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Soccer's chequered history

By David Rowe - posted Thursday, 22 June 2006


The 2006 Sydney Film Festival, in overlapping with a rather larger cultural festival in Germany, the World Cup of Association Football, made a virtue of necessity and screened three films in honour of “Celluloid Soccer”. Negotiating the milling crowds around the State Theatre, the opulent architecture of which almost matches Barcelona Football Club’s Camp Nou Stadium, I saw one of these films, The Great Match (La Gran Final). This recent Spanish production, in a gentle, comedic way, addresses sport, media, indigeneity and globalisation.

It tells the story of three groups of people living in frozen Mongolia, arid Niger and the luxuriant Amazon who want to watch the televised 2002 World Cup final between Brazil and Germany held in Yokohama, Japan. For them there is no easy flick of the switch to activate the screen in private households, but a major battle with aged technology and inadequate power to watch the game in large groups.

There is a lesson here for Australia, a nation with all the advantages of affluence and media technology, that is only just beginning to embrace the world game as its national team participates in the World Cup Finals for the first time in over three decades. For most people living in this country, the major inconvenience of watching the football is a time zone-induced loss of sleep. For poorer people in isolated places, it is a struggle to feel part of what is supposed to be a prime example of a globalised world in action.

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Despite the ready accessibility of the World Cup screen action in Australia, and the extraordinary estimated 2.17 million national audience for the June 19 game with Brazil kicking off at 2am, the chequered history of the sport in Australia gives pause to any prematurely complacent plotting of the trajectory of an ever-ascending football star. Association football has still to overcome its past and negotiate the obstacles of the present in Australia, and not just because most people still call it “soccer”, a sure sign that it is not the dominant code of football.

The development of the game in Australia was both fostered and limited by its association with working-class, non-Anglo European ethnicity. It is still something of a troubling mystery that a game with an enormous, passionate Anglo following became stigmatised as “wogball” here. Rather than share the game with diverse peoples, many seemed to prefer to take their round ball home.

This exclusionary attitude left the field open to the mainly southern European associations who found in football a key cultural reference point that could sustain continuity with their origins and histories. As with the English and Irish from the colonial period onwards, this past sometimes involved deep enmity. But the policy prescription was different - the “de-ethnicising” of football in pursuit of the full professionalisation of the game.

That the principal architect of the recent rise of football in Australia is Frank Lowy, with his long involvement with the Hakoah club, the self-proclaimed “social and cultural centre of Sydney’s vibrant Jewish community”, is something of an irony. Indeed, Lowy himself has expressed reservations about the corporate marketing-led rubbing out of the multi-ethnic foundation of the game in Australia.

In pursuit of a new place in the nation and globe, a franchise-based national “A-League” was introduced in 2005 and Australia left the minor Oceania Confederation for its much larger Asia counterpart. Football Federation Australia also signed a seven-year television deal with the pay television service Foxtel, bailing out its main clubs while simultaneously reducing the contrast between the Indigenous peoples of La Gran Final and the two thirds of non-subscribing Australian households (the next two, SBS-held World Cup Finals excepted).

Despite the move to the Asian Confederation, which some have predicted will inevitably become the centre of football power just as it has in cricket, Australia is still a long way from being a major football force. It has long been a supplier of raw materials to European football, with a few returning as elaborately transformed manufactures only after their use-by dates. The Asian affiliation is hoped to provide opportunities for “football diplomacy”, although it must be remembered that sport can provide a focus for national antagonism as well as a happy meeting ground for cultural exchange.

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Football has more potential than any other football code in the country, but unlike Rules and League it is not the home of an internationally insignificant but well-established local game, and doesn’t have the Commonwealth business elite connections of Union.

For now it has the glorious spectacle of Germany 2006 for those who are interested. The reckoning will come later, and unlike the subaltern peoples of the world, most in Australia won’t have to beg, borrow or steal to watch it from afar.

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About the Author

David Rowe is Professor of Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney, and author of Global Media Sport (Bloomsbury, 2011) and Sport Beyond Television (with Brett Hutchins, Routledge, 2012).

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