In August 1996, as teams were nearing the end of their pre-seasons, Soccer Australia released what would become one of it’s most controversial schemes – the National Merchandising Plan. The idea behind the initiative was simple. The new chairman of Soccer Australia, David Hill, realised that football lacked the proper market visibility needed to promote the National Soccer League (NSL). In this regard, he was spot on. Kids in the 1990s were wearing football jerseys of all distinctions, however these jerseys tended to be overseas clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid or Juventus rather than Australian sides. Indeed, by 1995, West Adelaide players were forced to hit the streets, giving away tickets in Rundle Mall in an effort to increase their match day attendances and brand visibility.
It was a shrewd observation by the new boss at Soccer Australia. At its core, the National Merchandising Plan was a simple marketing strategy. In a recent piece for the Leopold Method, Shaun Mooney commented that people wearing football jerseys are “mini billboards” for that club. “People wear their teams jersey or other merchandise”, writes Mooney, “as a means to increase the visibility of their connection.” Unfortunately, however, things were never that straightforward in the NSL. As George Negus explained to football fanzine Studs Up in 1996, the ethnic logos and names of NSL clubs were hard to market to a wide audience;
“Whilst (ethnic symbols) might be meaningful to hardcore supporters of that club, they mean nothing to supporters outside the club. Why bother to merchandise and license or promote the game via club strips and club paraphernalia, to a public that doesn’t even understand what those symbols mean?”
Hill’s plan would make him some powerful enemies, and create headlines for all the wrong reasons. It was a sign of things to come. Indeed, the tenure of David Hill at Soccer Australia is a story of one step forward, two steps back. There had been reformers at the head of the game before, but none took to the crash through or crash approach with as much determination as Hill. Fresh from his role as managing director of the ABC, Hill recruited George Negus to serve as commissioner, and Brian Wooley as Chief Executive Officer. Wooley had previously worked in a similar role for the National Basketball League, while Negus was well-known as a prominent television journalist with a love for the game. The new guard appeared fresh and innovative, and uninhibited by the internal politics in the game. With a strong record as a troubleshooter during his time at the ABC, David Hill was determined to move football into the 1990s. His merchandising strategy was just one of several controversial plans in an effort to make the game ‘mainstream.’
Australian & British Soccer Weekly, August 1996.
The 1990s were a difficult decade for the game in this country. Players began leaving for overseas clubs as the Bosman Ruling created greater labour market flexibility, and the rise of Asian football created greater opportunities for players in the NSL. At an administrative level, while other sports rapidly commercialized their operations, football struggled to move beyond its traditional structure and rise above the politics that suffocated the game’s image. After the success of the Bicentennial Gold Cup in 1988, the Australian Soccer Federation commissioned the Bradley Report, which, amongst other things, recommended that the governing body “create the image that soccer is not ethnic.” It wasn’t the first time, of course, that outside observers had reached this conclusion, but it was certainly the most urgent call for change. Still, despite the best efforts of the Hill administration, it would take more than a decade for Bradley’s recommendations to come to fruition.
“It’s pretty difficult to market Croatian nationalism to non-Croatians.”David Hill. Sydney Morning Herald. August 15, 1996.In a letter to all the NSL clubs delivered in August 1996, Soccer Australia explained that in order to participate in the competition for the coming season;
“All clubs shall be obliged to remove all symbols of European nationalism from club logos, playing strips, club flags, stadium names and letterheads.”
The statement was clear. Soccer Australia’s new president had assumed that ethnicity and commercialism just didn’t mix. Jerseys with the Croatian šahovnica or il tricolore of Italy were not seen as marketable items, and thus needed to be neutralised. The outrage was immediate, and at times vitriolic. But Hill’s stance was firm – any clubs that refused Soccer Australia’s requirements were threatened with expulsion from the newly named Ericsson Cup. One wonders what David Hill and his team had expected from clubs backed by proud, strong and well-resourced migrant communities. The Leopold Method spoke to veteran football journalist Ray Gatt, who covered the events for The Australian. Gatt believes Hill simply underestimated the resistance of the clubs in question. “He just didn’t get it,” Gatt explained, “he was treading on four decades of history and tradition.” Indeed, Sydney United, Melbourne Knights, Marconi and Adelaide City immediately raised their objections to the proposals, which they saw as both unnecessary and insulting. Hill was forced to bring in the former Minister for Ethnic Affairs, Neville Wran, to play peacemaker. But Wran was always firmly on the side of Soccer Australia. “I’m happy to mediate” said Wran, “but the policy of Australianising the game must continue.”
Fans were also divided as the issue escalated. In a double page spread in the Daily Telegraph, titled “Soccer In Crisis: Code’s Costly Own Goal”, writers dissected the looming standoff. In an attempt to quell any confusion, Hill himself penned a column for the tabloid to explain the rationale behind the merchandising plan;
“As part of the broadening of the appeal of soccer, we’re about to launch a new plan to sell national soccer gear throughout Australia. We want to market the most attractive apparel possible… which has maximum appeal to the broadest mainstream of Australian society.”
Hill might have wanted maximum appeal, but what he got instead was maximum controversy. Johnny Warren was the first to fire. A long-time supporter of ethnic clubs in Australia, Johnny was never one to shy away from a hot topic like this. He blasted Soccer Australia in an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, suggesting that asking Marconi, Sydney United, Melbourne Knights and Adelaide City to renounce their logos would be akin to “disowning your parents.” Warren then went further, questioning the motives of both George Negus and David Hill. It didn’t go down well with Soccer Australia.
Two days later, the newspaper gave George Negus his right of reply. He defended himself against Warren’s charges of racism, calling the Socceroos legend “spiteful and personally jaundiced.” Defending the Merchandising Plan, Negus went on to say;
“Multiculturalism is a two way process. In this case, it involves non-ethnic Australians benefiting from soccer’s old ethnic roots and the original ethnically based clubs benefiting from and becoming part of non-ethnically based Australia. It’s all about two-way multiculturalism… not racism and discrimination.”
Interestingly, both parties used the language and precepts of multiculturalism to defend their territory and their positions. It went further, as local and state politicians came out to defend the clubs, usually which were part of their electorates. In Adelaide, Mike Rann defended his club Adelaide City in an open letter to David Hill;
“Wearing a logo with Italian colours is totally consistent with Australian multiculturalism. I believe Australian multiculturalism is strong enough to cope with logos like this.”
Interestingly, Rann’s support seemed based as much on currying political favour as it did ideology. In the same letter, he warned against what he called the “excessive nationalism” of the Melbourne Knights. Clearly, Rann’s version of a multicultural society still had limits – symbols okay, nationalism not okay. In Sydney, Morris Iemma called Soccer Australia’s proposal “racist and discriminatory… striking at the very heart of our multicultural principles.” Amazingly, Iemma called for a breakaway league, and labelled Perth Glory and Brisbane Strikers “pale imitations of American sporting franchises”. His view was echoed by Joe Tripodi, who was a long-time member of Club Marconi. The then-NSW Premier Bob Carr even chimed in;
“Many logos have decades of history attached to them and are important symbols not only to the players but also the supporters.”
Indeed, it was the members who felt the changes most. Former Sydney United captain Mark Rudan – who now coaches the first team – is well placed to comment. He spoke fondly with Leopold Method about his playing days at his boyhood club. As a player, Rudan was largely shielded from the internal politics and controversies, but remembers the effects that the changes had on his father. For the Rudan family, football was more than simply a game, it was a chance to reinforce community bonds. Mark’s father took his young son to the Croatian club as a boy in order for him to “be around other Croatians.” The club was a social utility and a way for the Rudan family to stay in touch with their roots and their community.
“The club was integral. It gave us a chance to socialise and to assimilate properly. I grew up with my best mates at that club. We met wives and girlfriends there. When we were told we had to make changes, there didn’t seem to be a middle ground. But my father’s generation weren’t going to just leave their history and their heritage aside.”
Here is the part that the executives at Soccer Australia clearly hadn’t accounted for. Around the country, there are many ‘mini-Barcelonas’, who all consider their local team to be “more than a club.” It’s not self-aggrandizement, and it’s certainly no exaggeration. Adelaide City, Sydney United, South Melbourne and Hakoah – just to name a few – were deeply intertwined with the needs of their local constituents. Growing up in western Sydney, Rudan remembers that it became a ritual to watch Sydney United;
“All kids grow up wanting to play for their country. But my first dream as a kid was to don the red jersey and to play at the hallowed ground at Edensor Park.”
Herein lay the eternal problem for the NSL. Whilst it may have been a genuinely multicultural competition, Australians were (and to a certain extent remain) divided over what constitutes the term “multiculturalism.” Despite the gradual acceptance of a multiracial society, the extent to which newcomers are expected to assimilate into mainstream Australia is often left open to interpretation. The feeling that multiculturalism would divide, rather than unite Australians was keenly felt on the football field. The game became a kind of proxy war where opinion makers argued endlessly about Australia’s national identity. Consider this comment by Herald columnist Jeff Wells, from 1996;
“The national league is no place for ethnic fiefdoms… The strength of ethnic diversity is in bonding, not brawling. But bonding into what? Most of the laconic humour and family strength, which carried this country through war and depression, seems to have been obliterated by imported push-button repressive ‘liberal’ ideology. We have aquired the right to be fashionably bland and confused.”
Wells, with one swift stroke of his xenophobic brush, manages to blame ethnics in football for violence, runing the family, importing bland politically correct ideas, destroying the Australian sense of humour, and dividing the nation. Still, the truth is that dual nationalities and dual loyalties are simply a part of modern Australia. So when George Negus suggested that ethnic clubs needed to “become part of non-ethnically based Australia”, he was letting perception get in the way of reality. Far from being an ethnic enclave, these social clubs and football sides were, in fact, a way for Croatians or Italians or Greeks to assimilate on their own terms.
This is a crucial but often overlooked point in this discussion. In Andy Harper’s 2004 biography Mr and Mrs Soccer, Johnny Warren talks about being an “Aussie by accident.” To him, migrants brought something to Australia as well as simply assimilating into the umbrella culture. It was a point made by Marconi president Tony Labozzetta at the time. With many different nationalities and ethnic backgrounds in the squad and in the clubhouse, Negus’ lecture on “two-way multiculturalism” was a bit rich. A logo and a name is the public image of the club, and to many members, a source of great pride. Then-president of Melbourne Knights Ange Cimera commented;
“Our community has poured millions into this club over the last 43 years. We built our own ground, built our own stadium, we’ve gone ahead in leaps and bounds… To say people feel unwelcome at our games is garbage.”
According to Sydney United club historian Tony Nimac, the members met on August 31, 1996 to vote against changes to the club logo. The top-down approach by Soccer Australia was a source of great confusion among members, who had seen their club rebranded several times since their birth as ‘Croatia Sydney’ in the 1950s. Still, a week later, with the looming threat of expulsion, the members came to an agreement with the governing body, and a new logo was approved.
It was a similar story at Marconi and Adelaide City. In truth, Marconi’s logo was as Australian as it was Italian. Combining a boomerang and the radio tower with the Italian il tricolore and azzurro, the logo reflected both their European heritage and their Australian location. Italian-Australian writer Pino Bosi – who wrote Whose Afraid of the Ethnic Wolf in 1986 – was vocal in his opposition to change. In an open letter to Hill published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Bosi charged the governing body with hypocrisy, asking David Hill whether the Union Jack would be removed from the Australian flag, or replaced by the Aboriginal flag. If it was truly about ‘Australianising’ the game, Bosi and others wondered, then why only target European symbolism?
It was a point well made, and one that struck right at the heart of the issue. In 1996, what was an acceptable symbol to reflect the identity of a club patronised by Croatian or Italian migrants? What did it really mean to be an ‘Australian’? In truth, it’s a near-impossible question to answer, but one that was being fought out at the highest level of the game in this country. To many, the logos were seen as a kind of fifth column that would divide up the country into ethnic enclaves. To the supporters of the ethnic clubs, the banning of logos was seen as a Trojan horse to kick their team out of the league altogether. As rugby league columnist Roy Masters commented at the time, “this dispute is not about emblems, it’s about power.” It didn’t help when David Hill was reported as saying;
“I have a problem with the ethnic clubs in Melbourne and Sydney and in particular the two Croatian clubs. The League would be better off without them.”
And when the young Melbourne Knights stopper Josip Šimunic announced his plans to play for Croatia rather than Australia in December, the issue became personal. The Age columnist Gary Walsh criticised the young AIS graduate for taking “foreign money”, while many fans voiced their outrage in the Letters pages of football newspapers. Tellingly, one columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald commented;
“(If Šimunic) had not played for a club with Croatian emblems on it’s jersey and which continues to identify with Croatia, would he have opted for Australia over Croatia?”
In taking on the clubs over such a delicate issue, David Hill was putting the cart before the horse. He had wrongly assumed he could turn Marconi into a Cantebury Bulldogs simply by enforcing cosmetic changes to the image of the club. Ray Gatt remembers Hill as a confrontational leader, who was spoiling for a fight even over such a “minute detail.” As was the case in the NSL, a compromise had to be reached, leaving nobody particularly happy. Marconi became the ‘Stallions’, Sydney United the ‘Pumas’ and Adelaide City the ‘Zebras.’
Most puzzling of all was South Melbourne, who became the ‘Lakers.’ True, their home ground lies on the banks of the lake at Albert Park, but you’ve got to wonder about the influence of the Los Angeles Lakers, who were a prominent team in the NBA. Basketball was the big new craze in the 1990s, thanks to the exploits of Shaquille O’Neil, Michael Jordan, and Charles Barkley. While the Australian basketball competition never reached any great heights, for South Melbourne to rebrand themselves the ‘Lakers’ seems more than just coincidence. Still, merchandise hardly flew off the racks. The supporters of these clubs didn’t need a glossy new shirt or a key-ring to confirm their allegiances.
Much to the dismay of their supporters, Sydney United were forced to play their finals series at Parramatta Stadium rather than Edensor Park. To this day, it’s a decision that riles Mark Rudan. “It was a shock to the system” says Rudan, his voice rising with indignation. In 1997, Hill went further, instructing Sydney United to appoint board members who weren’t of Croatian heritage, and “aggressively recruit” non Croatian fans and players. The courts found Soccer Australia to be in breach of the Racial Discrimination Act, but changes were slowly implemented as the club appointed former Liberal leader John Hewson as the new chairman. Later, appointing a non-ethnic chairman was a tactic copied by Adelaide City and Melbourne Knights, with little success.
When Mark Rudan moved to Northern Spirit in 1997 with his best mate, Paul Bilokapic, his career switched from an emotional engagement to a “professional transaction.” He no longer felt the immense weekly pressure of performing for his community. Still, the return to Edensor Park proved difficult for Rudan and ‘Bilo.’ Faced with ‘Judas’ banners and jeers, Rudan spotted his dad in the crowd. He was there to watch his son play, but he was supporting Sydney United, as he had done all his life. To this day, you’ll find him in the Boka Stand at Edensor Park, in the red and white of Croatia. Over the road at Bossley Park, the Stallions play in the New South Wales Premier League. Walk into the stadium, however, and you’ll notice the old Marconi ‘boomerang’ logo still engraved into the old iron gates. Some things will never change.
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