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.

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?

A New Yet Old Kit: From 2014 to 1974 and Back Again

Today saw the Football Federation of Australia and their major kit partner Nike release the new Socceroo’s kit for the upcoming 2014 World Cup in Brazil, and as someone who loves seeing history respected may I say how happy I am to see this will be what the national team wears when they take the pitch against Chile on June 13th:

Mark Bresciano and Michael Zullo model the new Socceroos kit

What is most pleasant to reflect upon when looking at the new look shirt, shorts and socks is how closely it approximates the same kit worn by the first Australian team to play at the World Cup Finals, my much beloved heroes of West Germany 1974:

1974 Socceroos Team for the World Cup Finals held in West Germany (photo credit Andre Krueger)

If there is one aspect of our game here in Australia that needs consistent and deeper commitment from the FFA outside the actual management of football it is the important task of emphasizing the long and proud history of our sport in this country. It is a task that our administrators need to be challenged with again and again, especially in the broader context of Australians and their relationship with our sporting history.

When one looks at other sports played in Australia there is a continual reliance on referring back to previous heroes, previous wins, previous teams and players. For example in cricket talk about the likes of Mitchell Johnson will immediately bring thoughts among devotees of the sport and engaged journalists with past greats such as Dennis Lillee. In Rugby League the most important domestic contest (i.e. the State of Origin) is redolent with references to old greats like Wally Lewis or Benny Elias, or going back even further the long held resentment against NSW league administrators that drives Queenslanders to deeper passions. Olympic greats like Dawn Fraser or Murray Rose, AFL legends such as Ted Whitton or Ron Barassi, Rugby Union Wallabies like the Ella brothers; all of these sports and their past icons form a tradition that ends up extolling the benefits and national pride of the player and the game.

Football on the other hand has had at best a desultory relationship between its past and its present, its greats of yesteryear and its current champions. Much of this is undoubtedly due to the administrators from previous national bodies doing little in the public arena to encourage the media or Socceroo fans to engage with past players, historical details. Outside the older and more fixated football fans and pundits in Australia the vast bulk of our ability to talk about historical greats is either limited by the paucity of exposure to pre-2005 success or a cultural cringe that celebrates other countries legends ahead of our own.  It is rare to see older generations of football fans in Australia talking in glowing terms of our past, whether it be individual players, teams or even the entire sport itself, and as for the administrators that have at times needed to almost deny the past to survive political or media scrutiny. It’s far easier to talk about a Dino Zoff, a Peter Schmeichel, a Bruce Grobelaar or a Gordon Banks than a Ron Corry or Jim Fraser because so many more football fans in Australia have seen or heard about these legendary foreign goalkeepers than the men who kept goal for the Socceroos in the early 1970s. Even those ex-national team stalwarts like Frank Farina, John Kosmina, Paul Wade and David Zdrilic get more recognition due to their post-playing careers than what they actually achieved on the pitch. David Mitchell, Peter Katholos, Robbie Dunn, Marshall Soper and dozens of other long term Socceroos have been forgotten in ways that overseas footballers from the past, or local historical players in other sports have never been ignored.

So what does this new kit do for those of us who want to see our sport’s past celebrated and discussed with more vigour, promoted with the same kind of respect and appreciation that Australians seem to do so readily with our cricket, league, Olympic, AFL history? Well, just as the baggy green cap has been a constant since at least the early 1900s for all Aussie test cricketers, the green and gold shirt that is going to be worn by Tommy Rogic and Tim Cahill in Brazil is almost exactly what was worn forty years ago by Peter Wilson, Col Curran, Max Tolson and Manfred Schaefer. This is another recent and very welcome indication that the FFA is learning to appreciate where our game has come from, and trying to share it with both old and new fans alike.

 

The World Cup Draw: An Amateur’s Perspective

In the wee small hours of an Australian Saturday morning I sat through all the Eurovision-esque hoopla of the draw for next year’s World Cup Finals. With a parade of dignitaries, old players, Brazilian celebrities, interpretative dancers and that wily old Machiavellian Sepp Blatter it seemed as if the meat and potatoes of the event would never arrive. However, when it did as an Australian part of me wished the FIFA version of ‘The X-Factor: Brazil’ had continued. To use that hackneyed cliche, we have been dropped in a group of death that will take a miracle of North Korea at England 66 proportion to get out of.

Having said that every country that has gone through the process of being allocated a slot in each World Cup Finals group has reason to either celebrate or perhaps contemplate slashing their communal football wrists, and Australia is not alone in wondering how cruel the Gods are. It might be that Brazilians, Spaniards, Argentinians and French have reason to be happy, but almost everyone else will be pondering how chance and fate has conspired against them. So, just to add some more uninformed and amateur comment on the draw here are my thoughts.

Group A

2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ - Final Draw - FIFA.comBrazil are obviously in the box seat for qualification through to the round of 16, with a team that is playing excellent football and at home in front of the most passionate fans in the world. Therefore the race is one for who will go through in second place. Like many a World Cup there is plenty to lick the lips over as the match ups between the three countries looking for a 2nd place progression are determined. Croatia, whilst currently ranked globally in 16th, had a fairly tough road to Brazil 2014 and to be honest they are not the same in terms of quality as that team which went to France in 1998. The added burden of starting off the group games against Brazil will be a tough one for the Croats, and being a European team playing in the Amazonian heat of Manaus against Cameroon and in the the northern city of Recife against Mexico may be even more troublesome. Having said that Cameroon are one of the lowest ranked teams in Brazil 2014, and Mexico have struggled all through their qualification process. A key match will be that in Natal between Mexico and Cameroon; a win for either team puts immense pressure on the loser and Croatia. If I was the Cameroon coach I would want the win badly as going to Manaus against Croatia with three points in the bag is an excellent launching pad. Having said that I suspect that we will see two teams (most likely Croatia and Mexico) level on points at the end of the group stage, with goal difference the determinant for qualification into the round of 16.

My Prediction for Qualifier from Group As: 1st – Brazil, 2nd – Croatia

Group B

GroupBEvery Australian fan of the Socceroos has a tiny flickering hope that whilst we are in a true ‘Group of Death’ we might, just might, squeak through. Of course the hard cold light of football reality means that these illusions (some would say delusions) are going to be considered as ridiculous by the Spaniards, Dutch and Chileans, and most pundits will take the view we are in Group B and the finals to make up numbers. I would argue that the truth lies somewhere in between impossible dreams and pessimistic resignation. The opening matches for each team will go a long way to determining who has the momentum to qualify, and there is the exceedingly tasty prospect of Spain and the Netherlands recreating the 2010 final in the heat of Salvador as their first game in Group B. Spain are world and European champions and ranked no.1 globally, hence have every right to be favourites to progress in number one spot form the group. The Dutch will be very keen to at least draw this game, and it is eminently possible that this will be the case. Their match with their 2010 nemesis will be a cracker. For the two ‘outsiders’ (and I use that term very loosely in Chile’s case) Chile versus Australia will be crucial to both teams and it would be a significant achievement if Ange Postecoglou can get his squad up for a win. The Chileans have been playing brilliant football recently and as these are effectively a South American finals they will be more at home in the climate and match conditions. Therefore for the Socceroos to emerge in 2nd place at the end of the group stage will be a remarkable achievement. Ultimately this is going to be a race in three, and be prepared for perhaps a surprise with Chile beating off either the Dutch or Spanish for progression into the final 16.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group B: 1st Spain, 2nd Chile

Group C

GroupCGroup C is definitely one of the weakest in the 2014 World Cup Draw and whilst there are some teams whose current rankings are quite high it is not probably as fair a reflection on the potential quality of the teams participating. Columbia is probably the stand out team and they will no doubt be helped by the South American context of these finals. I think they will be too good for Greece in their opening game and this will set them up very well for qualification through to the final 16 teams, probably in 1st first. Japan is my other favourite for qualification, although Cote d’Ivoire will be possibly more at home. The key games will be those in the second tranche of group matches, with Columbia and Cote d’Ivoire clashing in Brasilia, and Japan and Greece meeting in Natal. The Japanese have had some problems with their standard of play since qualifying for the 2014 Finals, however they have more experience than either Cote d’Ivoire and Greece in Brazilian conditions plus they have more quality players in European leagues than ever before. Neither the Greeks nor the Ivorians have been as convincing in the lead up to qualification so from what may be considered one of the least strong groups I don’t expect them to progress.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group C: 1st Columbia, 2nd Japan

Group D

GroupDAnother so-called ‘Group of Death’, the combination of Uruguay, Costa Rica, England and Italy is going to be one of the closest with England and Costa Rica both looking perhaps a little askance at the draw and wondering why they have got what they have got. Uruguay is another South American team who are strong candidates for progressing through to the final 16, and what will be undoubtedly be key for them will be how well they adapt to and are supported in Brazil. The form of Suarez will also be vital for La Celeste. Even though they had to go through confederation play-offs to get to Brazil 2014 they have earned some good wins  in the process. Costa Rica are a team that at its best can be very attractive and competitive, and again they will have some advantage coming from playing in South America unlike their European competitors. However it is more than likely they will be behind the eight ball after their opening game against Uruguay. The England versus Italy game in the Amazonian city of Manaus will be a trial for both teams. Neither England nor the Azzuri have set the world on fire in recent games or in qualifying, so whoever wins this game will be in an excellent position to qualify for the final 16. I know this will sound like Pommy bashing but the Three Lions have had a less than stellar record at recent World Cup Finals so if I was to pick a European team to come through this group it would be Italy.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group D: 1st Uruguay, 2nd Italy

Group E

GroupEOf the top 8 seeded teams for Brazil 2014 Switzerland was seen as one of if not the weakest and in this group they will find the going tough. Ecuador are a bit of an unknown quantity in this group and you would think that with the South American context of these finals they should be at least capable of a draw against the Swiss in the opening game. However for both these teams the big threat has to be France, who after a very tough qualification process made it to Brazil in style and have had some good wins since then. Honduras will be very likely roadkill for Les Bleus in the first game for both teams, setting the scene for what will be two crucial games in the second phase of matches in Group E. This should be a reasonably open competition for second place assuming Switzerland don’t live up to their rankings, with my assumption being the team to get through alongside France possibly coming down to goal difference.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group E: 1st France, 2nd Ecuador

Group F

GroupFLa Albiceleste are red hot favourites to get through the initial stage of Brazil 2014 and I see no reason why they can’t get a maximum of 9 points from their games in Group F. Again like Group the remaining three sides in this group look to be fighting over the scraps of second place with none of them being stand out candidates. Argentina could well put on a goal-fest against Iran, and whilst Nigeria won’t be a major threat they will possibly more capable of handling the climate of Brazil with more comfort. The Iranians will in my opinion struggle to challenge at least Argentina and probably Nigeria, which means the crucial games will be those involving the only debutante nation at Brazil 2014, Bosnia-Herzegovina. If the Balkan country can escape from  their opening game against Argentina without too serious a mauling then beat Nigeria in Curatiba they maybe in a prime position to progress. For now however I expect Nigeria to accompany Messi’s Argentines to the second stage of Brazil 2014.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group F: 1st Argentina, 2nd Nigeria

Group G

GroupGYet another ‘group of death’ which is set up magnificently for some quality matches as well as some one-on-one challenges and unique circumstances. Germany’s Mannschaft are again looking in excellent nick prior to the  2014 finals and one aspect of their team that will stand them in good stead is that the team that played so attractively in South Africa has been both matured and had more youthful talent incorporated into their structures. Joachim Low is a coach who has few equals in international football and I have every confidence that he will steer his squad deep into the finals. The second European team in the group is Portugal and whilst they will attract a lot of support partly due to the immense talent of Ronaldo, and partly through the cultural links between Brazil and its ex colonial ruler, I think this version of the Seleção is not as good as past ones. Their global ranking seems out of tune with recent results, and with a history of having little recent success against Germany they will go into their opening game as underdogs. The Ghanaians and Americans are not necessarily there to make up numbers, however again particularly in the later team’s case the FIFA rankings seem a little generous. The clash between Jogi’s Deutschland and Klinsi’s USA will be fascinating however what is going to be more important will be their game against Ghana. The Black Stars will I think be challenging Portugal for the second place in Group G and I would not be surprised to see them get through like they did in 2010 on goal difference. However this is most likely going to be the only group that provides two European teams for the round of 16.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group G: 1st Germany, 2nd Portugal

Group H

GroupHAnother reasonably open group with one stand out team (Belgium), one very good team (Russia) and South Korea and Algeria each having strengths that cannot be denied. Much has been said by far more insightful pundits about the strength and exciting potential of the Red Devils, and they should get off to a great start against Algeria in their first group match. The big match of this group will no doubt be the second for the Belgians and the Russians, being played at Rio’s legendary Maracana, and if the Russians can emerge victorious in their first game against South Korea this will set the group up very sweetly. Having said that I don’t believe that the South Koreans are as weak as their current FIFA ranking assert, and they could trouble the hosts of the 2018 Finals. Algeria are probably the weakest of the African countries at Brazil 2014 and I expect they will finish last in the Group. Bottom line; this should be another all-European qualifying group into the round of 16.

My Prediction for Qualifiers from Group H: 1st Belgium, 2nd Russia

The Socceroos: Ange’s Way Forward?

Like every other person who has watched the Socceroo debacle unfold since the losses against Brazil and France, I have some ideas as to how the team needs to progress and what we as a football country and culture need to see implemented by all the relevant powers-that-be. With Ange Postecoglou appointed as the next national team coach, here are my thoughts on how he may (with the assistance and support of the FFA) move us forward on the international football stage

  1. Ange’s agenda must be defined by the long term role he has been appointed to,. Whilst no one would want him to fail to record improved results in the coming months or at next years World Cup Finals in Brazil, the strategy must be to accept potential bad results now for long term gain further down the road. The FFA and Frank Lowy particularly don’t want to see the national team embarrassed, however if Postecoglou can begin a more youth focused approach over the next 12 months, improve the reputation of the team and get the best out of the squad in those crucial games next year then maybe some losses will be accepted more equanimously than those recently incurred during Holger’s regime.
  2. Postecoglou must work closer with the coaches of the junior Australian teams such as the Olyroos and the Joeys. In the last decade or so our youth players have not done as well in international tournaments as we have done in the past, and as we need to see in the future. The most recent examples of this decline were the defeats suffered by the U-19 team against Vietnam (5-1 in the AFC U-19 championship qualifiers), and the failure of the U-20 Young Socceroos to escape the group phase in the U-20 World Cup in Turkey earlier this year. The so-called Golden Generation was built upon a swathe of great young players who did well at junior World Cups and the Olympics (such as the 1992 Barcelona Olyroos), and there needs to be more connection across the entire board regarding the progress of our juniors to senior representation. Technical skills being introduced as part of the national training curriculum by Hans Berger are very important, however how is that being utilised by our national coaches as a means or a goal for squad development and success? Our national coach needs to be both informed of and informing this process; to all intents this never happened with any of the imported coaches like Osieck, Verbeek, Hiddink, Venables etc.
  3. The FFA must be willing to be both harder in its approach to critiquing the national team and its coach, but more flexible in giving Postecoglou the support and directions he needs. One of the failures seen under both Osieck and Verbeek was the scant regard given by either for the supposed goal of rejuvenation of the Socceroos, or the lack of definitive publically expressed directions regarding the the implementation of a football philosophy beyond winning as many games as could be achieved. Frank Lowy set parameters for recent coaches that brought concrete successes but they were hardly ones that will have long term benefits, nor were they a result of a cooperative and informed ethos within the teams, the coaching staff and the administrators joint collective. It’s a very fine line to walk, being both unobtrusive in the day-to-day coaching and management of the Socceroo squad, but being willing to call a spade a bloody shovel if things aren’t being done the way the FFA wants. This is a crucial challenge for Lowy, Gallop and others, and it will be interesting to see if the current or future FFA are up to the task.
  4. Too many of our best young prospects have been seduced by lucrative contracts and the lure of going to a European club into career choices that have led them down a cul-de-sac. Whilst much of the criticism aimed at Holger Osieck’s squad was rightly directed at the coach, a great deal of opprobrium needs to be directed at the players. Part of that critical reaction has to be targeted at younger players who went overseas to clubs that have either not served them well, or have led them into dead-end situations (either of their own or of the club’s making). Right now I believe there has to be a significant question over Tom Rogic’s decision to go to Celtic, although his is not the only example. Whilst Celtic are a substantial team in the SPL, his recent lack of fitness and more importantly inability to get quality game time is a major concern. It would seem to me he may have been better going to a Belgian, Dutch, or maybe if possible a Bundesliga I or II team, as per Robbie Kruse or kiwi Marcus Rojas. I would argue the likes of Matthew Spiranovic and Dario Vidosic lost a great deal of their prospective growth and momentum as key young Socceroos for this campaign because of badly managed overseas excursions early in their career. Even younger players like Eli Babalj and Aaron Mooy have had misadventures in Europe, whilst those that are a little older like Brent McGrath, Ruben Zadkovich, Nathan Burns and Bruce Djite have also learned from their foreign sojourns and come back to the A-League. Whether any or all of these players could have been or maybe will be major Socceroos in the future is debatable, however I firmly believe that longer and more consistent involvement in the old NSL was a hallmark of the development of our so-called ‘golden generation’ and in the last 10 years there has been an inordinate rush for much of our talent to look for foreign clubs as their first or most important early signing. It would do the Socceroos cause some good I believe for the FFA to try and manage the timing and targeting of foreign adventures in a cooperative manner that doesn’t leave players looking back at wasted times or unsuccessful engagements overseas. Ange must be ready to be up front with players looking to make less advantageous career choices, when talking to them regarding their national team selection. If Postecoglou can help inform and guide these career choices then that will be very helpful for the development of the Socceroos. Perhaps with Ange’s deep knowledge of the A-League and junior talent, and the coaches who are involved in the development of younger players he may have more impact as an advocate for more careful foreign club choices.
  5. Concomitant with this aspect of misadventures in timing when committing to overseas clubs is the actual league which those players, whether young or old, are playing. Naturally everyone wants to play in the best European leagues, however identifying which ones these are and how easy they are to crack is always difficult. In my opinion the four giant pillars of UEFA (EPL, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A) are the obvious leagues we would want our current and potential Socceroos to play in. Within that structure I believe it would be more beneficial if we had more players in the Spanish and German leagues, insofar as they both have incredibly high standards and reflect two differing football philosophies that I think our players can learn from. For all its money and power the EPL to me seems to offer less, although it has to be said the money and reputation of the league is a powerful lure to those who want to further their careers. The problem I see however is that the great majority of those players we have trying to break into the EPL are languishing in Championship, League One or lower clubs, and may never escape the perennial battle of promotion and relegation. Now in light of this our best players who are heading to Europe may be better served by spending more time in those leagues they can get regular quality game time in, and at this time it looks as if the Belgian, Dutch and Swiss leagues are where they should be aiming. Mat Ryan, Jason Davidson, Adam Sarota and Tommy Oar have already shown the way and it looks as if Oliver Bozanic and Dario Vidosic are following up on this. I wouldn’t discount the efforts of the players in the Bundesliga II either, specifically Rukavytsya and Leckie, and there is hope that these guys will form a significant part of our next generation Socceroos. If the next national coach and the FFA can work to facilitate these kinds of pathways in Europe then that will be of greater benefit than what we see right now, with a raft of players in nondescript Middle Eastern leagues or in China.
  6. The non-European leagues need to also be looked at from a national team perspective and where possible have Postecoglou and the FFA again try and work with the players to help them avoid the dross and find the quality they need to develop. The Middle Eastern leagues have been the graveyard of quite a few Socceroos (arguably with the exception of Mark Bresciano) and unless that player is looking for a superannuated career end and has nothing further to add to the national team the coach and administration should be doing all in their powers to discourage any current or potential Socceroo from going there. China is also a problem, in that the CSL has the sniff of too much cash, too many old stars and some major corruption issues to deal with. Comparing the CSL with it’s more senior Asian counterparts in South Korea and Japan is like chalk and cheese. The K-League has potential but it’s the J-League where any Australians should be focusing if they can’t crack Europe and aren’t back home. Standards are higher than the other Asian leagues plus some European competitions. Josh Kennedy has certainly not gone backwards since he started playing for Nagoya Grampus. Away from Asia I would love to see some players head to South America to play in Argentina, Brazil or Chile, as I am a firm believer we need more of the Latin flair in our national style of play. However the cultural barriers as well as the sheer murderous competition for players in those leagues must be taken into account. Finally the MLS could be another promising league to work in and with, and whilst Tim Cahill is the only major success story right now from an Australian perspective I can see in the future the Americans making more of their competition. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to look there for opportunities down the road.
  7. Ange Postecoglou must find a way to either coordinate and/or polish off the technical attributes of younger players coming through the new national curriculum and have them performing regularly well in the national team, within the general frameworks set up by the FFA, or take a top-down approach to the improvement of our players. Having some knowledge of his work with most recently the Victory and the Roar  I think we can assume he will be taking the former approach. Robbie Kruse would be perhaps his star pupil with some other notable achievements from players like Matt McKay, Connor Pain and Mitch Nichols. Postecoglou has shown a propensity for working up a squad that meets his tactical vision whilst inculcating and refining certain skill sets or qualities, which fits more into a longer term vision built around a deeper foundation than simply assembling what are supposedly the best players and going from there. It will be interesting to see how his preferred style of play melds with the tactical principles being taught through junior structures under Hans Berger’s technical guidelines.
  8. Our new coach must also be willing to take on overseas and domestic clubs as well as the FFA itself to protect and enforce his vision for the national team. As an Australian he will encounter nominally more resistance from particularly European league clubs if and when he wants to use one of their Aussie signings, than someone like a Guus Hiddink would. He may also be held in a slightly less respected position by the FFA, partly because there is an aura still around the foreign ‘gun’ coach as well as Ange’s history both as a junior Socceroos coach and his past media commitments. He will need to be strong in voice and forthright in communicating what he wants and how he is going to get there to the key parties directing his squad’s evolution.
  9. Thankfully Postecoglou should be something Pim Verbeek never was and Holger Osieck less so, and that is fully cogniscant of the capabilities of the A-League players. As demonstrated by Ricki Herbert and the All Whites at the last World Cup Finals there is plenty of competitive quality in the ranks of the local league, and there were plenty of good signs in quite a few of the players given a go by Holger in recent years from the A-League. Duke, Juric, Milligan, Zullo, Brillante, de Silva, Mooy, Pain, McKay, Galekovic, Spiranovic and Antonis are just some of the A-League players who might be given more consistent runs with or will continue to be part of  the national team. If Postecoglu can take the bits and pieces team that played under Holger at the two East Asian Football Federation tournaments and use those players to add depth and competition for other more established or foreign league based players he will be accomplishing something very valuable.
  10. Postecoglou must be given free reign to develop his own support staff team. The problems with Holger’s coaching must not be purely his burden alone; Aurelio Vidmar and the conditioning team must also be looked at and if found wanting on past achievements or potential with Ange then the new coach must pick who he wants in there.
  11. In what is a huge plus for his future role as Socceroo coach Postecoglou has a very prominent and well respected voice in the media in Australia, and he has a lot of goodwill in the back from both his preceding clubs in the A-League fans, and I would suggest a lot of his colleagues in the game. His style of play and his results are but part of his public image which is very important to the Socceroos future, if not crucial like issues of the transition of players and on field success are.

Let’s be blunt; the next few years could be pretty bloody and not too enjoyable for those who want to see lots of Socceroos wins. The stocks in quality junior players demanding inclusion in the national team are lower than they should be. We have still immense problems with the transitional phase of our squad and we also have stylistic and tactical challenges that may take years to resolve. Our competitors in Asia and further afield aren’t happy to just watch and wait; they too are working on new squads, coaches, systems that in the specific case of Japan demonstrates the growing gulf. Every national team and football administration goes through these patches, and as the Hungarians, Scots and other past champion teams understand it’s easier to lose national football momentum and status than it is to gain it. We are on the cusp of something rather unique now, when the domestic game in Australia is roaring ahead and the Socceroos are the ones in need of help. However I believe unlike his predecessors and perhaps his rivals Ange Postecoglou can take our game and our national team into a new era, where we no longer ride the cycle of just qualifying for the World Cup Finals, but instead look to excel across the board, in as many arenas as we can compete in. Like thousands of other football fans in Australia I wish him good luck.