For a start, it was the first
match-free day since the competition started. But more importantly, it was the
day when the realisation really hit home that Australia’s unexpectedly lengthy involvement in it had ended.

Of course, a World Cup without
Australian participation is what we’ve become used to over the past 32 years.
And that hasn’t stopped us coming to love it, even if it’s only been as
dispassionate observers. But today it feels different.

This is my second World Cup. At
Japan/Korea in 2002 it was a thrill just to be a part of it all – to see the
great teams and players in action, and also to get a true understanding of the
scale and significance of the tournament. There were teams I liked and teams I
liked less, but it didn’t matter too much who won: it was all about being
there.

But this time around it’s been a
whole new ball game. With Australia’s involvement, it’s become personal. Like most Australians, I’ve
gone from being interested observer to passionate participant.

Even within the supposedly objective
media covering the event, there was little or no attempt to hide support for
the Socceroos. Many journos wore Socceroos shirts, barracked openly and loudly
and made no attempt to disguise either our joy or pain.

Having a team to be passionate about
has made the tournament bigger and richer than it had ever appeared before. The
goals against Japan, the pre-match against Brazil
and the entire night against Croatia
were among the most memorable sporting moments and events I’ve ever witnessed.

But that involvement has a downside,
which is that the fall from Monday has been steep indeed.

The World Cup since Monday night has
mattered little to me. Brazil and Ghana played off on Tuesday, followed by the mouth-watering prospect of
Spain and France. I could barely raise interest in either. I didn’t want to be
here. I just wanted to sulk and be alone and miserable and left with my
thoughts (much as I am after a big Collingwood loss).

I realised then that this is what
fans of countries around the world experience every four years. It’s just that
it was happening to us this time.

Before the game against Uruguay in
November, many Australians took offence when some of the visiting team
suggested they would win simply because they had to – because football meant more to them
than it did to us. But they were right: football (soccer) does mean more to
many of the other nations at the World Cup than it does to us. It’s part of
their culture, and it’s what they’ve grown up with. We want to be successful,
and we want to be on the world stage, but we don’t have that social and
cultural backdrop that makes it life-and-death.

But that’s where the pain of this
week might be a long-term force for the growth of the game at home. Because
that will only happen once Australians start truly caring about the World Cup,
and about football in general. If pain is any measure of caring – and I think
it is – then that process has surely started this week.

Peter Fray

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