The scene is the South Melbourne ground at Albert Park. I sit on the concrete steps. Behind me there is scaffolding which has been erected for a TV camera and a couple of SBS commentators. On the side the old South Melbourne VFL Football and Cricket stand cuts a lonely figure, forgotten and fenced off. I remember it when I came to see a South Melbourne – Carlton VFL match in the late 70’s. I came here to see my team, Carlton SC playing South Melbourne. The crowd is sparse. So much so that one of the commentators (I think it was Paul Wade) can comfortably walk amongst us just before the start of half time and have a chat.
It was a bit of a journey for me, being here. I used to dismiss football as the sporting equivalent of those ‘peasant’ events in those ethnic clubs, such as Veneto club or the Calabria Club. Those dancing dinners that I’ve heard about. You see at that time if I had to take the cake for snobbery I would been in the top 10. Maybe was being from Milan. Milanese are renowned to be a bit as Italian say ‘con la puzza sotto il naso’, which could be translated as ‘tofee nosed’. I lived most of my Italian life in Bergamo and which was seen by the Milanese an over-pious hick town, and my parents would recount the uncouthness of the Bergamo residents at the dinner table.
This was continued in Australia. We, as middle class Milanese business migrants, didn’t have much in common with the Italians that came 20 years before from impoverished areas with barely anything and built up their lives from nothing. The disdain of the ‘serate danzanti’ at the different clubs, with the derisive comments of the band with their frilly shirts (it was the 70’s after all) transferred itself on the clubs built up by these communities. I remember my father telling the family after someone invited him to a match with Apia “I’ve seen the best players in the world like Di Stefano and Rivera, why should I watch these amateurs?” And also my father believed in assimilation. He was in Australia and he wanted to do what Australian did. So he bought a house in the northern suburbs of Sydney with a pool and started to learn golf. Another facet of this when we moved to Melbourne was to follow an AFL team. I couldn’t get into rugby league in Sydney, a game that was too much start and stop for me.
Adopting middle class Australian values had limits however. Both my mother and I hated the suburbs and when my sister and her new husband became part of the first wave of gentrification of Carlton we convinced my father reluctantly to move there as well, and therefore being in Carlton we followed the Blues.
Soccer was not on the horizon. For me it was a game where migrants (unlike me) wanted to cling to their ethnicity. I did not reject my Italian heritage, quite the contrary but after the storm of migration I really wanted to feel settled, feel I was part of a place. Being in a inner suburb which I loved in a city which had a cooler climate really helped. And following a VFL team was part of that. Finally, as Melbourne welcomed the sport of my childhood was still echoing. I keenly stated to follow the National team and its tragic failings to qualify for a World Cup. But in the NSL I couldn’t find a team that I could identify with, a team where I could establish some connection, despite the fact that in my consciousness football still meant something.
It was fate that the Carlton Soccer Club was formed. It was perfect. It was the same club I was following in VFL but with football, and it wasn’t connected to any ethnic group (albeit as I later discovered had very strong Italian connections). It was like football was calling me to come home.
And in fact there is no denying that despite all those AFL/VFL matches and finals I attended, there was a real sense of being at home in the few Carlton matches I attended. Despite the fact that I couldn’t go to many. At that time I started a new job, became a father and my wife wasn’t well, so my free time to see matches was very limited.
I recount my reconciliation with football as I am thinking of a reconciliation of the past and the current football in Australia.
Joe Gorman has (as he does) written a great piece yesterday about the formation of an Australian football museum. I felt that the main issue in the article wasn’t the museum itself, but the symbolism that the FFA and the current administration will acknowledge the past. As Joe writes:
The museum must not, as this administration and the A-League has done for a decade, shy away from the game’s roots in ethnic communities. FFA’s lust for corporate attention and the pig-ignorant view that football must be “mainstream” must not be allowed to distort our past.
Football was genuinely multicultural well before multiculturalism was public policy. The ethnic social clubs that emerged in the post-war period provided some of our greatest clubs and players. Great Australians such as Charlie Perkins and Marin Alagich, hailed as champions of multiculturalism, found community and sanctuaries from racism at football clubs run by migrants. Any Australian football museum must reflect this truth.
I say hurrah to this, I agree wholeheartedly. But like all history we also need to acknowledge why there was need for reform. The NSL was unraveling with dwindling attendances and being ignored by the media except for SBS. Soccer Australia under the administration of people such as Labozzetta was pretty much a disaster. The structure was made up and voted in by two territories and six State Federations and was very hard for the to make decisions when it’s own livelihood was dependent upon eight different bodies pulling in different directions. Plus, it had to be said, despite many attempts or at least being seen to support reform, Soccer Australia could not reform itself because of self interest of its constituents. It was a mess It was only when the government intervened threatening withdrawal of funding that the constituents of Soccer Australia reluctantly submitted to the Crawford Report and relinquished control. I made a submission to the Crawford inquiry and I stand by by what I said then in 2003.
I believed then, as I believe now that a break from the NSL had to occur. Football was seen as a marginalised sport. And here is where the conundrum occurs. If we have to broaden the appeal of something we may have to change the perception. This perception may be totally wrong, but it is still there. Perceptions are very hard to budge – why despite the evidence to the contrary Liberal governments are always seen ans better economic managers? So whether we like it or not – teams like South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights still has an image of being basically based on a particular ethnic group. This may have been wrong but I believed as I believe now that a total new competition with new teams was the only way to extracate the game out of the swamp it found itself. And can I say immediately this wasn’t the fault of the traditional NSL teams, it was a combination of factors.
However there was a certain attitude that football belonged to a certain group. Just after the creation of the A-League I was talking to a South Melbourne supporter, which was totally against it. Many of his arguments were right. The new A League teams were franchises and didn’t have any link with the community. They were like McDonald outlets.
On the other hand I said that while teams such as South Melbourne and the Melbourne Knights had strong community connections, the predominant community was only one (Greek and Croatian). Ultimately following a team is, when we see it, quite an irrational act. The reason why we want to follow a team is because of the meaning it gives to us. Family connections, memories. In the A-League often it stated by having a team reprsenting the city where you live, and where everyone felt (in reality or not) part of it. While there is no doubt that teams like South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights would welcome new fans with open arms, the perception that any team was affiliated to a particular group would already put a barrier for some new fans to invest emotionally in a team.
To my surprise the South Melbourne fan said he didn’t care if new fans didn’t want to follow his team because of this. He loved that the team had a connection to his heritage and all the people that followed the team with him. he enjoyed the fact that the team was part of a particular ethnic group because it shouldn’t have to feel it had to follow a mainstream Australian ideal.
Well I didn’t agree. I can see his enjoyment and attachment but this meant that by maintaining this sort of attitudes for teams in the top level in Australian football the sport would remain marginalised and on the outer, and it doesn’t deserve to be that. I thought such an attitude to be quite frankly, selfish. Where football was there to satisfy the emotional requirements of a selected group of fans, and who cared about the rest. Football is not there to satisfy the cultural requirements of any particular group. It belongs to everyone and can’t be constrained by ethnic virtual district.
On the other hand this doesn’t mean that the FFA has gone too much the other way and has treated football past, which includes teams created by a number of different groups, with undeserved disdain.
The fear of being tainted with the ‘old soccer’ meant that the new guard, often led by men who had little or no relationship to football – and in fact came from other codes, ignored and dismissed the history of the game in Australia. My understanding of the history of football in Australia started when I read Johnny Warren’s Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, and Les Murray’s By the Balls. These books made appreciate why teams originated from migrant communities. In the 50s when Australia was less into multiculturalism as now, when it was solidly anglo-celtic, the creation of clubs where people that shared a culture and language would have presented an oasis after working in places such factories or on building sites. And part of this was to follow and foster the game of their country. The efforts and dedication of post war migrants that gave up their time to build these football clubs.
This was ignored by the post-Crawford FFA in the fear that ‘new football followers’ would have tainted the new football and may have been turned away by this old soccer ethnic link’. I can see how followers of the tradiotional teams would have been offended.
After ten years of the A-League it is now to start a process of reconciliation. An Australian Football Museum could be a start. But even more would be to remove the FFA’s National Club Identity Policy that confirms to traditional clubs that their heritage is seen as a liability. With the A-League established, the FFA Cup is a perfect vehicle to start mending some bridges. Eliminate the NCIP, allow teams to proudly express their culture. It will be fine. Football will be streghthen by it.