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

In my previous post I attempted to explore the recent culture war being waged against football by certain demagogues within mainstream Australian media, and by those vociferous in supporting or echoing them through social media, newpapers, etc, within the context of how the sport’s Anglo-Australian history has been forgotten or is ignored. The rabid virulence propagated by the likes of Rebecca Wilson and Alan Jones betrays not just their underlying xenophobia, but also their blinkered ignorance that WASPs like them have played football, watched it, enjoyed it and actually prefer it to other, in their view more ‘Australian’ football codes.

I would like to continue this analysis on a second theme, based on another historical ignorance or forgetting, which in this case is not based on what has occurred in Australian football’s tortured history. No; in this post I want to tackle the hypocrisy of the attitudes shown by those who continually live under the spectre of, or circulate with vivid passion, the villainous ‘soccer hooligan’, when it comes to crowd violence and illegal behaviour. Whether it be someone like Jones linking your common or garden member of the RBB or Squadron or North Terrace to terrorists in Paris, or NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Kyle Stewart talking about ‘grubby pack animals’, there is a willful demonisation of the worst aspects of the (very small incidents in number) of anti-social behaviour at football games, yet over the decades other sports have had their moments of violence forgiven, excused, or even celebrated.

To illustrate the ignorant prejudice held against football in this country when it comes to violence, here is a random post from Twitter:

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Annie does her best to get in her two (cheap) shots, vis-a-vis the non-Australian aspect of the sport of football plus the ‘riots at the soccer’ that result in ‘destruction and deaths’. I wonder how comfortable she would feel reading this about cricket’s history of riots and destruction:

India v Pakistan, Asian Test Championship, first Test, 1999
The first three days of the Test passed without incident. On the fourth afternoon, chasing 279, India were well placed on 143 for 2. Sachin Tendulkar was on 7 when he clipped Wasim Akram to deep midwicket. He took two runs and was on his way back for a third when substitute Nadeem Khan hit the stumps with his throw from the deep. In the ordinary course of events it would have been a straightforward third run, even with the direct hit, but Tendulkar collided with Shoaib Akhtar, who was waiting close to the stumps to gather the return, and as a result was out of his ground, even though he may well have been just inside the crease at the moment of the collision. Steve Bucknor referred it to the third umpire, KT Francis, who, after a long delay, gave him out. The huge crowd erupted and started chanting “cheat, cheat”, pelting Shoaib with bottles and other objects as he returned to his position in the deep.

Eventually the umpires took the players from the field for an early tea and it was only after personal pleas from Tendulkar and ICC president Jagmohan Dalmiya that the match was able to resume. However, trouble broke out again on the final day when India were reduced to 231 for 9. Wisden reported: “Spectators started burning newspapers in the stands and hurled stones, fruit and plastic bottles on to the field. The match was held up for over three hours as about 65,000 people were removed by police and security men. The crowd’s anger was still concentrated on Tendulkar’s run-out, but there was little viciousness in the riot; it was born of disappointment rather than anti-Pakistan feeling..” It only took Pakistan 10 balls to complete their 46-run win, but they did so in a surreal atmosphere of only 200 spectators in a ground that could hold 90,000.

Of course Annie and her fellow anti-soccer-hooligan advocates put such a disgraceful example of crowd behaviour in the context of ‘well it doesn’t happen here’. Funnily enough, our very first Australian Prime Minister had a brush with cricket hooliganism:

“To resume my account of the disturbance on the ground on the Saturday. I asked Gregory on what grounds the objection was raised, and he said at first general incompetence, but afterwards admitted that the objection was raised on account of the decision in Murdoch’s case. I implored Gregory, as a friend, and for the sake of the NSW Cricket Association, which I warned him would be the sufferer by it, not to raise the objection, but he refused to take my view of the case. Looking back in the midst of this conversation, I found the ground had been rushed by the mob, and our team was being surrounded, I at once returned to the wickets, and in defending Coulthard from being attacked was struck by some ‘larrikin’ with a stick. Hornby immediately seized this fellow, and in taking him to the pavilion was struck in the face by a would-be deliverer of the ‘larrikin’, and had his shirt nearly torn off his back. He, however, conveyed his prisoner to the pavilion in triumph. For some thirty minutes or so I was surrounded by a howling mob, resisting the entreaties of partisans and friends to return to the pavilion until the field was cleared, on the grounds that if our side left the field the other eleven could claim the match. I don’t suppose that they would have done so, but I determined to obey the laws of cricket, and may add that for one hour and a half I never left the ground, surrounded the whole time, with two short intervals, by some hundreds of people. At about five o’clock the crowd was cleared off somehow. I then took the opinion of the Eleven as to changing the umpire, and it was decided nem. con. that there were no grounds for the objection, and that we should decline to change him. I informed Gregory of the decision, whereupon he said, ‘Then the game is at end’. On Coulthard appearing from the pavilion groans arose from the crowd. I turned to Mr Barton, the NSW Eleven umpire, and asked if I could not claim the match according to the laws of cricket. His answer was, ‘I shall give it you in two minutes’ time if the batsmen do not return’.”  (source: An extract from Lord Harris’ letter to the Daily Telegraph, 11/2/1879)

This account of a cricket riot from Australia’s colonial past may be considered immaterial in the current context of so-called soccer grubs lighting flares etc, however it is a commonly held myth that ‘true’ Australian sports never have or never will see hooliganism like that seen in football:

A Fear Of Football (@FearOfFootball) - Twitter 2015-11-30 11-42-04

Of course it escapes the attention of this nasty, ignorant football hater that there have been no ‘slaughter of fans’ at any Australian soccer match. Yes, there has not been ‘slaughter of fans’ at the AFL as per the tragic events of Heysel, however as recently as this year we saw this disgusting example of fan violence at an AFL match:

And if the defenders of the indigenous code of football want to drag up incidents from Soccer’s shameful past of decades ago, how about this?

Report on Australian Rules Football riot, Sunday Times, 14/7/29

Report on Australian Rules Football riot, Sunday Times, 14/7/29

Or this?

The Argus, 23/4/1946

The Argus, 23/4/1946

Ian Syson has collected a sizable selection of articles and reports that demonstrate Australian Rules football is certainly not a clean skin when it comes to hooliganism and violence within its fans, and I would recommend that you read it here. Both Ian and I would agree that crowd violence is a relatively small and unremarkable phenomenon in that code, however we would also agree (unlike the virulent soccer haters) that there is a similar fraction of fan violence at football games in Australia. The key to the discussion is not necessarily when the incidents happened, or where, or even how. It’s more how the media portray them and how they are comprehended by a segment of society that is culturally conditioned against soccer from the get go.

Even the sport supposedly played (if you believe its proponents) in heaven, Rugby Union, has a very recent disturbing history of hooliganism in Australia:

FNQ Rugby investigates rugby brawl between Penrhyn Sharks and Tablelands
MICHAEL WARREN THE CAIRNS POST AUGUST 17, 2015 6:10AM 3

FNQ Rugby is investigating the circumstances that led to an ugly on-field incident which saw Cairns police called to break up a wild brawl in a reserve grade match at Vico Park.

The Cairns Post has learned between 50-100 people, including players from both Penrhyn Sharks and Tablelands Rugby Union Club, each of their benches and sections of the crowd were involved in the vicious melee that lasted around 20 minutes.

“I can confirm Cairns police received a call at around 3.40pm on Saturday afternoon about a disturbance coming from a Mooroobool sporting field,” a Queensland Police spokesman said.

“Four Cairns police units attended the scene on Irene St but the situation had already calmed upon their arrival. Police remained on-site for a short while for observational purposes. No one was charged and no arrests were made.”

It’s understood the alleged incident that sparked the matter occurred in the 65th minute when a Penrhyn player took exception to being heckled by an opposition player after dropping the ball in the process of scoring a try. Some minor push and shove soon ensued between the pair before quickly breaking out into a fully blown brawl.

The match was called off with Penrhyn leading 12-7.

A Penrhyn player was taken to hospital where he was treated for concussion and loose teeth. He was released Saturday night but presented again yesterday morning with blurred vision.

The premier grade game between Port Douglas and Penrhyn was consequently abandoned without a ball being kicked.

“I’m absolutely disgusted with what I saw,” Sharks coach Daniel Dixon said.

“It is very disappointing, you never want to see what happened on Saturday happen anywhere, let alone on a rugby field.”

A Tablelands rugby club spokesman offered “no comment” until the incident is fully investigated.

FNQ Rugby boss Rob Brennan said the matter was regrettable.

“It’s not a great look for the game in any way, shape or form,” he said.

Again, it needs to be said that this may be an isolated incident and not entirely reflective of the general behaviours or safety issues when attending a rugby match in Australia. However when contrasted to the virulent panic and hatred that was manifested through the recent focus on so-called ‘soccer hooliganism’, it seems rather disingenuous to not treat this incident from August 2015 with the same moralising, the same harsh reaction as readily and frequently thrown in the face of football fans in this country.

Rugby League had the remarkable achievement of seeing not one but two sizable riots involving thuggish fan behaviour in September 2015, with approximately 200 people involved in a north Queensland brawl on 13/9/15, and an ‘ugly brawl involving dozens of teenagers and spectators in Brisbane‘ earlier that month. Early n the 2015 NRL season there was the unedifying sight of Canterbury fans engaging in behaviour that Rebecca Wilson would probably describe as ‘soccer thuggery’ at the Grand Final rematch between the Bulldogs and South Sydney Rabbitohs.

Strangely enough we have not seen the Daily Telegraph or the Sunday telegraph run a two page spread and front page story detailing ‘the faces from Rugby League’s shame file’. Perhaps with that specific organ of the News Limited tabloid press having a vested interest in reporting on a sport that it has reportedly paid $1 billion for pay TV rights access, such coverage of rugby league hooliganism is going to be seen as damaging Rupert’s investment. Or maybe the NRL and the NSW Police have failed to find and ban those responsible for such loutish behaviour.

Or perhaps the NRL doesn’t have a couple of enemies of its sport sitting on the board of the SCG.

In conclusion, let’s be under no illusions here. There has been and always will be a tiny minority of anti-social and at times illegal behaviour occurring at football games in Australia. Based on the dubious reportage of Rebecca Wilson, the 198 bans handed out by the FFA would represent only 0.001287% of all the 15,383,395 people who have attended an A-League game since the competition’s inception. Hardly the kind of risk percentage that would require the use of Strike Force Raptor, incite Alan Jones to link football fans with Daesh-associated terrorism in Paris. However that kind of hysterical hyperbole is justifiable in their own minds as these spruikers of anti-soccer hatred find it easy to sell the myth that other sports have no problems whatsoever. In turn many who follow cricket, Australian Rules, Rugby League and Rugby Union are blind to their own sports’ history of thuggery, violence and public disorder believe this fiction. The collusion between the haters and the ignorant creates the unreasonable hatred every soccer fan in this country has at some time or another had to face.

Dear Graham Cornes….

Hi there Graham. I see you’ve been given the task by your editor at that esteemed organ of News Limited, the Adelaide Advertiser, to write another sordid little piece of uninformed click bait opinion piece where you apply your wit and wisdom to the problems that bedevil the world game of soccer.

Let me just say on behalf of all of us who find your credibility as an authority on the game that is played by over 200 nations and states (unlike a certain domestic code that struggles to find even one international opponent even in a bastardised form than no one has any desire to follow beyond its novelty value) a wee bit suspect, thanks for applying your considerable journalistic intelligence to the round ball game. I could use the appropriate nomenclature of football but I fear that if I was to apply the globally recognised name for said sport it might cause you to go into an apoplectic fit, or become befuddled how any other sport played and worshiped by billions could use the same word as the one you have played. You know, the one that is gripped by issues relating to drugs, racism, sexual impropriety, player deaths through misadventure, and is worshiped by approximately 0.01% of the same number of people who know who Manchester United is, or can recognise names like Pele, Suarez, Messi, Maradona etc.

So let me use the word soccer for now so that if you or any of you fellow travelers come across my response (which I admit is almost impossible to occur) you and they won’t be struck dumb by the intellectual conflict represented by such confusing terminology.

Now, where to begin? I know; for a start let me say I won’t be quoting or providing links to your red neck diatribe because let’s face it, that’s what you and your employers need. Much like Kim Kardashian flashing her plastic tits and porno videoed arse on reality television, you need to display your similarly endowed intellectual attributes online and in your employer’s newspaper otherwise your value as an employee (and possibly as  a person) would be null and void. Would it be too mean of me to suggest you have exhibited a similar level of narcissism as the comedic character Kath Day-Knight, putting into words the same kind of ‘Look at me, look at me’ bogan attention seeking she is written to need by her creators? Of course she is a construct from the fertile minds of Jane Turner, Magda Szubanksi and Gina Riley. I’m unsure if your News Limited character is anywhere near as humorous nor has sprung from anyone’s fertile and creative mind. Fetid yes, but not fertile.

So no; I won’t be citing swathes of your polemic Instead I will rely on those who may read this to do a simple Google search. They will be able to find the offending piece of bombastic self-parody, ripped from the Andrew Bolt-inspired culture wars that were fought and lost in the late 1960s.

I note with interest that in your reference to the upcoming IFAB meeting that points of discussion at this international (and let me remind you, international means outside Australia…something that AFL devotees are unable to countenance in their purely domestic sport) include addressing concerns over the use of the hijab or other forms of head dress in women’s football as played in tournaments such as those at the Olympics, the use of electronic tracking devices and the displaying of slogans under clothes. No sane or globally aware person who follows soccer (see, I’m not trying to scare you by using the ‘F’ word) believes all is sweet in the garden of global game. Having said that it is surely something that even a recidivist old Aussie Rules bogan like yourself can recognise that the idea of Islamic women want to play soccer in an Olympic context puts your preferred isolationist one-nation sport in the darkest shadows when it comes to equal opportunity or pro-feminist sporting policies.

Regarding electronic tracking and performance systems, well if the AFL has been using them longer then kudos. Of course when many members of an 18 man team on the field can stand relatively still during a two hour game which allows points for missing a goal, maybe using electronic diagnostic systems to find out what the F (and no, that’s not the synonym for soccer you don’t like to use) AFL players actually do to be considered professional athletes. The issue of slogans under shirts has never been an issue in Australian Rules because, lets face it, the audience for AFL needs far more simplistic indications of what the player is trying to say when it comes to removing their jersey or shirt:

Nicky Widmar showing passionate AFL supporters what kinds of slogans need to be shown under Aussie Rules players’ shirts

Having addressed the upcoming IFAB meeting and their review of these points, you produce an anonymous contact (like Deep Throat was for Woodward and Bernstein), revealing the suppurating corruption at the very heart of soccer. This festering wound in the world game takes on not one, but several manifestations. Most notably is the sickness of feigned injury, which according to you makes soccer no ‘man’s game’.

I and millions of others who follow foot…oops, I almost used a bad word didn’t I…soccer are rightly aggrieved at the act of simulation. That is why there is a law in the rules of soccer to punish those who simulate (see this link to Page 119 of the 2012/13 FIFA rules). Of course the law of the game is not always implemented as it should, however I wonder if the laws of AFL were upheld as they should’ve been when it took four years for the Melbourne Demon’s tanking debacle across the entire club to be discovered, investigated and punished? And by the way, how is that nasty little problem with Stephen Dank, peptides and the likely exploitation of illicit pharmaceuticals by the Essendon Bombers to gain an advantage in the domestic comp going? Has Juan Antonio Demetriou got that sorted out yet, or is he still relying on James Hird keeping schtumm?

What was that saying that a certain Jewish fellow supposedly said about 1990 years ago? Something about sin and first stones being cast?

Additionally, I’m glad to see that you quite rightly call out soccer as a game not really played by men. real men prefer to exhibit their sporting prowess, their machismo, their masculinity in sports like…hmmm, let me see…oh I know…Australian Rules. Real men like that towering old paragon of virtue Sam Newman who quite rightly validates his manhood by making lewd and crude sexist jokes at Caroline Wilson. Or perhaps we should be idolizing the epic maleness of Stephen Milne, who allegedly is so full of his own potent maleness that women can’t resist him…allegedly. I must say if I had a son I’d want him to reject the namby-pamby, weak as water feminist soccer players like Pele, like Franz Beckenbauer, like Johnny Warren, like Tim Cahill, and prefer that they showed the same pure maleness that Wayne Carey did when he was doing the deed with his best friend’s (and team mate’s) wife.

It must also be said that soccer players are indeed weak arsed nancy boys. After all why is Robbie Kruse bitching over a little niggle like an anterior cruciate ligament injury ended his hopes of going to the World Cup Finals in Brazil this year. Perhaps he should have sucked it up and carried on like all those sensible Australian Rules players have even if knocked into next week with concussion. It takes a host of real men to willingly look for brain damage and for the sport to spend decades ignoring the ramifications hmm? Why can’t all the princesses in the round ball game be more like Daniel Bell and Daniel Gilmore?

Let’s not dwell too much there shall we? After all, if I keep reminding you of your preferred game’s paradigms of manly virtues it might rapidly collapse into a similar comedy as that shown by David Williamson in his play based on Collingwood, ‘The Club’. We shan’t take the piss out of your sport by making unfair jokes about real life AFL players showing the same mentality as Williamson’s character Jock Reilly shall we?

Instead, how about we move on to your second major critique of soccer, as construed through the unwritten unseen evidence of your anonymous soccer ‘Deep Throat’, vis-a-vis the manner in which the round ball game so often ends in penalty shoot-outs after a dull old nil-nil draw.

I guess this statement deserves a little investigation doesn’t it. I know, let’s look at the result history of the current latest craze in the A-League, the Western Sydney Wanderers. Since they entered the A-League how may games have they played in that ended nil all, or required a penalty shoot out? Four? Five? Seven? Twelve? Surely such numbers must be relevant if you and your anonymous soccer informant are correct.

Unfortunately for your hypothesis the Wanderers have only ever been involved in two 0-0 draws, and never required a penalty shoot out to win a game since they entered the A-League. Perhaps we should look at another team. I know, how about the Socceroos (you know, the team that gets to play other countries ranging from Paraguay to Iraq to South Africa to Slovenia, whilst AFL teams get to play…um, who again?). Well, in 2013 the Socceroos played thirteen games and guess what, they only had one nil all draw. I will admit that yes, there was a penalty shoot out to determine who went to the 2006 World Cup Finals in Germany, and that game involving the Australian national team and Uruguay was such a depressing dull event wasn’t it?

Perhaps when one considers the entertainment value of our relative sports, perhaps the manner in which an Aussie Rules game may blow out by more than ten goals might…just might…constitute a more egregious sin against the quality of such sporting endeavours. According to my research the GWS Giants in their second season lost 13 games out of 23 in 2013 by more than 10 goals. Surely even by your warped logic soccer’s propensity in both the A-League and internationally with the Socceroos to have almost no nil-nil draws, contrasted with over a dozen totally noncompetitive farces involving the multi-million clowns invented by Juan Antonio Demetriou shows where true value for the sporting fan lie.

I could continue my response but I shan’t, as let’s face it, with Australia playing Ecuador and South Africa in coming weeks, plus this weekend’s Wanderers versus Sydney FC derby on the immediate horizon I should be concentrating on soccer than worrying about Australian Rules. I should leave that up to the same guardians of AFL’s public image (like you) who have  made sure that the likes of Majak Daw would never have to face racist slurs like he did in 2013.

Wait a sec…what’s that News Limited stable mate of your paper, the Herald Sun reporting?

Is Australia Too Insular For Football? (Part I)

I think anyone and everyone who has been following Australian sport over the last decade would admit that football has transformed itself substantially, particularly since the beginning of Frank Lowy’s stewardship of the national administration of the sport. The Socceroos have qualified for three World Cup Finals in a row, breaking a 31 year long hoodoo. The A-League has replaced the old NSL, and on the cusp of a new season is about to enter a new phase of free to air television broadcasting, live ABC radio coverage, substantive increases in club memberships and the prospect of profitability for the first time. Cultures around football and its supporters are changing, ranging from the obvious impact that the Western Sydney Wanderers and the RBB had on 2012/13, through changing balance between the growing importance of local clubs contrasted to the previously sacrosanct foreign clubs who held sway in popular support, to the more nuanced and complex dialogue in football circles and beyond regarding style, technique, tactics, coaching, etc.

However the recent and controversial issue of active support and their relationship with the police and the FFA, and a consideration of the three other ‘football’ codes and their recent seasons has got me wondering. Is Australia too insular in its cultural, racial, political, social, historical and media to ever fully embrace football? Are the likes of Lowy, David Gallop, Les Murray, Andy Harper and other administrators and pundits either deceiving us or being deceived themselves when they talk about the long term prospects of our sport? Will football in this country ever escape the shackles that have either been imposed upon it by external forces or masochistically self-driven? I hate to be pessimistic but I am still to be convinced we are in sight of the goal all football fans down under want.

I would argue that the first and most important aspect of this dilemma is that the Australian national sporting psyche demands our sports to be world beaters. As a manifestation of our own cultural cringe, our insecurity as a still relatively small and young nation, international sporting success has been seen for at least 150 years a short-cut to gaining respect and renown on the world stage. Whether it was the colonial cricketers snaring the first Ashes in England, Edwin Flack at the 1896 Athens Olympics, Wallaby and Kangaroo tours of Great Britain, Boy Charlton, Bobby Pearce, Phar Lap, Don Bradman, Walter Lindrum, Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall, Jack Brabham, Dawn Fraser, Shane Gould, Australia II, Cathy Freeman, Cadel Evans…every time one of our sportsmen or women or teams beat the world we all puffed our chests out a little bit more and walked just a little bit more taller. Conversely, when our sporting Gods are shown to be mere mortals on the world stage, such as during the Montreal Olympics, or in recent years the Australian cricket team there is a collective slump in our sense of national self-worth, our prestige takes a hit and domestically we question ourselves. Perhaps we really aren’t as important as we think we are.

So when it comes to football is it any wonder Australians find it easier to disparage the game locally, or continually expound attitudes and theories and policies that can be dismissive about the sport? After all, has any national or domestic team in football scaled the same dizzying heights of beating the world as these other sports and their Australian representatives? I know that when the Socceroos finally broke the hoodoo over our national team in getting back to the World Cup finals in 2006 there was a mass outpouring of happiness and celebration. However this was a transitory and surface reaction that never had a nationally substantive importance that then changed culture or society or altered domestic sporting realities. The long term sporting achievements of our national football team have as yet been unable to furnish the broader Australian public with that (for example) ‘any boss who sacks anyone today is a bum’ Australia II moment, and in the prime global sport where our competition to reach the top is for now insurmountable, the need for Aussies to feel superior with a quick fix of sporting glory goes unsatisfied. With the stumbles and problems of the sport at home and abroad wider Australian society has seen football as a unwarranted blemish on our sporting facade. To contemplate loss or inability to be the best in a sport awakens a serious self-doubt in the broader Australian groupthink, and hence football is like the bastard child on Father’s Day. A reflection of our mistakes, our weaknesses that remind us that maybe we aren’t so important globally.

If you were to take a look at those sports that have flourished most prominently domestically  in Australia particularly since the development of TV, it has been Australian Rules, Cricket and Rugby League that have won the largest audiences, garnered the biggest crowds, the widest political patronage and the most financially successful clubs or franchises. Unlike football these locally iconic sports have a degree of acceptance and popularity that without fail survives the vicissitudes of on or off ground success or failures. Whilst there may be many and varied utterances criticizing these sports they have generally maintained a cultural, social, political and economic status that football has always struggled to achieve. I would argue that the reason for this is that these are ‘safe’ sports for the wider Australian community and have been so for decades. They are limited in appeal and importance globally, and hence Australians can play them and with such a distinct advantage win more frequently on the stage we want, hence reinforcing our national prejudices and self-beliefs.

Take as the most glaring example Australian Rules. Alongside American gridiron (and it’s distaff parallel Canadian gridiron) and Gaelic football from Ireland it is one of the few non-global football codes, and is similarly significant as an expression of national (or indeed provincial) pride. Aussie Rules has been defined again and again by its advocates as Australia’s game, the world’s greatest game, the game where the big men fly, etc etc. Whilst its original appeal was limited to mostly the southern and western states of Australia it is now the largest single football code in this country in terms of income and successful franchises. However, just like gridiron or Gaelic football Aussie Rules has never had to face the challenge of the paternal country being challenged and defeated in their own game. It is far safer and less threatening for the Aussie Rules fan to boast of the Australian-ness of the sport and how great the game and their clubs are when there is effectively no international context to measure these accomplishments against. The rabid Cats, Swans, Hawks, Demons or other AFL club fans are effectively cocooned from the harsh realities of real competition, or real sporting significance by the heavily curtailed relevance of the sport outside their limited boundaries.

Cricket and Rugby League have more marginal international popularity and importance, and whilst the latter is still not too far away from the Aussie Rules environment of a glib satisfaction with a very limited outlook beyond Australia, the former sport right now is undergoing a twofold crisis of confidence that is undermining its Australian values. Our test team have dramatically fallen from grace, with the captain (long held as the second most important man in the country) seen as a flash show-pony who has created much of the current losing attitude. Players seem to be disconnected from the public, they appear to have less respect for the public who demand to see the same grit, determination, pride and talent that their predecessors did. The administrators continually pull the wrong reins in concreting the relationship between national team, domestic Shield cricket and the public.

Perhaps more threateningly cricket’s paymasters and administrative leaders on the world stage are now coming from India, which is seen as a great calamity for the sport here and for everyone else (as posited by Australian pundits and civvies alike). The links between the growing importance of 20/20 cricket (a form of the game that is hardly winning over traditional cricket fans in this country as well as the media who direct public opinion), and the newly ascendant wealth and power of India in international cricket is undermining Australian preconceptions of the sport. Having to face the twin evils of impotence on the field and off the field when faced with more powerful, more efficient, more resolute international challengers our local cricket frameworks have become brittle, disenchanted, alienated.

The paucity of Australian sporting resilience in these major domestic sports when placed in an international context gives significant meaning to why the most important sport globally is given such short shrift locally. If the A-League and the Socceroos were part of some idealised Australian-dominated global competition then the magnitude of respect and ardour for the game, pride and nationalistic fervour in the sport, would rise exponentially. When the Socceroos lose to Jordan, get thumped 6-0 by Brazil, or when A-League clubs fold or go up against the likes of Liverpool or Manchester United, well it signals that our football players, clubs, administrators just aren’t acceptable as part of our sporting mythos. Australians want winners, and they want winners who fit a specific cultural, social, historical and even at times racial stereotype that football has yet to provide.

This Australian insularity that keeps curtailing the potential of football in this country is not just related to other sports and their positions in our culture. There is the insularity brought on by decades of mono-cultural, Anglo-Australian xenophobia and its more problematic extremist construct, racism. The whole ‘wogball’ mentality is still there in many Australians’ minds. As demonstrated with hideous viciousness by Graham Cornes in a recent Adelaide Advertiser op.ed. piece, or not that much less controversially in Kevin Sheedy’s laughable theories about the success of the Western Sydney Wanderers being associated with a Department of Immigration conspiracy, there is a latent fear and loathing of the multicultural basis for football in this country. In the season just finished the AFL and its corporate supporters tried to extol the racially diverse nature of their code through the appearance of Sudanese player Majak Daw, a supposed AFL multicultural round, and ads from the NAB showing Spaniards, Greeks, Germans, Chinese, Italians etc commentating on the sport. By appropriating the symbols of multiculturalism that is far more prevalent and important to football, then using barely hidden and coded xenophobic complaints about football, there is ample evidence in the AFL’s experience to show that the ethnically diverse nature of the true ‘world game’ challenges the insularity of Aussie Rules. The popularity of football within the mass wave of non-Anglo-Saxon, continental European, Asia, Middle Eastern, Asian and South American immigrants since 1945 has been just one part of a hugely disconcerting social change that the old Anglo-Australian communities have had to swallow. Like fish sauce, pinot grigio, halal butchers and the ao dai dress the fifth or sixth generation Aussie is often culturally confronted by the foreign, alien passion and love of football.

In the second and final part of this opinion piece I will look at the political, economic and media structures within Australia’s historical and current attitudes regarding football. Hopefully my arguments regarding the still extant insularity of our society when it comes to the world game will help shed some light on much that is affecting our beloved sport down under.

So Manfred, What’s With The ‘Skoda Fails’?

I’m only going to say it once.

I abhor everything associated with the Australian Football League’s expansion into the western suburbs of Sydney, whose name I shall not use. Instead I will refer to them by the nicknames that have (hopefully) become notorious among the posters on the West Sydney Football forum and the RBB bays at Wanderland. Skoda Fails, the Orange and Black Clowns; these are but two pseudonyms I have bestowed on a venture that is almost completely alien to the sporting ethos of western Sydney. So please bear with me as I take a few paragraphs to conduct an anecdotal comparative analysis of the Western Sydney Wanderers and the Skoda Fails. I promise this will be the only time the O&B Clowns will darken this blog, so please bear with me.

First off, it must be said that I do hold some respect for the actual sport played by those who follow the Sherrin, no matter where their club is located. It can be an athletic and skillful game, and having a very limited playing experience within it I can see why it would appeal to participants with a particular physique. There is scope with Australian Football for both the lanky male who finds enjoyment from leaping high to catch a ball, or for the small of stature guy who finds barreling along the ground in a running, fumbling wrestling contest the height of athletic achievement. Make no mistake, to play the game is more than just standing around waiting for a ball to be kicked in your direction, or hanging onto the shirt tails of your opposite player like a rather intractable piece of dog excreta. There are tactics, there are skills, there are tests of character and motivation for those who play Australian Rules Football with keenness.

I am also willing to cut the code some slack due to my long term exposure to the sport, having supported Hawthorn since 1975 from the old VFL days through to the current era. Having ancestral links to South Australia and far western NSW, where this winter sport is given far more prominence than any other football code variant, I have some insight into how obsessive AFL’s fans can be. I have spent time in Victoria and been to the ‘G for a game, plus seen it played on dusty ovals in mining towns or on verdant fields at rural universities. I have met people who are besotted by the Adelaide Crows or the Collingwood Magpies, I’ve watched ‘The Club’ umpteen times and recall with great clarity the Saturday afternoon broadcasts of the games from VFL park hosted by Malcolm T Elliot on Channel Seven (usually followed at around 5.00pm with an old ‘Felix The Cat’ cartoon).

So before anyone comes at me and comments “Manfred, you’re talking through your Wanderers’ soccer-obsessed wannabe-Kraut over-educated arse” I have actually got some runs on the board when it comes to talking about the game. I’m not some mindless code warrior perpetually fighting a guerrilla war to destabilise the empire built on clubs like the Swans, the Demons, the Dockers, the Blues etc. Yes, I sometimes call the game aerial ping-pong but that is more my continuance of a popular conceit than a heart-felt blast of negativity.

Now it’s all well and good to have some awareness and appreciate the qualities and characteristics of the actual game itself, and to some extent the social and cultural heritage and significance it has for a very sizable portion of Australia’s sport-loving peoples. However, there is a point I cannot cross, my own Rubicon which I refuse to countenance violating. That, dear reader, is excusing let alone offering any tincture of support to the Orange and Black Clowns. I can enjoy a long range bomb from a Sydney Swan against Hawthorn with a care factor a billion times greater than my willingness to consider any merit in the Skoda Fails. This cynical, heartless, exploitative sortie made on behalf of a man I describe as Juan Antonio Demetriou, the most Machiavellian power-hungry sports administrator ever produced by Australia, into the terra incognita of western Sydney deserves to be repelled as if it was a genetically engineered virus, attempting to re-wire the hearts and minds of a community ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’-like, that for the most part has almost zero connection with the game.

My first and biggest beef with the Orange and Black Clowns is the whole exercise has been foisted upon my local community as if it was a cuckoo’s egg. If there was any real substantive and vociferous crying out for the placement of a new AFL franchise in the west of Sydney prior to the delivery of the Orange and Black Clowns it certainly missed being featured in the local media, or grabbing the fervent wishes of my friends and family in the area. Unlike the Western Sydney Wanderers who were seen as the missing link in the recent revival of domestic football, as championed through the establishment of the A-League, there was minimal continual public debate about the need to fill in the blank spaces by those who would supposedly benefit. I have never seen the local junior Australian Rules Football kids and their parents strolling around my neighbourhood demanding they be liberated by the AFL from the onerous yoke of Football and Rugby League oppression. On the other hand I have seen time and time again on both the wider urban scale and at the nearby playing fields a strong urge, a powerful need for western suburbs kids and adults to have a team in the premier FFA competition. It has been exemplified by the intense debate over the failure of the FFA to not have a team in the western suburbs of Sydney for the first 7 seasons of the A-League versus the mild interest in Sheeds and Folau’s dog and pony act at the start of the Skoda Fail farce.

Just driving around the streets and suburbs of Western Sydney shows you how strong the need was, and still is for the Wanderers. Whether it’s Bonyrigg White Eagles, Blacktown City, the Melita Eagles, Marconi Fairfield, Penrith City, Parramatta Power, Sydney Croatia/United, Bankstown Lions; there is a considerable pre-existing and community-based football environment that the Skoda Fails could never ever dream of finding out in my locality. Okay, there are a couple of small outposts of Australian Rules Football however their numbers and their significance is infinitely lesser than those demonstrated by just the examples I’ve cited in this paragraph.

Perhaps I should draw attention to the fertile and incredibly rich vein of international football talent that has emerged from western Sydney that can never be matched either in quantity or in sporting importance by the johnny-come-latelies of the Skoda Fails. Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Mark Schwarzer, Brett Emerton and current Wanderers coach Tony Popovic all had international success in their playing careers and are giants of the code in Australia. On the other hand, where are the AFL’s heroes from Fairfield, from Auburn, from Windsor, from Rooty Hill? If they in fact existed what could be their highest achievement? Starring in a competition that has slightly more followers than the Zambian Premier League? Considering the supposed age and longevity of Australian Rules Football and its argued popularity someone somewhere must’ve in the last 100 years or so put their hand up as an Aussie Rules great. Unfortunately I fear there is an utterly barren vacuum on that point.

So straight away the questions need to be asked; where was the organic community need for the Skoda Fails? What good are they doing a minority of sportspeople in the western suburbs? How is their presence making the sporting life of kids any better? The disconnect between AFL headquarters down in Melbourne and the hard cold reality of what the western suburbs sports fans and athletes desired is incredible.

My next beef with the Skoda Fails is their cynical political and financial backdoor deals that have led to the supposed beneficiaries of their club actually being sold fallacy upon fallacy. Take as a major case in point the actual name of the club. Supposedly they are from west Sydney’s greater area, focused on that huge suburban sector taking in Campbelltown, Auburn, the Blue Mountains, Penrith, Blacktown, Richmond, Castle Hills, Windsor, Parramatta and all points in between. Yet where does this supposed integral component of the local community spend three home games of the year? Canberra…a good 3 hour drive from most suburbs in the great western suburbs area. The membership too is split along these disparate lines, including a sizable swathe of gullible folk from country NSW and Victoria. Unlike the Wanderers who have shown repeatedly over their short existence they are of, from and with the western suburbs of Sydney the Skoda Fails have shown a promiscuous, root-and-run approach to the people that supposedly should be their first and foremost fans.

As a member of the Wanderers I am assured of 13 home games at a ground that is nestled at the most appropriate ground for the supporters who come from all over the western suburbs. The Skoda Fails have duped their poor misbegotten members to traipse out to a tax-payer funded showground that is more popular for tent-pegging and grand parades at the Royal Easter Show, a good 40 minutes drive from Penrith or Campbelltown or Windsor, and that’s only for seven home games a year. If you want to see the Orange & Black Clowns for every home game in a season you may need to clock up 1500kms extra in travel. It’s hardly the kind of western suburbs friendly message you want to send your key constituency.

Now alongside this mugging of its members, the Skoda Fails have also been sure to take whatever money they can from taxpayers and rate payers across several constituencies for their own greedy purposes. For example, the $27.5 million training facility at Blacktown for the Orange and Black Clowns was built with about $6 million from the Blacktown City Council and $15 million of NSW state government funds, with less than 10% coming from the AFL (for more on this arrangement see this article) This supposed home of the Skoda Fails then was deemed unsuitable for half the year and the scam merchants behind this fraudulent franchise took their witches hats and punching bags to Homebush for a new training centre named after Victorian Aussie Rules icon Tom Wills.

Then there is the $300,000 stipend over 3 years provided by Wagga Wagga City Council to attract pre-season games to this Riverina city from the Skoda Fails. Considering that Wagga Wagga has had problems in recent years with flooding and the ratepayers of this Riverina town are hardly united in their love of either AFL nor able to access regular season games involving the shysters from Homebush/Canberra, it seems incredibly cynical for a club that is run by an organisation that has a $1 billion plus TV rights deal to squeeze such monies out of a big country city.

I would like to think I’ve already provided a telling set of points demonstrating the antipathy that I feel towards the Skoda Fails and perhaps more tellingly the disconnect between this farce and their supposed community and supporters. Yet the most important and instructive evidence that I honestly believe slams shut the door of acceptance on the Skoda Fails is the notorious ‘Immigration Department’ conspiracy thesis from Kevin Sheedy (chief scam-merchant and huckster for the Orange and Black Clowns). Here is a transcript of the actual words used by the mouth from the south:

“We’ve got to play better, there’s no doubt about that. It’s a pity because in the end that’s how many turned up after a pretty solid performance against Essendon last week,” Sheedy said.
“It’s going to tell everybody how tough it’s going to be to build this club – as simple as that.
“We don’t have the recruiting officer called the immigration department recruiting fans for the West Sydney Wanderers. We don’t have that on our side.
“We’re got to actually start a whole new ball park and go and find fans because that’s what happens when you bring a lot of people through, channel into a country and put them in the west of Sydney and all of a sudden they build a club like that in one year and all of a sudden they’ve got 10,000 fans and 20,000 going to a game.”

(Source: Sheedy links Wanderers’ success to immigration department)

If ever there was an illustration of the disconnect and cultural ignorance about what drives the heart of the Skoda Fails’ supposed territory this was the acme, the paradigm, the sine non qua in excelsis. Already demonstrably out of his depth with his embracing of an utterly worthless Rugby League convert for the venture (the befuddled and richly compensated Israel Folau), the grumpy old man who was thrashing around in a sea of incompetence at his pet project thought it was smart to draw some kind of xenophobic contrast between the adverse environment his franchise faced, versus the multicultural, cosmopolitan and internationally conscious supporters of the Wanderers.

This moronic fusillade demonstrated the barren ideological mentality of the Skoda Fails. They were effectively like Mr Kurz in ‘Heart of Darkness’, lost, forlorn, going mad with their own visions of power whilst all around the natives were ungrateful, uncivilised, foreign. To ply such a whining joke of a justification of his ventures failures, whilst showing an ignorant contempt for the people who supposedly wanted the Orange and Black Clowns but were too stupid or too foreign to understand what they were missing…well, it was a crude and dumb-arse statement of biblical stature. In fact if it hadn’t been for preceding and following comments from another luminary of Australian Rules’ intelligentsia, Eddie ‘Collingwood and Being a Fuckwit Forever’ McGuire, based on racial stereotypes such as felafel loving lebs and gorilla-like indigenous players, well Sheedy would’ve won the Nobel Prize for Cultural Insensitivity 2013.

Perhaps if the fool and his dullard minions had followed the excellent example of the Western Sydney Wanderers his joke of a club might not have repeatedly failed to attract more than 6,000 paying customers to the loss after loss parade at their home ground, in the heart of Sydney’s middle west, Homebush. How can anyone take serious a man and a club that has no bloody clue whatsoever and then repeats such ignorance in portraying the very paradigm of western Sydney sporting success. The whole farrago of jealousy, impotent rage and xenophobia underscores the failures of a venture nobody really wants or needs in the area it is targeting. Like a Frankenstein or a zombified corpse the Skoda Fails follow a mindless path set for them by their Melbourne based overlords.

In summary, I reiterate my points about the vacuum of support, of engagement, of need and of awareness associated with the Skoda Fails within the western Sydney context. They are a liability to the sport of Australian Rules and a model of how to fuck things up royally that thankfully the Wanderers have avoided in their brief existence. Like the German army’s attacks on Verdun in the First World War, the airborne assault on the bridge at Arnhem in 1944, or the French occupation of Dien Bien Phu in the first Indochina War the Skoda Fails are a strategic blunder made by a behemoth force unable to understand the why, the how and the what to do in a Pyrrhic mission of failure.

Thank Christ I am a Wanderers fan!