I was happily doing my year of live sporting events – a bit of cricket, a Phoenix game, a dash of roller derby – when my football-loving workmate said she was organising a group outing for the All Whites versus Bahrain FIFA World Cup qualifier match.
I have a vague memory of the last time the All Whites made it to the World Cup, in 1982. I was seven years old, and I remember being aware that this New Zealand sports team was doing quite well in some sort of international sports event, sort of like the Olympics, but only with soccer.
It took me a few years before I realised that rugby union was actually the sport that New Zealand was (then) really good at, and that its football prowess was just an early ’80s one-time special.
In “Heading For the Top”, one of the two ’82 World Cup anthems, Ray Woolf sang “We’re heading for the top and aiming for the future and we won’t ever stop while we are in control.”
Evidently control slipped away and the World Cup became something that Brazilians and Argentina were really good at (and England wanted to be really good at) but not something that New Zealand could do.
But somehow, a generation later, the All Whites were doing all right and had ended up with this magical match scheduled against Bahrain.
Hang on – let me just look at up Bahrain on Wikipedia. Ok, Middle East, constitutional monarchy, small island nation (OMG! Same!!!), largely Muslim, “many tall skyscrapers”, oil.
A planeload of Bahraini supporters came to town, with the curious sight of a young fellow in Cuba Mall decked out in a chavtastic red tracksuit, phat trainers and a white keffiyeh. Yeah, life’s pretty sweet when you have oil.
I figured that if Bahrain had supporters decked top to toe in team colours, it was the least I could do to dress in a bit of white. A look inside my wardrobe revealed two white tops (one “I work in an office and I hate my life” the other “I am wearing a tuxedo but I am a lady. Is this not outrageous?”), and also a white Teletext branded skivvie, which just deserves to die.
So I went off to the Warehouse and picked up a white tee for $9, and teamed that with some white sneakers. But I didn’t wear any more white because I’m like a vampire and would probably burn up. (The top and sneakers just let me sparkle, like vampire Edward.)
With my pale threads, I headed off to the Cake Tin, where I found myself surrounded by people in white Afro wigs, white sheets, white industrial coveralls, fake sheiks in white robes, as well as those donning official garb.
I joined my group in the stands, cheered on the ’82 All Whites, and found myself getting all emotional during the singing of the national anthem. Then suddenly the game began.
I found it easier to follow than I did during the Phoenix game, but our seats were low and almost behind a goal and so it was sometimes hard to see what was going on. But the reaction of the crowd – cheering, booing – was a good indication of what had happened.
Near the end of the first half, the stadium suddenly erupted in massive, massive cheers. It was goal, an absolutely necessary goal. I yelled. I jumped up and down.
The second half was a great big bucket of tension. Oh God – a whole 45 minutes in which the All Whites had to ensure that Bahrain did not score. The tension was racked up to an almost intolerable level with a Bahrain penalty shot that goalie Mark Paston – yes! – saved.
Somehow after that, the time flew by. The last 10 minutes of the game (so marked by the White Noise supporters’ top removal ritual) were a mix of impending euphoria and more of that deliciously sickening tension.
The three minutes of overtime felt like the entire stadium was balanced on a knife edge. But then it happened. The game ended with a score of one-nil to New Zealand.
The entire stadium (except for the now sullen red corner) erupted in a mass of cheering and smiling and yelling and stranger-hugging. I found myself jumping for joy – and I can’t actually think when the last time I jumped for joy was.
I decided to walk home instead of taking the bus. The streets were filled with happy, happy, happy people celebrating their arses off. After 27 years, New Zealand was going to the World Cup.
But I realised that as far as my life of sport goes, there’s never really going to be another sporting event like this. Pretty much everything else will pale in comparison – not even New Zealand in the 2011 Rugby World Cup grand final could even come close.
Well, the All Whites World Cup qualifier of ’09 may have ruined all other live sport for me, but it was worth it.