The rubbish bin had a nice tone, a deeply satisfying sound that resonated across the small intersection while it rattled on its hinges. It had presented itself at the perfect moment. Three of Antwerp's twisting narrow streets converged onto a small raised roundabout; barely big enough to fit a park bench, the city authorities had instead left a single, round rubbish bin, of traditional height, width and colour in the middle, and left it at that. A single street light sat above it. Designed primarily to stop cars accidientally using it as a speed-hump, it served to illuminate it like a stage-prop from one of those univeristy productions where everything had to be scavenged from the performers' lounge rooms.
I arrived at it despondent, but the emotional slide had taken longer than the walk from a little Turkish Cafe to the bin.
I hadn't really followed football (soccer) until the early 1990s, and so the first time I saw Australia fall at the final hurdle of World Cup qualification was not particularly crushing. That year we played Argentina, and noone seemed to think the talented but inexperienced team would stand a chance against Maradona by himself, let alone his illustrious team-mates. We didn't, but years later an Argentinian told me how big a fright we gave them.
The next time round was completely different: star-players, star manager, and a star stadium with a big crowd. Half the country was introduced to the tragi-comedy that is Australian football that night. Football games are decided by little things, so it is always possible to lose even if you don't deserve to. But many. many little things went against Australia that night in Melbourne. If Argentina was fate, Iran was farce. Ultimately though, the result was the same.
Uruguay was different again; more professional in approach; more realistic in what was expected. But I wasn't in Australia to see it. During the first game I was in Milan. I knew what television station it was on; I knew what time it was on; but finding a cafe/pub/something was more difficult than you'd think. Friendly Italians wished me luck but couldn't help me. After an hour or so I gave up and went about town instead. I had managed to miss the only final-hurdle qualifying victory Australia has achieved since we beat Hong Kong in October 1977, but at least we'd won. Two days later, the Australian hostellers in Den Haag told me all about it, having watched it as a large and rowdy group.
For the away leg I found myself in Antwerp, where I was crashing on my Latvian friend G's floor. With assignments for university due, and my promise to help later, he left me in the Turkish cafe to the bemusement of the regular customers. They helpfully found me the game on television just as it started, so I settled in, sipped a drink, and watched. It wasn't until Kewell missed on the volley in the second half that one of them asked if it was "no good?".
"No", I responded, trying not to tear my eyes away from the little box above the bar, "no good, we need a goal".
When G returned with five minutes to go we still needed just one goal. We went close, as usual, but as time ticked out we sudenly needed more than that. G swore at the same time I did. It was over for another four years.
On the way back to G's place we came across the rubbish bin. It seemed to have been placed there specially to be kicked, as if someone knew I'd be passing, and knew I'd need an object for that very purpose. I wanted to do so the second I saw it, thirty metres away. Only decorum prevented me from running at it. As I got nearer another thought intruded. I paused, briefly, to check that no stern European authority figures were there to complain. Then, satisfied, and with two steps, I booted it as cleanly and as hard as any ball had been in the match.
"Feel better?" asked G.
"No, no I don't". But I did, at least a little.
Days Spent Away
12th November, 2005 09:22:05