The Unspoken Histories That Still Hurt (or How Australian Football Fell Between the Narrative Gaps): Part One

In the last week there has been an incredible firestorm of intemperate language, outrageous shock-jock sensationalism, half-arsed official defence of the round ball game, and internecine war between fans and officials in what was supposed to be ‘new football’s’ latest season of excellence. To put it mildly, this is the biggest public brou-ha-ha to strike football in this country since at least the release of the Crawford Report and/or the failed 2022 World Cup bid. With the illogical, rabid, ravings of an unethical, illiterate anti-football hack letting loose her execrably bad propaganda, via the agency of a sine non qua example of News Limited’s Yellow Press, the shit-storm was let released. Fed by the jaundiced, xenophobic fuel of one of the most offensive men on commercial radio in Australia, a man who would not look uncomfortable lined up with Rush Limbaugh, Jimmy Saville or Joseph Goebbels, the world of football in this country went into meltdown quicker than a chocolate nuclear reactor.

So that I won’t continue to spread the inaccurate, febrile bullshit that has been issued by those paragons of the gutter media in Australia, I won’t embed links in this blog entry to either the original columns of hate nor the insulting, disgusting radio broadcast that had the vile effect of linking the massacring terrorists of Bataclan Theatre to Pirtek Stadium. If you haven’t already seen or heard them, or indeed of the following flow of anti-football effluence channeled through bogan media organs such as 2GB, the Daily Telegraph or Channel Ten news, go to Google or Twitter or Facebook or even just walk up to a football fan this weekend and ask them what the story was. Decorum and common sense compels me to leave the ratbag media types who have been spouting their vomitous views to their own audiences, their own xenophobic, neanderthal-like readers and listeners.

I also have no real desire to hoe the same rows of complaining about the cultural and political intolerance emanating from the police forces, who in the finest examples of jackbooted group-think seem to live in some kind of mid 1980s English football hooligan purgatory, looking for ways to stop such an insidious foreign threat to their powers (and in the mean time trying to stop men, women and children marching in the streets, or god forbid standing on a seat). Other commentators, politicians, bloggers and common or garden soccer fans have already thrown a hail of brickbats at the constabulary, who when not trying to create a fear of football through selective PR fuck-ups, love to suck on the teat of the Wanderers and do nothing for their overtime. If they were as effective at rooting out the genuine anti-social activists who do bedevil our sport (as well as every other football code, cricket etc) as they are at bad-mouthing senators and sccer fans then perhaps no one would have any issues.

Where I would like to take the discussion is into two areas that I believe underpin the basic problems football in this country faces, insofar as the xenophobic, dare I say racist attitude towards soccer, as well as the forgotten, or perhaps sugar coated history of the other football codes and cricket when it comes to hooliganism. Before I continue, I want to make it abundantly clear that there have been, are and probably still will be issues relating to disruptive and anti-social behaviour at football games in this country. It happens overseas, it happens here due to a multiplicity of reasons and through a multiplicity of offensive acts. There are the obvious issues with flares, and personally speaking I find them unhelpful as a tool to help win over the non-football folk, or engender enthusiasm at the game or for the sport. I understand the reasons why they are used, and have seen up close and personal the visual stimuli they provide to certain people. Having said that they are not entirely dissimilar in attraction to particular types of people as a major crash in a Formula One motor race, or a huge hit in a rugby league match, or a thunderous kick and punch combination in a UFC bout (and on the balance arguably not as dangerous). Fighting between rival fans is also a problem, though as well documented this is neither on a scale to worry Mr & Mrs Joe Public, nor is it any better or any worse than some of the acts of violence in our day to day lives. In fact, it could be argued that based on current domestic violence rates the soccer stadium is a far safer place to be than the home. When you see figures of where an Australian woman dies as a result of domestic violence every three weeks, contrasted to the 198 bans handed out over ten years of the A-League, well surely it is a sign of how sick and deranged our press is to focus front page coverage or radio broadcasters’ outrage on the latter issue and not the former?

What I want to explore in this first post (the other will follow hopefully soon enough)  is the nexus between the forgotten Anglo and Australian history of football in this country, and how that has helped shaped the antipathy, bordering on racism projected by the likes of the Sunday Telegraph’s harridan and the right wing nut jobs of 2GB, as well as many of their camp followers. For example:

A comment on the original story in the Sunday Telegraph

A comment on the original story in the Sunday Telegraph

As sure as night follows day some intellectually impaired xenophobe decides that, spurred on by the ravings of a fellow traveler in hyperbole and insularity, the sport of football should be ‘cut’ and the followers expelled to their own country or that of their parents. Putting aside this threat to send me back to the place me and my last four generations of forebears came from (i.e. Australia), what is most noticeable to me in this ratbag’s xenophobia is that he is stressing the otherness of the sport and by extension it’s racial make-up, denying the over 130 years of the game being played by Anglo-Australians.

I won’t go into too great a detail here on this point, as there are other more academically competent authors and more worthy articles filled with research that reinforce my point about the racist undertones of the ‘wogball’ hater. However I would like to postulate that in this day and age the barely disguised racism against soccer in Australia is tied to the mistaken belief that the sport has an almost purely non-Anglo history. In an Australia where it’s greatest sporting heroes are almost to a man or to a woman white and Anglo-Saxon, with perhaps a dash of the ‘boy from the bush’ or the working class kid who battled his or her way to success, well is it any surprise that when football’s history is sold both by the bigots and to some extent by its own promoters as ‘the world game’, the game of Croats, of Greeks, of Italians, of Sudanese etc etc, that it becomes ‘de-Anglified’. For every Johnny Warren in football, the rest of Australian sport throws up a dozen Anglo heroes, from the likes of Bradman and Fraser, through Newcombe to Messenger.

Before I go any further I want to make clear that I don’t want to turn this blog into an exercise of ‘ethnic-cleansing’ of soccer in Australia. However I find it disconcerting that there is almost a secret history of football in Australia that has been forgotten or ignored, allowing the bigots to manipulate the dominance of the post-war ethnic based support into a culture war where they can very easily posit football as foreign. Take as a case in point the 1965 Socceroos squad:

1965 Socceroos Squad

A cursory look at the pioneers of Australian international football throws up numerous names who do not fit the xenophobic generalisation demonstrated by the likes of the previously quoted Telegraph commentator. Hughes, Warren, Ackerley, Watkiss, Blue, Cook, Rice, Pearson, Giles, Rorke, Anderson…these are all surnames that would not look unnatural in a current or past Australian cricket, league, rules or Olympic swimming team. Recently celebrated by having their surviving squad members inducted into the FFA Hall of Fame, the 1965 Socceroos have until quite recently become a cypher in Australian football history. In the clamour to celebrate the success of the 2005 team that defeated Uruguay, a team that was as multicultural as modern Australia is, and as our national cricket, league and union teams aren’t, we as a community and the game’s administrators have forgotten to remember and promote the achievements of our Anglo-Australian soccer heritage. In that environment, in that historical and cultural context, is it any wonder that football’s xenophobic haters like Wilson, Jones and Hadley can vomit forth their bilious viciousness? They look to the alleged crimes of ‘wogball’ down under or the foreign phenomena of 1980s English hooliganism or Balkan flare displays and can only frame their hateful opinions because they know no better. They have no appreciation that football is not just an alien game to WASP is just as integral to them, to us, to me as it is to the migrants who brought their own unique and wonderful elements to football in this country.

I think it has to be said at this point that football’s administrators have not helped the situation, insofar as their maddeningly obtuse NCIP policy and their desire to get away from the days of ‘old soccer’. By unfortunate extension, in attacking or downplaying the ethnic history of football in Australia, such as by forcing South Melbourne Hellas to become South Melbourne FC, or demanding Sydney Croatia become Sydney United, past and present administrators, they have by default allowed football to be culturally stereotyped by its ethnicity. To add insult to injury there has been bugger all promotion of an older, less ethnically diverse soccer history by the likes of the FFA to fill in the credibility gap created by their clumsy reshaping of our sport. It’s as if the suits can’t bring themselves to promote the organic and natural development of football in Australia because they themselves didn’t really have a part in it.

Perhaps the story of one of the most important icons of our sport here in Australia add even more force to this gap between the historical truth of our game having an Anglo-Australian past, and how many of football’s haters (and even some of its fans) still perceive the game as ‘UnAustralian’ The most obvious example that tells a lie to the myth of soccer as ‘wogball’ is the great Johnny Warren. A Botany boy who played football as the ‘New Australians’ were becoming predominant in the domestic competitions, his most successful years were spent with the highly successful St George Budapest club. A Socceroo who participated in our first three forays into the World Cup, then latterly a coach, media identity and inspiration for thousands of young children starting out in football, Johnny was the banner man for the sport in Australia for almost his entire life.

Johnny Warren exchanging pennants with the Japanese national team captain, 1971

Now within the football community Johnny’s name is synonymous with our sport. If you were to walk up to most Socceroos fans of the last generation or so, or even some of the younger members of the A-League clubs, the phrase ‘I told you so’ will almost always resonate, perhaps get a smile of recognition or a nod in agreement. His foundation does great work and if there is one place in Australia that has the initial wherewithal to become a museum for football it would have to be the family owned pub in Jamberoo. A recipient of numerous awards, an Australian national team captain, an ambassador for this country and its multicultural development, he was a true legend not just of football but of Australian sport in general.

Yet when it came time for Johnny to write his autobiography, he found himself having to address the same stereotypes that still haunt the writings of the rabidly anti-soccer press, thus his own life story was printed as ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters’. Here was an Anglo-Australian who had lived in the exact same economic, social and political demographic that produced hundreds of Australian sportsmen and women, however unlike those who went into league, or union, or cricket, or swimming, he had to face down hate and suspicion merely because he played the round ball game.

Another less obvious example of how the wider Australian community has misplaced or misunderstood, or indeed totally forgotten the Anglo-Celtic Australian soccer history is the great Joe Marston. Sadly Joe passed away today, and it was most disappointing that we as a football loving community are currently distracted from honouring his life and achievements, in part because of the can of worms that were opened by Wilson’s injudicious, hate-ridden polemic. However here was a man who played football at one of the highest levels in the (e.g. the English FA Cup) at a time (1954) when back home in his native land there was a struggle to pull together a national team for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

Joe Marston, representing Preston North End circa 1954

Joe’s accomplishments overseas were more or less forgotten throughout the entire half-century between his playing hey-day and the advent of the Lowy era and the establishment of the FFA. I know from my own personal memories that the broader Australian sporting community only started to take notice of an Aussie succeeding overseas in soccer when it was done by Craig Johnston in the great Liverpool United squads of the 1980s. This forgetfulness when it came to Joe’s achievements have been rectified somewhat, including with the establishment of the Joe Marston Medal for the best player in the A-League grand final. However when his life and career are put into a similar context to other Australian sporting greats who were highly successful internationally, such as a Don Bradman, a Herb Elliott, a Dawn Fraser…well Marston has been left far behind by mainstream Australian sports fans and journalists. In my opinion the respect to Joe being shown to him now (as per this FFA article) is great, but arguably too late and nowhere near widely enough.

To summarise this, the first of two posts I will write on the culture of hostility against football in Australia, which at its worst leads to the rancid writings and words of Rebecca Wilson and Alan Jones, I believe there has been a forgetting, a willful ignorance established within Australia’s sporting environment that denies not just the positive aspects of football as a multicultural experience, but equally as egregiously denies our Anglo-Australian soccer heritage. Where those who bash our game continually find their sporting paradigms in ‘acceptable’ dinki-di icons like Les Darcy, Jack Dyer, Jack Brabham or Ian Thorpe, they cannot conceive of or fail to contextualise soccer as a code that has been popular with, and been played well by, those same WASP Aussies that they idiolise in other sports.

Even our ‘Anglos’ are ‘wogs’.