A few years ago at work I was asked to show around a new employee, a young Englishman named Michael.
We got to talking and it emerged that Michael was a recent arrival in Australia, and was here to play football semi-professionally. He’d come to Australia to study, but was also playing football for a Victorian Premier League club, who were paying him a small stipend for his work as a central defender.
I asked him to compare the quality of the play in England to Australia, and his responses were generally predictable:
- England has a higher overall standard of play.
- Australia has surprisingly good goalkeepers though.
- English leagues are quicker.
- Australians are more aggressive
His next point was the one that, I admit, caught me off guard:
- There is too much ethnicity wrapped up in Australian football.
Michael was black, so you might think this was his main issue. Thankfully, I can report that he’d experience no direct racism. The problem he saw was that certain clubs retained a national identity and played in the same leagues as teams with historically conflicting national identities.
For Michael, his problem was that his club was considered a ‘Serbian’ club. Occasionally they played a ‘Croatian’ club, and Michael was exposed to genuine deep-seated bile and full-blown hatred from the opposing supporters, players, and officials.
“I’m clearly not Serbian but I don’t think that matters,” he said with a shrug. “They still hate me.”
In case you need a quick history lesson, Serbs and Croats aren’t big fans of one another. Other clubs also have strong divisions based on their ethnicity, principally clubs “aligned” with Greece, Italy, Macedonia, Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Israel, Lebanon, and an almost endless list of other Diasporas.
Michael’s experience shows an ugly underbelly for Australian football: an underbelly where you don’t share a beer and a chat with your opponents after a match because you have a genuine hatred for them, their families, their culture.
To their credit, Football Federation Australia have recognised this as an issue, and have a number of policies aimed at reducing or stamping out overt displays of ethnic pride that can potentially cause tensions to rise.
One recent example saw Melbourne Knights prevented from taking to the park in the FFA Cup until they changed or removed their conveniently-named sponsor, “Melbourne Croatia Soccer Club” from the front of their team kit. They had blatantly tried to bypass the rules, and got caught out.
In the end, they had to play with no front-of-shirt sponsor at all. It caused a little bit of a stir, and many fans for teams with ethnic ties will argue that their clubs history, culture, and pride are too important to lose. The argument that a club should be allowed to retain (frequently-divisive) ethnic ties basically boils down to these points:
- These clubs often have done a lot for establishing football leagues in Australia and deserve respect for this.
- Ethnic ties are a reliable source of club culture, players, and supporters.
- It is racist to ban clubs from retaining their national pride.
I actually agree with those three points, but I still don’t think they cut the mustard.
Have all the ethnic ties you want, retain your culture and your history… but don’t complain when the peak body doesn’t want you in the top flight because of the inherent and unacceptable risks your ethnic ties carry.
The FFA has a responsibility to protect and advance the GAME.
I believe this is more important than ethnic ties, and I see efforts to control overt displays of ethnic pride in high-profile leagues as being in the best interests of the game in this country.
Football is the world’s biggest sport and it competes in an extremely cluttered sporting landscape in Australia. Fighting for media attention, junior participation, and community respect are all vital elements of advancing the game.
I’m not a naysayer for Australian football. I don’t believe the media bulldust about rampant hooliganism (which simply isn’t backed by stats) or the pro-AFL narrative that “soccer is for sheilas, wogs and poofters.”
I believe that a tremendous FFA Cup Competition – with hundreds of matches played at local grounds across the nation – can be an exceptional advertisement for the game both with the media and with the community.
I also believe that one car-park fight between supporters of a (let’s say, totally hypothetically) ‘Turkish’ club and an ‘Armenian’ club would completely and irrevocably undo any and all goodwill for an entire tournament.
When Bobby Despotovski set off a firestorm of racial violence in the old NSL for flashing a Serb “salute” it was possibly the darkest day in Australian football history. It was dirty laundry being shown to the entire country. It was ugly, very public, violent, and a shocking indictment on the rationality of each clubs’ supporters.
So now we have the A-League. The FFA have done a good job of, wherever possible, discouraging ethnic ties and ensuring they do not dominate any individual A-League club.
Clubs with strong ethnic ties can play in Premier Leagues across the country, compete in the FFA Cup (and already we’ve seen them defeat some A-League clubs) and argue till the proverbial cows come home that they belong in the top flight.
But (SOAPBOX ALERT) the FFA has a responsibility to the game first and foremost, and I believe they’re making the right decisions on ethnic ties. Clubs can retain their history and celebrate their culture if they like – but they can’t do it in the most publicly visible league in the country.
Instead, anyone can walk into an A-League merchandise store and purchase any scarf they want without first having to check their birth certificate to make sure it’s safe. I can watch Melbourne City thump the Victory scum with a mate wearing the wrong colours, and we’ll go grab a beer after the game. Fans sit in the stands without fencing between rival factions. Supporters are loud and passionate, but they don’t beat each other up because of a 1000-year-old dispute.
Yes, ethnic ties brought football a long way in Australia. However, it quickly reached a point where they held the game back. As the game got bigger, the tensions and aggression between clubs were amplified and broadcast more widely to the non-football community. This is not good.
The peak body, rightly, has looked to sidestep ethnic ties and I believe the game will benefit. The next generation of Aussie kids (And I say they’re ‘Aussie’ regardless of their ethnic background) should be able to go and watch the top flight and support any team they want. This is good.
So for all the fans of ethnic clubs out there, my ultimate message is this: retain your pride, your culture, your history… but admit and acknowledge that it reached a point where the costs outweighed the benefits for the sport.