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The genesis of soccer in Australia

Australian fans at the women’s soccer World Cup this month. AAP

Soccer in Australia has a long and misunderstood history. Where many assume it only gained popularity with the arrival of large numbers of migrants from Europe post-WWII, the reality is that the round ball game has been played in Australia for over 130 years.

Until recently, collective wisdom had it that the first game of soccer in Australia was played in 1880 between the Wanderers and the King’s School in Sydney.

Last year an earlier game was discovered: the 1879 game in Hobart between the Cricketers and New Town football clubs. Recent work has shown that even earlier games were played.

Now it looks like the history will again have to be re-written. I have confirmed that a game took place on Saturday 7 August 1875 in Woogaroo (now Goodna) just outside of Brisbane. The Queenslander of 14 August reported that the Brisbane Football Club met the inmates and warders of the Woogaroo Lunatic Asylum on the football field in the grounds of the Asylum:

“… play commenced at half-past 2, after arranging the rules and appointing umpires; Mr. Sheehan acting as such for Brisbane, and Mr. Jack for Woogaroo. One rule provided that the ball should not be handled nor carried.”

In itself this description is not enough to justify the claim that the game is soccer (or British Association Football as it was then known). The clinching evidence comes from the Victorian publication The Footballer in 1875 which notes in its section on “Football in Queensland” that the “match was played without handling the ball under any circumstances whatever (Association rules).” (p. 80)

But this is not the very first game of soccer in Australia. There is little doubt in my mind that there were earlier games. In all likelihood the 1870 game in Melbourne between the Melbourne Football Club and the Police was played under British Association rules – though more research is needed to nail down this particular game.

There is a fascinating story waiting to be told about why the Woogaroo Asylum played soccer when all other clubs around the region were playing rugby. As is often the case with code choice, it may well have boiled down to the preference of the Asylum’s superintendent or even the players themselves. But the choice may also have been determined by assumptions about what would or would not be an appropriate game for inmates to play. This is a matter for conjecture and further research.

Diagnosing what ails Aussie soccer

If it were the case the this game was in fact the very first one in Australia there would be an even more interesting story available in imagining that the guiding spirit of Australian soccer stems from its founding in a psychiatric hospital – a place of intense difference, alienation, separation, paranoia and insanity.

Soccer is indeed sick but metaphors of madness will not do. First, the employment of such metaphors would be to trivialise mental illness. Secondly, the game’s ills have less dramatic (and more complicated) explanations.

As a game and an institution, Australian soccer has manifold problems that have emerged and been repeated throughout its history. A truism of contemporary Australian sport discourse is that soccer enjoys high, if not the highest, participation rates. Yet it seems unable to translate these rates into mainstream sporting success.

This is not just a recent phenomenon. The Australian game has boomed a number of times: the 1880s, immediately prior to WWI, the 1920s, the 1950s and 1960s, the mid-2000s. In each of these periods (save the latter), waves of migration brought new communities with a love of the game to either replenish it or establish new clubs and outposts. Migrant communities based around particular industries like coal mining, created strong soccer cultures in regions such as the Illawarra, the Hunter and Ipswich.

But even alongside other football cultures the game managed to flourish. Before World War I, for example, crowds of up to 5000 would sometimes flock to soccer matches on the Fitzroy Cricket Ground. In 1960s Melbourne, soccer crowds were starting to compare with footy crowds, producing some consternation in VFL circles. Massive crowds attended international games across the country throughout the twentieth century.

He shoots … and misses again!

Yet for all of the spikes of interest in the game, it has always receded into the background just when success seemed close at hand. War and Depression have been significant suppressing factors beyond the game’s control.

The Depression of the 1890s obliterated soccer from the Victorian map while all of the subsequent gains made prior to World War I were wiped out by a near-unanimous display of loyalty from Empire-supporting soccer players. The Depression of the 1930s again stifled a growing culture.

Unfortunately, not all of soccer’s ills can be attributed to historical accident. Matters within the game’s control have not always been impeccably handled. Decisions made by those in power have run from the silly to the mind-bogglingly stupid to the apparently suicidal.

In the main, Australian soccer has been run either by the self-interested, the amateur or the incompetent – sometimes by all three at once. Though usually all three are competing for control of the game at any stage of its history we care to look at.

Today we see the stunningly rich and mildly famous buying clubs and holding the spectators and the game to ransom through decisions unfathomable to ordinary punters.

People without ambition for the game or with more care for their own factional or business interests jostle for space with the clearly foolish and the careless who don’t understand and probably don’t even like the game and culture over which they have stewardship. Club ambition has often over-ridden the best interests of the game. Soccer has had its legions of good and honest toilers but they have been swamped by the power, corruption and dominance of the few.

Sheilas, wogs and poofters

The game has also been subject to resistance from other codes of football and xenophobic communities and agencies that have engineered opposition to its growth. Johnny Warren famously encapsulated the sense of emnity in the title of his autobiography, Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters.

He argued that soccer was seen as a foreign game, not one for “real” Australian men. While the latter prejudice is breaking down, soccer continues to be constructed as a foreign game – despite its more than 136-year history in Australia.

This supposed foreignness has been used to justify the game’s exclusion. And the refusal of access to grounds has been a major stumbling block for the game – one that still plays out in Victoria where it is claimed that there are more children wanting to play the game than there are grounds made available for them to play on.

Moreover, a rhetoric of fear has developed across Australian culture, embodied in newspaper headlines from the middle of the twentieth century such as, “Soccer Threat Grows”, “Soccer Menace” or “Soccer Wants Your Boy”. This rhetoric today is articulated via the media’s expression of fear of soccer crowds and their supposed tendencies to engage in violent behaviour. During the World Cup bidding processes a moral panic was created by those who argued that our hosting of the Cup would threaten our “domestic” games.

Into extra time

So for all of soccer’s internal flaws and mistakes we need to remember that like all systems this one too has a broader context. Soccer’s incompetence and mitigating histories have not occurred in a vacuum.

Nonetheless, the game seems caught up in a seemingly interminable loop of peak and trough, success and failure. Five years ago we experienced what appeared to some to be the final awakening of the sleeping monster via World Cup qualification and our credible performance in Germany. The newly formed A League received a real boost from the World Cup and its attendances were initially impressive. The Crawford Report appeared to have helped engineer vital structural reforms in the game’s administration.

In recent times the mood has once again swung. Average crowd numbers are waning. The FFA is a laughing stock over the failed World Cup bid. It is still ludicrously expensive for kids to play soccer. And sometimes there seems little prospect of good governance for the game.

Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” What would he have made of Australian soccer as it repeats its errors and failures decade after decade after decade?

Yet there is some hope amid all of this pessimism. Leading soccer historian, Roy Hay has made the point that the recent soccer boom is the first one not fueled by migration. Many of the millions watching Australia’s World Cup performances, the hundreds of thousands playing the game were locally born – as are many of the tens of thousands attending A League games. Almost unnoticed, and despite resistance, the game has achieved its long-desired goal of domestication.

Another point is that as sport becomes more oriented around business models and solutions, old-fashioned resistances based on cultures of masculinity and domesticity are being replaced by hard-headed profit and loss sentiments. If soccer can make someone money, it will be allowed to do so.

Finally the one gloriously shining light in all of this murky history it is the fact that the game, despite all of its setbacks and stupidities, really is a beautiful one whose qualities will rescue it from whatever despair into which it falls.

And whenever soccer falls in Australia it falls into the large safety net of a massive participation base. For too long, those charged with running the game have taken these facts for granted.

Surely it is not too much to hope then that the game will soon be run by people who cherish the qualities of the game and those who play it.

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