Rain failed to dampen spirits: it’s one of the great clichés of journalism, but in the case of our under-14 girls at the Kanga Cup it was absolutely true.
A squad of 16 – and an entourage of 18 siblings, parents and grandparents – travelled to Canberra for what is billed as the largest soccer tournament in the southern hemisphere. With 378 teams competing – including a couple from South Korea and a handful from New Zealand – that may well be true, but a more accurate tagline might have been “the wettest soccer tournament in either hemisphere”. Or maybe even “the only water polo tournament played on grass” – except that it was mostly played on mud.
And to think it all started so gloriously, with a sun-drenched opening ceremony in the Floriade on Sunday afternoon.
After a seven-kilometre warm-up walk (a deliberate strategy on the part of a couple of canny parents, though some wags suggested an inability to read Google maps may have played its part), the South Melbourne Under 14 girls’ team proudly strutted their stuff on stage, deftly dodging a couple of giant dancing kangaroos. They looked magnificent in their matching blue parkas (the girls, that is, not the roos).
The real action kicked off bright and early on Monday. A heavy shroud of mist hung over the playing fields in Waniassa as they arrived at 7.45am. By kick-off at 8.30, the temperature was still a chilly 2.5 degrees, while the players were mere smudges against the green and brown of the field. It probably didn’t help that the grass was nearly long enough to hide a horse in.
They got off to a roaring start, beating a strong North Shore Mariners – a feeder club for A-League team Central Coast Mariners – 4-2. A stunning goal to Elwen from a 25-metre free kick was a highlight, but what really impressed was the girls’ resilience against a team that had it all over them in terms of height, strength and experience against tough opposition.
Backing that up with a second game on the same day was always going to be a big ask, but the girls dug in, grinding out a tough 0-0 draw against eventual champions Football Mid North Coast, a team of Amazonians who appeared to have wandered in from the land of the giants. The sight of wee Hazel battling it out with girls literally twice her size was truly inspirational.
On Tuesday, the rain fell in earnest. A different field, another 8.30am kick-off, and this time the conditions played havoc with our girls. Despite having the better of the game, a couple of lapses of concentration and a very slippery ball led to a narrow 4-3 defeat to local outfit Woden Valley.
By Wednesday, the competition was in chaos as the rain turned pitches that had been wet to start with into quagmires. Venues were being scratched, games relocated, fixture lists torn up and started again. Our girls, though, remained blissfully unaware of all this; for them, the mud was simply an opportunity to have fun.
And did they ever. They demolished their Wednesday morning opponents Majura 6-0, and played some of their best football of the tournament despite the conditions. Their version of tiki-taka sometimes turned into sticky-stacka as the ball became bogged and players slid over trying to unbog it, but the girls thought it was a hoot, and played with flair and joy. Rumour has it there was even a mass celebratory mudslide at the end of the game, but sources close to the team declined to comment on that one …
They were riding high now, with only two more group games scheduled – against the lowest-placed teams in the comp – and a berth in the semi-final on Thursday afternoon assured. And then came news that the tournament was effectively over.
Too much rain, too much mud, too many games still to play, too few pitches to play them on. The top two in our group would play in the final, we were told, though they were only top because they had not yet faced each other (we had beaten one of them and drawn with the other; in all likelihood, we would finish second if all fixtures were played).
Word arrived at dinner time, via a garbled message. In a rage, The Team Manager announced she was going to storm Kanga Cup HQ, and was taking the Assistant Team Manager with her. The Journalist and the Lawyer thought this sounded like way too much fun not to tag along.
An hour later, our girls were in a hastily arranged semi-final the next day. Sadly, they lost 5-3, to the team they had beaten 4-2 in that opening game. It was a pulsating affair, fast, furious, end-to-end stuff. Remarkably, as in the first game, the opposition team was given, and converted, a penalty. Even more remarkably, Elwen again scored from a long-range free kick. No one was more surprised than she.
Officially that was the end of the girls’ tournament. But barely had they begun to scrape the mud off their boots when another message arrived – South Melbourne had won a Fair Play Award. So off we headed to the Australian Institute of Sport for a ceremony conducted in much the same style as the tournament at large – well-intentioned but shambolic.
Trophy in hand, the pack found a pizza parlour for a late dinner, and treated the proprietor to a rousing rendition of the team song. So much did he love the chorus of “we’re gonna smash them, bash them, we’re gonna crash them” (the Kanga Cup folk clearly hadn’t heard that when they voted), he offered free dessert pizzas to the girls. Consummate professionals that they are, they asked for double serves.
That should have been it, but there was still one last game to play. Possibly the most important game of all.
On Friday, eight of the girls and nine of their entourage were back at the AIS for a guided tour. When it was over, they made their way to the synthetic turf soccer pitch, just for a look. Spontaneously, bags and coats were dropped on the halfway line as goals, and a game was on. Kids versus not-kids – the oldest of the latter group being 80-year-old Edna.
It was another pulsating affair, for those able to find a pulse. The kids barely broke a sweat but the adults were still dripping 20 minutes after the final whistle.
The score was 4-3 to the youngsters, but everyone agreed that anti-inflammatories were the real winner on the day. A rematch beckons, just as soon as the oldies get their breath back.
Congratulations, girls, on a wonderful tournament and a brilliant experience. You did yourselves, your families and your club very proud indeed.