It is a given that the broader Australian culture cares little for the positive memorialisation of soccer. Yet the game itself is not much better at asserting its own legitimacy or remembering its own belonging. Forgetting the game’s history seems, at times, to be an imperative for soccer authorities. The transitions between significant stages of the game’s history in Australia are moments in which deliberate erasure and voluntary amnesia have seemed to be vital strategies.
The rebadging of the game as soccer in the 1920s threw off the ‘British’ name in an attempt to both domesticate and internationalise Association football in Australia. Even though still heavily reliant on migration from Britain, an amateur and domestically Australian-Anglo-Celtic culture emerged from the English and Scottish roots.
After the Second World War the rise to dominance of the continental European migrant clubs (and a concomitant emergence of professionalism) enabled the forgetting of that pre-war culture. For many today, soccer in Australia only really started in the 1950s. And many of the ‘ethnic’ clubs are guilty of ‘failing’ to remember their own history of supplanting a previous culture. South Melbourne Hellas is a case in point. A complex history of mergers between Australian-Anglo, Jewish and Greek clubs is lost in the club’s contemporary Greek-Australian identity.
The most recent act of substantial and brutal forgetting came in 2004 with the establishment of the FFA and the A-League, led by Frank Lowy and underpinned by the Crawford Report which advocated substantial and important changes to the constitution and management of the game. A policy of not just forgetting but also rejecting the game’s past was adopted largely because the new soccer authorities believed in the unassailability of the dominant myths, ones that are still in need of dismantling.
In the perceived absence of a sustained and convincing counter-narrative of soccer’s centrality to Australian culture, history became a no-go zone. Indeed the rejection of history was manifested in a 2006 World Cup advertising campaign expressing the Socceroos’ intentions to play well above the level of the national team’s historic mediocrity. Even if not intended, local history was a victim of the campaign and the powerfully significant contribution of the ethnic European clubs was forgotten in the blaze of negative memories of all that was ‘wrong’ with ‘wogball’.
When the Socceroos beat Uruguay on penalties in November 2005 they did more than fulfil a long-cherished dream of almost all Australian soccer supporters to participate again in the World Cup. The result also seemed effectively to justify, first, the decisions made about the changing of the game’s ethnic identity and, second, the obliteration of the many positive things that had come from the wogball period and the eighty years before that.
Yet a review of the names of the scorers in that penalty shootout enables a profoundly beautiful realisation to emerge. Kewell, Neill, Vidmar, Viduka, Aloisi: individual players representing and embodying a progression of waves of Australian immigration: English, Irish, Slovenian, Croatian, Italian. Add the names of the crucial game-time goal-scorer Bresciano and the goalkeeper Schwarzer, responsible for two heroic shootout saves, and the multicultural diversity of Australian soccer is revealed in all its power and glory. And that is something worth remembering.
The internal denial of history is an ongoing and crippling problem for Australian soccer. The game’s millions of stakeholders deserve to believe that there are reasons for optimism that the game’s profound lack of self-belief and feelings of illegitimacy and unbelonging can be turned around at both national and state level. Denying the contribution of wogball past and present is simply no way encourage that belief.