The World Cup Antidote to Saints Despair

You would have thought that I would have found a way to mitigate against St.Kilda breaking my heart by now. I’ve been upon this earth long enough to have come to terms with the the highs of my beloved Saints only arriving in patches of sunshine on a windswept day. Clouds in varying shades of darkness, often times filled with despair, are a constant traveller. Sadly we, the St.Kilda faithful, are guilty of sometimes embracing ourselves with them. A cloud duffle coat of abject failure to nurse our existential angst with. The clouds will always be with us. Even when the sun shines upon the Saints, there is a sense that it is obscured by the creeping clouds of a past that blows ill winds….

When I start to think this way, I know that I’m in trouble. Watching us play has become a test of endurance and I have a horrible confession to make-

The frustration of this season has seen me walk away from the club I love.

I feel incredibly guilty most of the time but somehow the pangs of my disgraceful betrayal seem to leave me right around match time.

Oh the cruel and fickle nature of football.I found it painful to watch the Saints in their prime, every game meant so much, every contest intense. I actually found myself pacing the lounge-room or groaning through hands as a 50/50 contest played out in a slow-motion of dread. Now I can only watch so much of the annihilation before my sense of pride sees me wonder what else is on. I have really been enjoying the rugby league this season….

Sure I have seen immense promise in the raft of young kids we are playing and it bodes well for the next three to five years that their talent is already shining through.

I appreciate that we are going to be fine and that all things must pass but the sight of seeing Roo and Lenny busting a gut in a hopeless cause fills my heart with sadness. Yet another golden era has passed and another St.Kilda generation will leave empty-handed. It is beginning to feel like our fate. Cast adrift, never able to escape our history, the winds blowing us back towards the past we never seem to be able to shake.

Just as well the World Cup started then.

If ever there is a way to renew my faith in the virtues of the sporting contest it is in the reduction of nations of millions to eleven men on a pitch.

Thirty two nations get to the tournament, whittled down from hundreds. They all clearly know how much it means. Despite the arguments for professional football turning players into mercenaries that lack pride in their club, the honour of representing your country has not lost its lustre. Sure, it can be fraught with conflicting purposes. One person’s sense of patriotism is another’s political expediency but what I love is the joie de vivre of eleven men asked to wear their nations colours. That simple lust for life doesn’t last long for most of the teams but that moment when the ball nestles in the net and euphoria takes hold might be the single greatest expression of national pride we as a race can produce.

Australia might not have won a game but if you didn’t jump around in wild-eyed ecstasy when Timmy volleyed in the the greatest World Cup goal scored by an Australian, then I feel pity for you. Where do you go to get your pride and joy?

Moments of undiluted happiness are hard enough to chase. I haven’t had a high that great since 2009. Buddy’s goal in a losing tilt in 2011’s Prelim certainly stirred my soul and got me to my feet but it’s impact was certainly diluted by the fact that Luke Ball stole his match winner. I still love Luke Ball and I had no skin in that contest (apart from a traditional dislike of the Pies) but the artistry of Buddy’s dribble from hard on the boundary resonated. The moment was electric and it charged everyone who watched it.

Timmy Cahill’s screamer of a shot had the same charge. Our nation was on the world’s radar and we stood up to be counted. For a brief second we were world class. Tim Cahill is a warrior, a potent mix of Luke Hodge and Nick Riewoldt. He was well aware that the Socceroos were fighting a lost cause, yet he never once conceded defeat. When the clouds are at the darkest I often hypothesise that St.Kilda might well be the Parton Saint of lost sporting causes. If that were to be true, then men like Riewoldt and Cahill wear his pendant. Losing doesn’t have to be in vain. If you give everything of yourself to the cause, the reward is always admiration by all.

As much as we claim to hate comparing players, the truth is it’s what makes watching sport great. I might have lost the passion for watching Aussie Rules to a full blown affair with the world game but it doesn’t mean that I don’t spend my early hours in front of the tube comparing the footballers of the world to the greats of our game.

I immediately recognised Hodge’s tenacity and will for the contest in Cahill. Luke Hodge is a junkyard dog. He is a mess of desperation and fury upon every contest he gets to (which is most.) He wants the football so badly it is ugly to watch but as soon as he has it, his poise and skill are beautiful. He is Hyde turned into Jekyll. His left foot is precise and his vision is otherworldly. Cahill is on the same level. He is everywhere, harassing and haranguing the opposition. Then when the Aussies win possession he is immediately in dangerous places with an instinct that is lethal. He doesn’t score goals for personal kudos, he scores them because his team needs them to win. If that’s not a perfect description of Luke Hodge as well then I don’t know what is.

Every champion of the beautiful game has been mulled over and compared in my mind. It began innocently enough with Hodgey jumping into my mind as Timmy sprinted to yet another contest but as other players began to remind me of Aussie Rules exponents, I began to actively pursue the cross-code doppelgängers.

Who is Gary Ablett then? Simple- Lionel Messi. The very definition of champion is a player who is so far above his peers it is clearly unfair. Both little masters are impossible to stop. You know what they are going to do and all you can do as their opponent is hope they don’t make you look stupid as they do it.

Cristiano Ronaldo reminds me of Buddy. Ronnie might have a petulant streak that is as misconstrued as much Matty Richardson was (his body language was picked apart in Portugal’s early exit but his behaviour made sense given the abject failure of his team) but he has a natural flair that screams Buddy. Ronaldo is the reigning world player of the year and flashy describes everything he does on and off the pitch. His talent is transcendent and he is not afraid to show off how good he is. When his team wins he is the hero, when it doesn’t he is the lightning rod. Lance Franklin lives in the spotlight and laps it up, Cristiano earns ten times as much. That spotlight is an X-Ray. If Ronaldo crashed into some parked cars, Buddy’s grilling would look like a singeing. Mario Balotelli, another diamond geezer, crashed his Audi R8 into a car at a set of traffic lights and it made worldwide news. Buddy might have a fair amount in common with Super Mario but his dedication to the team and his ability to perform on the biggest stage reminds me more of Ronaldo’s pedigree- Both make the game look ridiculously easy while doing the impossible regularly.

Meanwhile, it was while watching France that I had a Judd epiphany. He doesn’t compare to a present player, rather a past great. Chris Judd shares his makeup with Zinedine Zidane. Sure, it might have something to do with the bald pate but under the physical resemblance is the darkness. Both are sublime exponents of their sport but for every act of genius there is a chicken-wing tackle, pressure point grapple or chest-butt. There is a place inside both men that rages. Their competitiveness is a lit fuse. Winning dampens the spark but it will never extinguish the drive to succeed. If it can’t come out through talent then it has to come out as near-nefarious deed. Juddy and Zizou play on the edge because they know no other existence.

Neymar, the golden boy of Brazilian football is Cyril Rioli incarnate. His skill is the very height of joga bonito, it is ridiculously flashy, yet he has an air of casualness about him that suggests that what he has just done came easily. Cyril and Neymar make the game look simple when it isn’t and have fun doing it.

Wayne Rooney is Travis Cloke. There is no doubting their talent but questions are constantly asked about their poise in the big moments. It is unfair but their larrikin streak leaves them open to that criticism. They have no capacity to change and it’s hard to see why they should. It just means that every missed opportunity is fodder to their critics and every goal they score is what they are expected to do anyway.

The breakout star of this World Cup is the Columbian Wunderkind James Rodriguez. There was so much hype surrounding him coming in that you wondered if he was really that good. He plays for Monaco FC so it was hard to see much of him until he arrived on the big stage. Immediately he became Jaeger O’Meara to me. The moment I saw James I realised that the ‘hype’ simply wasn’t. Exactly like the first time I witnessed Jaeger, I knew he was special.
The first time I saw O’Meara, he ran straight at a contest, plucked the ball cleanly from the pack of bodies, gave the handball, ran to space, demanded the one-two and upon getting footy back put a millimetre perfect pass on the chest of the leading forward. He is the real deal. James is on that same level. He received the ball on the edge of the penalty area turned and pinged a shot into the top corner with such precision it didn’t actually register immediately what had happened. The last time I remember a goal so sublime it came from the foot of Zidane in the 2002 Champions League Final. If you know football, you can still see that goal as you read this. I suspect James Rodriguez’s effort will be with me as long.
So who is going to cop the Suarez wrap? Well it is obvious in a sense isn’t it? Luis bites. It is reprehensible and disgraceful, yet he has been forgiven for the action twice and I am willing to bet he will again. There is something compelling about the man, far beyond his talent. Human nature is complex and our capacity to justify actions alarming. Ben Cousins was a drug cheat that never got caught. He admitted to it and we wanted to forgive him in-spite of ourselves. We saw his flaws but there was something vulnerable about him that made up for his shortcomings. Barry Hall snapped. When he did, people got hurt. He did it more than three times but he was always given the benefit of the doubt. Somewhere in all of this is the reason why Luis Suarez bit Chiellini, yet will be forgiven. Why Barry Hall king hit Brent Staker and is still a respected member of the footballing fraternity.

Is is right? No, of course not but sport is always teetering on the edge of fair and just. Sportsmanship is just a fancy way of interpreting the line over which bending the rules is simply cheating.

Perhaps my one regret in all of this comparing is that Aussie Rules doesn’t have the equivalent to the goal-keeper. They are the eccentric heart of soccer. Italian shot-stopper, Gigi Buffon was quoted as saying that being a goalkeeper is actually perverse- ‘Think about it: you’re playing a game where everyone uses their feet but you want to use your hands.’

Goalkeepers are a vital part of the team but they are stood apart. They wear a completely different kit, huge gloves and scowl the entire time, yelling, conjoling, and gesticulating. They are together while being all alone. They are generally either the philosopher of the side or just barking mad!
Brain Lake strikes me as the perfect candidate for the gloves. His former team- mate Bob Murphy also has the air of the perverse about him too. When SOS played International Rules there mustn’t have been any argument against giving him the mitts.

The World Cup is transformative. Every four years new nations make a run. Costa Rica are this tournaments feel-good tale. They came with nothing to lose and have already taken the place of Italy and England in the group of 16 and Greece in the quarters. Consider them the Port Power of this World Cup.

When the carnivale in Brazil is over I’ve made a promise to myself to embrace my beloved Saints for the remainder of the season. I hope I keep it but to be honest the comedown form this World Cup will be intense. It has been wildly entertaining and completely unpredictable. Watching the Saints being hopelessly overmatched every week is neither of these things. But I do solemnly promise to mend my philandering ways…. just as soon as I know who wins the World Cup.


  1. Gregor Lewis says

    Oh. My …
    … I was gonna say Word, but your words Tom Greenaway are the ones that count.

    What a picture they paint!


  2. Great piece Tom. Loved all your AFL ‘clones’. When your team is losing consistently you get your jollies where you can. I empathise.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic Tom loved it compelling reading well played , Sir

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