Despite its worldwide popularity, soccer in Australia has long struggled to gain a proper foothold. Shunted to one side as a ‘foreign’ sport, the beautiful game has languished on the sidelines while the AFL and Rugby leagues rose to prominence. Yet, as Ian Syson discovers in the December issue of Meanjin, soccer has its own proud and almost forgotten history, from as early as the late 19th century to the migrant booms of the fifties and sixties. The full essay is now available on our editions page, and a brief extract is below.
This is an argument about legitimacy. Soccer—my preferred term—is at least 125 years old in Victoria, older in New South Wales. Yet it seems that proponents of the game have constantly to justify themselves in watching, playing, preferring this supposedly ‘new Australian’ sport. Since 1880, soccer has sought welcome in Australian society only to be rebuffed and rejected as a foreign game, a threat, sometimes even a menace to Australian masculinity and life in general. The game has endured sustained media myopia offset by frequent outbursts of intense and spiteful attention. Johnny Warren encapsulated this anti-soccer mentality in the title of his 2002 memoir Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters. Added to this, soccer has regularly collapsed under the massive weight of war and depression and often resurged on migrant tides.
While the game has risen and fallen subject to external pressures, it has, in perhaps equal measure, been sabotaged by its internecine feuds and unfathomable incompetence. Debates within the soccer community often oscillate around the notion of whether our miserable condition is our fault or ‘theirs’.
One long-standing frustration for soccer in Australia is that many of its tens of thousands of juniors end up playing (and supporting) other codes of football at the senior level—this drift may well be the game’s fundamental problem as it tries to establish itself on an equal footing in Australian sporting life. At the elite level, AFL players such as Adam Goodes and Brad Green were standout junior soccer players. Rugby League’s Andrew Johns starred with the round ball as a junior in Newcastle. Aboriginal player Preston Campbell loved playing soccer as a boy. Each of them left the game in their teens. It’s a trend that leaves many supporters wondering if we might have had more success had those players and others stayed in the game. I know the words, ‘He would have been a great soccer player!’ have often passed my lips.
Teenage boys find it easy to shift codes because of these ideas that soccer is ‘new’ or ‘foreign’ or not for ‘real’ men. Our national cultural memory has few soccer stories that shine above the tales of the Bradmans, the Barassis, the Churchills. John Aloisi, running like a madman, twirling his shirt above his head after scoring the winning penalty against Uruguay is a recent and rare exception. As a result, for many boys soccer is the entrée and not the main course in their sporting careers.
A June 2009 instalment of Radio National’s Australia Talks provided an opportunity to think further on these matters.  Host Paul Barclay interviewed soccer identities Andy Harper, John Kallinikios, Bonita Mersiades and Geoff Miles, delivering a thoughtful discussion on the current state of the game. Then the lines were opened for talk-back discussion and some of the negative calls were predictable: soccer is too boring, too ethnic, soccer gets too much government funding and so on. But the one that really stood out was a ripper from ‘Nicholas in Geelong’.
Nicholas had obviously been thinking along the same lines I had in relation to the soccer potential of footballers from other codes—though from a very different perspective. He felt the Socceroo (national team) selectors were remiss in not selecting Melbourne AFL footballer Aaron Davey. ‘Week in, week out Davey did things with the oblong ball that would make Ronaldinho’s jaw drop.’ I don’t know whether Davey played soccer as a kid but I suspect that he would have been very handy. Yet Nicholas might also need to see a bit more of the Brazilian star’s magic in order to make his comparison stick. He might start on Youtube by looking first at ‘Aaron Davey soccer’ and then comparing it with ‘Ronaldinho crossbar’.
Nicholas then delivered the astonishing conclusion: ‘If you take the world’s best soccer players and play them against the world’s best AFL footballers, the soccer players would probably win 3–1; playing Australian Rules the soccer players wouldn’t physically last the first quarter.’ The reason for the latter assessment was that ‘footy is a game of character’—we can only conclude that soccer is therefore a game for those without character. This is simply a pub argument: one that can only be initiated and then had out with the aid of alcoholic encouragement—or at least that’s what I thought until coming across this story from the 1960s.
1. One real boon for the game is that the ideological proscriptions discussed have less impact upon girls. As a result women’s soccer in Australia is in good health. That being said, women’s soccer is subject to the prejudices that affect women’s sport in general. Back to top
2. Australia Talks, ‘The Rise of Football’, 18 June 2009, http://www.abc.net.au/rn/australiatalks/stories/2009/2598827.htm.Back to top