Finals Week 3 – The Iliad and the Odyssey

When I was in my teens and early twenties the great sporting holiday was driving from Adelaide to Melbourne along the coast and playing golf in places like Mt Gambier, Warrnambool and Apollo Bay.

The weekend was Melbourne for variously Boxing Day tests; VFL finals and racing carnivals.  The return was always along the Murray for golf in Yarrawonga, Barham and a summer night at the red hots under lights at Echuca or Mildura.  Golf and beer were less expensive along the Murray because the courses were often just across the river in pokie-subsidised New South Wales.  But somehow that week always mysteriously ended up more expensive.

Perhaps the Airport Economist could set his PhD students a research question – which pestilence spread quicker between States and did more damage – rabbits, cane toads or pokies?

In 1993 I finished a work trip in London with 2 colleagues by taking in a long weekend of variously the Courtauld Impressionist Gallery; an all Beethoven program at the Barbican played by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment; the Rugby League Cup final at the old Wembley Stadium (Wigan v Widness); the Duchess of Norfolk XI opening tour match at Arundel Castle; and an Australian one day game at Lords against Middlesex on the Monday.

The lasting memory is sleeping off the most prodigious hangover of my life from Arundel on Sunday (Coonawarra cabernet and scrumpy will do that to you) in suit and tie on the benches of the open top stand at the Nursery End where the spaceship press centre is now.  We were with a Middlesex member (hence the coat and tie) and by mid afternoon my constitution was strong enough to retain recuperative G&T’s and cucumber sandwiches in the Long Room.

Not quite bliss but certainly memorable, save for the hours between 9pm and 6am on the Sunday evening.

I was wondering what this sporting weekend would deliver on our current European holiday.  There was Australian footy finals, local soccer and the World Cup rugby union (good to see the poms choke) on offer.  The technology was sorted; the weather was brilliant and the Adriatic setting was gorgeous.

“The past is another country: they do things differently there.”

Friday found us back in the village of Rascane in the Biokovo Mountains where the Zestok Orao (Croatian for Avenging Eagle) spent the first 3 years of her life.  I spent the afternoon on the front porch of a tiny stone house watching the Hawks and Dockers on the IPad, while the ZO sat on the back porch catching up on the last 8 years with her cousin Zdenka – who speaks English as well as I speak Croatian.


I spent 3 hours on the same porch in 2007 drinking hladno pivo (cold beer) with her Uncle Srecko who was by then in the early stages of dementia and failing health.  While ZO and her cousin visited other relatives in the district, I listened for hours to his stories. The younger generation mostly ignored his ramblings. I was told that he often repeated himself, but that matters little when you don’t understand the first time round.

When he smiled I reciprocrated. When his voice lowered and his eyes dropped I shrugged my shoulders in consolation. When my glass was empty he filled it.

When my mother-in-law rang him from Australia she asked if her daughter still spoke good Croatian. He said yes, but her husband speaks it better.

Communication and understanding comes in many forms. We have traded on that story with countless relatives over the years, but like most good humour we laugh mostly at the deeper truth it reveals.

That is the thing I find mostly about travel. Not just the new things I see in foreign countries, but the deeper appreciation and understanding it gives for my own life and homeland. In the busy hustle of everday life we are too close to things. Like describing water to fish.

Travel gives distance, perspective and context to our lives.

From the Rascane front porch I watch the brave, undermanned Dockers fighting back against the classy Hawks. In the second quarter the Hawks control the tempo and have all the possession, but the Dockers do zone defence like the Russians at Stalingrad. My eyes say the Hawks must have kicked five goals with all their possession, but the scoreboard says impressions can be deceiving.

Rascane is not a town. There is no shop or school. Only churches and graveyards. It is a scattering of villages of four or five houses all belonging to one family. Lendici. Katici. Simon’s grandparents came from this hard scrabble land. To see it is to understand why he could bat for days with a scratchy technique and a keen eye, grafting out runs in ones not fours. Why he detested a captain who preferred the company of celebrity blondes to the men he fought alongside.

I often muse that in this country they only farm rocks. A few goats perhaps for thin milk and stringy wool, with grape yields of a few bottles per hectare from the emaciated grapes that gasp for moisture in the stony soil.

The Dockers are farming rocks. McPharlin and Pavlich are retired in all but name. Fyfe fighting like the Black Knight (its only a flesh wound). Mayne the least talented Centre Half Forward in a finals team since Ashley Hansen. Sheridan, Sutcliffe and Taberner the child soldiers.

But fight they do. For respect, and against the dying of the light. Not just this game, because in their hearts they know it is also their last shot at a title.

“I cooda been a contender.”

And Ross Lyon. Has there ever been a coach better suited to farming rocks? To making silk purses (genuine imitation ones) out of Clint Jones and Chris Mayne sows ears. A method that says all men are equal, and if we all stand together in massed ranks, they will not pass.

The game unfolds like Rorke’s Drift. The brown and gold Zulu keep swarming and eventually even the strongest spirit fails. The ranks thin and break.

The Hawks run away to win by 5 goals in the end, but if they are so good, how come it took more than 3 quarters to break undermanned honest toilers?

Saturday we are back on the coast in our apartment overlooking the crystaline Adriatic. Warm sun. Not a breath of wind. We could be overlooking Scarborough Beach, but the buildings are all 400 years older.


By quarter time the ZO and I have both put on 3kgs and eaten the entire supply of chips and nuts purchased for the game. Nervous eating will do that to you.

By half time I am content, if not secure. It’s only a matter of time. JWaite and DPetrie decide its all too hard (a familiar story). Boomer rings Pav and discusses superannuation options. Ziebell chases but the West Coast antelopes easily outpace the wildebeest.

Goldstein shows why he is one of the best tap ruckman in the AFL with 41 hitouts. Naitanui shows why he is an even more valuable footballer with 6 clearances and 4 inside 50’s to add to his 29 hitouts. NicNait is an an additional elite inside midfielder in the Eagles regimen. No other ruckman in the AFL can do that. Most like Goldstein and Big Sandi are lumbering giants while NicNait is an explosive athlete.

This was a game won by the team that worked hardest. The Eagles had 67 one percenters to the Kangas 35. Six Eagles had more than 5 (led by Sheppard, Naitanui, McGovern, Butler, Schofield and Wellingham). Only 2 Kangas had as many (Tarrant and Petrie). That pressure created 60 North turnovers and clangers. The Eagles only committed 40.

Some Victorian commentators and North fans complained about the umpiring. In the first half we certainly got the rub of the green, but it evened up a bit after half time. When competitors called Gary Player lucky because he holed a lot of bunker shots, he said “you know its funny, the more I practice the luckier I get.”

The second half is a cakewalk, with only our bad kicking stopping it becoming a humiliation.

I wonder about success, failure and the fine line that divides them. Croatia has given me much to reflect on about opportunity and achievement – lifters and leaners – glorious achievement and dumb luck. Why was I born there and not here? Why did the ZO’s father choose to migrate and then work for a year to earn enough to repay his fare and bring out his wife, son and daughter? What did he think when his first pay packet in his new country was stolen? Was it a drinker or gambler in his work crew chopping railway sleepers who found himself down on his luck? What became of that man? Did he keep searching bars and racetracks for the Welcome Stranger or did he buy a patch of land and a wheelbarrow like Juroslav and build himself a home, a legacy and four educated children?

And Jesus said “cast the net on the other side and much to their surprise the disciples boat was soon filled with fish.” When the seed fell on the stony path, on rocky ground or among thorns it was lost, but on good earth it prospered yielding thirty, sixty and a hundred fold.

Is Ross Lyon reading Gray’s Elegy? “Many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste it’s sweetness on the desert air.” More likely reading Whitman and planning how to recast a redundant game plan. “A leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” But when Ross dreams of the future, what colours does he see?

For my Eagles the future is the land of opportunity that the ZO’s father found. Opportunity abounds in Melbourne town next weekend. Wealth undreamed of at the season’s start.

He was wise, and we are lucky that our land has been fertile and rewarded effort. His brothers and sisters worked no less hard. Were no less worthy. In Croatia there is no government pension or unemployment benefit. If you have not saved or have family to support you there is just a basic welfare payment of A$30 a week. Every day I see old people going through the bins searching for scraps that might sustain them. There is no meaningful industry except tourism in this most idyllic of land and sea scapes. People wait tables, scrub toilets, rent rooms in their apartments, sell vegetables or trinkets, and sit at tables in the sun all day selling tours or cruises without wages because one commission sale to a western tourist might feed their family.

Lifters or leaners? Croatians don’t have work for the dole. They have work for survival. Until they die. Joe Hockey is right (is he still the Treasurer?) too much welfare and the easy life robs incentive and diminishes effort and self worth. But tell Scott Morrison (I’ll catch up with events soon) that he is wrong if he thinks that the harsh lash can lift a man or a country. Making the most of our opportunities is all.

Ross Lyon could plan, strategise and yell as much as he liked on Friday. Stones can’t be made to run, or kick winning scores.

On Sunday morning I wake early to check the quarter score updates from the WAFL reserves. My nephew’s Swan Districts are getting belted. We are disappointed for him, but 5 years ago he was in the State Under 18 squad and dreaming of the AFL draft. Then he was very sick and we thought he might never play footy again. Last year he returned in a country side, getting uni pocket money playing at Dandarigan. Watching him run around again was almost as good as the Bindoon pies on the journey up. This year he played in a WAFL Reserves Grand Final. His goal is to play league footy in the WAFL with the mates he went through Colts with.

That’s making the most of the cards that you’re dealt.

At lunch time Sunday we drive up to Split to visit more relatives. All week we have planned to go to the Split derby in the Croatian football first division. Last weekend Hajduk Split (the ZO’s family team has it’s colours on every street corner) lost 1-0 to Dynamo Zagreb after a 93rd minute disputed penalty. They hate each other like Collingwood hate Carlton x100. The week before that Dynamo Zagreb surprised Arsenal 2-1 in the European Champions League. This is no mugs comp.


RNK Split have a run down 8,000 seat stadium only a few hundred metres down the road from Hajduk’s 35,000 seat colloseum. Until 5 years ago the two teams never met because RNK played in the lower leagues, but 3 successive years of promotion now see them as rivals. The locals tell me it’s generous big brother/little brother rivalry.

Not Cain and Abel like the Eagles and Dockers.

Both have strong working class traditions. Hajduk was Tito’s favourite team and they refused to join the Italian League in WW2 when the fascists briefly ruled Croatia under a local puppet regime. RNK is the team of the Split shipyards. Their original team colours were anarchist black.

Imagine a first division football game in Australia between the socialists and the anarchists. Don’t tell Tony Abbott or he’d put both clubs under ASIO surveillance. (What do you mean – the thousand year Reich only lasted two?) Oh well, a football match in Australia between the true socialists and anarchists would have to be eleven a side anyway to ensure we could round up the numbers.

Locals have told us there should be tickets at the gate, but when we get there we are told that it is (unsurprisingly) a sellout. Hundreds of disgruntled Hajduk supporters are queing impatiently, but to no avail. We meet a German tourist who supports Kaiserslauten, and he says all his efforts to pay over the odds on the black market have come to nothing.

We retire (unsurprisingly) to the bar and Hajduk win 1-0 in a lacklustre affair that Ross Lyon would be proud of. A little of the game was visible through a gap in the seating behind the goals, but only the crowd atmosphere and the security police are impressive.

We count more than 30 black uniformed security police with sub-machine guns at the entrances and behind the goals. We ask why there are so many armed soldiers when this is a small fixture between friendly clubs? The locals tell us that when Hajduk play Dynamo the army are there to protect the rival fans from each other (dozens of flares are regularly exploded on the terraces – looks like the average Dockers home final). When they play other teams, the army are there to protect the referee from the fans.


This weekend has given us much to ponder and be grateful for. But the big dance awaits.

The Zestok Orao had a fall last night and may require a moon boot. She denies that she broke team rules and was drinking before a game. She says that she is prepared to do a Fyfe, and play through the pain barrier with a Norm Smith Medal winning performance from 6.30am Saturday morning Croatian time.

She may require post-season surgery, but at the moment we are feeling no pain. Only excitement and gratitude – on and off the field.



  1. bob.speechley says

    I’ll be rooting for The Eagles on Saturday and hope that dreadful word “threepeat” is buried in the process. A Foreign Correspondent of stature who lives and writes from the heart. Enjoyed your insights enormously.

  2. Peter Fuller says

    Wonderful piece, PB full of insight on the role of luck in life (worth a reference to Andrew Leigh’s new book “The Luck of Politics”), sporting history – personal, and political – and the wonders of travel undertaken with an open mind and heart. Congratulations on your triumph in mastering that most difficult of languages (at the risk of re-igniting a civil war, I thought it was Serbo-Croat). Good luck for Saturday.
    Bob, while I concur about crime against language of “three-peat”, I think you can get rooted if you are rooting as opposed to barracking.

  3. Brownlow Medal 2015

    Goldstein 18 votes

    Nicnait 7 votes what the

  4. Really enjoyed reading this Peter! I was in Croatia for a week and a half last year in the middle of a backpacking trip (including a few days in Split) and it was a beautiful country. You may not be able to be in the country for the grand final, but be heartened by the fact every AFL supporter who doesn’t barrack for Hawthorn is keen for an Eagles win!

  5. So much to ponder, PB.
    Wonderfully thought-provoking observations.
    I’m taken with the luck/ disadvantage story and the appreciation (or lack thereof) commonly found.
    And as you reveal (again) to sit with another, to be with another, shows mastery of the language of humans being. It’s rarely about the words.

    The longer this season has gone, the more I barrack for footy itself. And for the people within it, caught up in its web. Spinning its web.

    Happy Croatian GF, PB and ZO.

  6. Mark 'Swish' Schwerdt says

    Marvellous PB

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