March 2015

The Nation Reviewed

On the ball

By Tony Wilson
On the ball
Rita Zammit is Victoria’s newest Supreme Court justice and a soccer tragic

In the hours before the Asian Cup semifinal in Newcastle, Rita Zammit was in a travelling circle of ten, debating Socceroos team selection and whether her friend Dianne’s corna [n. orig. Italian; dark power summoned by waggling the index finger and pinkie in the direction of opposition players] worked against the colour red. Her phone rang.

“Hello, this is the attorney-general.”

Zammit excused herself. “I’d better take this.”

Martin Pakula had some news. “Cabinet has approved your nomination as a full justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria. It will go before Governor in Council next Tuesday. We’ll subsequently make an official announcement, so please keep it confidential. Congratulations!”

When she returned, there was clarification on the corna. It didn’t work against red, the colour of South Korea, whom Australia could expect to face in the final – but Rose’s Calabrian mother, Filomena, said it could still work if everyone wore their underpants inside out. The group was laughing.

“Who was that?” Dianne asked.

“Just work,” Zammit replied.

Victoria’s newest Supreme Court judge was sworn in on 5 February. She is only the fifth solicitor, and the first associate justice, to become a full justice in 163 years. Her father, Franco Incerti, was in attendance for the ceremony, 59 years after he and his late wife, Angela, migrated from Italy. They both worked two jobs in that tough first decade to support their family. On Zammit’s first day of prep at Fawkner State School in 1966, she didn’t speak English.

It’s been a spectacular ascent. She graduated second in her year from the University of Melbourne while parenting two children under five, and has gone from articled clerk to judge in just 19 years. She’s a board member at Broadmeadows Community Legal Service, where she volunteered for 13 years. Alongside her husband, Alex, she was team liaison for the Italians at the 2008 Homeless World Cup. She’s arranged container loads of computers, books and sports equipment to be delivered to Uganda and Sudan. She’s worked pro bono for disability service providers and spent a decade as a high school and special education teacher before becoming a lawyer. Her specialty as a solicitor was medical malpractice law.

Along the way, she’s run a sideline practice in Socceroos super-fandom. She attended every Socceroos game at the Asian Cup and has been to the last three World Cups and almost every home qualifier this century.

When Zammit was welcomed as an associate justice in 2010, football got a mention. I got a mention too, because I had been standing next to her four years earlier as she breathlessly delivered a 19-pack of Cherry Ripes to Socceroos defender Lucas Neill in Öhringen, Germany, asking him to “pass them on to Harry [Kewell], because Harry can’t get Cherry Ripes overseas”. It had started as a 20-pack but Zammit’s son, Thomas, had eaten one. We later learnt that Kewell wasn’t allowed the 19-pack in case it had been tampered with. As Neill later said on radio, “The fans were fantastic. There was even this mad woman who shoved a packet of Cherry Ripes at me.”

She’s also a Melbourne Victory tragic. Her chambers contain a Leigh Broxham garden gnome and a Muscateers lunch box, aimed at ten-and-unders who are fans of the Victory’s legendary hard man and now manager, Kevin Muscat. The photo that has pride of place is one of the Victory team, with her at the centre.

“I turned 50 in 2011. My children and nieces and nephews invited me to breakfast. After breakfast they said, ‘We’re going to Luna Park.’ I’m thinking, This is all a bit odd. I noticed a number of Victory people were around. Anyway, we ended up in a queue and went up this rickety old staircase. When I went in, yep, the whole team was there! They’d organised for a commemorative photo! And you got to sit next to any player you wanted, so I chose Harry! And you’ll see in the photo I’m leaning right in, because I was going to get as close to Harry as I could!

“They take the photo, and we leave and I think, I am never going to be this close to Harry again. So I turned around and bolted back and said, ‘Harry, can I have a kiss because this ain’t gonna happen again!’ And he did give me a kiss. At that point, security came and accosted me and walked me out. It was so much fun!”

Zammit watches games with her “football family”, a group of about 30 regulars, including me, who sit together.

“I’ve got my ‘soccer husband’,” she says, referring to Joe Marsico, her best soccer-watching friend. “I remember Santo Cilauro, who’d met Joe a few times, actually thought he was my husband. Santo was quite surprised when he met Alex.”

I ask what Alex thinks of all the football.

“Hates it,” she laughs. “Hates it with a passion. Alex hates all sport, but maybe soccer just that little bit more.”

Victory fans probably aren’t aware there’s a judicial officer in their midst when they’re spraying beer and lighting flares on away trips around the country.

“We do a minimum of two away trips every year. Last year we went to see Western Sydney Wanderers and that was unbelievable. The atmosphere in Parramatta compares with the best overseas stadiums I’ve encountered, such as San Siro in Milan.”

I joke that anyone convicted of flare use should appeal all the way to the Supreme Court, in the hope she hears the case.

She laughs. “Of course I don’t condone flares. They are dangerous and you can’t have people getting injured watching football games. But when suddenly the entire stadium takes on a hue of orange, it just becomes quite mystical and tribal, as though you could have Vikings emerging out of the fog, but instead you’ve got these magnificent players on the pitch.” She smiles, as though remembering a lost friend. “They’re illegal, and I don’t condone them, and I don’t encourage them. But can I say … there’s nothing like the smell of a flare in the morning!”

Tony Wilson
Tony Wilson is a broadcaster and the author of Making News and Players.

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