Jock: You did some nice things last week. Not one of your best games but you did some nice things. Glorious mark you took in the second quarter. You just seemed to go up and up.
Geoff: I felt like Achilles.
Jock: Who’s he?
Geoff: A Greek guy who could really jump.
Jock: [nods] Some of our new Australians could be champions if they’d stop playing soccer and assimilate.
The Club, Act 1. David Williamson – 1977
The quote above comes from David Williamson’s play ‘The Club’ (which was subsequently turned into a film) that deals with the clash of values that were occurring in a VFL club in the mid 70’s.
If you haven’t seen the play this scene is between Jock, the vice-president of the football club, who I would guess is in his 60’s representing the ‘Old Australia’ of post war picket fences and white bread, and Geoff a young star recruit who goes to University and is questioning the ‘old traditional’ values of the Club and football in general. It is also a very perceptive line about the role of Australian Rules football compared to Association Football (aka soccer) and how the role of Aussie Rules is seen as a way of enabling assimilation. This was in some way reflected in my own journey.
When I started to follow the VFL in the late 70’s, one thing that attracted me to the game, and made me feel welcome was that there were plenty of non-English/Celtic name playing. My father and I barracked in Italian and never anyone said anything to us. Granted we were following Carlton, and perhaps fans thought that it was quite normal.
But if I remember the Carlton team in the late 70’s and early 80’s – a golden period for Carlton – there was Jesaulenko, Bosustow, Klomp, Marcou, Perovic, Bortolotto, Kourkoumelis, Marchesani, Silvagni, Dorotich etc. Plenty of NESB (Non English Speaking Background) names. And of course we had NESB players from other teams such as the ‘Macedonian Marvel”, or that big Hawthorn man with that unpronounceable name.
But the underlying belief for me, which I didn’t realise at the time, was that being a footy follower was a way of become more part of the city I lived in. There was no sinister outside force compelling me to do this. After migrating from Italy, then going to Sydney and after three years to Melbourne, I found in this city finally a safe harbour, and supporting an VFL team (which was as a Carlton resident my ‘local’ one) was part of it. I did read later that in many ways there was a similar journey for many of the NESB people who got involved in Aussie Rules. Even our current Socceroo coach felt that that way.
It was later, especially as I got interested again in the code of my childhood – Association Football – that I started to see the cultural divides implied in the game of Australian Rules.
Let me say that I think that the AFL does well in celebrating its traditions. It has placed a strategy where certain rounds are dedicated to a section of society that has contributed to the game. We have an Indigenous Round , a Women’s Round and this weekend we had a Multicultural Round. It is a substantial PR exercise. We have heart warming videos such as this one.
And we have media support. An example was an article in yesterday’s Sunday Age by Geelong player, Jimmy Bartel explaining the thinking behind the Multicultural Round.
We have the most inclusive game in this country and are the only football code that plays for professional points in every state and territory. Any Australian should feel comfortable to take his family or mates to a game and cheer home their favourite side. I like to look into the crowd and see a snapshot of society watching – although, perhaps not heckling me too much.
As I was watching the videos, and reading the articles I was thinking why the AFL is so keen in demonstrating its ‘multicultural’ credentials. As I stated earlier having NESB players in the competition is nothing new. And it is fine for the AFL to celebrate these players. But when we look at the message, the AFL is more interested in us looking at the future, rather than the past. Yes we have the players that played in previous years, but the images and the narrative is about children, about the young. I do wonder whether this stems from that inexplicable insecurity that Australian Rules football has about its position in a global economy. I do wonder whether they feel that the old ‘assimilation’ ethos that existed in the 50’s 60’s and 70’s is no longer there to motivate NESB young people to choose Australian Rules over other sports (or any activity for that matter) and so they re-create it with the image of ‘inclusiveness’. But we also have to ask. Is it ‘assimilation’ with new updated clothing?
Look for instance the way the media has gone in overdrive when someone who is from a different culture from the mainstream joins the AFL. Awer Mabil is an Adelaide United player who has played in the Young Socceroos in a recent tournament in the USA. He was born to South Sudanese parents in Kakuma, located in northwestern Kenya and lived in a Refugee Camp with his family until 2006 when his family moved to Australia. Maybe Adelaide media had some stories about him, but I haven’t seen much coverage here in Melbourne. In comparison when another Sudanese young person, Majak Daw started in AFL there were articles galore in the Victorian media.
Why this difference? Is it because despite everything deep down Association Football is still a ‘Wog’ sport? And therefore having a player representing Australia is not much of a story? While Aussie Rules is seen as ‘Australian’ and therefore white Anglo/Celtic and therefore when someone from Africa join its ranks it is a big deal?
It really goes back to what Jock indicated in Williamson’s play. That playing Australian Rules for a migrant is a sign of integration. Of becoming part of Australian society. While playing Association Football is the opposite. Is to opt to remain an outsider. A migrant that chooses to play a ‘foreign sport’. Terms might have changed, but the sentiment hasn’t.