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Headspace at football

Squeezing past a few legs to reach our seats at the Wellington Regional Stadium for a Women’s World Cup football match, someone yelled my name.

In a stadium holding almost 20,000 people, there to see Sweden challenge Italy, someone knew me. I swivelled and saw a former neighbour from Wairarapa, two rows up.

For a few seconds, the world spun, as sitting directly behind her was the colleague I work most closely with at Midweek – Lucy. Seeing them both there – their two heads in alignment – was a bizarre thrill.

Heads featured a lot during that Saturday evening match. Sweden won 5-0, with headers leading to some of the goals. It’s always admirable when someone uses their noggin to bunt a hard football anywhere, let alone into a netted space. In those moments, the game is “headball” with feet serving only to provide balance and height.

Ponty tails were certainly flying that night, as skulls struck the sphere left, right and centre.

Reserve members of the Sweden team warmed up right in front of our section – tall women with mainly long blonde hair – who kept being told by officials to move from behind the goal. As the goal difference widened, their warm-up moves became more animated and their aerial leaps grew higher.

In the theme of a currently popular movie about women’s empowerment, ‘Football Barbie’ sprung to mind.

“Pass it to the blonde,” the man behind me said repeatedly.

The crowd buoyed the Swedes even further, a sea of beanie hats in all colours bobbing in seated lines, as across the pitch, the dejected Italy squad huddled and hunched in their team shelter.

Before the match, we had joined thousands of well-spaced match-goers moving up the ramps to the stadium concourse. In the darkness, as we walked rather quietly in mainly dark clothes towards the towering sports ground, it felt a bit like a zombie movie.

Inside was anything but. My family enjoyed every bit of the electric atmosphere, the sounds, the crowd interaction. The athleticism of the players, the speed of the game, the good spirits of the crowd with its Mexican Waves, the chanting, the applause, the hot chips.

It was chilly, but of course that didn’t deter some “youths” from removing their tops and doing loud stuff. We were one block over, in the alcohol-free zone, but quite honestly didn’t notice that deprivation.

At half-time, the stadium lights were turned off and people were asked to turn on their cellphone torches to create a mesmerising, twinkling arena in the middle of the Wellington winter.

My colleague Lucy’s head almost featured in a more negative role during the match, when she was struck on the neck by a small glass bottle. It came from rows back – impossible to tell who threw the missile. Poor Lucy brought a bruise to the office on Monday, instead of a Sweden jersey.

So, the bottle tosser remained anonymous and escaped the wrath of the ring of security guards who stood facing the crowd for the entire match, watching for some misdeed.

As we filed out of the stadium, sardined between tearful Italy fans, jolly Sweden supporters and tons of families who had enjoyed the relatively low ticket prices and – for some – a free train from Wairarapa, we muttered the promising line: “Must do this again soon.”

Why did we attend a live sports game two hours from home in mid-winter, when New Zealand wasn’t even playing? For all the reasons above, a couple that can’t be printed and others I’ve forgotten.

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