The present controversy surrounding football in Australia is a new version of an old story.
The latest saga began with News Corp journalist Rebecca Wilson’s alarmist reporting on the 198 fans Football Federation Australia (FFA) has banned from attending matches. Shock jock Alan Jones weighed in with incredibly ill-advised comments aligning those fans with the perpetrators of the recent terrorist attacks in France.
This has led to antagonism between the FFA and fan groups over the governing body’s perceived lack of support for fans, and confusion over whether or not a proper appeal process for banned individuals exists.
It has snowballed into what some in the game – including Fox Sports commentator Mark Bosnich and Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold – see as a crisis. Many active fan groups walked out of last week’s games in protest. Complete boycotts are expected in the coming round of fixtures.
But there is an important history behind this debate which could help avoid similar internal disputes in the future.
From the basement to the penthouse
Football followers in Australia could be forgiven for still being spooked by memories of the dark place that the game had descended to just over a decade ago.
At that time, the recommendations of the 2003 Crawford Report into the sport’s governance had not yet been fully adopted. The National Soccer League, then football’s peak competition in Australia, had just been disbanded. The mooted A-League was still 12 months away.
And, as far as the men’s national team was concerned, a generation of supporters knew mostly disappointment. The last-hurdle failures in attempting to qualify for the 1997 and 2001 World Cup finals had a particularly debilitating effect on the local game’s psyche.
In hindsight, it is hard to believe how quickly it all turned around. By 2005, football suddenly had a competent governing body. Australia qualified for the World Cup in astonishing fashion and the freshly minted A-League was underway.
It was in those heady times of 2005-06 that the festering battle between the sport and antagonistic sections of the media came to a head. Commentators such as Wilson, The Bulletin’s John Birmingham, Fairfax’s Peter FitzSimons and others apparently believed it their personal mission to ensure that football would not take further hold in Australia.
In 2006, in the wake of unprecedented audience figures for early morning televised World Cup games involving Australia, Michael Duffy even claimed in The Sydney Morning Herald that Australia’s supposed rebuff of football until then was:
… a tribute to the national temperament.
No other sport has had to endure such attacks, let alone witness, in the time of its greatest success, such jingoistic calls to arms against it. Nevertheless, if the goal of Duffy and colleagues was to unite people against the rise of a sporting tradition perceived as somehow un-Australian, such diatribes in the end proved utterly impotent.
The new playing field
I argued that Australia’s hosting of the Asian Cup earlier this year was likely to lead to renewed assaults from isolationists among the local media. Ultimately, however, the few pre-tournament jibes were convincingly knocked aside by a hugely successful competition that cemented Australia’s place in the Asian cultural and sporting landscape.
There is no doubt that football brings with it a (global) culture very different to that of other games. The round ball, the unique combination of simplicity and complexity and the balletic movements of players who cannot use their hands are each unique. Goalscoring is also a far more hard-won feat than in other football codes – something many local observers have consistently failed to grasp.
The fans, too, are quite different. They are often more passionate, arguably more united and certainly very well informed. In this respect, the odd flare-lighting imbecile is often used as proxy for the hundreds of thousands of football supporters in Australia.
Such tenuous links are not made in other sports. This, as N.A.J. Taylor has pointed out, is a common tactic for fostering images of football as an “outsider” pastime.
What is perhaps most galling about the present stoush is that football is engaging itself in a battle it has already won. No-one seriously believes that an activity followed by so many, accepted as legitimate (and legitimately Australian) by most of the community, could be killed off by a handful of media mouthpieces. As with climate denialists, their rants became redundant years ago.
The success of the Socceroos, Matildas, A-League and W-League, as well as the vast numbers of people playing and watching the game in Australia, are well-established truths. It is no longer necessary to engage with the naysayers (as the FFA has ostensibly done here) or to be distracted by pointless arguments such as whether it is football or soccer.
The message for the FFA seems clear. It should pay more attention to recent history, rather than reacting to external forces with dubious intentions. More importantly, it is always possible to connect better with the game’s fans. After all, without them professional football would not exist.