I often said that one of the things I find fascinating about how Association Football is perceived in Australia is how it is able to bring to the surface aspects of Australian culture that often stay submerged and more or less unnoticed.
The issue of ethnicity and Association Football in Australia has been a discussion point even in the late 1800’s where it was called ‘British Association Rules’ football (I’d imagine to distinguish it from the ‘Australian Rules’ variety). The influx of post war European migrants did boost the participation of the sport in the country, but as often clubs were created by these groups partly to find a common activity to meet in a foreign country it amplified the perception that the game had gone from being ‘British’ to ‘European’ and therefore (in the mentality of the 50’s it became ‘wogball’). The fact that Australians enthusiastically took on very British sports like cricket and rugby and made them part of the Australian identity, but somehow rejected soccer (and in the case of most states created their own football code) for a number of reasons.
I don’t intend go over stuff that has been discussed many times over the past few years. But the fact remains that Association Football became identified with ‘migrants’ and therefore not only it was a ‘foreign’ sport to begin with (in contrast with Aussie Rules and Rugby League) but this amplified its separateness from the mainstream even more. Thrown in some ‘incidents’ between some teams that had a tradition of ancient conflict and the cocktail of soccer being un-Australian was made.
I don’t know whether it was a cause and effect occurrence, but I also sensed that many soccer fans liked it that way. I think some liked the feeling of being a minority and that they were different from the mainstream. They were following their ethnic based teams with defiance. That was their heritage and the mainstream could get stuffed. So even when Soccer Australia and David Hill forced teams to remove any link to their ethnic past they would defiantly chant ‘Hellas’ or ‘Croatia’.
And here I will say something I have said many times before. There was good arguments on all sides. The traditional ethnic clubs were those who kept the light alight through dark times. Through all those evenings and weekends, all the volunteering work of love to keep teams afloat. And I think most football fans can’t deny that the 2006 team that did so well in the World Cup in Germany was mostly a product of those teams.
But on the other Football in Australia was a marginalised sport, viewed by the mainstream as a foreign import. I guess some of the traditional supporters couldn’t care less. In fact they probably liked the fact that they belonged to a group on the outside. But the sport was going down the gurgler. Not because the support was dwindling, but also because of the monumental ineptness of Soccer Australia. Knop, Labozzetta etc. well meaning but their administration left something to be desired. The Crawford Report and the creation of the FFA was a necessary circuit breaker. And while many teams that were created by particular groups were true community teams, the perception (whether true or not) that they were associated to a particular ethnic group was not good for a brand new competition. Teams had to be a clean sheet, where fans would be able to attach their own meanings without other influences. Where everyone could attach its feeling to a team because its main focus was the Australian geographical area it represented, rather than a cultural heritage.
But as in many revolutions things get thrown out that perhaps shouldn’t be. And with the creation of the new A-League those who held the torch for the sport were not only discarded, but decidedly made to feel unwanted. ‘Old soccer is now the new football’ the slogan said. It is understandable that many felt bitter towards the FFA, the A-League and the ‘plastic teams’ that it formed.
This feeling remained over the 10 years of the A-League existence. Previous big teams such as South Melbourne and Marconi continued in the State Leagues being followed by dedicated supporters. But this year something happened. The FFA has with the creation of the FFA Cup brought back some of these traditional teams if not back in the fold somewhat in the tent. The amount of support and good will that this competition created was considerable, I was quite surprised by it. Reading twitter I could see so many fans delighted that they had the teams they grew up with such as Sydney Olympic, Brisbane Strikers, Sydney United and Adelaide City in a competition with the A-League teams together, like a NSL-A-League combo. Many reminisced about the 80’s when those teams were in the top flight. Remarkably many fans when referring to these teams decided to use their original names which carried their ethnic origin, which contained words such as ‘Juventus”, or ‘Olympic’ instead of the de-ethnicised names of the post-Hill era. For a reformed Euro-snob such as myself, it was heartwarming to notice the amount of affection these teams still had amongst Australian football fans
The FFA however was being paranoid about allowing the ‘ethnic’ element back in the football mainstream. After suppressing the ‘foreign’ element of soccer with the advent of the A-League they were not going to allow the genie out of the bottle. Before the competition started it put out an edict forbidding any team to “use, advertise or promote (or permit any other person or entity to use, advertise or promote) any ethnic, racial, religious or political identifiers in connection or association with the Club”. The prospect of those old NSL clubs identifying themselves as coming from a particular group was too much for the FFA that somehow thought that these teams, now playing in a new competition with A-League ones, would somehow re-label the code as wogball again, tainting the clean white bread image of the A-League.
What it is interesting is that at the same time the FFA is doing this, the AFL is desperately trying to boost its multicultural credentials. It has a Multicultural Round (watch the heart warming videos) and it ensures through the media any player which is ‘diverse’ gets coverage.
So what’s going on? Basically is the ‘A’ word again, assimilation at play here.
Since the 70’s we’ve heard a lot about multiculturalism but again football (of both codes) shows what really is meant by this word. It is not multiculturalism at all, it is really of re-enforcing the mainstream template. The AFL with his multicultural PR demonstrate that the code allows you to become an aussie, like everyone else. The FFA is basically telling fans and teams to go in the same direction. Forget about your heritage. We don’t want to look foreign. Please put anything un-Australian away. So we can have all fans from both code feeling all warm and fuzzy in ‘Team Australia’.
I say to the FFA to break the mould, don’t be so paranoid. The FFA Cup is for the true believers anyway. I don’t think that a Melbourne Victory playing an Adelaide Juventus is going to ‘taint’ the A-League. Even the mainstream media is sophisticated enough to see that this is a different type of competition. On the contrary it may feel many football fans that felt ostracised by the advent of the A-League to be back in the fold, and it will finally recognised the heritage of Australian Association Football. Without kowtowing to an image of white bread Australia. Time to recognise that a team is Australian. Whether it was created in the 1950’s by a bunch of migrants who arrived by boat or one who is 10 years old and created after the Crawford Report.