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The beautiful game without the dirty politics

 The Big Issue Australia 11 July 2019

In the professional world, football is all about fierce competition. But in Australia, the national tournament of street football tends to bring up the best in the players. Only one team gets the trophy but the overall spirit of solidarity makes them all winners. (1126 Words) - By Fiona Crawford


It has not been a good year for the world game. "Beautiful game; ugly politics" is how renowned British magazine The Economist described the soap opera-style, headline-grabbing accusations and counter-accusations that have played out in football's corridors of power. Qatar's 'winning' of the 2022 World Cup hosting rights, the scuffle at the top for the presidency of FIFA, and the thoroughly compromised Sepp Blatter's unopposed re-election and subsequent denials of fishiness have all been entirely on the nose. They even managed to overshadow a splendid UEFA Champions League final, in which Barcelona and its star, Lionel Messi, strutted their stuff.

Any Australian football fan could have told you they smelt a rat - indeed, a whole pack of them - when, despite running a good race, Australia scored just one vote in the contest to host the 2022 World Cup. More than a few of us had to pick our jaws up off the floor after the host-nation announcement last December, while many more would admit they couldn't even point out Qatar on a map.

So watching The Big Issue's 2011 Street Soccer National Championships play out on a floating pontoon on Sydney's Darling Harbour early this month offered a break from football's depressing power struggles and corruption claims. It was also refreshingly inspiring. The Big Issue magazine started out small 15 years ago and has grown to support homeless and marginalised people nationwide. The street soccer program also started small, kicking off behind a housing commission block in inner-city Melbourne late in 2004, then expanding to 25 locations around Australia. Complementing the magazine and its ethos by engaging people through sport, the program is the beautiful game without the dirty politics. Just the way we like it.

This year's national titles unfolded under a cloudless Sydney winter sky and the watchful eyes of a jury of seagulls and fans. National coach (and event commentator) George Halkias made it clear the event wasn't so much about who won, but how people played the game. Participants took this wholly to heart.

One adopted a Rocky air-fighting pose, one cracked up the crowd with his running-man goal celebration, while another offered the crowd either an 'octopus' or a kiss-and-sweeping-bow combination. The recurring sight of balls being sprayed over the high barrier nets and splashing into the water was celebrated: a ball-rescue dinghy was on hand to retrieve them.

Players flooded the pitch to help seventh-placed Western Australia in their match against the coaches and ensured that the result was a farcical-but-fun 10-1 victory. The male player of the year, Michael from Queensland, entertained the crowd when he answered, in just one word and after a formal lead-up, how it felt to be awarded the trophy: "Stoked!"

One of the female players, whose more-skilful teammates had been trying unsuccessfully to set her up for a goal, managed to score after her opponent accidentally deflected her off-target shot into the net. The ecstatic crowd roar that followed and the shrug and hug her opponent gave her made it clear that, sometimes, goals can come about with a little inadvertent help from your friends.

The whole thing about this program is that it doesn't matter what religion you are, what race you are, whether you've got a disability, whether you're homeless… For this whole weekend, you're just a football player.

Cindy from Tasmania, the 2010 female player of the year, was back. She'd won hearts last year with her joyous nature; this time, she was less nervous and able to help others settle in. Queenslander Matthew, her male counterpart from 2010, enjoyed the festival from the sidelines and explained how street soccer was more than a game to him.

"I went through a drug and rehabilitation program, and the first week I was in I saw the sign for the street soccer program," he said. "It gave me a reason to stay on for that next week and keep pushing forward. The whole thing about this program is that it doesn't matter what religion you are, what race you are, whether you've got a disability, whether you're homeless… For this whole weekend, you're just a football player. People want to know you for who you are."

It's these touchstone moments that remind me there's much more to football than power, politics and money. More, in fact, than winning or losing.

Grand finals, in all sports, are notorious for not living up to expectations. But the climax to this event had everything one could hope for. Queensland was the reigning champion and had gone through both last year's and this year's competitions undefeated. Playing against the ACT, the Queensland players seized an early, seemingly unassailable, lead.

Beset with Parkinson's-style tremors, ACT goalkeeper Phil desperately tried to block the balls that whooshed past him and came to rest in the goal net. He struggled to keep up with the pace of the game and to deflect the powerful shots peppered at him, but his teammates (and also opponents) did nothing but encourage him the whole time.

Phil managed to pull off two crucial, split-second-reaction saves to keep the ACT in the game, his hands batting away shots on goal that had looked like certainties. Witnessing his sustained and heroic efforts, my throat became tight and my heart swelled with pride. Phil was subbed off at halftime, but he had done his job.

Then something remarkable happened. The ACT team scored a succession of goals to stage a second-half comeback and draw level. With both teams desperate for a match-winning goal, the last two minutes were frenetic. A ball was catapulted into the harbour. His back to goal, a player attempted a bicycle-kick. As it didn't quite come off, commentators dubbed it a "try-cycle".

In the end, it was an old-fashioned, on-the-buzzer power shot that edged the ACT ahead. And it was Phil who was selected to hold the trophy aloft. His arms quaked at the effort, but nothing could diminish his wide smile.

This wasn't a top-level football event featuring rich players, watched by VIPs with dubious morals. In essence, it was the beautiful game at its simplest, purest and best. I'll take street soccer over FIFA football any day.

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