I hated sport growing up.
Nothing about me put me anywhere near a court or a pitch. The stereotype of a nerdy Asian kid at school fitted me like a glove. With my head buried in novels, video games and piles of tutoring workbooks, I never took interest in sport.
Sometimes I was asked to pick a favourite NRL team. I chose the Tigers since I was a tiger on the Chinese zodiac, and I memorised one player’s name – Benji Marshall – in case anyone asked me who my favourite was.
I was asthmatic, and somehow both scrawny and chubby. So when it came to playing team sports I was always straggling at the back or finding an excuse to sit out and read. When a ball went my way, I would flinch, duck or close my eyes. Instead of playing football or footy, I spent my weekends either at tutoring, Chinese school or Sunday school.
I am also gay. Growing up, the boys who excelled at sports terrified me. They were always so confident in their masculinity, in a way that I couldn’t see myself at the age of 16. In my eyes, they also fitted a stereotype of the (usually white) popular jock. Sport was their arena of expertise, so I thought that I probably should stick to mine.
When I was forced to play something, I was embarrassed by my complete lack of fitness and total absence of hand-eye coordination. And so by the time I reached adulthood, I had decided team sport was just not for me.
Then as I entered full-time work, I found myself struggling to form new connections and create adult friendships.
So in an attempt to force myself to make friends, I joined my office futsal team. I think the last time I played something resembling futsal must have been in primary school. And despite being barely able to run 100 metres or kick a ball in a straight line, I genuinely enjoyed throwing myself at a sport I knew nothing about.
Even though I couldn’t score a goal or dribble for more than a few metres, there was something oddly satisfying about the many times I stopped a goal just by standing there like some kind of meat shield.
I don’t think I’ll ever not be terrified of a ball hurtling towards me but slowly and surely my confidence grew. I started dribbling. Each week I moved the ball further down the court.
And then one week I heard my teammates cheer my name. Sweat poured from my forehead and my lungs burned and wheezed. My calves said stop. My thighs said to sit down. I kept going. I kicked the ball through the opponent’s legs and towards the goalie. I thought it was over. I kept going. I kicked the ball again. GOAL.
From my feet up, I felt a wave of euphoria and relief sweep up to my head. It was both serendipitous and hard-earned.
But I still didn’t get the point of watching sport. It all seemed like a lot of fuss over some other people playing a game. The thing that changed my mind was the Disney+ series Welcome to Wrexham. The show explores the oldest Welsh football club but in a Football for Dummies kind of way. It opened me up to the world of football, which is about more than just a ball being booted up and down a pitch. Despite everyone’s struggles and diverse background, football is this one rallying point.
Then one morning, I decided to wake up early to get in an hour at the gym before work. It happened to be during the World Cup. The Socceroos were facing France, a team I was told we had no chance against. But as I arrived at the gym, the room was abuzz as everyone huddled around the single TV above a row of weights.
Australia had scored. We were ahead.
For 18 whole minutes, the room, usually noisy with banging metal and grunts, was silent. For 18 whole minutes, it seemed like Australia had a chance at beating the world’s number four team. Then France scored goal after goal until it was 4-1. But even though we didn’t win, I felt the highs and lows of a football match for the first time.
Then Australia won against Tunisia. And astonishingly against Denmark. For the first time, I was able to tap into the utter undiluted joy of an Aussie victory. It was glorious.
But then came the game against Argentina, and although my love for the game was only a few months old, even I knew the name Lionel Messi. In spite of complete futility, the ever-so-slight hope of winning kept me watching until the bitter end.
I still don’t know any of the Socceroos by name. I don’t know all the rules, I can barely dribble and I certainly don’t understand any of the strategies. But now, each week I look forward to my futsal game.
• Bertin Huynh is a multimedia journalist for Guardian Australia