Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Is soccer the game that never "happened"?

This is something from the book I am writing on the cultural history of soccer in Australia. I'd be really interested in feedback (positive or negative). It's slightly pessimistic when excerpted like this but is embedded in a more positive context in the book.
Soccer has failed to rise to the level of mythology, legend and story in Australia. Philip Mosely and Bill Murray put it another way: “it has not entered the Australian soul”. Roy Hay asks whether “there has been a failure to make the game Australian.” These formulations are all ways of remarking that soccer has not managed to insert itself positively into the narratives that Australians tell themselves about themselves. This is the basis upon which it is possible to utter an apparent falsity – that Australian soccer is the game that never happened.
Even though there continue to be countless moments of individuals, teams, clubs and associations seeming to play and organise soccer matches and competitions, the game has never really happened in and for itself. It has been an instead game and a nearly game, a counter-attraction or curtain-raiser to the main game wherever and whenever it has been played. Australians have played and watched soccer as a digression, a replacement, a substitute, a surrogate, a next-best thing at best, when they would rather be doing something else, somewhere else.
So games of soccer that were very much played, and won (or drawn) did not ‘happen’ in the sense that they did not register as having happened as significant moments of Australian behaviour. Like mirages, they appeared on the horizon and vanished as suddenly as they emerged not even to be consigned to the scrapheap of history but almost to disappear, leaving little but unsettling personal memories and a thin archival trace.
Australian soccer is a game on the edge, literally and metaphorically. It is a foreign game and has remained so for all of the 140 years or more that Australians have been playing it. Indeed, it is sometimes a “wicked foreign game” that menaces and threatens to overrun Australian society, steal our land and brainwash and enfeeble our children. Its values and practices are ‘other’ and the game has periodically been asked to go back whence it came. When it does find a temporary residence here it is often on the edge of the comfort zones of our suburbs and towns, on grounds built on industrial wastelands and recently reclaimed rubbish tips. Australian soccer has had to fight and scrap against more permanent and established residents for every piece of land to which it has access. Only rarely has such land become a settled home for the game. Freud might have described the condition of Australian soccer as unheimlich, in acknowledgement of its homeless and uncanny presence in Australian sporting culture.
Australian soccer is a game on the edge of attention, often languishing in the shadows cast by bigger edifices, silenced by the white noise of mainstream sports trivia. Mainstream media outlets down the years have rarely supplied good coverage of the game (peak moments aside), usually relying on the nincompoopism of the circular argument: “We don’t cover it because there is little interest. Australians don’t follow soccer,” thereby simultaneously confessing and justifying their failure to lead or create that interest or follow whatever interest that does exist. Newspaper and other media audiences have been reminded and reminded for the past 150 years about how little they know about this ‘brand-new’ game, soccer, leaving those who consider they do know the game feeling like uninvited guests.
Soccer sits on the edge of history in Australia. It is never a core theme for the historian – though perhaps sometimes an interesting sideline (or Greek chorus!) to the main story. Historians refer habitually to its novelty, difference and foreignness. Sporting histories are little better. While able to respect the game as a legitimate object of research, they are still written under the sway of the myths of soccer’s marginality. Sport historians find it harder to see soccer as a subject of research. Even those histories that profess to tell the story of the game from the inside can be diverted by the all-pervading mythologies that have built up around sport and culture in Australia. They are liable to take on board non-negotiable truths that rule the game out of the game. Many soccer historians have been complicit in their own marginalisation, happy to provide comments from the sideline rather than fight their way into the commentary box.
Australian soccer is on the edge of Australia – again in two senses. It is only played around the edges, in the big cities, home to the migrants, that leaf-fringed demense despised by the architects of bush nationalism. AD Hope’s ‘Australia’ has this biting stanza:
And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second-hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.
While not about soccer, Hope’s poem is about its place, the “second-hand Europeans” who live there and that place’s relation to the spiritual centre of Australia. The rugged heart, the heroic source of real Australia is not a place of soccer.
Australian literature, legends and mythologies are constructed as soccer-free narratives and the game’s intrusion in them is rare and ever dissonant when it does occur. Australian soccer has no Cazaly up there with whom its players can go – whether that be to popular adulation or to their deaths in the field of battle. It has no “six-foot recruit from Eaglehawk” to provide its “hope of salvation.” There are many Australian soccer players who have “come down from the bush” but the game has access to no mythological narratives in which to accommodate them. The game might be able to boast Kasey Wehrman, an Aboriginal hard man from Cloncurry, but it cannot point to any archetypal bush heroes in its pantheon of greasy wogs and sneaky Scotsmen alongside whom he can sit.
Nor does Wehrman have any tangible Indigenous notables to provide fatherly mentoring. The deeds of Bondi Neal, Charles Perkins, Gordon Briscoe, John Moriarty and Harry Williams could shine down the ages as beacons to young Aboriginal players because they were genuine stars of Australian soccer, a game to which Aboriginal players were welcomed in ways other codes of football found difficult. Yet this moment, like many others, has vanished from public perception and Aboriginal players are largely absent in the stories of Australian soccer.
Ultimately Australian soccer is a game on the edge of legitimacy, a game at the edge of itself. And while we inhabit a cultural conversation that can accommodate the perversion of logic and sense that allows the nation’s most played team game to be figured as un-Australian and marginal it will be ever thus.


  1. Thanks Ian. Can't wait to read the finished product - especially as presumeably it's furnished with examples. Anything on how soccer's own have perpetuated myths would be interesting, and you are absolutely spot on about indigenous players... what with the somewhat flimsy association with "marn grook" and the battles of a few courageous players in the 90s we could be forgiven for thinking that the AFL was the be-all and end-all of Aboriginal involvement in football.

    And a bit of AD Hope - nice!

  2. Thanks for that. Yes. Lots of examples. I'm in the middle of semester now so the teaching and admin are distracting me but I hope to get something finished by xmas!

  3. Look forward to this book. We need more people that are willing to back our code, and stand up for it.. but how can that happen when nobody has enough information.

    We need to learn our own history.

  4. I gave up reading after the 2nd paragrapgh because I disagree. I live and breathe for the game. My sporting calender revolves around Football. I have been to many more Football matches than AFL,Cricket, League or Union combined.

    I have some of the fondest and most emotional memories in my life centred around Football. Wolves V Glory NSL G/F, Australia V Iran and Australia V Uruguay to name a few.

    I would think the opposite. If it wasn't so entrenched with so many people, along with that emotional connection our sport tends to make, that we wouldn't even be where we are.

    For all the media endeavours to try and bring our game down (due to vested interest) we still survive. Sure, it's a roller coaster, however we are still here.

  5. I agree. Soccer always bounces back from turmoil and always carries on even when the media ignores the game. That is an underlying point I will make in the book - the disconnect between perception and reality