Football and my father's ghost


David and Adrian PhoonAs the burr of the vuvuzelas leaves the stadiums in South Africa and rings out from the TV into my living room, I feel all the excitement surrounding the World Cup, but also a sense that something is missing. There is one avid fan who isn't watching this Cup: my father.

David Phoon, my father, was a football tragic. During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, my father was up in the early hours of the morning watching any and every game he could. I, who watched soccer occasionally but was no fanatic, sat at an amused distance, mystified by his deep love of the game.

Seventy-five years old, he would catch up on sleep during the day, often sitting in the same position on the couch where he had watched the soccer just hours beforehand. You could tell he was asleep because he emitted a loud snore that rivalled the din of any vuvuzela.

The World Cup wrapped in July, with Italy crowned as champions. Later that year, one night in September, the unthinkable happened. My father, up late at night as usual watching the soccer, suddenly passed out by the kitchen sink. He briefly came to, telling my mother and brother, 'I can't breathe.' My father, we were later told by the doctors, had suffered a 10cm aortic dissection, which led to cardiac tamponade. Blood was leaking from his heart and causing organ failure.

After a couple of hours at Sutherland Hospital, my father was transferred to Prince of Wales, where there were better facilities for cardiac patients. Nine hours later, he died.

My father, who snored loudly, also laughed loudly. A doctor with a long-running family practice, he is remembered by his family and friends for his gentle humour and ecstatic guffaw, which had to be heard to be believed.

As the World Cup rolls around again, I'm thinking of my father, his laughs, and loves. He loved my mother, to whom he was married for 42 years. He loved his kids, his daughters-in-law, and his grandkids. And he loved soccer.

I've learnt to love soccer. During this World Cup, I've become nocturnal, like my father. No doubt I'm trying to commune with him, trying to efface his absence and bridge the gap between my indifference to soccer and his devotion to it. But also: soccer just makes for compulsive viewing.

Take last week's match between Switzerland and Spain. Spain was dominating Switzerland with its virtuosic passing game. Spain was heavily favoured in this match — or rather, mismatch. Yet unexpectedly Switzerland scored with a crazy goal early in the second half. I could almost hear Baba leaping from the couch and cheering.

There are times when the dead surprise us by appearing to be still active. A few months ago, my mother got a shock when the fax in the family home sprang to life and started spitting out several pages of what looked like my father's handwriting. Where was this fax coming from?

We later learnt that my aunt (my father's sister) had recovered an old fax my father had sent her years ago, and was forwarding it to my mother. My father loved to read, in particular Chinese history and literature, but he was not a natural writer. Yet here were his rudimentary notes, the outlines of his recollections about his childhood in Hong Kong on the eve of the Japanese invasion in 1941, and his escape to the jungles of Southern China.

World War II turned his family's lives upside down, but you wouldn't always know it from my father's writing. In one special moment, he describes the day the war broke out in Hong Kong, and recalls his priorities as a cheeky young boy:

8am 8/12/1941 Had breakfast, while standing outside awaiting to get into car to go to school. Saw 3 Aeroplanes flying over Kaitak airport in Kowloon across the harbour. Soon after booming bombs followed by smokes over the area. Telephones or Radio told us war has started and we are being attacked by Japanese ... So NO school!

During this time, my father learned how to play soccer. This was a game innocent children could play while planes flew overhead and war raged around the world. It was, I now know, a respite not only from the horrors of war, but also the rigours of school.

And now I think I understand both Baba's lifelong love of the game, and the way his indomitable spirit, which got him through many challenges in life — coming to Australia, learning English, studying medicine at the University of Sydney, and becoming one of the first Asian doctors in the Sutherland Shire — allowed him always to see the bright side of things. Ah, no school!

Adrian PhoonAdrian Phoon is a freelance writer and blogger based in Sydney. He has been published in Melbourne's The Age, The National Times, New Matilda and Same Same. And he's his father's son. 

Topic tags: David Phoon, Hong Kong, World War II, World Cup, Germany, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland



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Existing comments

Thanks. Moving.
James O'B | 23 June 2010

The story shows that the most valuable thing we have in our lives is the respect and love of our children. Many of us may not have a Mercedes in our driveways, but a hug from a child is of greater value. I have friends who are highly successful in business and in their profession. They have accumulated great financial wealth over the year as they had no children and did not have to spend money on their upbringing. I am often reluctant to talk about the success of my children, because I know they miss the real wealth, the love of sons and daughters.

The story also shows how football is a real unifying game. Football is played in all countries and if you go to a game, you see people originating from all continents mixing and feeling united. For too many years football was called soccer and it clubs were split across ethnic lines. The development of A-League made football open to all people in all States from all origins.

Beat Odermatt | 23 June 2010

I was very moved by this article. My late husband, a devoted soccer fan and a migrant from Europe in the 50s, never missed a televised match - I would be in serious trouble if I forgot to record something were he absent. I find myself watching, I think in remembrance of his joy in the game, with more interest that I had shown previously. I find myself making comments to an otherwise empty room as to whether he found something fair or not. I've never found him too far away and that's certainly the case right now.
Mary Maraz | 23 June 2010

Thanks Adrian. A lovely and moving tribute.
M-H | 23 June 2010

I am extremely delighted to read your article with reminiscence of your father. I am touched by your filial love and tenderness for you father. Your father and I were friends and companion undergraduates at the Sydney University Medical School. We were also fellow resident medical officers at Sutherland District Hospital. In March this year a 50th post graduate reunion dinner was held at the Great Hall of the University. We missed the smiling face of David Phoon. My wife Anne and I would like very much to catch up with your mother if possible. Should you be so inclined please supply contact email or telephone number. Thanking you and best wishes to you and family.
Peter Chang | 24 June 2010

Hi Dr. Chang, thanks for your comments. My mother would love to get in touch with you both. If you follow the link in my bio, you'll find my e-mail address on my blog. That might be the easiest way to get the ball rolling. Thanks again.
Adrian | 08 July 2010


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