place for us not to win convincingly in the 90 minutes.

  2. Dennis Gedling says

    Great stuff Declan. There would be 1001 stories about that night such was its resonance. All of them unique. I must have been 10 or so rows behind you in 2005 too, it was the right end to be!

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