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The last game at Victoria Park 28th August 1999

It is a Melbourne weekend, the last for the winter and, I guess, the millennium. On that weekend, there are three rites of passage designed to banish the old century, and herald the new. At 3am on Sunday, the public transport system is officially carved up into private businesses. What was free public space now becomes a contested ground of marketing and customer services.

But this isn’t the most dramatic passing. Saturday afternoon, as we knew it, has come to an end. Melbourne’s winter culture has been dominated by the action on the football ground. The suburbs fought it out as Lions, Tigers, Demons, Dogs, Swans, Kangaroos, Bombers, Blues and Hawks. Each had their own ground, decked in their own colours, peopled with familiar faces. After this weekend, there will be no more ‘home’ games in Melbourne. Two football grounds are closing in order to increase profits. In their place is a new multi-purpose stadium, in which even the weather is controlled. While the closure of Waverly in the outer suburbs attracted a protest crowd of 72,000, the demise of Victoria Park milked the greater volume of pathos.

Listen to the final match: 
  • Final Siren
  • Victor's song
  • Final Collingwood song
  • Class warfare
  • Con te partiro

For 107 years, Collingwood had played at Victoria Park. Even when this working class club was in poor form, visitors found it difficult to win here, against such a fiercely parochial crowd. Yet Collingwood supporters understood the vanity of victory. For many years, the team followed the same script. During the home and away season, they would play superbly, thrashing the opposition at home to rise to the top of the ladder. Despite this good start, Collingwood would inevitably fail when it counted, at the official finals venue, the Melbourne Cricket Ground. So predictable was this phenomenon, that a word has evolved to describe it. As regular as blossoming jasmine, Melbourne’s spring would bring on the ‘Colliwobbles’. You could rely on the ‘Magpies’ to flounder when it matters. It is the story of the underdog—the story of its working class supporters, traditionally Irish Catholic, with recent injections of rembetika Greeks.

But not in1999. For the second time in the club’s history, Collingwood is looking to win the wooden spoon. The team that would make this happen is its antithesis—Brisbane. The Queensland capital had no tradition of Australian Rules football. It was colonised by the Australia Football League for television spectacle, to be watched by sports potatoes in the southern states. Worse, when a football neighbour of Collingwood, Fitzroy, fell into receivership, it was ‘merged’ with Brisbane, which promptly stopped winning games. They were last year’s wooden spooners, but this year’s premiership hopefuls. Worse, the man who turned their fortune around was Lee Matthews, who had previously led Collingwood to its only premiership in living memory.

In front of its diehard supporters, in its last home game ever, Collingwood lose badly. It is what they call a ‘lose-lose’ situation, a ‘half-empty Monty’. During the course of the spectacle that follows, the new millennium spares nothing for the old.

Immediately after the final siren, the ground’s speakers blast out the Brisbane theme song. It is a version of the old Fitzroy theme song, which was to the tune of the Marseillaise. In the ‘original’ version, the call ‘Marchons!’ was neatly replaced by the chorus ‘Fitzroy!’. While it would have been sensible to substitute this with the name of the new club, the merger conditions meant that the title ‘Brisbane Lions!’ had to be used. The result is un-singable, which is not really the point any more: Brisbane supporters are more likely to go and make themselves a cup of coffee after their win, rather than punch the air with the crowd.

Outside the Goodbye Kind World exhibition, Collingwood President, Eddie Maguire, reflects on the second great loss of the season -- the November 6th referendum. Note the headline.

See also the article on the closing of Tiger Stadium: The closing of Tiger Stadium wasn't tragedy, nor travesty, merely sad. For habitués, the place was a reminder of fathers and grandfathers, of youth and sunlight, and of communal memories. For remote fans like me and Larry Simon, 46, of Marlton, New Jersey; Ella Van Nortwick, 74, of Paris, Tennessee; and Tyrone Parker, 25, of Brooklyn, New York, it was a marker of the passage of time. These are powerful motivators, but there would be no repeat of past infamies. Peaceably, fans lined up to pilfer momentos like beer signs, cupfuls of infield dirt, and, in one bizarre instance, the econo-sized mustard dispenser from one hot dog stand.

The response is understandably hostile. Moans of humiliation echo around the crowd and the administrators cut the song out of pity. In its place, they play a custom-made rock anthem to appease their disenfranchised supporters. The forced confidence of ‘The Black & White Army’ only deepens the wound.

Week after week, day after day,
We live and we breathe the Collingwood way.
We are at every game, day or night,
Waving the flag, our blood’s black and white.
Mother to daughter, father to son,
The choice is here, the tradition lives on.
We’re dyed in the wool, completely one-eyed,
And we say,
We are the black and white army,
We say ‘Go pies!’
… in the wind or rain, win or lose,
We’re still in the members, how about you?
They took us away from Magpie land,
‘cause no one could beat us in front of our stand,
But we don’t care, we’ll go anywhere,
And we’ll say…

In filtering tribal loyalties through customer relations, this mock anthem attempts to sell the exile from Victoria Park as yet another challenge to the underdog club—Collingwood had to leave because they were too good. If they believe this, then they’ll happily continue the fight elsewhere.

The crowd at the far end of the ground suspects a swiftie from their bosses. Behind them is a tiny stand filled with less than a hundred anonymously suited people. Whether they are sponsors or not, they are certainly a different class. One diesel-powered voice booms out to his mates: ‘See up in there, the toffs!’ And then he berates them directly, ‘One good thing—they’ll be able to pull this down’. Like an ancient rusty sword, he brandishes class rivalry, ‘Then you’ll never know what it’s like to be in a real football ground. You’ll know that all you did was take space from the real supporters.’ As he is scolding the sponsors, the club president starts addressing the crowd. Eddie McGuire is a double-breasted game show host who provides the people’s face for the Australian Republican Party.

In many ways, McGuire is what many people will vote for in November, when Australians will decide whether or not to cut ties with England and become a republic. ‘McGuire the Messiah’ comes the sarcastic cry. This is too much from the sponsors, who loosen their ties and scream back ‘Shut up’. Drowning out the president’s address, the Rabelaisian stream continues ‘I’ll never fucking shut up’.

Flanked by his sponsors, veiled Emirates stewardesses, McGuire leads the crowd in the final performance of the club theme song, ‘Good Old Collingwood Forever’. Of those four words, only ‘Collingwood’ rings true. As a further act of crowd appeasement, the club flag is lowered and given military escort out to McGuire in the centre of the ground. He promises to raise the flag on the new ground, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, in the ‘new millennium’.

Finally, to cool the crowd down, an electronic screen suspended in mid air by a crane shows a video of the club’s proudest moments. To the accompaniment of the schmaltzy ‘Con Te Partiro’ by Andrea Bocelli  (‘Time to say goodbye’) the crowd watches slow motion footage of their heroes rise in the air to take spectacular marks. Over the tenor’s soaring voice, we can hear the roar of the crowd from that time.

Despite the artifice, this for me is the most moving part of the whole event. The mud at our feet, the flushed bitter faces of the crowd, the screen glowing in mid air and the echo of distant triumphs—it circumscribes a mythic theatre I can imagine nowhere else. It isn’t like a movie, or a rock concert, or a book. It is like… football at your home ground.

I remembered my own weekly ritual, the Friday morning reading group when a few eggheads would gather together to pour over works by a few Germans. One idea that lingered with me came from Heidegger’s later writings, when he outlines something he calls the ‘fourfold’, in which mortal, immortal, earth and heaven come together to constellate a primary moment. While not wanting to be too German about it, the demise of Victoria Park provided for me the clearest instance of that fourfold.

What follows is the de rigueur ritual of any Melbourne home and away football game. The crowd races on to the grass, freshly ploughed by their hero’s boots. This time, however, it is different. Whereas usually the crowd falls into small groups for a frenetic ‘kick to kick’, this time they go straight to the sacred turf. By the time they leave the ground, most supporters have tufts of grass in their hands. Here is privatisation in its raw form: the public body is divvied up by its members in a collective sparagmos. As Australians partook in the great Telstra share grab last year, now they devour the very ground of Victoria Park.

While the new millennium had claimed their football team, the black and white army managed to retrieve their own bit of the 20th century.