SportsJune 1, 2024

I went to the Phoenix’s sold-out semifinal and all I got was this overwhelming sense of pride


Ōtautahi-based Wellington Phoenix FC evangelist Joseph Harper reflects on the incredible climax to a historic season.

A fortnight ago the Phoenix played their first home A-League semifinal in over a decade. Over 33,000 fans, the team’s biggest ever crowd, made the pilgrimage to Sky Stadium to support them. Some were tragics who’d flown in from all over the country to add their psychic and vocal weight to the team’s collective power. Others were locals, lucky enough to live in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, home of New Zealand’s only (for now) professional football team. They were revelling bandwagoners swept up in the carnival atmosphere that comes with a “big game”. Yellow smoke billowed over the surging crowd and out over the water. I heard a child ask his mum whether it would stain his sweatshirt. 

That morning I had left Ōtautahi on one of those ridiculous little planes with Richard Pearse-style propellers. After everyone had taken their seats, they announced that it would be necessary to “de-ice” the plane and that we shouldn’t be alarmed by the “orange liquid” we would soon see dribbling down our windows. Terrifying stuff for someone who breaks out in a green, nauseous sweat when travelling in the passenger seat of a car, let alone flying to the famed “Windy Wellington”. 

But this game was a big deal. A very real chance for New Zealand’s premier football team to qualify for the final of Australasia’s most competitive league – a feat they’d never achieved in their 17-year history. A victory in this game would have felt like a miracle. It’s the last season before an Auckland team with a big wallet swaggers into the picture. A season with a charismatic Italo-Aussie crypto-bro at the helm. A season that defied expectation and created unprecedented levels of hope. 

A genuine thought that went through my head during the flight: the plane is going to crash and I am going to die like the Big Bopper but they will find my Phoenix scarf and kit in my duffel bag and this will inspire the team to an extremely emotional victory. My death was inconsequential. This is how I help them win. My beloved Wellington Phoenix would win the A-League for the first time in their history and my decision to fly up for the game would absolutely, positively be a footnote on the Wikipedia entry of their season.

I didn’t die but I did dry heave in the bathroom on the “Gandalf on an eagle” floor of Wellington Airport. 

I would be attending the game with some friends who were flying in from Auckland, but I got there first so decided to survey the mood of the city by taking in the waterfront. I hadn’t kitted up yet, but I draped my scarf around my neck as a signifier. Within minutes I’d been given several knowing looks by the hometown faithful. I also saw a fella taking a jog in full Melbourne Victory kit – astonishingly brash and typically Australian, I thought to myself while avoiding his gaze. 

When my friends arrived we met up on Cuba Mall (lol) and grabbed a boutique sandwich before visiting some art galleries. It felt like we were cosplaying that Y2K “Have a Love Affair with Wellington” ad and I was loving every minute of it.

You can’t beat a chicken salad sando with a view of the bucket fountain (Photo: Matt Boulton via Flickr/Wikipedia. CC BY-SA 2.0)

As the game drew nearer we headed back to our hotel and en route bumped into the Phoenix’s string-bean Bulgarian midfielder Bozhidar Kraev outside the Wakefield Street New World. We spotted him from half a block away and embarrassingly grinned at each other in disbelief as we approached. To my great shame, I went for a high five and I think I told him, “You can do it”. 

After taking in a few pints at several of Te Whanganui-a-Tara’s famed craft beer meccas, we ventured toward The Cake Tin at pace. The Wellington Phoenix’s hardy band of ultras, the Yellow Fever, had planned a march from a pub to the stadium and we had missed the departure. We strode down Lambton Quay at a clip, overtaking scores of families in yellow and eventually met up with the masse. It was incredible. 

Surely most New Zealand sports fans understand when I say that live sporting experiences in New Zealand are demure at best. I’ve been scolded by old boys at multiple All Blacks and Crusaders matches for having the nerve to chat to my friends throughout a match. On this glorious and crisp night in our nation’s capital, on the walkway to Waterloo Quay, the Yellow Fever proved there is another way. Songs rang out (“Oh Well-ing-ton…”), flags flapped, and flares! FLARES! Like a real football crowd!

The Fever Zone (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

And so we made our way slowly into the stadium, the concourse heaving under the weight of the highest attendance in the club’s history. I don’t quite know how to adequately describe how unbelievable it is that a local football club managed to SELL OUT one of the country’s major stadiums. Over 33,000 punters cramming in and trying to buy a can of Garage Project, a tray of fish bites, or a comically disappointing chicken burger. It was a hectic and jubilant experience and in spite of the result (spoiler alert) it was one of the great sporting experiences of my life. 

From the first whistle it was tense as anything. A well-worked goal from the Victory put the visitors in the lead after 60-odd minutes in which the Phoenix looked to be bossing it (I’m not going to talk about the missed penalty and you can’t make me). At 90 minutes it felt settled. The sold-out stadium carried an air of resignation. Some began to leave. It was over and it sucked but this was the Phoenix, after all. 

Then Oscar Zawada stepped up. 

The star striker came to the Phoenix a season ago, and seemingly bought a personal social media street team with him from Poland. He regularly posts videos of himself pounding weights in the gym intercut with his own prolific goal scoring output and stock footage of roaring lions. In the ninth minute of added time he finished off a miraculous sequence of passes and scored an all-timer. A goal from nowhere to send the game into extra time. 

I swear I have never felt like that before in my life. I lost my mind and ran up and down the aisles of Sky Stadium hugging strangers. I felt like crying. 


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We had all the momentum and an extra time victory felt written in the stars. Then they scored a stupid goal that we probably shouldn’t have let in, but we did. Rail thin Victory defender Roderick Miranda celebrated by cupping his hands behind his ears in the direction of the Fever Zone. I responded with the customary two-finger salute.

In the end we lost and as we filed out of the stadium the previous chants of “In Wellington it never rains” proved ironic. My friends and I ordered a late meal at KC Cafe and I can’t even remember what we ate. I was numb from the experience of the game. 

The next day, while waiting for our flights home, we continued our tour of must-see Wellington attractions with a visit to Te Papa. While taking in the giant soldiers of the Gallipoli exhibition, I spotted heroic Phoenix goalkeeper Alex Paulsen doing the same thing. It’s good to keep things in perspective.

In the weeks after I’ve seen all the players post on their Instagrams, saying things like “What a year!” Thankfully the fans are responding in kind. “We’re all proud of you and the lads,” says one reply. “Loved watching you every week,” says another. As a Phoenix fan, it has been immensely heartening to me to see such a graceful response to the team falling short. 

Shout out to the Yellow Fever and the hard-outs around the country and the local bandwagoners. Last season the Warriors showed us a sports fandom alternative to the dire, boorish norms we have in this country and this season, the Phoenix faithful carried the torch. 

To quote a Wellington football hipster I occasionally message on Instagram: “We go again.”

Keep going!