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Football for the true believers

By Michael Viljoen - posted Tuesday, 17 March 2009


At the start of the footy season 40 years ago, 1969, our family immigrated to Australia.

My father, Michael senior, arrived at Melbourne’s Station Pier with a pregnant wife, two pre-school children, and little money in his pocket. He stepped off the boat Thursday, found a job Friday, and was terrace side Saturday, watching VFL football, Geelong v Carlton.

He loved the game so much that he left his young family in their new country to fend for themselves and went back to the VFA on Sunday; Williamstown v Sunshine.

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What is it about football that hooks people so immediately?

That first Friday Dad had made friends with some guys who kept calling him “mate”. Not yet used to the “Strine” dialect, he thought they were saying “Mike”. Dad was dumbfounded as to how so many people already knew his name. But these guys tried to convince him that Geelong was the right team to follow.

We had immigrated to Australia partly for political reasons. Dad was heavily involved in cricket and soccer administration in 1960s South Africa. South African society was then sadly divided by a colour barrier which was, of course, spreading its gloom over sport as much as anything else.

Standing on the wing at Kardinia Park, Dad was primed to yell encouragement for the Geelong Hoops. However, when the Carlton team ran out with a little number “5” whose skin was much darker than Dad’s, he knew he had found a team of fairness and equity. First year player, Syd Jackson, didn’t kick any goals but Jezza kicked five, and from that day our blood bled Navy Blue.

I have since returned to my native continent, Africa, working with an NGO as a linguist-translator among the 270 indigenous languages of Cameroon, which are being dragged willingly or otherwise into the modern era by opposing language heavyweights, English and French. In a land of such ethnic diversity, there is but one unifying factor - soccer!

In Cameroon soccer is King, Queen, as well as everything else except for maybe a few pawns. Barcelona’s Samuel Eto’o is already a demi-god, surpassing the divinity of an Ablett or a Jesaulenko in their playing days.

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The name Eto’o may not be familiar in Australia, yet Aussies once cheered for him passionately. At the Sydney 2000 sporting extravaganza, 98,000 people in the Cathy Freeman Olympic Stadium were itching for an underdog to adopt. And here was one wearing a splash of green and gold and losing 2-0 to Spain at half time in the gold medal match. A then boyish Samuel Eto’o scored the equaliser and then nailed a penalty in the shoot-out. Sporting minnows, Cameroon, had claimed gold, and the Aussies, realising the weight of the moment, fully knowing how hard success comes in the world game, wept tears of joy.

So how do you convince anyone over here that there is a game, from the world’s southern antipodes, that most people in the world have never heard of, that is the true measure of sporting excellence, using mere words.

But this I attempted at our 2009 linguistic conference. As an icebreaker divergence, each attendee was given three minutes microphone time to speak of their premier interest away from work. So in the presence of Cameroonians and expatriate Americans and Europeans, I gave what follows as my argument as to what is the world’s greatest game.

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About the Author

Michael Viljoen studied mathematics and philosophy before working as a high school music teacher, and then a translator in Africa. He currently works for Wycliffe Bible Translators Australia, an organisation committed to minority peoples and languages around the world in the fields of linguistics, literacy, and literature production.

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