The drama that shrouded the hosting of 11 football games as part of the Sydney Olympics 20 years ago at Bruce Stadium, as it was known then, deserves a mini-series.
In 1997 the ACT secured the rights to host 11 of the 48 men’s and women’s football matches to be played during the Sydney Olympics.
Canberra was awarded a double-header to be played, almost to this day, 20 years ago on 13 September. It included the Matildas taking on Germany.
What followed in the wake of the announcement was a major redevelopment of the Stadium including work on the eastern grandstand, the roof of both grandstands, the dropping of the playing surface, and turning the ground into a rectangle.
While the funding of the redevelopment was newsworthy, the resurfacing of the playing area took on a lead role in its own media drama.
The resurfacing was delayed because the Raiders made the semi-finals in 2000. That was the season of the famous snow game at Bruce Stadium in late May. Clearly, preparations were not going well.
After the surface was re-laid on 8 August, the ensuing 15-minute inspection by the Sydney Olympics Organising Committee (SOCOG) later in the month set in motion a course of events that still resonates to this day.
The playing surface was declared unsafe. The re-laid grass was dying and not fit for competition. It hit the headlines when it was revealed the grass was grown in Cairns, in tropical North Queensland conditions, and suffered thermal shock when transferred to Canberra’s cooler temperatures.
SOCOG Vice President John Coates suggested that if it wasn’t rectified Canberra was in danger of losing the right to host games.
Coates said at the time, “The ACT Government had the responsibility in selecting the replacement turf from Cairns against our advice.”
There was further commentary around the safety requirements for players and that FIFA was taking a close interest in what was happening in Canberra.
Facing a race against time, when you consider the double header was scheduled for 13 September, the ground was re-laid.
And the playing surface was back in the news again because of revelations that sections of the re-laid grass were painted green prior to the inspection by Olympic officialdom.
This prompted an exchange in the ACT Assembly with the opposition’s Ted Quinlan suggesting it was akin to operating Floriade with plastic flowers.
It was then explained that painting dead patches of grass green was a common practice, although it was news to many and it is still a topic of discussion 20 years later.
On 13 September, Bruce Stadium hosted a double-header with almost 25,000 people turning out to watch the Australian women’s team playing Germany, while the USA faced the Czech Republic.
By this stage, everyone had an opinion about growing grass in Canberra.
While this event illustrated the dangers of trying to grow grass from Cairns in Canberra, it also demonstrated a ‘can do’ approach from those involved to ensure the ACT’s role in the Sydney Olympics was preserved.
This definitely ranks as one of Canberra football’s biggest moments, alongside the drama of the Asian Cup game between Iran and Iraq in 2015.