Soccer has contended with dogs, demons and destabilisers since the first spherical balls rolled off the ships in the 1830s. The game’s legitimacy has been questioned by those outside the game ever since it was first advocated in the 1860s and while its first fleeting steps of organisation were taken in the 1870s. Dozens of reasons – including the game’s putative foreignness, feebleness, degenerate participants, absence of masculinity, wealth, corruption, colonialism and imperialism – have been used to cast doubt upon soccer’s right (or need) to exist on this continent.
As a result the quality of belonging felt by many of the game’s adherents has been diminished in most places in Australia for most of that history. A sense of inclusion and the possession, of what Anne-Marie Fortier calls ‘terrains of commonality’ (for example, established clubhouses, enclosed playing grounds, and regular and effective media space), have too rarely been felt and held by soccer in Australia. It would be fair to say that sometimes a kind of embarrassment or even shame has attached to a commitment to the game. To be a soccer player, supporter or advocate is to adopt an uncanny position in relation to many perceptions of Australian mainstream culture.
The reasons for these perceptions relate strongly to memory. Australian soccer is a game that suffers from forgetfulness both generally and within the game as well. Soccer has been present at key moments in Australian history yet the broader culture and the game itself simply do not remember. So reactivating memory is also a key to the solution of soccer’s problems of historiographical invisibility.
This reactivation is not an easy process, even on a sheer practical level. While the recent digitisation of Australian newspaper archives has made the task somewhat easier than it might have been, a nonetheless significant amount of trawling for previously ignored counter-narratives has been performed in the research of our history.
But the difficulties are more than practical. Lynn Abrams warns:
History-making, or the construction of views of the past in any society, is the product of a struggle of a particular interpretation of that event or period. And when a hegemonic view emerges it generally excludes or mutes alternative or counter interpretations. Those who hold alternative interpretations have difficulty narrating or expressing their memories because they cannot fit them into the dominant narrative, the collective memory.
The telling of soccer’s story is inevitably a political task, a reactivation of memory that will challenge and upset dominant narratives and those who hold them dear.
Organised soccer is more than 130 years old in Australia. At the time of writing, nearly 500,000 adult Australians participate in organised outdoor soccer competitions, higher participation levels than any other team sport. At its elite level, soccer is capable of generating massive television viewing statistics. A Socceroos game at the World Cup, for example, is one of the high water marks in Australian televised sports viewing (even in the middle of the night). While soccer tends to be the second football code wherever it is played, it nonetheless has the kind of demographic Australian coverage that the other football codes envy. Soccer’s numerical strengths (and some of its cultural weaknesses) are indicated by its status as the ‘go to’ game for Australia-wide advertising narratives that represent children at energetic play.
One long-standing frustration for the proponents of soccer in Australia is that many of these tens of thousands of juniors end up playing (and supporting) other codes of football at the senior level – this drift may well be the game’s fundamental problem as it tries to establish itself on a stable footing in Australian sporting life. At the elite level, Australian Rules footballers like Peter McKenna, Adam Goodes and Peter Matera were good junior soccer players. Andrew Johns starred with the round ball as a junior in Newcastle and Preston Campbell loved playing soccer as a boy. He left the game to follow his good friend Nathan Blacklock to rugby league. Each of these sportsmen made the switch in their teens. This is a trend that leaves many soccer supporters wondering if their game might have had more success had those players and others stayed in the game. The words, ‘He would have been a great soccer player!’ have often passed their lips.
So this game, even with such apparent comparative advantages, has fared badly in Australia. Since the 1860s, organised soccer has sought a place in Australian society only to be rebuffed and rejected as a foreign game, a threat, sometimes even a menace to Australian masculinity and life in general. Soccer has endured sustained media myopia offset by frequent outbursts of intense and spiteful attention. Johnny Warren encapsulated this anti-soccer mentality in the title of his memoir Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters.
These were the kinds of people who played soccer in Australia (though Warren might have added Poms and children). The game was seen as effeminate, foreign and for homosexual men. While Warren’s title doesn’t quite represent either the totality or the subtlety of opposition, it does capture the vituperation and the spirit of a different age. He relates the ‘daunting image, still prominent in [his] memory’ of a ticker-tape parade for the Socceroos in Sydney in 1969 in the context of an otherwise positive if not rapturous welcome home.
I had taken my allocated place in one of the sports cars which had been organised for the event. The cavalcade was snaking its way through the streets and turned a corner. This one particular corner, like so many of its kind in Sydney, was adorned by a pub. Wooing the punters to drink from its kegs were pictures on its outer wall of rugby, cricket and horse racing. True-blue Aussie sports. Spilling out of the pub’s doors were tank-topped, steel- cap-booted, tattooed workers quenching their thirst after the dust of the day’s work. ‘Fuckin’ poofters,’ some hooted at us. ‘Dago bastards,’ followed others. The odd projectile was hurled our way. Needless to say, I had, in my life, felt much safer than I did during that parade.
The recent relative successes of soccer in Australia might tend to suggest that the bigoted attitude that confronted Warren is a thing of the past. The way that the A-League and well-attended international fixtures have elbowed themselves some room in the mainstream of Australian sport media indicates a new-found respect for the game has been established. However, the battle may not be over. Even when the vulgar and coarse resentment is peeled away, a core of repulsion, sometimes principled, more often irrational, remains.
The former comes from a writer like Martin Flanagan who believes that any weakening of Australian Rules football because of soccer’s rise will damage local culture, already embattled by the manifold forces of globalisation. Flanagan respects soccer and other codes of football but he makes his priorities clear.
[Australian Rules football] has a unique place, not only in Australian sport, but in Australian culture which, in my experience, is obvious to outsiders. I can admire the Australian rugby union team and enjoy watching them play, but at the end of the day it is a British game they’re playing. Australian football is a marvellous sporting invention that found its way into the hearts of people and infiltrated other aspects of their lives so that it became something by which you knew families and suburbs and towns and, more recently with the national competition, different parts of Australia.
While this argument is one that deserves notice, largely because it is true for much of Australia, it is flawed in relation to Sydney and broad regions of the two northern states of NSW and Queensland, something that Flanagan tacitly admits with his vague use of ‘different parts of Australia’ in his final sentence. The problem is that Australian Rules is an irrelevance for many Australians, even many of those who are interested in sport. They do not play it; they do not watch it; they fail to understand it. Some hate it. Nor have they experienced the purported social benefits of the game to which Flanagan refers. Significantly, in one of the heartlands of Australian mythology, what might be called the Waltzing Matilda country of outback Queensland, Australian Rules was until recently an utterly foreign game and did not belong.
Flanagan does not allow for the fact that the so-called ‘British games’ (the Rugby codes, cricket and soccer) have also given and continue to give meaning and structure to the lives of many Australians. And unless he is willing to say that these experiences are inferior to or less authentic than the social meaning obtained through Australian Rules, or that these Australians aren’t true Australians, then Flanagan is guilty of making a national generalisation out of a regional truth.
In many regions and towns soccer has a continuous history of more than 100 years where the game has been, for generations of Australians and waves of migrants, an important pillar of their communities. In Flanagan’s home state of Tasmania, the South Hobart Football Club has a more than 100-year history and has played at the same home ground for almost all of that time. The club belongs in and to the community in ways that Flanagan would admire in relation to an Australian Rules club.