I am not a professional historian. Yes, I get paid to research and write. And yes, I write history. But I am not a professional historian. I came to my history work through the back door. More interested in rhetoric, literature and the politics and poetics of language (with a PhD in Literature), I married these to my love of sport – particularly soccer and cricket. I started to notice and analyse the way language was used in sporting media discourse in order to make preferences and discriminations in favour of certain sports and against others.
I also started to get a sense of how these discriminations happened historically. In 2009 Paul Mavroudis and I interviewed a series of figures within Melbourne soccer and they all related this peculiar story of the time in November 1964 that the Slavia team played soccer against a team of VFL stars – and smashed them. Variations of the piece were published in a number of places and on my blog as ‘When Ron Barassi Played Soccer.’
But in Melbourne popular consciousness the match had been forgotten. Even one VFL star who had played in the game had no recollection of it! Ron Barassi refused several requests for an interview. As is my wont I saw a conspiracy of silence and came up with the title, ‘The Game that Never Happened’ – the same title that was used by Greg Baum when he borrowed from my story in the Age. The more I thought the more I realised that the title applied to more than just this game. In a sense it applied to the whole history of Australian soccer. It was the game that either never happened or, if it did, disappeared from notice very quickly. This is now a trope that runs through all my soccer writing.
Another vital moment was when I discovered Trove, the magical Aladdin’s Cave at the National Library of Australia that contains seemingly endless archival records. Anyone who hasn’t visited needs to have a quick look. Those of you with the slightest interest in soccer history will become entrapped by its charms.
I was first captivated by the photos. All these soccer teams going back to the 1890s or even further. Happy, fit soccer players and officials smiling for the camera, conveying a sense of solidity and belonging not recorded in the conventional narrative of soccer’s place in Australian sports. Perhaps the major discovery was the Irymple (near Mildura) team of 1913.
In a mix of awe and horror I noticed that five of the players (the ones asterisked) were killed in the First World War. It was confusing because in the stories of sporting sacrifice, soccer enlistments and deaths are rarely mentioned. Other sports that make a bigger deal of Australian war dead leave soccer in the shade on ANZAC Day.
This discovery set me on a new track on which I am still working. It struck me that soccer may well have contributed a great deal of manpower to the First World War without getting due cultural recognition for having done so. After all, the game that never happened could hardly have been at Gallipoli, could it?
Well the facts are, it was at Gallipoli – both in terms of players and games played there or in transit. Only the extent is yet to be determined. For example of the first 58 Australians to fall, about 25 were recent immigrants born in Britain. My guess is that a good portion of these were soccer players. We’ll see.
At present I am constructing a database of Victorian soccer players in 1914 and 1915 to determine how many there were and what proportions enlisted and lost their lives. At present the respective figures look like they will end up something like 800: 600: 70. Again time will tell.
The digitised newspaper section of Trove is vital in this research process. While it doesn’t contain every newspaper published in Victoria during the war it holds many of them, including The Argus, The Age and The Winner (the sporting paper). These provide reasonable coverage of soccer (British Association football) during the period. Using the site’s brilliant search function, I have tagged every soccer article from the period and am now (with the valuable assistance of Athas Zafiris) combing through each report to find team lists, goal scorers and best-player lists in order to compile club player listings. The newspapers of the time were also keen to publish stories of players going to war so this helps us in compiling our enlistment figures. The grisly accounting of war deaths is also helpful because a dead serviceman’s newspaper biography usually includes his sporting affiliations.
I figure that this project is giving due honour to Australian soccer players whose sacrifice has gone unnoticed, especially at the collective level. It also locates the game itself more centrally in an important Australian legend. When Peter Weir in the movie Gallipoli decided to depict Australians at play in Egypt, why did he choose Australian Rules football as the sport? It was just as, if not more, likely that Australians would be playing soccer in such circumstances.
While I enjoy the challenge of the research and the outcomes being achieved, I am troubled by aspects of it. First, politically I am of the opinion that the First World War was avoidable and not a good thing and that enlistment was also not a good thing. While I resent the fact that sports like NRL and AFL make cultural capital out of commemorating a war to which they had questionable commitment at best, I applaud the players and communities of the time who refused to do the empire’s bidding and kept their games running. I just wish these organisations would celebrate their refusal instead of someone else’s sacrifice.
So while I collect the soccer war dead, I do not do so to increase the empire’s glory but to focus on individuals, families and clubs broken by the war. Some will say (some have already) that this contradiction disables my work. I hope not but I do need to be wary of this possibility.
Another contradiction is that when I find another dead soccer soldier, my heart sinks even while I perform an intellectual fist-pump, “Yes. Another one!” Some days I have found so many dead Australian soccer soldiers in Trove that the feeling of depression has curtailed my work and I have had to move on to something else. It is draining.
In the end I comfort myself with the fact that I am researching a story that comes as an absolute surprise to those to whom I tell it. I also believe that I am doing honour to the personal sacrifices made by the individual soccer soldiers who made choices for reasons we will never know. But then again, what would I know? I’m not a professional historian.