There's something very odd about a 24-hour football match. It's one of those ideas we have that seems great at its inception, then quickly feels regrettable once we realise what we've gotten ourselves in for. Then, once we've seen it through to the end with our stubborn persistence, we wonder how we can do it bigger and better next time.
When I heard there was a marathon match being organised to raise money for victims of the recent devastating floods in Australia, my interest was immediately piqued. It might seem strange to volunteer for physical torture and pay for the privilege - I could have given to the cause in some other way than the $100 donation required to play in this match - but this was also a unique chance to test my physical and mental boundaries. It was a challenge too good to pass up.
The appeal was evidently universal because I was one of 85 men and women to answer the call to arms. In fact, it was only a wave of overwhelming enthusiasm from the public that made the match what it was. Four weeks before kick-off, while watching television coverage of the floods, Mike Donald texted his good mate Andrew Tilley to say "we have to do something". The Sydney Uni Sport and Fitness employees decided to put on a sporting event to raise some money. What started as a marathon 5-a-side match involving them and their mates quickly grew into a major charity event once word spread and the media latched on to the idea.
"At first we were thinking we might do an indoor thing and raise a couple of thousand," Tilley said. "All of a sudden we were targeting $10,000. We quickly reached that, so then we wanted $20,000." One of a host of sponsors, Australia Power and Gas, matched the first $10,000 the boys raised and, as of Wednesday, the tally was well over $20,000 and counting.
Players descended on The Square at Sydney University from 4pm on Saturday for the most epic of contests. Due to the colours of the King Gee-supplied shirts it was Yellows versus Oranges; but the real opponents would be the summer heat, the body's circadian rhythms and that little voice in your head that says 'no more'.
Work commitments meant that my participation was restricted to the 'graveyard shift'. I arrived at the cauldron-like ground, penned in by the University's ancient buildings, at around midnight. "Fresh legs! Where have you been? Get out there!" came the cries from some exhausted lads on the sidelines. It was clear no-one was going to get respect just for showing up: I had to earn my stripes on the pitch.
Even though there was no logical reason to rush, I felt anxious to get out there. It wasn't quite the frontline of a warzone, but there were troops who needed relief and I was it. It had been a taxing afternoon, bright sunshine sapping the early energy out of the players. Former Socceroos Mark Bosnich and Craig Foster had been down to lend their support. 'Fozz' even pulled on the boots to treat everyone to a masterclass.
"Fozz was there for about an hour and a half and didn't come off until he was absolutely knackered," Tilley recalled. "He's a really positive guy on the field. I think he taught a lot of the guys and girls how to play football the right way in the conditions, just knocking it around and letting the ball do the work. For the time he was there we played a lot more one-touch two-touch football and then, when he left, we went back to long ball!"
The pace looked surprisingly quick as I took my place on the Yellow bench, ready to come on for whoever needed a break. I didn't have to wait long. I took up my usual station at centre back and introduced myself to my nearby team-mates. They were friendly but seemed a little disinterested - unsurprising, I later thought, since I was probably the 30th new guy they would have seen come and go.
My natural inclination is to communicate and organise a defence, but I thankfully realised that it would be more than a touch inconsiderate to start telling players who could have been into their ninth hours of football to 'push out' or 'mark up'. There was a balance though; the fresh-faced enthusiasm of my newcomer mates and I was vital to giving those around us a lift. My compromise was to crack a few jokes and put in as much running as I could, knowing that I too was now in it for the long haul.
It was enjoyable for a while, having the time and the space to play nice football. The tempo could be as fast or slow as you wanted to make it. I grabbed a breather after a couple of hours just to hydrate and stretch among the bodies resting in foldout chairs or snoozing on yoga mats, but then it was on with the show.
As the match approached half-time (just a change of ends at 4am, no break) the pace slowed dramatically and play disintegrated into a basketball-style end-to-end shootout. It wasn't very fun and a lot of players were struggling with cramps and injuries, not to mention sleep deprivation. When stretching for a higher ball, my calf muscle contracted painfully in the first real sign my body wasn't happy. It was a hot Sydney night and I was sweating buckets. I was changing into fresh shirts and socks like a tennis player. I felt sorry for those who had been playing in the sun and tried not to complain.
We were all asking ourselves silently: 'Why are we doing this?' So I allowed my mind to wander to the catalysts for our congregation, the poor souls who had lost their livelihoods, homes, loved ones. It was fitting, in a way, that we would test our own physical endurance and mental willpower as those in flood-affected Queensland would have done during the ordeal and now into the rebuilding phase. Not for a moment would I liken playing football, for however long, to dealing with a deadly natural disaster, but compared to something like a relief concert, this was on the same plane of experiences. If we couldn't have been there to sandbag or transport supplies, we would keep running and tackling and supporting our team-mates.
I went home, aching and blistered, shortly after 5am as the heroes of the football marathon started emerging. Andrew's brother Daniel Tilley would rack up a jaw-dropping 20 hours of football, the most of any player. Jess Stevenson was the top girl, she put in over 14 hours of service. An Irish chap named Derek Darcy went on to score a mind-blowing 47 goals. Many players were present from start to finish, countless played through injuries and heatstroke.
Andrew said that 3am-sunrise stretch was "definitely the hardest four or five hours". But this was a football match. Anyone who has seen a tight cup tie reach its last quarter knows exhausted players will find extra energy reserves from somewhere when the finish line is in sight.
"Talk started going around that there were only three or four hours left and people's spirits started to pick back up," Andrew said. "Because the game was still so close we had guys going back on the field who were cramping up or who had strains. The last hour was really competitive. It was really surprising actually."
Andrew and Mike are so happy with the results they feel it is "important" to put on another football marathon when the right cause pops up. Future editions might span even more time and integrate simultaneous interstate matches. Andrew said he was amazed at the power of football to unite strangers: "During the match, guys were saying they would never consider doing anything like that again. But a couple of days later, they were emailing us with their stories, congratulating us and saying they can't wait for the next one."
And the result? The match remained remarkably even throughout. Each team had a few streaks, but the scoreline lurched from 34-34 to 80-80 and 100-98 and scores were level again with two hours to go. In the end it was the dreaded Oranges who triumphed 154-143. I take full responsibility.