Australia versus Canada, Chengdu Stadium, September 20, 2007.

The Women’s Soccer World Cup, now in its final throes, is taking place in various cities throughout China. Fortunately enough for me, the Australia Matildas happened to be playing against Canada right here in Chengdu. The game, originally scheduled for Wednesday, September 19th, was pushed back a day because of weather.

Coming straight from a school at which we teach, two friends and I arrived at the new, curvaceous stadium, located in the center of the city, just before half time. As one of them had joked earlier, foreshadowing events, being the only ethnic Chinese of our group, I was the only one stopped by security and forced to turn in my bag. It turns out that being foreign, but in particular, Caucasian, can get you far in a number of situations in China.

At half time, we joined the crowd in their shuffle through the concession stands, to see what sort of fare Chinese stadiums serve up in place of meat pies or french fries. Our curiosity was answered, in uninspiring fashion, by popcorn and ice cream, the former of which is both sweet and salty, like a lot of Sichuanese condiments. I had been hoping for something a little more local, such as the scrumptious meat and vegetable skewers street vendors peddle outside the stadium, and indeed, all over town.

Not long into the second half, Australia tied the score at 1-1 with a goal that sent the crowd into uproarious approval. I screamed too, but, in the midst of another week of teaching, my voice was already shot through and I remained hoarse for much of the game’s remainder. It was wonderful to see so many Chengduers out at the game to watch two countries which might seem ordinarily quite far removed from their lives. Though I noticed one maple leaf flag in the crowd, I am delighted to report that I saw far more green and gold, in terms of locals clad in clearly Australian supporter uniforms, Australian flags hanging from stands and, of course, a small but noticeable number of my faithful countrymen, a good number of which I suspect also ply the teaching trade.

During much of the second half, the Wave–a generally benevolent (and universal, it would appear) excuse to do something nonsensical because everyone else is–was put into good, if tiring effect by the gregarious crowd, at one point doing five consecutive rounds of the stadium. They also tended to favor a particular chant over others, which sounded vaguely like “Hao Chao!” or “Good ball!” I discussed with my friends, two recent American college graduates, the intensity of soccer stadiums in countries in which the sport plays a far more emotional role in people’s lives. It was refreshing to see how family-friendly and relaxed the audience was here. I’m yet to hear of sports-related violence in China to date, and hope it stays that way.

The sun was setting directly over the stadium, and it would have made for a gorgeous shot–players and field, crowd, stadium and sky–beamed into Facebook profiles and Flickr albums for all to envy after the game. I hope somebody got it. Alas, none of us had brought our cameras.

I cannot attest to being a huge Australian women’s soccer fan prior to the game, but I have nothing but the highest of respect for our players after watching them on Thursday. They were tenacious all game, dominating much of the possession, even if they failed to convert on a lot of good opportunities. Most noticeably, there is a refreshing lack of the sort of “Ahh my ankle!” amateur acting that afflicts men’s soccer. As my friend put it: “We women have enough trouble as it is gaining recognition as athletes. The last thing we need is another excuse for men to tell us we’re too weak to play.”

We soon struck up a mutual appreciation for the Aussie goalkeeper, Melissa Barbieri, based more on her stunning looks than her play, which nevertheless was excellent. After the game, we met an Australian from Adelaide named Chris whose sister plays for the team, and who is traveling with them for the duration of the tournament. He passed on our love to Melissa, whilst gently breaking the news to me that she is engaged.

As sterling as their performance had been, it seemed that we would pay for our inability to convert after Canada scored to retake the lead, with less than 10 minutes of regular time remaining. My heart sunk a little, though I had to give it to the Canadians, whose courageous goalkeeper’s face had recently been on the receiving end of an errant Australian boot. She later came off the field. Down, and with World Cup hopes on the line, the Matildas plugged on though, and sure enough, in injury time, we scored a blinder of an equalizer on a beautiful set-up within the box, which was calmly slotted past the keeper. I screamed as loud as one can without access to a functioning voice box, alongside the 30,000 others. Looking around me, I was surrounded still somewhat foreignly, by similar-looking Chinese faces, and dressed in my work clothes, I had not even a little Australian flag toothpick to distinguish the fact that I too, am from the same country as those beautiful athletic girls in green and gold on the field. Subsequently, our ecstasy felt much more like a group emotion, than say, my “truer” one being shared with these other “non-authentic” ones. Rather, we were all the same: a bunch of yellow folks cheering for girls with yellow hair (amongst other colors) and yellow shirts.

In that moment, when the Matildas had finally scored in those absolutely last, do-or-die, win-or-go-home ticking seconds, everyone in that stadium was Australian. When the referee’s whistle blew, the Canadians sunk to their knees in agony, and the Australians hugged and celebrated before our congratulatory cheers, pumping their fists and kissing their jerseys for us.

After the game, I met some of the other Aussies. They were easily distinguishable by the fact that a small crowd of Chinese were milling around to take pictures with the flamboyantly dressed laowai, with their giant kangaroos and face paint. Such sporting events involving an (any) Australian national team in London are practically a national day celebration for the significant Antipodean expat community there, but here, it was a much quieter, intimate affair. Some of us went to Mutts Nutts, a local pizza joint nearby, to recap and wait for some of the team to come out and celebrate. Alas, it turned out they had an early flight to Tianjin for the next game the following morning, and I don’t believe they made it out.

But still, to be reveling in their presence, here in Chengdu, a city unknown to practically anyone outside of China, as a Chinese-Australian who’s only recently come to live in the homeland of his ancestors, it felt warmly satisfying at a quite personal level. In the stadium, I tried to imagine such a thing occurring a mere twenty years ago, when modernization was only just beginning to filter into the southwest, and when to many, China must have felt like a giant closed door. On the field and in the stands, we were athlete and spectator, the talented and skilled before the appreciative and spirited. We just were, and politics, for that 90 minutes (plus three minutes stoppage time), was left to fade into the background for the time being. In a world still so prone to division and turmoil, that return to the essence of what it means to be human remains for me sport’s most marvelous attribute. It goes to explain why, whilst on the road, it always figures as one of my favorite activities to participate in or spectate, particularly if there’s a little green and gold reminder of home involved.

Addendum: I found out that Australia bowed out of the World Cup with a hardfought loss to Brazil. Certainly not a bad way to go out, and congratulations on an excellent showing at the World Cup, girls!

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