After Melbourne’s initial COVID-19 restrictions were eased in May, the brilliant volunteers at my 13-year-old’s local footy club smeared themselves with sanitiser, marked the field to separate the authorised groups of 20 and got training started.
There was uncertainty about whether any games would be played, but the coaches rightly suspected kids who had been locked away were bursting to have a kick with their friends.
Then, just five days before the season was to commence, Lockdown 2.0 was announced and the footballs and cones went back into storage.
There were a few tears when parents told their children the games were off. Some of the kids probably cried too.
Since then, lingering hopes the season would start have been diminished by daily COVID-19 case figures that resembled first-innings cricket totals compiled on lifeless decks against a perspiration-free ball.
Enter Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews on Sunday with his now customary “not angry, just disappointed” expression to tell us that we were going from Lockdown 2.0 to Shutdown 1.
Essentially, Victoria had collapsed and would be forced to follow on.
So here we are now. Teased and tantalised by seasons that didn’t quite happen; deprived of our weekend rituals featuring the opportunity to attend Super Netball, AFL, NRL, A-League and Super Rugby AU games that have been packed up and sent interstate.
There has always been a trace of the competitive little brother in Melbourne’s claim to be Australia’s sporting capital, as it displays a tone of condescending superiority over supposedly less passionate Sydney in particular.
Thus there will be some schadenfreude in other cities as Melbourne is transformed from sporting paradise to athletic leper colony and its assets are stripped. Melbourne Cup at Royal Randwick anyone? AFL grand final at the Gabba?
But the self-proclaimed sporting capital title has been hard-earned. Melbourne’s quasi-religious sporting zeal has allowed politicians to invest in first-class infrastructure and, in turn, the accumulation or retention of major events knowing grandstands would be packed to the rafters.
Sport is, and has long been, part of Melbourne’s identity, the drum that beats out the city’s rhythm. Holidays are taken “during the tennis” rather than January, or “when we’ve got the bye” rather than June or July.
Now the MCG is empty and no-one knows quite when the gates will swing open again. AFL finals are highly unlikely and the WBBL, BBL and even the Boxing Day Test are only pencilled in.
Across the footbridge, AAMI Park is for now the place where the Storm, Rebels, Victory and City used to play and the ever-expanding Melbourne Park won’t see any Super Netball or an early-round NBL game, while even the Australian Open is no certainty.
Following the rule that there is an episode of The Simpsons to describe every situation, Melbourne is the one where Bart breaks his leg and is forced to spend the summer in his bedroom watching others romp outside through a telescope.
Disconnection to sport grows
As other cities cherry pick events from our loaded sporting calendar, crowds reappear in their venues and their participants start to play games in local parks, our resentment, bitterness and even paranoia is growing.
Instead of attending games, we are stuck on our couches and subjected to the moronic shrieks and blokey-bloke prattle of those AFL commentators whose vaudeville acts make you pine for the smooth tones, intelligent foresight and dry wit of the game’s greatest voice, Dennis Cometti.
Narrow defeats and alleged umpiring atrocities sting even more in our home echo chambers without the cathartic venting of spleens in the crowd and the consoling post-mortem drinks with friends at a local pub.
We still see sport, but as our disconnection continues it is becoming increasingly difficult to feel it.
Meanwhile as community sport starts elsewhere, Melbourne’s flickering hopes of a relatively swift return were snuffed out at the weekend when Andrews transformed Victoria from the Garden State to the State of Disaster.
Cricket club committee meetings previously occupied by potential clashes with late-finishing football seasons will “pivot” to contingency planning. How many Kookaburras do you order for a season you might not play?
During the initial lockdown the community spirit created by watching and playing local sport was replaced to some degree by the warmth of the response to the crisis. We were all losing something, but we were “all in it together”.
But as that sense of unity gave way to inevitable bickering and finger pointing over the causes of Victoria’s failure to contain the spread, and the isolation is intensified by harsher measures including a curfew, the longing for things lost is greater.
A few weeks ago I saw some of the players from our local footy team having a vigorous kick-to-kick at the very time on a Saturday afternoon they would normally have been playing a game.
I asked one of the group if he was missing it.
“It’s killing me,” he replied.
So too those of us who would have been watching from the sidelines, munching on one of the club canteen’s famous hamburgers while chatting to friends and neighbours about not very much.
The sports capital with no sport feels like Venice without gondolas, Paris without romance, New York without taxis.
It is not just the games that we are missing. It is a significant part of our daily life and our identity.