The link between Goodes’ dance and soccer

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As a long-suffering Carlton supporter here I was watching my team being demolished again.  As  I do when I watch a game at home I was on tweeter.  Goodes scores a goal and to be truthful I didn’t pay lots of attention to his celebrations or the commentary.  Was yet another goal against us.

But then twitter exploded about his post goal celebrations.  Some thought it provocative.  Some thought it as a great way to celebrate his heritage in a round which is supposed to celebrate aboriginal heritage and tradition in Australian Rules Football.

For the record I thought that it was great what he did.  And I would say as a Carlton supporter that it was great he involved us in an indigenous celebration (I mean, we were getting slaughtered anyway).

But as I was reading the reactions on twitter something immediately came to my mind.

Many have written about why Goodes was singled out.  One of the main issues is because Goodes refuses to play the game of being the good aboriginal who is part of the mainstream.  He refuses to be part of those outsiders (such as Andrew Bolt and Rita Panahi) that desperately seek acceptance by verifying the most bigoted and right wing views in Australia.  He confronts the fact that he  comes from a culture which was invaded and almost wiped out by colonisation.  This in an environment (Aussie Rules) which has strong assimilation sentiment.

One of the things that attracted me to VFL in the 1970’s was that there was lots of Non English Speaking Background (NESB) players, and this sort of made me feel welcome.  But later I realised that underneath that there was a strong undercurrent of assimilationist thinking. “you are in Australia now. You follow our sport”.

This was not uncommon.  Even included the current National Team coach, Ange Postecoglou.

Postecoglou’s family arrived in Melbourne in 1970 as migrants from Greece when Postecoglou was five. “All I wanted to do was fit in,” he says as we settle in and prepare for our protein. “So I rejected all the Greek culture . . . and I didn’t want people to know I was Greek. I wanted to play Aussie Rules and I remember the hatred Dad had for it and I didn’t understand why.”

But the little boy didn’t want anything to do with football (soccer)  at first, grappling with the vexed issue of assimilation, as many migrants do….

I’ve discussed what I think is the relationship between Australian Rules Football and multiculturalism before, so I won’t reiterate those arguments.  But the Goodes incident has implications about Australia views real diversity.

The same way Aussie Rules culture demands assimilation in what is perceived to be mainstream Australian culture from migrants, it showed that it demands that from indigenous Australians as well.

However here is where the AFL narrative comes unstuck.  While assimilationist culture can pinpoint at migrants as outsiders, this cannot be done to indigenous Australians.  The roles are now reversed.  The white mainstream culture becomes the outsider in this context, and this creates all sorts of conflicting emotions.  Especially when the AFL uses indigenous culture to affirm its ‘Australian uniqueness‘ against other codes.  When you have Goodes, an AFL champion, who has not been backwards in telling Australia about its racist attitudes towards Aborigines, expressing his culture during a match – especially during a round who is supposed to celebrate the indigenous tradition in the game – then some assimilationist chickens come home to roost.

In past decades, both migrants and aboriginal Australians were outsiders and Association Football was an ‘outsider’ game.  One of the most known activists for Aboriginal rights, Charlie Perkins,  (Kumantjayi Perkins) one of the most influential activist for aboriginal rights, he’s quoted on why he was attracted to the game.

“soccer brought me into the migrant community where I found great satisfaction, no prejudice, no history of bad relations, no embarrassing comments or derogatory remarks, they welcomed me into the fold and I’ve been there ever since”.

It is not inconceivable that in the 1950’s attitudes towards Aborigines would not have been much different in Victoria.  What the statement above demonstrates is at that time, an Aboriginal Australian felt as an outsider, and as an outsider found a home in what was considered by most then as the ‘wog game’

But things have changed since then and the AFL is to be commended to celebrate its Aboriginal players and traditions.  However the reactions to Goodes dance do highlight how much of a real insider someone who does not fit the mould can be even now.

Is things like an indigenous round another exercise of absorbing a culture into the mainstream Anglo/Celtic one and it is ultimately a way to make non-Aboriginal Australians feel good about themselves, papering over the actions of the past.  The way some fans and commentators have reacted it seems that there is tension on this area.  In today’s Offsiders on the ABC Waleed Aly made a very pertinent point that  Australian is a tolerant society until minorities demonstrate that they don’t know their place.

This argument can be carried in the way many commentators (and I suspect some that applaud Goodes action) perceive Association Football.  As long as it behaves within the parameters accepted by Australian mainstream society it can be tolerated.  However if it expresses a way of supporting which is perceived to be foreign is condemned. Even worse if these minorities Aly mentions use soccer, which is a sport that is part of their culture, to express their traditions.

That is why when the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) was formed, it deliberately created an A League cleansed with any reference to the non-English speaking cultural influences that nurtured Association Football especially after the Second World War.  It felt necessary to rid itself of any perceptions of being ‘ethnic’ that of being an outsider.  Perhaps that was a price to pay for becoming mainstream.  But the fear of being a ‘foreign sport’ remains. A couple of years ago the FFA initiated the  FFA Cup a competition which included A-League teams as well as teams whose origins were from diverse cultural background. The FFA felt it necessary to enact a National Club Identity Policy to ensure clubs do not  “carry any ethnic, national, political, racial or religious connotations either in isolation or combination.’

Goodes action on Friday did carry an ethnic, racial and religious connotations.  It proves that when it comes to sport in Australia you have to act within a certain set of parameters.  Parameters that seems to be set by a ‘white picket fence’ set of values.
As this set of values may approve the unique atmosphere a soccer crowd can produce without taking into account its cultural connections, they also like the image of Australian Rules being ‘our Australian game’ with its perceived aboriginal origins and having indigenous players.  However, when these values are challenged the criticism comes thick and fast.
Because sport is such a central part of Australia’s culture and as a vehicle to define its identity, reactions to what happens in a stadium can be very revealing.  And unfortunately not all of what it is revealed is encouraging.


Filed under Football

2 responses to “The link between Goodes’ dance and soccer

  1. Alex

    Hi Guido,
    Could I offer a less sinister hypothesis. Professional football is entertainment is escapism. Within the theatre of the sport, people want to feel good about themselves. They don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want controversial social or political issues.
    Health is ok, because people can feel good about themselves because they and their game are supporting health causes, and aren’t we wonderful.
    If you look at where the AFL has gone on things like reconciliation or gender issues, it is about trying to create a positive future rather than confronting an uncomfortable present, and again it makes people feel good about themselves.
    What Goodes is doing is confronting them in their escapist space with an uncomfortable reality, and people who just want to watch the footy on a Friday night aren’t getting the opportunity to forget about the real world for a couple of hours.
    All of that said, good for Goodes. If you want to forget about horror realities the best way is to work for the reality not to be a horror one. Goodes has the right to bring his culture, his personality and his issues with him to the game because they are an authentic part of who he is and what is important to him.

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