Something particularly good happened for the Central’s over 35s in September 2013. Something that was often imagined but till now had never materialized. No, the team didn’t win the league but they did finally embark on an often talked about end-of-season tour.
It didn’t start so well. Two players dropped out at the last minute. One was our goalkeeper who would be a key player if we were to be competitive against the Wellington Greeks. Our flight was delayed so there was time to gather in the airport bar and ponder our situation. It was Friday afternoon and everyone enjoyed a conciliatory beer. Being the No. 1 and inform goalkeeper of Kiwitea Street doesn’t last forever, so there must be a number of ex- great players available to do the job. Optimistically, the names of various goal keeper greats, past and not so past were called-out as suggestions. Those whose numbers could be found on anyone’s phone were given a try. But finding a goalkeeper for an over 35s football team, at the last minute, is not like ordering a pizza. We boarded for Wellington with the bare eleven and keeperless.
On arrival in Wellington further phone calls were made to try and sort the keeper situation but the leads died and the job was looking more and more likely to fall on Mitch who, everyone agreed, was the best proposition for putting on the gloves.
The evening in Wellington brought extreme heavy rain that flooded the streets and an extra-ordinary show of lightning that suggested this wasn’t going to be an average weekend.
We ate at ‘the Green Parrot’ from a menu that was little changed from when Ante Marinovich opened the restaurant in 1932. Grandfather of two of our players and Great-Uncle of our top scoring striker and player of the year, it felt like a good omen. The current owners were a Greek family and the hospitality hinted a little of Gee Gee’s and a little of things to come.
Saturday morning was marked by watching the Americas Cup race in a sports bar in central Wellington. Team NZ beat Oracle by a mile but lost the race against the clock. I can’t remember the outcome of the second race, perhaps it was called off. Having a football game to think about was a welcomed distraction. A taxi was called to Island Bay where Wellington Olympic have their wind exposed and astro-turfed home ground.
There was a sense of nostalgia in Olympic’s small old-school clubrooms. From the characters behind the bar to the old team photos on the wall, parallels could be made with Central other than the surnames were mostly and obviously Greek rather than Croatian. We were offered a beer, possibly in the Trojan sense, but we politely declined. Most of our guys showed signs of that slight nervousness or anticipation you get before a game where you want to perform well: “C’mon boys! We want to win this!”
Their Captain came over and chatted saying they were short and so had some ring-ins, a euphemism for we’ve stacked the team because clearly they really wanted to win too.
As the game kicked off there was the reliably strong wind which brought the smell of ember cooked chicken, lamb and their equivalent of ćevapčići across the field. People continued arriving to watch. The ability of the two teams was closely matched. We had a better passing game and created more chances. Olympic, helped by their ring-ins, had a more mobile attack. They went two nil up. We got one back. Enter Dennis Katsanos (despite his heritage he was on our side). He was a revelation. Someone joked that we should fly his father up (who lives in Wellington and was watching) to be on the side-line at all our games. Dennis scored our half-time equalizer.
In the second half Mitch was relieved from keeping duties as Olympic offered us a goalkeeper. They confessed he had only played in a third division but promised he was Leo Bertos’s brother. Mitch had played really well and we weren’t sure about another Greek gift but who would deny Mitch a run in the outfield. They scored twice more. Some beautiful dribbling and a delicate chip led to Neven replying with one of the goals of the season. The scores were close again. More goals went to both sides. The referee denied us two penalties. The first, their player parried the ball using both hands like a basketball dribble in the box. Mike Farac and I both saw it clearly but no amount of protesting was going to have any effect. For the second, Dennis was in the right spot again to poke the ball in the net but was taken out by two defenders, one from the left and one from the right. On both occasions the referee adjusted his Greek eye-patch claiming his vision was blocked, or something. I thought we’d equalized when Matt ‘Vuki ‘ hit a super, medium-range shot, but their keeper somehow tipped it over. Final score 5-4. A great game played in strong wind and high spirits but with lots of mutual respect.
The after-match was worthy of its’ own report which would describe fabulous food and hospitality, the atmosphere and the sense and feeling of being in both a football and cultural club. There might only be one other place in the country that would come near: Kiwitea St. Which is where we hope the Mediterranean Cup will be held next. So we can hopefully, get our hands back on it, to keep.
Mitch Herceg, Dennis Katsanos, Matt Vuksich, Andrew Marinovich, Neven Grigicevich, Mike Farac, Peter Radonich, Paul Smith, Joe Radonich, Denis Lausev, Hrvoje Koprivcic, Nick Lupis.
*Special thanks to Nick Lupis for taking the initiative and organizing this great event and to Dennis Katsanos for making the connections at the Wellington end