532 Words on: The perfect game

It’s midday at Whangaroa College in the Far North town of Kaeo. The sun is high in the sky on this partly cloudy winter Saturday – perfect conditions for football photography. The home side, Kaeo Inter, is taking on my favourite New Zealand football club, Ngaruawahia United, in the preliminary round of the 2020 Chatham Cup.

The crowd consists of about 30 ardent spectators and 50 odd bemused bovines mulling around the adjacent paddock making their Waikato guests feel well and truly at home amongst the magnificent rural backdrop of hills and hay bales.

Nonetheless it’s a slightly disappointing turnout considering the curiosity value of the two respective tacticians, old foes from another world meeting once again in the most unlikely of settings.

All Stefano Virgili’s Christmases came at once when the actual Football Club Internazionale Milano chairman Steven Zhang rang him in the middle of the night last August. He wanted rid of coach Luciano Spalletti but the club were unwilling to pay him out. After refusing to resign they sent him to their sister club in New Zealand, thinking it would force him to quit, but instead he seems to have relished the challenge free from hounding Italian press questions about why he hates Francesco Totti and therefore the universe itself.

And for the visitors, the Wellington Phoenix’s loss has been the Green Machine’s gain. Following the departure of Mark Rudan to take over the reigns of Western Melbourne, the Nix appointed Zdeněk Zeman who promptly walked when he found out that smoking is prohibited inside the Cake Tin. Ngara pounced immediately, assuring the Czech football genius that he could light up at Centennial Park whenever he wants and feel free to play his famed 0-2-9 formation to his heart’s content. It was a match made in heaven.

As the teams walked out to the strains of Inno Nazionale blaring out from the open doors of a rusty 1991 Subaru Legacy, a small group of ultras let off blue and black smokey flares at the Southern end of the pitch. I gratefully munched on my cheese and pineapple toasted sandwich, graciously added to the menu especially for the occasion by the Kaeo Bowling Club kitchen. An espresso, enhanced with a few drops of grappa, steamed comfortingly in my other hand.

Right from the kick-off, Ngaruawahia sweeper keeper Mauro Goicoechea was sprinting towards the home side’s final third along with his ten other team-mates as Kaeo Inter’s Nono Junang looped the ball straight into the opposition net. Zeman, who once famously appealed a 3-0 default win because he prefers winning 3-2, was undeterred although grudgingly acknowledged that he should probably go ultra-defensive from here on in and play with a goalkeeper and at least one defender so as to keep the score down.

It didn’t stop the kiwi Nerazzurri though, as they ran rampant – eventually winning 12-0.

Sure, a 500km round trip to watch my favourite New Zealand team lose to one named in honour of my least favourite Italian club isn’t a lot of people’s idea of a perfect day out, but for me it was the best part. Like all football fans I’m never truly happy unless I’m completely miserable.