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.

 

Get On Board The FIFA Bloat…or Platini’s Presidential Ploy

In the world of FIFA politics if the electorate needs pandering to come presidential election times no idea is too silly, no gerrymander too outlandish. That would be my take on UEFA supremo Michel Platini’s recent hypothetical regarding the expansion of the World Cup finals from its current 32 team basis to 40, which if it got up would mean two and a half times as many teams participating say in 2026 contrasted with 1982. As interviewed in the British Times newspaper Platini stated:

“Instead of taking away some European [nations], we have to go to 40 teams in the World Cup We can add two African, two Asiatic, two American and one from Europe. I support this idea totally.” (source)

This comes in the wake of recent comments by the arch-Machiavellian at FIFA HQ, Sepp Blatter, regarding the supposed under-representation of African and potentially Asian nations at the World Cup finals:

“From a purely sporting perspective, I would like to see globalisation finally taken seriously, and the African and Asian national associations accorded the status they deserve at the FIFA World Cup. It cannot be that the European and South American confederations lay claim to the majority of the berths at the World Cup (18 or 19 teams), because taken together they account for significantly fewer member associations (63) than Africa and Asia (100).

Africa, the confederation with the most member associations (54), is woefully under-represented at the World Cup with just five places. As long as this remains the case, African sides may never win an intercontinental trophy, regardless of progress on the playing side.” (source)

So on one hand you have the man who has seen off every rival since his own ascension to the throne of world football looking at CAF and AFC, loving the numbers of national member associations and thus considers that ‘from a purely sporting perspective’ particularly African teams have no chance to win the World Cup due to under-representation. On the other the man who is in charge of the richest and most important continental football federation in the world wanting to retain his power-base but also bring into the tent those 8 nations who miss out now, making a bigger cake not just for Asia and Africa but also for other continental federations.

Excuse me whilst I laugh cynically.

Let’s put aside for now the relevant (but far weightier) issues of the social and economic cost of a 40 team World Cup Finals. Instead, how about a momentary reality check regarding the nominal strength of each affected confederation and their worthiness to be represented at the World Cup simply according to their FIFA rankings. Right now nineteen UEFA teams are in the top 32 ranked countries in the world, followed by six from CONMBOL (South America), three from CONCACAF (North & Central America), three from CAF (Africa) and none from AFC (Asia) or OFC (Oceania). It seems a little rich for Sepp to be talking about increasing the exposure of the World Cup Finals to more African and Asian teams when they represent less than 10% of the actual 32 highest ranked teams in the world right now. Admittedly there is the potential for this to change in the future, but can anyone seriously suggest that European or South American continental groupings will become less capable of fielding better teams in the near to long term future? There has been talk about both Asia (since 1966 and the North Koreans) and Africa (since 1990 and the Cameroon team) becoming the new forces in world football and after at least 23 years these supposed seismic changes in world football have not substantively occurred. Yes, it is fair to say that both these two continental areas have generated some increasingly sizable numbers of good individual players and competitive national teams, however the status quo in terms of actual national football achievement still lies in the game’s continental heartlands of Europe and South America.

So on that count Blatter seems to be hold a less tenuous grip on reality than his current rival Platini, however the numbers still barely improve for African and Asian teams if we include the teams currently ranked 33-40. AFC fails to add any more current candidates from these places whilst CAF can only add two more to the pot. Again there is the possibility things may change over time, but as long as UEFA particularly holds all the economic and political power, and South America continues to have a dominant cultural role in football then the capabilities of either African or Asian teams to drastically revolutionise things in the process of world cup structures is far less significant than the raw political power of their FIFA general assembly numbers. And that, dear reader, is where the true crux of Blatter’s argument lies.

What is most fascinating is that the man who is championing Africa’s right for more representation at the World Cup was back in 1998 at his election as president able to work with the man who is arguing for an expansion of the entry list of nations for the finals to knock off a far more corporately transparent candidate backed by UEFA and CAF. Lennart Johansson was forced to back out of a 2nd round ballot for the role of FIFA president after Blatter and Platini both successfully split the bloc of European and African votes behind the Swede’s candidature (source). Since the selection of the 2010 World Cup Finals Blatter has used the plum prize of hosting the event to help either facilitate his own agenda (such as pandering to CAF via the South African successful bid) or undercut rivals (as seen in the negation of AFC boss Mohammed Bin Hamman’s presidential candidacy with the Qatar 2022 selection). If a continental federation’s support was deemed important for his continual presidency it was given certain benefits (such as the 2002 confirmed direct qualification route for Oceania to the 2006 Finals which was then removed by FIFA’s ExCo in 2003). President Blatter has always found it very convenient to use continental and federation aspirations for world cup success as a tool for political power, and he is again dabbling in this murky world in the lead up to 2015’s election.

Blatter’s 1998 henchman, UEFA president Michel Platini is using the same playbook as his old boss in hanging out offers of prestige, wealth, power and fame to national federations and their delegates, whilst making damned sure he doesn’t piss off his core constituency. We’ve already seen Platini fight against the insanity of the scheduling of the ridiculous Qatar 2022 World Cup, and more recently the Frenchman has tackled Blatter’s stumbling comments on racism in the sport (which funnily enough seems most problematic in Platini’s own European backyard, in Italy, Spain and Russia particularly). Unlike Sepp who is willing to hunt for votes and dollars from the increasingly wealthy and powerful African and Asian delegate associations whilst not giving in to European sensitivities, Platini wants to make sure he has his arse covered whilst growing the World Cup golden goose for other greedy parties. It could be a political masterstroke from the first truly great and globally recognised French footballer, however the inevitable questions over cost, relevancy, bloating bureaucracies etc will be useful tools for Blatter to exploit, as well as Platini’s obvious protection of UEFA power (something the FIFA delegates from CAF, AFC and maybe CONCACAF and OFC will always have problems with).

In summary the undeclared war for FIFA’s presidency in 2015 has begun to hit its stride, with two the two leading contenders (i.e. the old master Blatter and his now disaffected old henchman Platini) using the avarice and lust for power inherent in every national and continental delegate to FIFA as a means to their Machiavellian ends. As Brazilians protest about the exorbitant and socially destructive cost of 2014, as Russians are engaged in racist and homophobic politics in the lead up to 2018, as Qatar’s 2022 World Cup is mired in controversy over scheduling, corruption, worker’s rights and political freedoms, the king and the king maker at FIFA HQ are duking it out for the right to lead the rotten empire.

Whether there are 32 or 40 teams at the World Cup Finals, eventually the only winners are Blatter or Platini.

The End of The Osieck Era

Well, for the #HolgerOut crew it’s mission accomplished. Which now leaves the far more hard questions that need to be answered open for review, discussion, evaluation.

However, before that complex and multi-faced dilemma is confronted I think it is only fair to look at the past regime under Holger and try and make some sense of where we were, what happened to get us to this point, and the context of Oiesck’s dismissal. I must state as a starting point that I genuinely liked him and unlike many of his critics actually met him and talked about the team and players. I am also happy to put my bias towards any coach who actually gets us to the World Cup finals on the table, considering many who arguably were more charismatic, more responsive to the media or the fans, had better squads etc didn’t. On the other hand I agree 100% with his dismissal at this moment.

So, starting with the obvious question, why was Holger picked and what was the mission he was handed. I honestly believe that the most crucial aspect of his selection as coach was not necessarily his credentials with teams like the West Germans in 1990, Canada or Urawa Red Diamonds. It is a matter of record he had some success with these teams, although that with the 1990 World Cup champions was as an assistant coach to Franz Beckenbauer. Therein lies the crucial factor in his selection, insofar as the close relationship around the time of his appointment between FFA head Frank Lowy and the German legend (and FIFA executive committee member) Beckenbauer.

I believe it is valid to think that Osieck’s appointment, which was guided by personal conversations between Beckenbauer and Lowy was probably influenced by the then FFA bid on behalf of Australai for the right to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cups. I am not saying that it was the sole reason, as Osieck did have some important indicators that related to his potential value for the Socceroos. However as in any situation when the candidates are equal and you have a very powerful referee who may influence your other activities, it is going to be natural to place their candidate ahead of the pack. If I was being very cynical I might bandy around phrases like nepotism, however that is unfair or inaccurate without any concrete evidence. I do believe it’s fair to say there is a slight smell about the original choice however, and I note today that Craig Foster has raised at least the insubstantial nature of the process :

Irrespective of any views on his effectiveness, or otherwise, Osieck was appointed reportedly because Frank Lowy called Franz Beckenbauer for advice, which is hardly a rigorous process. (source)

Now when Osieck was appointed there had already been a reaction against the previous national coaching structures, due in no small part to the failures of the two men who took over the Socceroos after the 2006 World Cup Finals and Guus Hiddinck’s successful reign. Graham Arnold was deemed a failure because of his period as interim coach during the 2007 Asian Football Confederation Cup, and Pim Verbeek had shown an almost monomaniacal desire to offend everyone in the local game. Verbeek had been unwilling to bend to any official or unofficial desire for the national team to be drawn upon either A-League players or transition through a new generation of players. His results during the qualification process through to the 2006 World Cup Finals was efficient and arguably the best ever seen in Australian football history. However at no time did he endear himself to the majority of Australian football fans, journalists and local players thanks to his attitudes, and when the calamity of the 4-0 rout against Germany in South Africa happened he was a dead man walking. Having achieved his key task and got the Socceroos to South Africa there was no more requirement for his duties.

As a point of reference here is the statement from FFA supremo Frank Lowy upon Holger’s appointment:

“They must have demonstrated the capacity to rebuild teams and to work with young footballers and develop them into internationally competitive players, be prepared to work with the national technical director and his department to enhance the elite player pathway program, have proven experience at international level and success in Asia and commit to be based in Australia and work with Australian staff to develop our own leaders of the future. 

Holger clearly meets these criteria and comes highly recommended as he has worked at all levels of the game and will combine his coaching expertise and experience with an ability to contribute to the future development of young players and in particular will act as mentor to Australian coaches as we develop our own national coaches for the future,” (source)

When Osieck was appointed he made it clear he was not going to be as dismissive of the local game and the domestic capabilities of the A-League. He agreed to actually live here, and from the get-go he made plenty of the right moves and sounds to the relevant people at the start of his work in the post. Issuing statements  like the following”I’ve seen a great deal of good, exciting games in the league and some good individual performances … I’m enjoying it’ and this quote showed Osieck’s more welcome attitude to the domestic game:

“That is why I opted to live in Australia. I’m not a distant coach, coaching a team via computer or laptop, I choose to live in Australia to be close to people, to get an idea about the excellent potential for development and I’m definitely interested. Wherever I go I try to promote the domestic league.” (source)

Over the three year regime of Holger Osieck he made plenty of effort to engage with the A-League and there can be little criticism of his willingness to integrate the leading A-League players into his squads. I recall from my conversation with him that he was well aware of the strengths and weaknesses of Aaron Mooy’s capabilities, and the selection of plenty of A-League players such as Mitchell Duke, Tomi Juric, Jade North, Mark Milligan, Mat Ryan, Michael Thwaite, Archie Thompson among others shows he had a far greater depth of understanding of the best attributes of the local game than his immediate predecessor. Osieck was often seen at A-League games and in hindsight he will be seen to have been the coach to have laid the basis for many a future Socceroo’s international career. For prime facie evidence I would cite the two squads that played in the East Asian Football Federation’s Cup tournaments, the first being the 2012 qualifying tournament in Hong Kong, the second the finals in 2013 and in South Korea. Here is an incomplete list of young players (those under the age of 24) who made their debuts under Osieck in the national team in those two tournaments:

  • Eli Babalj
  • Connor Pain
  • Tomi Juric
  • Mitchell Duke
  • Josh Brillante
  • Aaron Mooy
  • Aziz Behich
  • Trent Sainsbury
  • Craig Goodwin
  • Mark Birghitti
  • Mat Ryan

Now of course giving such young players as those cited above a start in their Socceroo careers is not necessarily going to mean anything unless they get meaningful exposure to frequent game time, and these young players have not as yet made a significant contribution to the national team’s progress in arguably more substantive games. However there has been a couple of younger players (most notably Robbie Kruse, Tommy Oar and arguably Tom Rogic) who have been given opportunities and  mostly stepped up. So to some degree Osieck has met Lowy’s expectations as per his announcement back in 2010.

The problem is that for all these debuts for younger players and all these pathways established for a development of a new team since 2010, the bulk of the heavy lifting when it came time for meaningful World Cup qualifiers, or in several major internationals, was left to the responsibility of senior Socceroos who were part of at least the 2010 squad if not the 2006 outfit. Tim Cahill, Lucas Neill, Mark Bresciano, Mark Schwarzer, Brett Holman, Josh Kennedy, Luke Wilkshire, Mark Milligan, Dario Vidosic, David Carney and Nikita Rukavytsya are still being seen in the green and gold as late as the last qualifier against Iraq in Sydney, or the friendlies which lead to Osieck’s demise against Braizl and France. So in a context where results were seen as the driving force youth was mostly sacrificed for the sake expediency.

It also needs to be said that many of the younger players who should be driving the national team’s progress in the last year have not been able to rise as high or as quickly as everyone as hoped, putting Osieck in the invidious situation as to having to look for answers from some of those old hands who he should have been able to ease out in other circumstances. Two games are very informative as examples of this dilemma,; the 2-2 draw against Oman was saved through the efforts of Tim Cahill and Brett Holman, whilst the final qualifier against Iraq in Sydney came down to a goal scored by Josh Kennedy from a Mark Bresciano cross. It may be that younger players may have not got us into the invidious situation of having the older guys need to ‘rescue’ the Socceroos in the first place in these games, but no one can deny that the results were earned by men who had dozens of games under their belts.

So there was the the Catch-22 situation that Osieck was faced with; he was asked to develop pathways and begin the transition of the team which he did to some effect, however with the importance of results in the World Cup qualifiers and expectations of wins against most opponents in other games driving most of the FFA’s agenda and much of the public perception of the Socceroos, he could never continually satisfy every stakeholder. The praise that he and the squad received for a generally excellent AFC Cup in 2011 where the Socceroos made their first final of a major confederation tournament, or the win over Germany in Germany (admittedly with Die Mannschaft fielding a sub-strength team), or for that matter the performances against  Japan in the World Cup qualifiers, the demolition of Saudi Arabia…all these results meant nothing when the cumulative effect of a myriad of factors led to the Brazil and France debacles of the last month.

It has to be said that probably the most striking flaw in Osieck’s management of the squad was that he never seemed to be able to right answers to positional problems that perhaps needed more revolutionary thinking from another coach who could have taken the youth route more consistently. The back four for the Socceroos has been without doubt our recent downfall, and much of the problems lie with the age of Lucas Neill and the absence of a quality dedicated left back. It would be remiss of me to not refer to the continual use of Matt McKay and David Carney in this position, where neither were truly at home. McKay has been probably the most ubiquitous left back however he made his mark in the 2011 AFC Cup through his work in the midfield, not at the back. David Carney is simply incapable of sustained fitness and quality play in a position he is not really suited to. Which leaves the only other options being the likes of Rhys Williams (who has had some serious injury issues), Michael Zullo (who has left FC Utrecht on loan to go back to Adelaide Reds), Jason Davidson (who plays with Eredivisie side Heracles and who has had a less than spectacular start to his Socceroos career), Shane Lowry (who for some reason never made it into Osieck’s starting team) and Aziz Behich (who had some useful game time in the EAFF Cup tourneys).

Then there is the Socceroo captain, Lucas Neill, who in the past few seasons has struggled for regular game time in reasonable quality leagues and teams, and at 36 has definitely slowed. No one can say he hasn’t served his country well, however there is also a pressing argument for his time in the team to be brought to close at the age of 36 for a younger centre back who won’t impede the shape of the defence through lack of space. In this spot I believe Matthew Spiranovic’s development is crucial, as he should be a natural successor to Neill. However, as per other candidates for other positions in the Holger era Spira has not always been able to press his case strongly enough with quality game time in quality leagues.

I could examine every position and every existing or potential candidate for those positions and come up with a myriad of solutions, comments, queries or questions and still not get anything right. Therefore it has to be said that Holger’s situation was far harder than armchair critics like me. Throw in the problematic directives either explicitly or implicitly issued by the FFA under Frank Lowy, and is it any wonder Osieck never could find a settled squad that performed at its peak in the vast majority of circumstances? With injuries or performance levels down in some vital candidates Holger seemed to run into selection cul de sacs again and again, and whilst he was able to cobble together a World Cup qualification the next phase in the Socceroo’s development was badly hamstrung.

Perhaps the most potent or emblematic Socceroo who has risen and fallen through the Holger period is Brett Holman. The former Eredivisie and EPL midfielder was without doubt the find of the Socceroo’s 2010 campaign in South Africa. In the period 2010-11 there were arguably no other players in the squad who has the industry of effort, the skill sets and the ability to turn a game (except perhaps Cahill or Kewell), and Holman should have been one of if not the senior ‘next generation’ players to carry on the legacy of the earlier 2006 squad. However since his move to the EPL and Aston Villa the wheels have well and truly fallen off Holman’s career, and he has returned to a similar position of ridicule that saw him pilloried in social media as ‘Lolman’. The brilliant strike he scored with against Oman in the 2-2 draw in Sydney earlier this year was if anything an imitation of what he should be now, and having seen and met him before that game I can say with some justification that Brett is simply bereft of any confidence in his capabilities or skill. To compound this misreable situation with his move to the UAE domestic league, one can’t sense his career as a Socceroo is probably at an end. Unfit, down on motivation and confidence, displaying only fleeting glimpses of his once very good skills, Holman has been one of the leitmotifs of Osieck’s time in charge of the Socceroos.

So, with a job description that had arguably paradoxical tensions (i.e. World Cup qualification versus youth transition), positional problems and issues with players not being either fit enough or good enough to sustain regularly good performances, a well-intentioned but haphazard youth policy, an early period of success followed by mediocre to horrendously bad results, the senior next Generation players like Holman not really coming on, and finally a personally autocratic style of communicating with the media which certainly put many people off, is it any wonder that Osieck was up for the sacking he got last Saturday morning? Caught between the cross hairs of a football culture in Australia that has developed dramatically increased awareness of what the fans want and don’t want, where the mere act of World Cup qualification is no longer seen as enough, and where the A-League is becoming a senior partner in the public face of football in Australia, Osieck was literally left up shit creek without a paddle by the time the whistle blew in Paris. The tide of football history in Australia turned in the post-2006 era most notably under Holger Osieck and for a man who should have been able to find a new course his ultimate failure was he actually navigated an incomprehensible or effective path for the Socceroo’s future. Obviously any coach lives and dies by the amount of wins they accumulate and perhaps just as importantly how they get those wins. Osieck’s wins and especially his losses seemed to never really indicate that he could take us further.

The verdict on his tenure as coach will be without doubt cruel and arguably unfair, however his regime reflects a missed opportunity for the Socceroos. Our game has gone a long way forward since the dim, dark days of the 80s and 90s, but it now demands more and Holger Osieck could not meet this challenge. Here’s hoping the next man to be our national team’s mentor can rise to the challenge.

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.

Heading Towards Wanderland; A Personal Odyssey Begins…

My journey towards becoming devoted to the Western Sydney Wanderers started a tick under forty years ago, at the dawn of Australian ‘soccer’s’ first great blooming on the international stage.  In an age when football really was anchored in the ‘sheilas, wogs and pooftas’ world so accurately described by the legendary Johnny Warren, the idea that a group of semi-professional Aussies had succeeded in qualifying for the World Cup in the then West Germany didn’t quite resonate in my childish mind. However I was already a kid who loved his sport (whilst not necessarily being the best practitioner) with some TV watching experience of the Munich 1972 Summer Olympics and the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games. I’d joined up in 1974 with the U/10s for North Epping Rangers and had a busy if unskilled career as a fullback ahead of me for the next couple of seasons. However it was all small beer contrasted to what was happening on the other side of the planet, in cities like Hamburg and West Berlin, where men who would become icons for me took Australian football to the world.

Watching the family black and white TV in our Sydney home all those years ago, it was amazing to see pictures coming from more than half a world away where Australians of all colours and national heritage were playing teams filled with strange names from strange lands. I didn’t know who Franz Beckanbauer was at the time, and if you asked me Gerd Muller was I would’ve drawn a blank not just then but for many a year later. However the men who wore the green and gold on those far off football pitches were like giants for me then. They were to become my first sporting idols, predating the likes of Lillee and Thommo, Ashley ‘Rowdy’ Mallett and Ian Chappell, swimming’s Mean Machine or athletic’s Cathy Freeman. The 1974 Socceroos were my entrée to the main meal that is now the Western Sydney Wanderers.

The 1974 Socceroos…Manfred Schaefer middle row, last on right

There was Atti Abonyi and Johnny Warren, wonders from the great St George Budapest team. Anglo-Australians like Jimmy Rooney, Col Curran, Peter Wilson (the team captain) and Ray Richards were combined with the ‘new Australians’ Doug Utjesenovic, Branko Buljevic and Ivo Rudic. In a time when Aboriginal Australians were not generally seen wearing the national colours of our sporting teams there was Harry Williams, again part of the great St George Budapest. In goal was the safe hands of Jack Reilly, backed up by his successor the blonde haired Allan Maher. Noddy Alston and Peter Ollerton were two ex-Poms who’d found a home in the Socceroos, whilst for me the man of the hour, the all-time favourite was the Teutonic milkman and rock-hard defender, Manfred Schaefer. With a face that looked like it had been more used to punch ups on the rugby league field than keeping out probing German and Chilean strikers, Manfred was the man who I wanted to emulate. No-nonsense, never give up, wanting to do his best, still a little unpolished or even amateurish, but with a heart and passion for his adopted nation and the sport, he was an icon for me and I believe even now stands as an example from the past for my current beloved Western Sydney Wanderers.

So in that unlikely beginning last century a nascent personal passion for football was born. I was an Anglo-Australian kid playing soccer, or as it was more commonly known ‘wogball’, at a time when my heroes weren’t squat hairy thugs like those who packed down for Sydney rugby league teams. Nor were they the high-flying aliens from Victoria who played that weird bloody aerial ping-pong game. I’ll admit I used to trade Scanlon’s footy cards in primary school, and yes I did play a bit of touch footy in my mid to late teens with a lad who went on to play for three Sydney based rugby league clubs. However there was always underneath it all the love of the game that Manfred Schaefer played all those years ago. The game that marked out Johnny Warren as a byword for Australian soccer/football, becoming its most strident missionary as fierce as Martin Luther pushed Protestantism.

Coming forward the 39 years or so since that glorious era of childish wonder at the first great Socceroo squad, the Western Sydney Wanderers now bring to me in concentrated domestic doses the reminder of what passion and excitement comes from following this great game. If it hadn’t been for Rale Rasic and his boys and men the ranks of the red and black in Western Sydney would be thinned by one ageing but very passionate football fan.