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  • Geoff Cordner

More Than Just a Game

The 2022 FIFA World Cup, exciting as it was in many respects, remains tinged with sadness for me. Not because it’s now over. And not because our own Footballeroos were unfortunate enough to meet the two eventual finalists en route to their exit in the Round of 16. But because the last time this epic international sporting event rolled around – when hosted by Russia, in June and July of 2018 – the number one soccer fan in the Cordner household was here with us all to enjoy it. And now he isn’t.

As we all know, there are four codes of football that vie for the attention of Australia’s youngsters, and have done for decades now. But there was really only ever one that Ben aspired to play. And no, it wasn’t the one his father had developed some proficiency in through the 1980’s. Nor was it the one his older brother had opted for at age 9 - in doing so, following a longstanding tradition of those Cordners born south-of-the-border before him. True to form, even at the tender age of five, Ben made it clear he wasn’t going to be boxed in by the choices of others, or the call of history. Who could argue now that it was anything other than a wise decision; the beginning of a love affair that would continue for the rest of his life.

And it’s not that Ben was especially gifted at his chosen code from the outset. Although it’s not unheard of for a last-born to excel from an early age at sporting pursuits, having observed and absorbed skills and techniques from parents and older siblings in back yards and parks from the time they could walk, the round ball game did not come easily to Ben; reflecting perhaps that there was, at that time in his life, no immediate role model to emulate. Or perhaps it was more than that. The fact is that, as a young boy at least, Ben was not especially co‑ordinated. Orienting his body, and his kicking leg, towards the ball, let alone the goal, was something he definitely battled with throughout those early years.

(As he almost certainly did also with the fact that the tops of his socks sat higher than the bottom of his shorts). And of course the exercise-induced asthma from which he suffered at that early stage of life certainly didn’t help; after all, it’s no fun being a breathless bee chasing a honeypot in perpetual motion.

Which may well have led Ben to experiment for a few seasons with what was, for many young soccer players, the unenvied and unwanted position of goalkeeper. Now here was a role that definitely suited his skill-set. Use your hands. Run at your opponents. Be fearless. And of course, regularly shout at your teammates. Whereas for many young keepers a familiar refrain from coaches and parents in those days, and at that age, was: “Come out. Come out Johnny and pick up the ball!”, for Ben it was much more likely to be “Back in your goal Ben!” That said, punt kicks and goalkicks did remain an ongoing problem.

Then, at around the age of 11, Ben’s coach at the Ryde Panthers, Mark, stumbled upon the perfect role for his young charge. (A much under-utilised one in the code of soccer it has always seemed to my untrained eye!). I refer here to the role of the dedicated tagger. That is to say, find the opposition’s most influential player, and set Ben on him. Although he may not have had the skills to match it with the best once they took possession of the ball, Ben had a few aces up his sleeve when it came to playing the part of a defensive stopper. He was quick, he was determined, and he was willing to do whatever it took to make sure his opponent received the ball as infrequently as possible. And, of course, when the poor unfortunate to whom Ben had been assigned did finally get it, the lad would find himself wearing our boy like an extra shirt. (And might possibly have been introduced to a few colourful words he may not yet then have been familiar with).

It was around this time that I became an assistant coach of Ben’s team. Not because I had anything of great worth to offer on the subject of Association Football. But because Coach Mark had expressed a concern to the parent group at the end of one particular season that managing the lads at training was becoming a bit more than he was able or willing to handle on his own. The message was clear: “If you want me to continue as coach of this mob I’m gonna need some help”.

If I’m honest, I think both Linda and I suspected, reading between the lines, that Ben may have been one of the difficult kids to whom Mark was (very diplomatically) referring. So I was happy to do my bit to make our coach’s thankless task that little bit more bearable. Which of course brought its challenges for me as a Dad, and tested my relationship with our youngest from time to time. But to his credit, within a year or two Ben had turned that situation completely on its head. That is to say it was Ben, by the age of 13 or so, along with one or two other like-minded youngsters, that was starting to drive standards from within the group, calling for full commitment from his teammates on game day, and at training. A significant improvement in his general fitness, and ball skills, during this period, also seemed to have given him the confidence to demand more of those around him. (Not that self-belief was ever really in short supply for our Ben!)

By the time I stepped away from the coaching side of things, as the boys moved into the Under 15’s, I was confident neither Mark, nor his new assistant Mick, would be having any trouble keeping Ben onside, as it were. He loved the game, he loved his team, and though ultimate success in the form of a Grand Final victory continued to elude the Panthers, his wholehearted dedication to that cause was never open to question.

Which is why I know the decision he took in 2016 was one of the hardest of his sporting life. That being the decision to step away from the Panthers, and their coach, to whom he had remained loyal for 13 long seasons, from the age of five through to 18; progressing along that journey all the way from Division 6 to Division 1.

To fully understand that decision we need to go back a couple of months. In the preceding September Linda and I had attended the final assembly at Epping Boys High School for the graduating class of 2015, who were then preparing themselves for their upcoming Higher School Certificate exams. As Vice Captain of the School, Ben had a not insignificant role to play at that assembly.

As the event unfolded I could sense the emotion he was holding at bay as the cohort and their families, along with the staff, recognised and celebrated their achievements. At the conclusion of the assembly, those emotions spilled over in the adjoining quadrangle.

I remember, like it was yesterday, taking him in my arms and hugging him long and hard.

“I don’t want to leave this place. I don’t want to leave these guys” he shared with me through tears.

Then, and in the days that followed, we talked about those feelings of loss and sadness. Like something precious had come to an end. And we agreed it was in his hands to maintain the connections that meant so much to him as the months and the years of his seemingly limitless future unfolded. Both with his classmates, and with the School itself.

Which is how Ben found himself playing in a new soccer team, comprising a significant number of Epping Old Boys, and a handful of important recruits, under the auspices of the Epping Football Club, through the football seasons of 2016, 2017 and 2018.

Fast forward to the evening of 13 September 2019, when I attended Epping Football Club’s Presentation Night at the invitation of the Club’s President. Epping FC is an extremely successful Club, both on and off the field, and consisted, at that time, of approximately 60 teams. In 2019 both the Mens/Boys’ section and the Womens/Girls’ section of the Club were awarded prestigious Club Champion status - by the Gladesville Hornsby Football Association and the North West Sydney Womens’ Football Association respectively.

With 60 teams on its books, the Club had near enough to 1,000 members in total, and the Presentation Night, although confined to those aged 18 and over, was a massive event; especially after such a successful season. In light of its size the Club has, in recent times, made a sensible, but uncommon executive decision not to present Best & Fairest awards to individual players. As a result, the formal portion of the Presentation Night is confined to special awards for significant Club-related achievements.

However during the course of the 2019 season the Epping FC Committee had sanctioned the awarding of the Ben Cordner Medal to the best and fairest player in the Club’s Super League Reserves team – that being the team for which Ben had already paid registration fees prior to Australia Day 2019, such was his level of enthusiasm for the approaching season.

Not only did the Club magnanimously approve the awarding of a medal in Ben’s name, and its presentation at their night of nights, but the President, in the course of introducing me to speak about Ben, and name the Medalwinner, addressed the assembled members personally, and in glowing terms, about his own interactions with Ben – who had been the de facto Manager of the Club’s Under 19 and Under 21 teams over the three preceding seasons. In doing so he praised Ben’s organisational skills, and dedication, describing him as “the glue that had held the team together”. He also noted, with obvious admiration, that this was a team of school-leavers with no external coach, or other administrative support on game day, that had nevertheless achieved Championship success in two of its four seasons together, and a minor premiership in another.

His testimonial was heartfelt and moving. Even moreso, from my perspective, because it emphasised the qualities and character Ben had demonstrated as an adult outside of family life; time and effort expended for the benefit of the collective, not just for himself. The kind of selfless behaviour that may not always have been as obvious to those at home.

Having been introduced by the President I was aware that some elements of the well‑lubricated crowd, consisting of many hundreds of people, may not have been listening particularly closely to the formalities. But as I began to speak of my son’s love for the game of football, to the complete and utter exclusion of all other winter codes, from the age of five onwards, and of the fact that his three seasons as a young man at Epping FC were without doubt the highlight of his football career, I noticed people whispering amongst themselves, appealing for silence from all and sundry.

As I explained that Ben’s joy at being part of Epping FC related, yes, without a doubt, in no small way to the success his teams had achieved over those three previous seasons, the room had fallen deathly quiet. The emotion of the moment hit me like a ton of bricks at that point, most particularly the knowledge of what I wanted to say next. After taking a couple of deep breaths, I went on to explain that the primary reason for Ben’s devotion to the Club, and to his team in particular, really boiled down to the fact that he had been given the opportunity to play the game he had loved from childhood with his very best mates; the best friends he had ever known, the best friends he ever will know.

And, I added, he would have been so so proud of the courage and maturity they had shown, and the way they had conducted themselves, individually and as a group, during the season just gone, never moreso than on its final day of reckoning.

After the presentation I reflected on the fact that there even seemed to be an ironic aptness to the fact that the recipient of the inaugural Ben Cordner Medal, a young man named Morgan, was a new player to the team in 2019 – someone whose very presence within the side may even have been attributable to Ben’s absence. Although he and Ben never met, I have great confidence in saying Morgan was someone Ben would have welcomed to the team with open arms ‑ and his prodigious talent would have been the subject of Ben’s wholehearted admiration, and passionate accolades during those after-match discussions I miss so much. After-match discussions in which Ben, in the straightforward manner for which I will always remember him so dearly, pulled no punches about his own performance (or that of the referee) no matter which side of the ledger his team had found itself on at the final whistle.

Speaking of post-match analysis, as I reflect again on my somewhat melancholy response to the completion of the 2022 World Cup, there are nevertheless two things that continue to warm my heart. The first is that our national team, of whom Ben was so proud, has brought honour to their country, and their code, by achieving what many thought was beyond them, thereby setting a new benchmark for those who wear the shirt in the years to come.

And the second, just as significant for me, is that the logo chosen to represent the event itself - designed and released in the months following our beautiful Ben’s tragic death, and launched in September 2019, within days of that memorable EFC Presentation Night - is a deliberately stylised manifestation of the infinity symbol “representing the connectivity of people” and expressing the “interconnected nature of the World Cup event”.[1]

I’ve said it before, and I doubt this will be the last time:

The Beniverse moves in mysterious ways.

And maybe, just maybe, this is further evidence of its influence.

I, for one, am happy to believe it.


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