The muscle-bound sports master with the short-back-and-sides haircut and sergeant-major booming voice lumbered across the playground straight towards the group of eleven-year old kids who were having their regular daily lunch-time soccer ball juggling session.
“Have we got a soccer team?”, he bellowed in the general direction of the kids.
The group of half a dozen boys immediately stopped their ball tricks and stood to attention as the teacher zeroed in on one of the kids in the group.
“Well, Angelos… have we got a soccer team or not?”
Angelos looked at his mates. They looked back at him. Angelos was one of the few students at the school who the huge PE teacher addressed by his first name. He knew that the first-name familiarity had less to do with his popularity with teachers than it had to do with the fact that few of the predominantly Anglo teachers at Prahran High School were brave enough to attempt to pronounce his gloriously long Greek family name.
“Well, Angelos?” he asked again.
Not having much idea of what the teacher was on about but knowing that he and his mates, mostly of Greek and Italian stock, were pretty damned good at the mostly European and South American based game of soccer he semi-confidently proclaimed in the affirmative.
Looks like we’ve got a team!
“Good”, said the teacher. “I better get an application in, then. You and your mates get a list of players together and bring it to me.”
The head sports teacher, turned and lumbered off to his office to make out an application for the Prahran High School to enter a Junior soccer team in the Victorian High Schools State Championship competition.
The inner-city Melbourne suburb of Prahran, in the seventies, was dominated by immigrant families from predominantly Greek but also Italian, English, New Zealander and Chinese backgrounds. Closeness to the city, affordable housing and diverse ethnic communities (that looked after their own) had attracted many immigrants to Prahran in the sixties. Now their hard work and their commitment to building better lives for their families was starting to pay off. Prahran was becoming a hub of cultural integration. While traditional “Aussie-Anglo” lifestyle may still have been dominant, Prahran was one part of Melbourne where Greek and other ethnic communities where beginning to demonstrate that being Australian didn’t always mean fish and chips, roast dinners, pies and peas, lots of beer and watching the footy on the week-end.
Prahran was changing, but it wasn’t a sudden transition. Inner-city Melbourne loved its sport and Prahran was no different! Prahran had a long history of providing strong teams to the Victorian Football Association (Australian Rules Football) competitions. Prahran cricket teams were never to be sneezed at either. In the sports-mad state of Victoria, in the sports-mad city of Melbourne, in the inner-city sports-made suburb of Prahran, the high school just had to have strong Australian football and cricket teams. If you were a star Aussie-rules player or cricketer at Prahran High, you were somebody! The best athletes all aspired to be in the “footy” team… or failing that, the cricket team.
Young Angelos and his mates must have been in shock. As far as they knew, the school and its teachers had never paid any attention to soccer players before and they were chuffed that they were being given the opportunity to represent their school at the sport that they loved. How little the school really cared about their sport soon became apparent, though. There was not a single teacher in the school with the knowledge or interest in soccer to take on coaching the junior boys team. One of the music teachers was roped into the task and when the kids turned up for their first appointed training session he simply advised the boys to get on with the job of training while he marked assignments.
So, the music teacher will be your coach… okay?
The school’s lack of enthusiasm for their team was made even more obvious when the sports master dropped a box of “no-longer-needed”, second-hand Australian Rules football uniforms, at the feet of Angelo and asked him to distribute them to his team. Angelo peered at the awful uniforms, then peered at the teacher. No discussion about sizes. No discussion about appropriate numbers. The boys’ soccer team were going to represent their school in worn out, short sleeved, woollen Australian Rules football singlets and ultra-tight Australian Rules football shorts. Disgust. Humiliation. Horror. Embarrassment. Anger. These are just a few of the emotions that were obvious on the young boy’s face as the sports master turned and nonchalantly strolled back to his office.
Young Angelos was a good boy. I good Greek boy. Teenagers, as a rule, are desperate to fit in. Angelo was not quite a teenager yet but his circumstances made him especially keen to fit in. His older sister discovered when the family arrived in Australia that Australian girls didn’t have to follow the same rules as Greek daughters did back in their home town of Athens. Angelo’s sister, therefor, became the rebellious one! Seeing how difficult his Mum and Dad found their daughter’s determination to assert her freedom, Angelos just wanted to be a peace-maker. His efforts to be a great kid at home flowed through into his school life. Angelo was a studious, attentive, honourable and diligent student. Teachers liked him. The other kids liked him, too. His decency enabled him to fit in. He was a well-respected eleven-year old boy.
While his mates and teachers thoughts that he “fitted in” just fine, that kind of ordinary respect was not enough for Angelos. The cricketers had special respect. The footy players had special respect. He was the kid who ate funny food, spoke a funny language, had a family name that only the other Greek kids could pronounce and played a sport only played by “sissies and foreigners”. Angelos not only wanted to be respected for his discipline and decency, he wanted to show that Greek kids and other migrant kids could do special things, too. That would be real respect. That would be really “fitting in.”
Angelos loved everything about the game
Angelos was not only unusual in that he came from a non-traditional cultural background. He was unusual in that he more than just loved playing sport… he loved thinking about it, reading about it and talking about it as well. Angelo was keen on all kinds of sports. One day he even won his Aussie-Rules team’s most improved player award! Above everything else, though, Angelos loved soccer. Other than his family, soccer was the biggest thing in this little bloke’s life. He read books and magazines on the subject. He studied the strategies of famous players and coaches. He watched every game he could either in-person, on film or on television. He discussed the game with his Dad endlessly. He even used to corner his Dad’s mates to ask them questions about soccer and bounce around ideas about teams, strategies, players and rules with them. Many boys at Prahran High School loved playing soccer but Angelo was nuts about it. Now that Prahran High had its own soccer team Angelos realized that this was his opportunity to make sure that he and the other migrant kids could be “something” too!
While Angelos was respected by his mates as a good bloke and a good soccer player, he wasn’t one of the playground charismatic leaders. He was just an ordinary kid. An ordinary kid who had an extraordinary love for soccer and an extraordinary desire to show that immigrant kids could be special too. In his mind, if the school were going to give him and his mates the opportunity to do something special with their new school soccer team he was going to do his best to make sure that they were successful. When the (music teacher) soccer coach told the boys to get on with their practice Angelos realized he had to be the one to make sure that it would happen. A bunch of eleven-year old kids had a brand new self-appointed coach.
Angelos ran practices strictly. He was a tough task-master. He ran the team through warm-ups, practice-drills and stretch sessions. He selected the team. He placed players into positions that he felt would suit them. He explained the duties of each position to each player in “his” team and supervised them while they practiced the skills that they needed to be familiar with. The other boys must have thought that it was kind of strange that they were being ordered around by their playground mate, but they wanted to play for the team and they realized that Angelo was the school soccer guru. It makes sense to listen to someone who not only had the knowledge but really cared about the game and cared about their team. In this regard, Angelos was the perfect coach.
A tough coach. Even at eleven.
Angelos might have been just another ordinary kid in the playground but on the soccer pitch he was tough, skilful and determined. His approach to playing the game flowed through into his coaching. Even more significantly, he knew that the Prahran boy’s junior soccer team had a point to prove and a story to create and even at eleven he knew that it was his life’s ambition to shepherd people as they create the stories that make up their lives.
Later in his life, Angelos admitted that maybe he and the boys were “just knocking a ball around” and not really training effectively but, at the time, they were trying hard to be as professional as they could! Professional or not, the discipline that they showed demonstrated the level of commitment they had to the task that they had taken on. Win or no win, they had a point to make about the kind of kids who played soccer for Prahran High School. They were determined to prove that they were something.
Time came for the first game in the competition. Angelos knew that his team were ready. Most of them were good soccer players. They had practiced hard. They knew their roles. They knew how the team intended to play. Above all, Angelo knew that they had developed a disciplined approach through their preparation that few school soccer teams would be able to match. Angelo knew that his team were showing a maturity beyond their years. Perhaps, more than anything else… Angelos’ team wanted to win!
When the time came for the first game, the boys were jumping out of their skins ready to play. In the huddle before running onto the pitch, Angelos pointed out to his mates that the opposition, finely dressed in new soccer outfits (the opposition high school came from a much more well to do part of the city), were sniggering at their tatty Australian Rules uniforms. The boys had initially been embarrassed and ashamed of the fact that they didn’t even have proper soccer gear but the smirking faces that they thought they saw on the faces of their opponents transformed those silly uniforms into a badge of honour. Angelos and the boys made a vow to themselves before they even ran onto the field… i.e. “those buggers may be laughing at us now… but let’s wait to see who is laughing after the game!” was their thinking.
A winning soccer team with an eleven year old coach? You’d think someone would get excited.
The boys from Prahran High School won that first game easily. In fact, they didn’t lose any of their games leading to the finals. The soccer team with the silly old woollen jumpers, tight shorts and eleven-year old coach met some tough opposition along the way but they not only had skill and talent but they had a determination to show that they were something.
One would have thought that, as their undefeated season progressed, the school would have gotten behind the boys. While some teachers and students got a little excited at the team’s success, in truth, most of the rest of the school didn’t really notice that their junior soccer team were marching towards the grand final of the State Championship. While the soccer team were working hard to prove that they were the best in the whole state the rest of the school were more interested in whether their footy team would win the next game. The school just didn’t get it!
Prahran High won their way through to the grand final which, by happy coincidence, was to be played at the South Melbourne Soccer Club’s home ground (many of the Prahran boys played club soccer for South Melbourne). They were to meet a traditionally strong soccer school that was packed with rep players from another of Melbourne’s predominantly migrant districts. Angelo knew that the final was going to be a tough affair. The Prahran boys may have hoped that the school would have put together a supporter group to go along to the game to cheer them on. No such gesture was offered. A cheer squad to give them a loud send-off as they boarded the bus that had been hired to get them to the ground might have been a cool gesture too, but that didn’t happen either. The boys simply donned their tatty singlets, clambered about the bus with their music teacher and headed off to what they hoped would be a glorious match.
The opposition? More tough migrant kids.
The opposition were as tough as Angelos knew they would be. It was the toughest game of the season as any grand final should be. Prahran High School won the match 2 – 0. Angelos scored one of the goals. He and his team mates were ecstatic. Thrilled to bits! The team with no uniform and a child coach had gone through the season undefeated to win the State Championship.
Did the whole school take notice? A bit. Not that much. They weren’t the school footy team, after all. But some did. Some realized that this bunch of young boys, with little to no support, galvanized themselves into a top-flight soccer team that was number one in the state. More than anything else, the boys knew it themselves! They proved to themselves and to anyone else with the sense to notice that the sons of immigrants could be just as special as the dinkum-Aussie sports stars in the school.
Eleven-year old coach Angelos grew up to be Ange Postecoglu, coach of Australia’s Socceroos. Few international coaches garner as much respect and admiration as Postecoglou. Ange still tells every young footballer (soccer player) who comes under his care that winning isn’t everything. “Oh, yes!” he says. “Winning is great! Winning is hugely important. But it’s not everything. Behind every winning team or winning individual effort is a much bigger story than the one that is about the glory of the win.” Ange knows that the Prahran junior boys’ soccer team were not just about winning a championship. They were about winning respect and showing that their contributions to school life mattered just as much as anybody else’s did. He tells the Socceroos much the same thing. There is a much more important story behind their performances that goes way beyond whether they win or lose. They play to win, for sure… but they also play so that the stories of their lives will come true!