How Federation Square and the Socceroos proved a point
What began as the country's solitary Socceroos live site captured the imagination of Australian fans throughout the nation. I travelled from South Australia to Federation Square to experience the Round of 16 fixture against Argentina. Seeing the rapturous scenes unfold around Australia clarified that it is a nation that loves football and that it's time for its leaders to wake up to that fact.
Between Flinders Street Station and the MCG, Federation Square is pictured, engulfed in smoke, as excited fans watch the Socceroos take on Lionel Messi's Argentina. (Socceroos Facebook)
Stereotypes may not always be correct, but they often exist for a reason. South Australians being stereotyped as parochial is one of the more well-founded accusations. It's a characteristic shared by yours truly, a proud South Australian since moving to Adelaide from Greece in 2010.
South Australians pride themselves on punching above their weight compared to the Eastern seaboard. We were thus elated to discover that four born and/or bred South Australians, along with an adopted one, were announced in Graham Arnold's squad.
SA was proud of Adelaide United captain Craig Goodwin getting the nod and of Awer Mabil and Riley McGree, who both rose through the ranks at the Reds. The state was proud to see Mathew Leckie (born in Victoria but received his maiden professional contract in Adelaide). We were even proud that Thomas Deng played his junior football in South Australia.
There's pride for the state, a deep-rooted football history, and high participation rates. All of these factors made it even more painful to see the South Australian Government not being proactive in setting up a live site for fans to watch the Socceroos.
When Goodwin scored against France and assisted the winner against Tunisia, South Australians were confined in pubs and homes. Days later, when McGree played a significant role in Leckie's sealer against Denmark, that was also the case. Fans, not just in South Australia but around the country, felt betrayed by the governments that were elected to represent them. All states except one.
While most states saw their people celebrate the Socceroos' success in their small-to-medium circles, fans in Victoria gained memories for life and international recognition. After being told that Federation Square would not be broadcasting games, Victorians did not take no for an answer. An overwhelming demand campaign, spearheaded by the satirical page A-League Memes, saw people-power win.
What happened next helped change the public perception of Australian football at home and abroad.
Throughout the three group games, the largely dismissed Socceroos grew in confidence, and the crowds at Federation Square built in numbers. Scenes of Australia's goals against Tunisia and Demark received international recognition.
Once the Socceroos qualified for the last 16 for the first time in 16 years, it was easy for me to book my flight to Melbourne. I had to experience the occasion at what had become Australia's home of football during this World Cup. Shortly after I booked my flights, South Australia and all other states finally embraced the hype and announced their live sites.
Despite that, I had no regrets about my decision. The once quirky, inconsequential meeting spot between Flinders Street Station and the MCG had become Australian football's heartland and a must-do experience. People of all different ages, backgrounds, and situations congregated to stand in front of a screen at absurd hours of the night for one reason, football.
Due to the lack of sleep and pure excitement of the clash with Argentina, I found myself at Federation Square just after 3am on gameday, just shy of three hours away from kick-off. When I saw fans already wearing the Green and Gold there, I knew I had made the right choice.
Over the next couple of hours, the crowd built to a crescendo. An hour out from kick-off, the gates were closed, and excited fans began being redirected to AAMI Park, which, with a higher capacity, was building its healthy crowd. The gate closure did not stop some from entering, though. They were initially locked out but found creative ways into Federation Square, like climbing in from trees, thus raising the capacity way beyond its limits.
The excitement was palpable, with the flares being set off over an hour before the match commenced until the final whistle. Regardless of the grand spectacle, many must be wiser about using such resources to create an atmosphere. You cannot destructively launch them at innocent bystanders or at the screen thousands are trying to watch.
Back to the football, fans were elated to see a side made up of locals that have played in the A-League Men match-up against the might of Lionel Messi's Argentina. But they got a harsh reminder of the quality of the eight-time Ballon d'Or winner. A lapse of concentration allowed La Albiceleste's number 10 to do what he does best and open the scoring. Excitement turned into frustration in the second half when Julián Álvarez punished Mat Ryan's ill-advised dribble in the box, but that did not last long.
In the Northern Hemisphere, second-half substitute Goodwin had a hopeful shot take a significant deflection to bring Australia back into the game. It sent Federation Square into raptures down South. For 15 minutes, the Socceroos took the game to an Argentina stacked with quality and nearly recorded an equaliser at the death.
Despite falling short, a country with live sites filled with thousands of fans rose collectively. It applauded the herculean efforts of their side on the biggest stage in sport.
The Socceroos entered Qatar 2022 without a World Cup win since South Africa 2010 and with no goals from open play since Brazil 2014. Most fans would have seen their low expectations met with a solitary open-play goal and a couple of solid efforts in honourable defeats.
This expectation was met early and thoroughly surpassed, with Australian football receiving its most significant yet unexpected boost in years. The Socceroos won two World Cup games for the first time in the same tournament and progressed beyond the group stage for the second time ever. Fans have spoken about football being the most popular sport in the country. But the movement that began in Federation Square and quickly spread across the country finally put the issue on display in the most public manner.
Despite a disappointing end to a fun tournament, Australians showed up in their colours, and in full voice, at live sites across the country in the early hours of Sunday morning. Imagine the excitement fans would have created if the rest of the states followed Victoria's example and set up live sites from the beginning.
When you look at this Socceroos side, you see refugees and the children of second and third-generation migrants. That diversity is even more extreme when you look at the individuals making up the crowds at the live sites around the country. The Socceroos' “many journeys, one jersey” motto rings as true as ever. It is proof that there is no greater unifier of Australia in sports than its national football teams. The Matildas will aim to make that fact even more transparent in just over six months, hosting the Women's World Cup.
After a campaign that began with a whimper and ended with a roar, capturing the imagination of even the most pessimistic football fan, it became as clear as ever that Australia is a football nation. Football fans could have told you that a long time ago. Most of the country, and its leaders, are beginning to wake up to that fact. Australian football must surely start receiving the investment its bureaucracy has failed to provide its starving clubs and participants for years.
The world game is severely underfunded around the country. When you compare the funding to its total number of participants, it is striking that they need to get the value their collective action has demanded. Leaders around the country only bothered to set up hotly demanded live sites for their nation's representative on the biggest stage when they reached the knockouts. That is a microcosm of the issue football is facing and a sign of them being out of touch at best, proof of willing misrepresentation at worst.
The people elect Australia's leaders to represent them. Football is the most played grassroots sport in Australia. It has the unique ability to get thousands of people out of bed in the early hours of the morning. The unwavering support from the nation during the Socceroos' run is evidence that the lack of investment is purely targeted negligence.
A democracy is a form of government meant to reflect the collective voice of the people. Over the last fortnight, Australia's people have used much more than their voice to make a point.
The ball is in the government's court and is a round one, recognised worldwide and loved in Australia. Football does not need pandering and "support" when the bandwagon is filling up; the government must fulfil its duties and accurately represent its constituents. They need to show the same passion they have shown for their game and awaken the sleeping giant of Australian football.
Click here to read about the most common misconception about the Socceroos heroic class of 2022.