If You Build It, They Will Come (or Where is our National Museum for Football?)

I am an unabashed, self-confessed lover of history. From the broad sweep of a millenia of ancient Roman history, or the German experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, through to the more idiosyncratic niche studies of the history of the Oxbridge comedians of the post-war era, or the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and plenty of spots in-between, I have dabbled or dipped my curious intellect again and again into matters of the past. Some of these efforts have been more serious than others, and my interest in subjects has been known to wax and wane over the years. Whilst I’ve always had a fascination with the history of military aviation, when it comes to say the Space Race of the Cold War era, or colonial exploration of Australia, they are the matters that I’ve left behind in my now distant youth.

Partly as a result of my age, and more significantly as a result of my exposure to and love for the Western Sydney Wanderers, I have started to look more and more upon what I knew personally and what I didn’t come to know about the history of football in Australia. As I have referred to in past posts, my first engagement with soccer (to use the still popular but arguably politically incorrect name for football) came as a little boy who saw the heroes of the 1974 Socceroos squad head to West Germany for the finals of the FIFA World Cup. I was fortunate enough to know who someone like Atti Abonyi was, or how good St George Budapest were in the old NSW First Division competition. There are still memories of the tumult over Jimmy Shoulder and Rudi Gutendorf’s tenures as Socceroos coaches (which on reflection would make some of the #HolgerOut stuff seem like a storm in a teacup). I recall with some clarity the launch of the Phillips NSL, the first tentative steps from players like Alan Davidson, Eddie Krncevic and Craig Johnston to leave Australia and play in Europe or Asia. The 1981 FIFA World Youth Cup in Australia, the Bicentennial Gold Cup, Ned Zelic’s goal against the Dutch for the Olyroos, Eddie Thomson, Hakoah, the Carlton and Collingwood entries into the NSL, Melita Eagles, Northern Spirit, Mark Bosnich, that match against Iran in 1997…these were but small flag posts on my rather limited exposure to soccer’s long and deep links with Australian society. Manfred Schaefer, Johnny Warren, Col Curran; they were my childhood icons from football, but I was an Anglo kid with barely any real understanding of what the sport meant for migrants, for people from such disparate backgrounds as Charlie Perkins and Sir Arthur George. I knew who Newcastle KB were, but did I have any knowledge of the links between the Hunter coal miners and football as part of their culture? Yes, I was familiar with Rale Rasic, but what about ‘Uncle’ Joe Vlatsis? I had just missed out on seeing a man who many still consider our best ever Socceroo play (i.e. Ray Baartz), and it’s no surprise that Joe Marston’s name was relatively meaningless to me up until the last decade or so. I’ve read ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Pooftahs’ by Johnny Warren, but I never saw him play in person for any of his teams.

What is all this meandering and circumlocutory ticking of boxes in my personal soccer history meant to convey? I guess what I am trying to get across is that even a middle aged Anglo like me who knows a little about football’s place in Australia pre-A-League, pre-Crawford Report, can only throw out a few tidbits of trivia, a scattering of half-accurate memories. There are going to be plenty of people both older and younger than me who will know more, however I would hazard a guess and say that the vast majority of those who have engaged with the sport especially since Frank Lowy supposedly ‘saved’ soccer in this country have almost no clue whatsoever about even the limited things I know, I recall. As it is there are young men and women in the RBB, the Cove or the Den (for example) who would look at older folk quizzically if you asked them about what happened in Australian soccer before Schwarzer and Aloisi combined to send Uruguay home from Sydney devastated at not qualifying for Germany 2006. Names like Tommy McCulloch, Marshall Soper, Allan Maher most likely mean SFA to them. How many of Graham Arnold’s devotees would be waxing lyrical about his quixotic attempt to conquer the J-League when in Eddie Thomson Australia had a real pioneer in coaching overseas successfully. There is plenty of debate and discussion over the recent moves by the FFA to ‘de-ethnicize’ football in Australia, but who among those who were cheering for the Wanderers against Al Hilal a few weeks back can recognise the man on the left and his role in Australian soccer?

photo-george-best

Left: David Hill (Head of the old ASF/Soccer Australia 1987-1995) with George Best (right)

 

Of course an intimate knowledge of history and past people, teams and events of football does not make one fan better than another. However as someone who has had a similarly long engagement with cricket’s history, I can categorically state that any debate or discussion about that sport’s current place in Australia is almost always referenced within an historical framework. Whenever a game is played at home or abroad the media, the fans and the players themselves often couch their experience of cricket with references back to say a Don Bradman or a Dennis Lillee or a Shane Warne. Cricket in Australia is very comfortable with its history, and never fails to exploit it as part of its dialogue.

I also believe that the manner in which cricket history has informed many Australians (Anglos and otherwise) means it is often used as a lens through which we see the world and ourselves. Talk about the Commonwealth, about our relationship with Britain sometimes sees references to the Bodyline series of 1932/33. Our ongoing developing engagement with India is often filtered through the eyes of how our cricketers have embraced or been embraced by the emerging Asian giant. If a sports boycott is brought up as part of the potential reaction to the policies of a repressive foreign government the manner in which cricket led the fight against South Africa’s apartheid system is often thrown into the mix. For some one of the most defining and positive developments in the history of white Anglo-Saxon Australian society dealing with black people came about as a result of the 1960-61 tour of  Australia by Sir Frank Worrell’s West Indian cricket team. It could even be argued that the recent death of test cricketer Phil Hughes due to being hit by a bouncer made many Australians consider broader, deeper philosophical issues such as fate and mortality, and this will be forever part of cricket’s historical meaning in this country from now on.

I would argue that where we as Australians know more about the history of one of our sports we more often than not see more clearly who we are, what we are about, how that sport reinforces or accentuates what it means to be Australian, and gives us another portal into how we interact with the rest of the world. Surely then with football being the global game, with possibly the most complex history of any sport in this country, it seems to me to be mandatory for football fans young and old, players and administrators, academics and lay people alike to get a better handle on what has gone before today, whether it be old soccer or new football. Through the wonderful agency of football’s unique Australian history we can all have a more informed discussion about our culture, our politics, or racial make-up and our international relations.

As part of this ecumenical desire to see all of the history of football in Australia given due diligence and respect, a prime starting point must be a national museum that provides the physical evidence for what has gone before in football down under. After all, if Bowral can lay claim to the International Cricket Hall of Fame a.k.a the Don Bradman museum, or the MCG host the National Museum for Sport (with a large collection of AFL and Olympic related material), why can’t (hypothetically) a redeveloped Parramatta Stadium hold a National Football Museum? In wider terms, if Australians are able to better understand our military history through the War Memorial in Canberra, or learn about our past as a maritime nation via the Australian National Maritime Museum, why can’t the sport that has seen so many unifying and divisive aspects for much of its long history be given its own home, a place for people to come and see the artifacts, hear the stories, see the footage of a sport that existed long before the last nine or ten years of A-League and Socceroos developments arguably raised popular awareness and acceptance.

Having hopefully built the foundations of answering the first question over such an institution (i.e. why football and the broader Australian society deserve a National Football Museum), the next issue must be what form or type of institution it must be. To my mind it must be several things. It needs to be a central repository of as much of the physical evidence for the sport’s history as possible. To give some basis to this supposition, let me make a small diversion. Like many who have been down to to the Shoalhaven village of Jamberoo I’ve made sure of a pilgrimage to the pub there, with its sizable and impressive collection of Johnny Warren memorabilia. A few days after the Wanderers’ victory in the AFC Champions’ League I had a chance to return there, and whilst I sat among the photos and posters, the shirts and the pennants, I felt a warmth not just about my club’s achievements but also how in many ways what preceded beforehand and was physically surrounding me was in some way honoured by the Wanderers’ win. I know from anecdotal evidence there was plenty of talk after the 2005 Socceroos qualification for the following year’s World Cup Finals that many fans and pundits talked about that team’s success tying in with Johnny’s immortal phrase “I told you so”. Being in the Jamberoo pub, seeing photos and souvenirs line the walls, seemed to give a similar perspective to what had been achieved in Parramatta and Riyadh by my club.

Some of the many items of memorabilia held at the Jamberoo Pub, from Johnny Warren's collection

Some of the many items of memorabilia held at the Jamberoo Pub, from Johnny Warren’s collection

The Warren collection at Jamberoo is a good one, and as my preceding paragraph hopefully brings out, it can have a powerful emotional pull that informs the visiting football fan of today. However it surely must be a drop in the ocean of material that lies out there in the wider Australian football and soccer community. There are all those small community and lower tier clubs that must have records, memorabilia, archives, photos and other such items that could be brought together from across the entire nation. Then there are the collectors, the old players themselves and those who were deeply involved in the game from the sidelines who could contribute. One of the most important people who should be tapped for a possible contribution is the German uber-fan of the Socceroos, Andre Krueger. He is one who has had a long term and abiding passion for the national team and Australia in general, and I am sure he would be someone who could provide either physical content or failing that advice and information to assist in the collation of items. Then there is someone like Ian Syson who continually, through his own research and the resulting posts on his Twitter feed throws up some real gems from our sport’s past. Les Murray, Andy Paskelides and Tom Anderson are three older media figures with long term exposure to football who must have a plethora of material. Throw in the fans, the old NSL diehards or even the more recent adherents of clubs like the Wanderers who were there when the club started, and there should be a rich vein of content to be placed in such a National Football Museum.

The assemblage of a large cross-section of material that could then either be displayed or archived would give all of us a central focus to see these artifacts, and thus have a coherent physical context for football’s history. It would be easier (for example) for people to understand how important the current Socceroos jersey was as a cultural icon within football’s traditions if and when it is placed alongside its progenitor, the 1974 shirt, and those that followed. There would be more appreciation of the recent developments with the FFA Cup if there was the old Australia Cup on display. Items predating the Second World War or even beyond the First would undoubtedly give more visible credence to the long term historical depth of the sport in Australia. That vision is something that is very hard to recognise when these items are hidden away in individuals’ collections, or swamped by rival sports’ displays (such as that seen at the aforementioned Bradman Museum).

Another function of a national museum for football must be to act as centre for academic debate, research and promotion of the sport. Football is as worthy of an intellectual discourse as art, music, film or any number of any other social or cultural activities. Naturally one of the most critically important aspects of that side of the museum’s activities or role would be to continually review and examine the relationship between our identity and the sport. To draw parallels with other institutions for other areas of Australian society and history, an example can be seen with the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne and its education program. If it’s appropriate for the South Australian Museum to focus academic energies on Antarctic research via the historical presence of Douglas Mawson in Adelaide, then what is to stop a National Football Museum to conduct or facilitate research on (for example) the politics of migration in pre-Crawford Report soccer? The FFA is certainly not the body to conduct this kind of research due to its own financial and administrative restrictions, and whilst universities may do so they would only exert the relevant energy and funding for individual projects. If we want to learn more about football and ourselves a coherent program of detailed research will be the best agency to achieve such an aim. The museum should serve as the prime agency for such a scheme.

A third arm or component of a National Football Museum would be to provide a focal point for the celebration of the sport’s Australian greats, via the agency of the FFA Hall of Fame. At various sporting venues around Australia there are statues or other insignia celebrating the careers and legacies of those heroes and heroines of the associated sports. Outside the Sydney Cricket Ground the likes of Fred Spofforth, Reg Gasnier and Paul Roos are given tribute in the form of bronze statues. All of Australia’s past Olympic swimming gold medalists and world champions are given a plaque outside the Sydney Olympic Aquatic Centre. Now obviously football is a team sport, but there is every reason to desire similar recognition for a Johnny Warren, a Mark Viduka, a Les Scheinflug, a Cheryl Sainsbury. Considering that so much of our understanding or appreciation of the great men and women of the past require some kind of articulated vision made concrete, as seen in (for example) the Hall of Valour at the Australian War Memorial, then for there to be (hypothetically) a display for Joe Marston or Rale Rasic at our National Football Museum seems entirely correct. This may be an incorrect assumption, however I strongly believe it would be a powerful inspiration for younger players if they could see more of the legends of football in Australia than just some archival footage from SBS or the ABC. Being able to access by sight and sound if not touch items owned by an Eddie Thomson or a Harry Kewell could serve that task very well indeed.

I would argue that the recent success of the Socceroos in claiming the 2015 AFC Cup has given more impetus to all these arguments in favour of a National Football Museum. Taking the first point argued previously, where better to hold the trophy if it is available for public display than in an Australian museum of and for football? From video footage to memorabilia from the Cup tournament, including say (for example) a pair of Tim Cahill’s boots, or recordings of ordinary fans’ reactions to that win at Sydney Olympic Stadium, all such items would help give some permanence to what has been arguably the finest moment in men’s football in the country. It goes without saying the same should have or could be done with the Matildas as well. Throw in the additional resources from previous continental tournament success (such as the OFC Cup wins by the Socceroos in 1980 or perhaps 1996) and there is a wider picture emerging of what Postecoglou’s squad achieved.

Additionally, it must be said that a well established and promoted a National Museum of Football could be a great revenue stream for the FFA and the local community where it is built. From exhibitions to conferences, books and souvenirs, videos and events staged at the museum would all serve the dual purpose of bringing money into the coffers of the FFA and promoting football. Perhaps if a leading international architect was given the opportunity to design the Museum building (such as Frank Gehry’s recent work on one of UTS’s new structures) that would also help raise the profile of our sport and the unique Australian context therein.

My final point, and one that will undoubtedly ruffle feathers and bring accusations of bias (of course I’m bloody parochial on this matter) is where it should be hosted. In my opinion a National Football Museum would be best positioned in Western Sydney, hopefully as part of a redeveloped Parramatta Stadium precinct. Whilst other cities and areas around Australia have strong links to the history of football in Australia, and may already have a strong cultural affinity to sporting history (such as Melbourne and the MCG), western Sydney is the powerhouse of the sport in terms of current players across all levels, past Socceroos and with a population of over 2 million with a widely diversified ethnic demographic, it would have a ready made audience. Throw in the paucity of cultural venues of national significance in Sydney’s west, and the tourism value of Sydney for the country as a whole, placing a museum focused on Australia’s past, present and future nearby or in Parramatta would be extremely beneficial for all vested interests. The ‘clear air’ such a museum would have in that location, against say the conflicting presence of a rival sports’ institutions, or indeed even other national icons such as say a War Memorial or National Gallery (as seen in Canberra) would be again work in the museum’s favour.

In closing, a National Museum of Football may be a hypothetical vision for now. However I strongly believe that it could create so many positives for our sport that it should be given some serious thought, particularly at this time where we have a wonderful platform for public acceptance of and/or support for the game. Knowing say in 10 years time overseas tourists, university academics, teams of U/10s boys and girls, and anyone else with a desire to learn just that little bit more about football down under could have a place to go to take it all in, to be enthused and informed, well, it seems like a no brainer.