How ‘Australian’ is football?

In the late 1990’s I went to Milan to volunteer for an environment organisation. As someone who left Italy twenty years or so before, I was a sort of information source about Australia. As part of our lunchtime discussions sport came up. I told my fellow volunteers of Australian Rules Football. A fantastic game of speed strength and speed. As my team Carlton was in the finals a few weeks before, a friend of mine sent me a tape of a clash between Carlton and Essendon. If anyone remembers matches of that period between these two teams they were epic. Close and hotly contested. So one lunchtime I brought the tape and wacked it in the video machine. As many were sport fans I would expect them to be fascinated and enthralled about these men bouncing, kicking and marking the ball. The response was not what I expected. “It looks like lots of big men just clashing against each other and grabbing each other” one said. “What a chaotic game” said another. And they went on to read or do other things, completely disinterested. All the skills and tactics of the game completely escaped them.

That was the perception of people who have never seen the game before, and did not grow up with it. I often think of this episode when I hear a Australian Football saying that ‘soccer is boring’. Many football fans get irritated, but I just think it’s a mirror image of what my friends in Milan were telling me all those years ago. Liking sport often requires more than the element of the sport itself. Years may be required to get all the nuisances of game, and often the cultural context is important.

That is why I find how football is perceived in Australia so fascinating. It sometimes brings to the surface cultural issues in Australia that other areas aren’t capable of doing. I have already discussed in a previous post about how many fans want to support a team is perceived to be outside the ‘normal’ way sport is supported in Australia. But the cultural divergence came up again after an article by sport journalist Greg Baum. In this article Baum raises the point that the practice of some football players to lie on the ground in pain after a tackle is not part of the Australian sport ethos, and that if football want to enamour itself more into the Australian sport culture, this practice should not be taken by Australian players.

Cheese was Wednesday night’s soccer international at Etihad Stadium, in which – all too familiarly – a physically affronted player would spin, crumple and then lie prone, as if picked off from the grassy mound, bringing play to a screeching halt. Mostly, long before the ambulance and the police escort could be arranged, he would make a Lazarus-like recovery……….. In most sporting endeavours, it is something of a proud Australian tradition not to betray even acute pain. A batsman, when struck, will not rub the sore spot. A heavily tackled footballer will gasp for a moment, then stoically carry on. A tennis player will not call for the trainer until his leg begins to detach. The thinking is not necessarily profound. It’s about machismo, about the mental battle, about projecting a sense of indestructibility, about not admitting to your opponent that he has had even a moral victory. It is probably more reckless than it is wise. But it is us. And it is why many Australians who have warmed to soccer in this, its first golden age in this country, still are bemused by – even contemptuous of – the apparent frailty of so many soccer players, including Socceroos. They see it as antithetical to their idea of sport. ……… Here, the Socceroos have the chance to make a virtue of a vice. They could establish themselves as the team that plays the game, but not games. They could as a matter of policy make light of glancing slights and blows. They could, uniquely among soccer-playing nations, resolve to get on with the game…………. Critics doubtlessly will say that I do not understand the game. They ought to consider this: much as the Socceroos are striving to impress the world, they are still tasked with trying to impress Australia. Much ground has been gained, but much has still to be made; the barely passable crowd on Wednesday night says as much. Australia is an earnest and honest team, but despite the yellow shirts, it is not like watching Brazil, not yet. It is not enough to say Australia must accustom itself to the world game; the world game must also adapt to Australia. It must be a game with which all Australian can identify. ….. Mostly, Australians prefer their sporting representatives to be hard, robust, impervious to pain. The Socceroos have a chance to take a stance. Upright.

Predictaby, this article raised the heckles of many football fans. I feel for Greg Baum. He genuinely loves the game but many football fans label him an ‘AFL writer’ and therefore using his articles to undermine football. I have pointed in football forums about the fact that Baum is not anti-football but it is no use. Any criticism from a journalist which is not uniquely a football writer is suspect, and previous articles that were very pro football are ignored. The argument that Baum also has been scathing of more ‘established’ sports, and their fans (I remember being very critical at some racist attitudes amongst some cricket players and fans) is also dismissed. The Age football writer Micheal Lynch wrote in his blog responding to a fan being critical of Baum:

Greg Baum is a Walkley Award winning sports writer and rated by his peers (including me) as one of the top sports columnists in this country. Greg is a huge football fan. But he writes it as he sees it. We as journalists are not here to provide pump up positivity. We are not part of the marketing or promotional arm of the FFA or anyone else for that matter. If increased coverage of the game helps it grow, that’s fantastic. But our first responsibility is to our craft and professionalism, and if that means criticising an aspect of the game, so be it. Greg is one of the best in the business.

The following day another sport writer Dan Silkstone wrote a response to Baum’s article.

SO FOOTBALLERS – sorry soccer players – dive too much, writhe in agony and act in ways that are generally and despicably un-Australian? Was I the only one who watched on Wednesday night and saw a relatively well-officiated, physical contest in which there were few fouls, little play-acting and some lovely flashes of skill? Why are we even talking about this? Surely the days of football – sorry soccer – having to apologise for itself are over in this country. Like any game the world one has flaws and weaknesses, good characters and bad…….. In soccer, men get hurt, fall over and take their time to rise. The reasons for this are many and complex. It is, traditionally, a game with fewer stoppages – a game played at higher tempo, a game played for only two halves but requiring its players to run for 45 minutes and not 30…….. An injured man is usually injured in the act of tackling, an act that may look less spectacular than the hip and shoulder but which can be far more painful. A man so tackled has every right to take his time, take a short period to recover, to slow the game and allow everyone to catch breath. He is one of just 11, in his sport the absence or incapacity of one man will be felt more keenly than in 18-a-side Australian rules…. In other sports unlimited interchange is allowed…….. Those who would look at another game – be it Australian rules or any other – and transpose across the rituals of that sport miss the mark. These rituals are habits, developed over time. They do not relate to courage, or honour or honesty nor anything else of the sort. If round-ball fans are sensitive it is with good reason. The suggestion underlying the coded assertions is that the soccer player is somehow more devious, less manly, certainly less tough. And therefore, thanks to all of these, less Australian……… The world of the world game encompasses hundreds of traditions, of styles, of cultures. It is sprawling, organic and relatively uncontrollable. Thank god. Soccer does not need nor want to be Australian rules football. Why would it?

I know that I never tend to take strong positions on this blog, but again, I actually agree with both Baum and Silkstone Baum has written before about the fact that football in Australia has facets that, in his opinion, do not fit the Australian sport ethos. He was critical of the booing of the Uruguayan National Anthem in Sydney at the World Cup qualification match. And this criticism of players being too prone in falling over maintains that line of argument. Basically what I think he is saying is that football may be the world game, but certain ways of playing and supporting the game do not sit well with the way Australian support or play their sport. And if football wants to become even more popular in the Australian sporting culture it needs to eliminate those aspects.

Silkstone is also right. Many football fans find it irritating that everytime football gets some exposure it gets analysed or criticised according to the ‘main’ sports of Australian Rules and Cricket, when often the conduct of players in these sports are also not sportsmanlike, and the feeling is that football is always on trial, always to having to prove itself. Always having to be accepted. When football can be what it is and be accepted for what it is? Fans get tired of being told that to be ‘accepted’ in Australian the culture of playing and supporting football should be similar like other sports. ‘We are not the fucking AFL’ they will say in no uncertain terms.

However the other side of the coin is that football in Australia doesn’t have to follow what is done overseas. There is a belief in some quarters, that to be a ‘true’ football follower we have to mimic what fan do in Europe, or South America. Youtube videos of overseas fans in action are shared as a type of a manual of what ‘a real football fan is about’. I have stated before that supporting football is different to supporting the AFL or Rugby League because of its organised nature. But someone who says that ‘real fans’ should do what fans overseas do, and then criticise Baum because he believes that football should reflect Australian values is being inconsistent. It’s swapping a culture for another. It’s the cultural cringe of football.

As someone that doesn’t have Foxtel I have to resort to going to pubs to watch the A-League. My local, the Peacock Hotel in High St. Northcote is very football friendly and there are plenty of football fans there watching the game. But when I go to the Esplanade in Inverloch during my holidays, and meekly ask the staff if they could switch a TV to Foxtel so I can see the match I know that I am in a hostile environment. I can’t totally relax as other patrons bemusedly look at the sceen and that at me thinking why I am watching ‘sokkah’. Of course when a player fall down they don’t know all the good arguments that Silkstone has put forward, they see a player putting it on. And when he gets up they mutter ‘typical’ ‘look at that how miraculously has got up!’ before they go to the bar for their next beer. We may dismiss them as typical AFL-loving bogans, but I think they do reflect a general attitude to football that Baum has expressed. They don’t know about a game’s intricacies. They don’t know about what Silkstone has said such as the game being played at higher tempo, for only two halves but requiring its players to run for 45 minutes and not 30, they just see a player falling over. The same as my Milan colleagues saw AFL players smashing into each other and being chaotic. But it is also a good point that football is a game that has a type of support, or way of playing that may be perceived to be different from the way that games have been played in Australia. And that football is literally a totally different ball game.

Maybe the answer is both what Baum and Oakley say. The negative things that football may have, such as copying the most unsavory aspect of support (which is a form of cultural cringe) or cynical playing should not occur. It would be great if we did develop a way of playing and supporting that is so uniquely Australian that fans watching an Australian football team would see features that belonged to us, and fans would be recognised as Australian in the way they supported their teams. But on the other hand for this to occur it would also be good that football be accepted for what it is, and to be accepted as part and parcel of the Australian sporting culture, and not seen as something alien. Perhaps this will happen in its own time organically.

But for this to happen football needs to be accepted for what it is and not to be continually having to prove itself. To be seen to be an integral part of the sporting culture, and not a novelty every time a world cup comes around.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “How ‘Australian’ is football?

  1. Great piece of writing. Your European background of football makes your experience of it so completely different to mine, and I am very glad you can write so well.

    As more of the new local fan, still as a born Queenslander in love with NRL, I find myself leaning toward Baum’s view, but I too can see the other.

    The point about leg, ankle and knee injuries is well made. Here’s a funny illustrative story that’s true. When I was 18 I was working voluntarilly on a student boat cruise when I had a nasty accident and broke my knee. It bloody hurt but the initial pain subsided and I stoically continued the evening for over half an hour, drinking beer, meeting people and eating pizza. As the boat was readying to leave and I stepped down to it, my leg telescoped underneath me and I broke my arm in the fall.

    If a medico had have been handy to give the leg a routine check, as they are near football fields, I may not have needed an operation and six weeks before I could walk.

    Heroism and ‘guts’, ‘balls’ or whatever is fine, but taking stupid medical risks probably isn’t.

    • Bargegum

      The odd thing to my mind is the way the argument tied itself up in knots. Baum was taken to task on the grounds that football is not
      homogeneous, but is played differently in different parts of the world. Which is pretty much what I thought he was saying.

      Football, as it seeks a wider audience in Australia, necessarily, it is appealing to those who will see it through the prism of the sports
      they already know. It is something authorities already have in mind. I don’t think it must become a game for thugs and bruisers; of course not. But I know from speaking to non-converts that even a little stoicism would win it points.

      A comparison with north America (US and Canada) is useful. Football has not really reached the heights there as might have been expected, since they already have had a World Cup. North Americans, like Australians, are accustomed to more overtly physical sports. Because of that, track and field does not have the profile or status in North
      America that it does in Europe. In the US, the best runners and jumpers go off to play football or basketball.

      I think there will be change here, but it will take time, generations, not months. It is simply not an argument to say, it’s the world game, so it’s going to take over just like that. Even though I love it.

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