Ethnic Diversity in Australian Rules and Association Football in Australia

The issue of cultural diversity in the two codes of Australian Rules Football (which I will abbreviate as ARF) and Association Football (which I will abbreviate as AF) has re-surfaced in the social media in Australia.

The reason is this statement by Ray Williams that “no other sport celebrates multiculturalism as the AFL”

This has inevitably raised heckles from fans of AF which see ARF, but especially the Australian Football League (AFL) as a very anglo/celtic centric sport, and that they have decided to hop on the ‘multiculturalism’ bandwagon late in the piece as they realised they needed to attract Non English Speaking Background fans (NESB) to expand.  This is particularly true for an area which has a high proportion of   NESB such as in Western Sydney.  They see that ARF and the AFL really didn’t care about NESBs and in fact they were hostile to them, and that they got interested only when they saw a financial opportunity.

As someone who has followed Carlton in the VFL and then the AFL I think this observation is not particularly true.  I remember plenty of NESB players in my team:  Alex Jesaulenko, Val Perovic, Mario Bortolotto, Peter Bosustow, Spiro Kourkoumelis, Frank Marchesani, Stephen Silvagni,  Peter Sartori, Anthony Koutoufides. And from other teams such as Steven Alessio at Essendon, Peter Daicos at Collingwood, Robert DiPierdomenico at Hawthorn.

The issue is that at that time the fact that a player was a migrant, a refugee or had parents who were wasn’t celebrated.  In fact playing ARF was a confirmation that these players were integrated in the broader Australian society by playing the ‘Australian game’

Jock: A marvelous high mark you took last Saturday. You just seemed to go up and up!

Geoff Hayward: Yeah, i felt like Achilles

Jock: Yes…


Jock: … Who’s he?

Geoff Hayward: A Greek guy who could really jump

Jock: Ah, yeah yeah. Well some of these new Australians, you know they could be real champions, if they forget about soccer and just learn to assimilate.

From ‘The Club’ by David Williamson

This was the antithesis of AF (or soccer) where there were factors at play.  Mainly that AF was a ‘foreign’ game, something which (unlike ARF) wasn’t Australian, was played mainly overseas and therefore by this any NESB person who chose to play it, or follow it made a statement that he or she was not ‘integrating’ in the mainstream Australian society (at least in the states where ARF was the main code).

Two models of multiculturalism – mosaic or melting pot?

Often sport is a catalyst to see more clearly the undercurrents in society, and AF has been a very revealing one in Australia.

Sociologist and other researchers have examined how different cultures who are minorities handle their situation among a majority mainstream culture.

Initially the go was assimilation.  Then after the progressive movements in the 1960s the concept of  “multiculturalism” arose in the 1970s, and was proclaimed first as an official government policy in Canada when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau promoted it as his official political doctrine for a nation containing English speaking and French speaking groups, the Native Canadians nations and more recent migrants. [1]

But a clear definition of what it means it still elusive.  For some it is still a form of assimilation.  By any means acknowledge the cultural background, and it’s great when it is within an ‘acceptable’ boundary (food and music yes, wearing a hijab..not so much). This is still the concept of the ‘melting pot’ advocated in the USA before the 1960s, but still one that many feel confortable.

The other is the mosaic model where distinct cultures co-exist in the same space and can have a common purpose but also different identities. [2]

So when the AFL extorts the values of multiculturalism it is really more of the melting pot model.  Players and fans may come from different cultures, but with ARF they are all in the mix together, any expression of players’ individual heritage is sacrificed in the ideal of a common Australian pursuit.  This can be clearly seen by the twitter hashtag the @afldiversity account uses:  

While AF, by its very nature it has developed a mosaic model.  Fans from different countries and cultures have created teams which are a direct representation of them.  Fans and teams express their particular heritage openly.

This latter form of cultural diversity sits uneasily with the orthodox view of multiculturalism in the Australian mainstream, where it is often a way of ameliorating a soft version of assimilation.

This is why Soccer Australia and more recently Football Federation of Australia has stamped on any individual national or ethnic identity of teams and created a league devoid of any link to any particular group or culture to replicate the AFL model.

Is Australia ready for a mosaic Association Football league?

Soccer Australia under the leadership of David Hill and now with the FFA have tried to turn football cultural model as mosaic multiculturalism to a melting pot model like the AFL.  Hill banned teams having ‘ethnic’ names, while the FFA instituted the National Club Identity Policy.

The problem with this is that changing the culture of AF from one form of multiculturalism to another is like unscrambling an egg.  The modus operandi of these two codes is totally different.   The question is whether the gains administrators of the game think they are getting by allowing multiculturalism, as long as it is not identifiable from a particular group is greater than allowing teams to express their background.

Towards a unique mosaic model

When I was following the NSL I followed Carlton SC.  I could sense that there was plenty of anger towards Carlton from some fans of the more established teams such as South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights.  Now I see why that was.  They saw the introduction of teams like Carlton as intruders trying to ‘de-ethnicise’ the game, and I can see why these supporters were so glad when Carlton fell apart.  I also can see that anger now directed towards the A-League as a whole.

I also think that Australia has moved on since those days.  Despite multiculturalism being under attack from many sources, including the government, I believe that a re-introduction of traditional teams with freedom to express their background will not mean a massive exodus of supporters.  I also think that it would not label the sport as a ‘wog ball’ as it did maybe 20 years ago.  And even if it did, do we want supporters who refuse to watch the game just because a team may have been created by a NESB group?

On the other hand I also hope that if traditional teams are re-admitted in the top tier of AF in Australia their fans will accept the teams that were formed  when the A-league was created as legitimate and leave the ‘franchise plastic teams’ barbs behind.

After all we are all here to further the game of Association Football in this country.  We can do it our way.  But we need to do it together.


[1] Multiculturalism (Multiculturality) / Translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi | TRANSIT

[2] Kallen, E. (1982). Multiculturalism: Ideology, policy and reality. Journal of Canadian Studies17(1), 51-63.

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