On Saturday night, I went to my first live soccer/football match. It was a World Cup qualifier match between NZ and Bahrain, two of the world’s smaller countries. If NZ won, they would go to South Africa for the World Cup. The only other time we have been was Spain 1982. I am old enough to remember that. Most of the team playing were not.
NZers were basically brought up on rugby: where men are stoic, and don’t wear padding, where players are more likely to play through an injury than fake one (a hero, Buck Shelford, famously played on during a rugby test after suffering a torn scrotum), where (when I was growing up at least – sadly no longer) it wasn’t “done” to celebrate scoring (that was considered to be crass). So soccer, with its wild celebrations and hugging, and its blatant faking of injuries, has been in many ways anathema to our culture.
But times they are a-changing. Increasingly, rugby players and crowds are more emotional. We have watched too many American movies not to know how to whoop and cheer and whistle now. Or perhaps, we have too many British (in particular) immigrants who have brought the soccer culture of obsessive fans to our shores. After all, we had been invited to the rugby by immigrant Manchester U and Chelsea fans. They warned us that the crowd would not be staid at a football match, but loud, exuberant, and above all, passionate.
Still, and I don’t know if this is normal at football matches worldwide, every time a Bahrain player fell over and tried to milk a penalty or free kick by rolling around on the ground as if they were in agony, the crowd booed, or laughed. Personally, I felt like calling out “you poor little baby!” rather disturbingly showing my cultural conditioning, and succumbing to the power of the crowd. The first player to fall over lay on the pitch rolling around in “pain” until the free kick was awarded then, from a prone position flat on his back, arched his body and leapt to his feet in one single, cat-like, gymnastic movement. Such a clear, thumbing of the nose to the crowd and, I would think, the referee. That’s what I can’t understand about football. How do the referees fall for this? Do the players have no shame? Are they happy to present themselves as nothing but cry-babies?
Another guy went through such theatrics that the stretcher came out, he was lifted on to it and carried to the side. Ten seconds later he was off the stretcher and running back onto the field. For the rest of the game, every time he touched the ball he was booed. But each time they booed, the crowd laughed as well. I am pleased to say that, by and large, the NZ players didn’t resort to such antics. Perhaps they know our attitude towards fakes. Though to be fair, late in the second half the stretcher carried off one of the NZ players, who then promptly got off the stretcher and limped to the side, seemingly recovering rapidly!
The Bahrain supporters were directly in front of us. They were resplendent in red, even the women’s headscarves, and unrelenting in their flag-waving, singing and chanting and drum-beating. They were passionate in their support of their team. I guess anyone who travels halfway across the world to support a sports team is going to be passionate, especially coming to windy Wellington on a cool spring evening. The celebrations when they won a penalty shot were extraordinary, the men hugging and kissing in delight. The celebrations a few seconds later, when the NZ goalkeeper saved the day, saw the Bahrainis slump disconsolate in their seats, as all around them Kiwis went berserk.
New Zealand had never seen anything like it. Usually decked out in black to support our national teams, last night white was the colour. (Our rugby team is known as the All Blacks, the football team as the All Whites). I even saw one guy in a white hotel towelling robe. Innovative. And for the last 20 minutes of the game, hundreds if not thousands of bare-chested men were swirling their t-shirts around their heads, the entire stadium flickering, in encouragement and, ultimately, celebration.
As the 35,000 plus crowd swarmed out of the stadium, white and red supporters smiled and greeted each other, sleepy children were slung over their fathers’ shoulders, and strangers hugged each other.