The Prime Minister, John Howard, has been in attendance at virtually every major sporting event throughout his 10 years in office. He has shared the stage with the victors of every code of football and every type of cricket. On Sunday he was on stage once again after the final of the A-League, Australias premier soccer competition, expecting the usual warm applause from the 50,000 strong crowd when his name was announced. However, on this occasion what followed the mention of his name was a long, deep and resounding boo. Howard was visibly shocked by the mass disapproval, but the indignity didnt stop there. When he was handing out the victory medals, one of the Melbourne Victory squad took him physically by the head and kissed his bald little melon. Below the stage, the Melbourne team burst into laughter. Then Howard went on to make an unmanageable spaghetti out of rest of the medal ribbons. It was humiliating. Howard has always cast himself as the sport loving battlers little buddy, but if Sundays performance is anything to go by, the love affair is over.
Whats behind the abrupt change in crowd behaviour isnt clear. Perhaps its the cumulative effect of his adherence to an unpopular war, his attack on workers rights, his failed Murray rescue package and his 10-year denial of global warming. All very good reasons to jeer, but I suspect its more likely that the crowd were aware of his underlying lack of respect for soccer (football), evidenced by his failure to protect the free-to-air rights of the world game in Australia. If you watched the game, the final of Australias premier football league, you watched it on pay TV. Think if they tried to do that with the rugby league or Australian rules grand final. Shock horror! But dont worry, it wouldnt happen because Howard wouldnt let it. Soccer fans around the country know theyve been short-changed by the little bloke and their disgust found voice in Melbourne on Sunday night.
Politicians love attaching themselves to sporting teams and sportspeople because they represent the values of hard work and success, but its a two-edged sword, and eventually the players and the crowds grow tired of the hangers-on. These pallid, tragic manipulators preying on their successes and stealing their limelight.
Needless to say, it wasnt a positive sign for the countrys embattled leader. In fact, its a disturbing thought that it might take a major terrorist act on Australian soil to turn his growing unpopularity around. Perhaps a Tampa-like, children-over-board stunt is on the cards? Whether that happens or whether the general populous will simply believe the bravado of the big talking, small deploying war leader remains to be seen, however, one thing is for sure.
He wont be turning up to the next sporting event without the players being carefully briefed by his security team and without thousands of plants in the crowd.
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