For a moment there, the world turned upside down.
All over Australia, people thumbed their nose at Saturday routines. Housework was ignored, gym classes were abandoned, shopping left undone. A few cheeky folks swapped coffee for beer. Naughtiness became a patriotic duty.
Even my three-year-old daughter joined in. Daddy made the unilateral decision to wag ballet class. Then, she actually let him watch sport on TV. She even oohed and aahed along with him; if occasionally for the wrong side.
And the Socceroos played their part. Two-nil down after 14 minutes, they were supposed to lie down and take a thrashing. Instead, they kept hope alive for an implausible seventy-five minutes. More audacious still, the charge was led by a short midfielder who delivered a masterclass in how to play like a bruising six-foot-five centre forward.
SBS helped along. The World Cup gives broadcasters the right to suspend notions of professional disinterest, and the usually measured Craig Foster played his position as Australia’s 12th man perfectly. Cahill was “Timmy” throughout, and his disallowed goal “might have been offside”. (It was).
And then Jean Beausejour restored normality. But still, it had been great entertainment.
It’s tempting to think that all of this was unexpected, but we’ve seen it before. Scottish readers may have recalled their national team’s heroic victory-in-vain over the Netherlands in World Cup 1978. Against the odds, the Scots outplayed the most technically gifted team in the world – but were eliminated from the tournament on goal difference. Their performance is remembered for Archie Gemmill’s dribbling wonder goal. The moment is so etched into national consciousness that it won pride of place in the indie film hit Trainspotting.
Irvine Welsh evoked the notion that the World Cup is as much about popular culture as it is about sport. We can’t expect Australia to win. But we can expect to be entertained. And in this, we are joining in with rituals that have been around for centuries, which have now come to focus on live television moments.
Back in the 1970s, researchers tried to get us to take television entertainment seriously. The idea was that the medium’s most mundane moments were precisely where we could find society’s central organising principles. This work gave a political edge to the idea of taking a break.
A writer named John Fiske connected the pleasure of television to older traditions in European folk cultures. In the middle and early modern periods, religious holidays gave poor people a break from lives of famine and pestilence. Ironically, these were occasions to throw off the chains of authority; gluttony and drunkenness ruled, nobles and clergy were mocked. Then, the next day, everyone returned to hunger, sobriety and servitude.
Fiske’s point was that television had assumed the role of the folk festival; a ‘carnival’ permitting us to sneer at entitled superiority. Usually, television is an apologist for existing distributions of power. But, now and again, it’s also an agitator that let’s us glimpse a world that might be.
Strangely, it was this predictable entertainment function that kept us switched on after the 14th minute. Television 1, Saturday chores, 0.