There was a flurry of commentary on the internet about whether a team from Perth. Gwelup Croatia could be allowed to keep their name when playing for the FFA Cup. For those who may not know, the FFA instituted a National Club Identity Policy for all clubs affiliated to FFA-approved competitions, which stipulates that clubs do not carry any ethnic, national, political, racial or religious connotations either in isolation or combination. This policy has pushed the buttons of many in the community. As I have written before in this blog, Association Football has tried to shake off the image of being a ‘sport for migrants’ therefore ‘not for Australians’ for a long time. In the early 90’s the then Chairman of Soccer Australia dictated that all ‘ethnic’ names be removed from the teams. Even prompting a politician to question this as ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Parliament. This made many fans of the ‘traditional’ clubs wary of any attempt of wiping out references to their traditions. The introduction of new clubs in the NSL with no cultural links were seen with suspicion. As a Carlton Soccer Club fan I do remember some hostility from some fans of the more traditional teams towards Carlton SC and the schadenfreude when Carlton SC went bust.
When Soccer Australia was disbanded and the A-League was formed, teams with connections to cultural groups became as popular as a turd in a lunchbox. . The traditional teams such as South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights and Marconi were excluded and teams with no cultural backgrounds (such as Perth Glory) and brand new teams were included in the competition. To add insult to injury, these traditional teams were seen as undesirables. A bit like when Hindley humiliates Heathcliff by locking him in the attic in Wuthering Heights, these teams were shut out. “Old Soccer vs New Football’ was the motto. The fact that this initiative was being implemented by someone who did belong to ‘old soccer’, Frank Lowy who was involved in an ‘ethnic team’ added fuel to the fire. The dislike (putting it mildly) amongst some football fans is palpable.
I still believe that the situation for Football in Australia was so dire that a clean break was necessary. The Crawford Report was the best thing to have happened for the code (the fact that all its recommendations haven’t been implemented is another story). I could also see the reasoning why the FFA wanted to create a ‘new brand’. Unfortunately we live in a market where perception is vital, and unfortunately traditional teams did portrayed Association Football as something as an import. I knew that this wasn’t necessarily right. Whether your heritage is from Greece or Croatia you are as much Australian and in the spirit of multiculturalism the culture is as much part of the country as one coming from Britain and Ireland. However in the cold fact of the sporting market this is not the case.
Many who supports the actions of the FFA refer to the dire situation the NSL found itself in the last years of its existence. The attendances were paltry. Even a derby between Sydney Olympic and Sydney United attracted 4,327 people. But most attendances were around the 1K mark. And of course no much of a media exposure. Some argue that this wasn’t necessarily the fault of the teams. And that may be true. Again it comes back to perception.
Since the formation of the FFA and the A-League, talking with people who followed the NSL, or are following their traditional teams I understand much more the emotional impact that the advent of the FFA and the A-League had on them. These teams were part and parcel of their identity. These were the teams created by their fathers and grandfathers. These were the teams where they spent their childhood. Being prevented to participate in the highest competition in the country and being told they were part of a ‘problem’ and ignored must hurt. So when the FFA Cup came along where these teams were able to go back to a national level, the NCIP was rubbing salt into the wound, re-traumatising again. Joe Gorman wrote a great article in the South of the Border blog about the NCIP. In there he writes:
It’s a depressing irony – Australia’s first genuinely multicultural sport has internalised the logic of assimilation and unleashed its toxic influence on the few remaining clubs that wish to retain the most visible symbols of their identity. Ultimately, we need to move away from the idea that this is an issue simply for football. Someone recently told me the NCIP is for the good of “the whole of the game in 2015”. My response was that I do not care for the good of the whole of the game in 2015. I care for the good of people and communities in 2015, and hope to see that expressed through soccer.
Gorman makes two very interesting points in this statement. One is “Australia’s first genuinely multicultural sport has internalised the logic of assimilation” . Football was not really ‘multicultural’. It was infact monocultural as its most important teams associated themselves with one culture. A Croatian culture, a Greek culture and so on. And here lied the part of the problem in the perception of the sport in the late 90’s. This monoculturalism presented a barrier for these teams to attract a broad spectrum of fans. This is what the FFA tried to do with the A-League. There was a lot of talk about ‘uniting the tribes’ whenit was formed.
The other is “not caring for the good of the whole of the game in 2015 but caring for the good of people and communities in 2015, and hope to see that expressed through soccer”. I think that in some cases, what communities believe is good for them may not necessarily be healthy for the game as a whole. I remember discussing the advent of the A-League to a committed South Melbourne supporter. I was espousing what I said above. That the A-League was necessary the appeal of football. That unfortunately, the perception amongst many was that the sport had become an enclave for certain groups. He responded that he didn’t really care about how popular the sport was or if Australians of Anglo background came to watch. He was happy with the 1,000 – 2,000 fans attending a match that was largely ignored by the mainstream media because that what he wanted and what the people who went to the matches wanted. Of course that may not be the general attitude. But I do think we would make a mistake if we were to look as the Soccer Australia/NSL days as a time where the game was a more wholesome and community based game. My perception wasn’t so. It was a game which was marginalised in the sport culture of Australia, and the idea that the game belongs solely for the benefits of certain communities would have condemned it to remain so.
The way forward
While I believe that the break from a broken NSL had to be made and the perception of soccer being a ‘game for migrants’ had to be made, the FFA was far too brutal in erasing the traditions of the past. The implementation of the NCIP shows that the FFA is still locked in a mindset that is now outdated. The A-League despite all its problems has been a relative success. We have now arrived at a point that any demonstration of ethnicity can be seen as an asset, rather than a burden.
The images of souvlakis being sold at Bentleigh’s Kingston Heath Soccer Complex may have irritated some. But it proved that football can provide an identity which is totally different for any other sport. So let’s drop the NCIP. Teams can acknowledge their traditions, fans of traditional teams won’t feel like they have been entrapped in am Anglo white picket fence and it may even attract more fans because of the type of different community such teams and games can offer.