Former Socceroo Gary Cole is standing in the middle of Melbourne’s Telstra Dome on Friday night watching the stands fill quickly. It’s still 40 minutes before kick-off in the game between Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC and it’s clear that the full house sign will be up tonight.
Cole is part of Victory’s coaching staff and one of the architects of its brilliant season. For a moment, though, his thoughts aren’t about the game about to be played but about the hundreds of games that have gone before. Back when the game was Australian sport’s bastard child.
“How would you like to have played in a game like this one?” I ask him. The big man flashes his easy smile but behind it there’s a tinge of regret, of what might have been.
“I don’t have enough arms and legs to give to show how much I’d love to be part of this,” he said.
Gary Cole understood what we all did that night. Football had arrived.
The World Cup was Australia’s invitation to the game. The A-League asked us to move in with it. If the 50,333 people who turned up for the scoreless draw on Friday night represent anything it was the consummation of that relationship.
Beneath, in the bowels of Telstra Dome, bunkered down in AFL HQ, they might have had a look upstairs and seen the future they’ve long feared. The World Game winning a place in Australian hearts. The next generation of gifted sportspeople sitting in the stands dreaming of playing for Victory or the Socceroos rather than Collingwood or the Blues. The sound of the giant waking up and making itself at home in the lounge room.
The two codes coexist in the hearts of most fans and will have to get used to being part of a blended family. And while a record turnout for a domestic football game in this country is a triumph, challenges remain.
Victory’s proposed new stadium will only hold half as many as that who attended on Friday night. A disenfranchised supporter base will be a disaster.
And the Perth Glory experience looms as a cautionary tale. It once filled Subiaco with ease. It was a ripe fruit on the withered vine of the old NSL because the rest of the competition was a mess.
These mistakes can’t be made again. The game owes true believers like Gary Cole at least that much.
Francis Leach is the match day MC at Melbourne Victory home games.