John Silvester's piece in today's Age reminded me of the following piece I published in March 2013. Silvester spews out his usual self-loathing-pommy soccerphobic bile by making up stories about crowd segregation in Victorian soccer and bizarrely using examples of verbal and physical violence in footy to show that AFL crowds do indeed get on without verbal and physical violence.
The Victorian sports media has been ever thus. With a few honourable exceptions it has been the VFL/AFL's full-time shepherd and part-time attack dog.Even as Victorian soccer entered the 1930s in a sorry state the VFL press remained wary of the threat the game had represented in the late 1920s, taking every opportunity to remind its readers what a weak and passionless game soccer was. For example, in a truly astounding piece of journalism, the VFL saw fit to publish G. Cathie’s withering epistolary account of English soccer in (of all places) its 1934 Grand Final edition of the Football Record.‘Australian Game Vastly Superior’ is a fabricated (if not delusional) reminder for readers that Australian Rules is truly the game for Australia.
Some interesting and illuminating comments on the soccer code of football as played in England, compared with our own Australian game, is contained in a letter received this week from Mr G Cathie, a life member of the League, who is at present in England. The letter runs as follows:—
‘Whilst in Newcastle I saw the opening match of the soccer season and to say I was disappointed is to put it very mildly. Believe me, soccer is not in the same street as our game and it made me feel proud to belong to an organisation that plays the Aussie code. There was little enthusiasm amongst the crowd, which numbered about 14,000, and the deliberate ‘kicking-out’ was atrocious and a blot on their game.
‘The full backs are the only players allowed to touch the ball with their hands, and they are afraid, when in possession, to leave the goal by more than 15 yards. Then they punt the ball with a kick which as often as not goes in the opposite direction to where it is intended. What salaries would await some of our Aussie rules full backs if they were to come over here.
‘They could learn all there is in the code in a week or two, and would become champions in a month!
‘Think of players like Jack Regan, Frank Gill, Maurie Heahan, Ron Hillis, ‘Jacka’ Todd, Jack Vosti, and Bill Tymms and Bert Hyde in their prime, coming out with the ball from the goal mouth like a streak of lightning, vigorous, pacy, spectacular – and generally with only one man to pass. Then footing the ball to the other end – it would create a sensation in England. If we could only teach our English cousins the great charm and exhilaration of our national sport, it would be wonderful.’
The article claims that soccer is an inferior game for a number of reasons. It is less exciting and exhilarating. The crowd numbers are low and those who attend are not enthusiastic towards the game. The players are afraid to be adventurous and they are incompetent at what they do. The writer assumes (like Jack Dyer afterhim) that with a little bit of training VFL footballers would take soccer by storm. Ultimately Cathie’s complaint is simply that soccer is guilty of the crime of not being Australian Rules football.
Significantly, the letter shifts mood midstream. Starting out as a hardnosed and prejudiced critique of soccer’s faults, it suddenly transforms into a fantasy of Australian Rules internationalism. Coveting the salaries of the English game for Australian Rules champions and decrying the failure of ‘English cousins’ to be taught the merits of the game, the piece becomes a resentful hymn to the game’s failure to belong anywhere beyond the southern half of Australia. Beneath the triumphalism lies a self-loathing xenophobia.
It seems unnecessary to go beyond one word – ‘silly’ – to summarise the article. However, when it is realised that the author is inventing material as well as leaving out crucial information then the piece shifts from the realms of silliness to propaganda.
Cathie can be forgiven for calling the goalkeepers full-backs, but he can’t be forgiven for calling them cowardly for refusing to handle the ball illegally outside of the penalty area. Yet the more serious errors are ones of detail. The author claims to have gone to the opening game of the season in the Newcastle area. Problematically, Newcastle United were playing away on this day, hammered 5–1 by Nottingham Forest. The professional teams in the area who played at home on that day were Gateshead and Darlington (3rd division) and 1st division Sunderland who beat Huddersfield Town 4–1 at Roker Park – a game at which there would have been a few more than 14,000 given that Sunderland were in the upper echelons of English football in the mid-1930s. If the author is referencing a game he saw Newcastle United play (possibly their first home game on 1 September, beaten 5–2 by Brentford), he really needed to point out their 2nd division status. He might also have added that the club was in a shambles, having been relegated the previous season and only just avoiding relegation in 1934–35 on goal average. As he rightly pointed out, they weren’t very good!
However, accuracy in reporting was not at the forefront of the writer’s mind. The important work to be done on Grand Final day 1934 was simply to remind Australian Rules spectators that soccer was an illegitimate and uninspiring game compared with what they were about to receive, fare that deserved to be served to the world. The great tragedy of such propaganda is that in the 1930s there was almost no contradictory source for information on English football for readers of the Football Record. Such dishonest propaganda therefore found easy entry into the realm of ‘truth’ for generations of Victorian football aficionados and the stories they held and told.
The effect of this propaganda cannot be underestimated historically or politically. The process creates collective or social memory grounded in historical exclusion, marginalisation and untruth. Such social memory becomes an important tool for cultural-political elites to enhance legitimacy and control. In this way hegemony is achieved or solidified. The stories told about soccer in the name of the VFL are very much part of this process of maintaining cultural hegemony. While the dominance of Australian Rules football at this time is not in question, the lies it tells itself and its supporters about the world of sport point to a severe case of anxiety and insecurity.
The Footy Record could get away with this kind of propaganda then because there was no other source of information on English football for its readers. Imagine the flurry of refutations that would happen today if such blatant lies were told. While the propaganda remains as per Silverster's piece, it is far more subtle today.