Soccer took off like wildfire in the late 1890s in Perth. So much so that it had its own journalists and advocates writing in the Perth press, a situation very different from that in Victoria. Yet alongside such positive media there was also a great deal of opposition. While disdain and dismissal characterised much of the writing about soccer elsewhere in Australia, something more intense could be found in Perth. Indeed, the case could be made that Perth was the birthplace of soccerphobia in Australia.
In 1904 The West Australian’s ‘Spectator’ celebrated the fact that the “round ball is once more being bounced into public gaze” in Victoria after the 1904 Eurylus versus Australia game. He noted the match
must have been well contested, as it has evoked very favourable comment. Years ago the game had a fair hold in Victoria, our old friend McKenzie being one of the leading lights; but when bad times came along, most of the players migrated and some of them have since helped to introduce the game to the youth of this State.
‘Spectator’ points to a dispersal, if not a diaspora, of soccer players and supporters from Melbourne in a time of economic downturn. The goldfields of New Zealand and Western Australia, and perceived opportunities elsewhere, attracted a number of Melbournians and, seemingly, most of its soccer players. ‘Spectator’ also made the intriguing suggestion that Melbourne effectively became a source of soccer missionaries as economic migrants started to “introduce” the game as they settled into Western Australia. In 1896 the Daily News reported a flurry of growth across the football codes. In “the British Association, the clubs already formed are the Perth, Crusaders, and Civil Service, while a recently arrived Victorian, Mr. Stanton, is now engaged organising another team.”
Melbourne influence was certainly the case in other areas. For example, A.E. Gibbs, a central figure in the Anglo-Australian Football Association migrated to New Zealand in the late 1880s. He immediately involved himself in the game there, eventually taking on national executive roles and representing the NZFA to the FA. And soccer in Coraki in northern NSW received a great impetus from Dr Opie, en ex-Victorian representative player who left Melbourne after 1908. The Coraki correspondent to the Lismore Northern Star noted that
“Soccer” football commences here on Saturday with a match between the local teams. Dr. Opie has presented a valuable cup for competition amongst teams playing under British Association rules. In Victoria the Doctor was a representative player, and one of the best backs of his day.
Whether this notion of dissemination is correct or not, the gradual rise of soccer in regions around Australia during the 1890s and 1900s co-incided with the game’s hiatus in Melbourne. Adelaide (1893), Mildura (1895), Renmark (1896), and Hobart (1898) all experienced a mild-to-strong soccer surge in this period. Yet Melbourne was not the only source of players. Phillip Mosely makes the point that during “the 1890s many coalminers from the eastern states flocked west with the onset of the Depression. They sought work on the Goldfields and in the process established soccer clubs at Kalgoorlie, Coolgardie and Boulder City.”
In Western Australia the game underwent a rapid growth in 1896 after the co-operative venture with Rugby Union inaugurated in 1892 failed to last beyond 1893. In a typical process of reformation, a letter appeared in the press calling on Association footballers to form a club and players responded in numbers. Kreider cites a letter by “An Old Reptonian” on 6 May that kicked-off the discussion. It received an immediate response:
I perused with pleasure “An Old Reptonian’s” letter published in your issue of today, in which he expresses the desirability of forming an English Association Football Club. As one of the committee of the now defunct club, to which “An Old Reptonian” refers, I would inform him that it was solely the want of a suitable playing ground that rendered it impossible to continue the Association game. There was no lack of enthusiasm on the part of the members, and very little difficulty was experienced in arranging matches. I would suggest, therefore, that a meeting of all those interested in the English Association game be called at once to discuss the idea of forming a new club, when the question of securing the use of a ground might also be considered.
Levels of enthusiasm suggested by the correspondent raise the question of enthusiast activity in the absence of organised soccer between 1893 and 1896. It is not to draw too long a bow to suggest that they kept playing at an informal level on the less than adequate grounds, especially given the game’s near instant recovery upon re-organisation.
As Kreider points out, a “spate of spirited replies through the same newspaper, together with a clear backing from some of Perth’s influential administrators, saw organised soccer get underway on Saturday 30 May.” The game took hold in Perth, initially with a four-team competition, and then spread to the Goldfields and the Perth hinterland, with a substantial soccer presence established in Kalgoorlie, Southern Cross and Albany by the turn of the century.
This growth and spread of the game need to be understood in the context of an important new perception of soccer in the early 1900s. Football writing across codes comes to be couched in the terms of struggle and war. While the WA press housed a number of soccer-friendly writers, it also provided a platform for some particularly antagonistic perspectives. Tropes of invasion, patriotism and the brainwashing of children emerged, amplifying the lower-key dismissal of soccer as an anodyne force in Victoria. In something of a twist, a new football import from the east into Western Australia (in this instance, British Association rules) engendered resentment and hostility from entrenched Australian rules supporters in the West.
In 1900 The Daily News in Perth published an article rehearsing some of the older prejudices: Australian rules represents a better, middle road; soccer is an unpopular game with little merit, promulgated by and for British immigrants. Its tone is reminiscent of the early Melbourne responses, disparaging without being vicious.
The British Association game is not, it must be said, a favorite with the Fremantle public. The latter are, perhaps, somewhat conservative (or patriotic) in their inclinations, and they look upon the alleged ‘true football’ as a foreign matter, with which they have no sympathy. The Australian game was built up of the best features of Rugby and British Association football, and the average Australian, or such of him as live in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, is content with it. He can see no merit in Rugby or the British Association play, and no amount of exhibition of either game will induce him to alter his views in this matter.
The article went on to argue, perhaps with some justification, that while soccer may be a good game when played at its best, it was not as well-played in Western Australia. A year later The Inquirer & Commercial News raised the stakes. ‘Follower’ writes that Australian rules
is fully alive to the fact that an insidious attempt is being made to instil a love for the British Association game into the hearts of the schoolboys in this colony. Personally, I don’t think those who are so striving will achieve their object, but it is well for the lovers of the Australian game to endeavor to checkmate the move in its incipient stage. This is not a place for arguing the relative merits of the two games. But the Australian game is the national one – the very name proves that – and it is the one that should be taught the schoolboys of Australia. It is almost wholly played in Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania – the vast majority play it here, and it is gaining ground in New South Wales and Queensland. Let the lovers of the British Association play the game they were taught in the old country, but not interfere with the boys born in Australia, whose natural leaning is to play the Australian game.
No longer is the soccer commentary merely about unpopularity, peculiarity and foppish British-degeneracy; tropes of cultural struggle, propaganda, resistance, insidious brainwashing, and interference with children have entered the discourse. The tautological and absurd argument: ‘We’ve dubbed the game Australian Football: which proves that it’s the national game: which means that schoolboys should play Australian rules,’ inadvertantly exposes the exclusory nationalistic politics of the very act of such a naming.
Not all of those involved saw the issues in such confrontational terms. On the occasion of a combined Perth and Fremantle trip to Albany in 1901 a typical celebratory dinner was held in the evening after a game. During the toasts:
Mr Collier proposed the toast of the “British Football Association of Western Australia,” coupled with the name of Captain White. He referred to the growing popularity of the game, and mentioned that there were in the colony at the present time, 24 senior, 12 junior and four school teams playing it. He touched on the great support given by Captain White to the game, and regretted the absence of Mr Alex. Peters, the general secretary of the Association.
Captain White responded in happy terms. He said it was peculiar that the ex-chairman of the Association should propose the toast and he, the present chairman, should respond. He also spoke of the manner in which the British game was growing in popularity and quoted figures to show the progress made daring the past few years. When the game was first taken up they battled for four seasons with senior teams only and they then recognised that they must also encourage juniors so as to provide material to recruit from. This had been done and last Christmas they had five school teams, and of the boys that left they formed four junior teams. The speaker also touched on an attempt that had been made to induce teams to come from England in the interests of instruction. The scheme, however, had not been taken up in the old country, but he hoped in the near future to have the assistance of two English coaches. Captain White spoke in flattering terms of Mr Collier and was confident that with his assistance the round ball in Albany would become more in evidence.
The Chairman proposed “The visiting team” coupled with the name of Mr Lukyn. He said with many others in Albany he had seen British Association played for the first time that afternoon. He must confess to being prejudiced in favor of the Australian game, but he could understand why British Association men never took to any other game. He thought the British game was certain to increase in popular favor.
Soccer’s rhetoric was of trying to grow and find places where it could spread its influence, a strategy guaranteed to promote disquiet when a hegemonic code feels nonetheless insecure in its standing. Sometimes the soccer writers overused the faux naivete, seemingly unprepared for the inevitable hostility the game and its advocates draw out. The old chestnut of the would-be beneficial English tour was also raised. The chairman’s response to the speeches was warmly welcoming and yet appropriately assertive of his own game’s value.
The article also mentions the strategy of negotiating a presence in the schools, a development that surpassed anything that had occurred in Melbourne, where the point of the Association seemed to be more about the players than the game. The strategy began in 1900 with four teams, a number that trebled in two years. By 1902 ‘Referee’ in The West Australian was able to record a “satisfactory increase of entries” in the schools’ competition. Twelve teams had nominated for the coming season: “Fremantle (2 teams), Christian Bros. (Fremantle), Cottesloe, Claremont, Subiaco, Leederville, Newcastle-street, Highgate Hill, Perth Boys, East Perth, and Midland Junction.” For the next decade or so, soccer seemed to be the preferred game within many Perth schools.
The ‘soccer in schools’ strategy and the Australian rules response indicated a growing tension between codes, indicating a struggle that both sides considered vital in the development of their games in Perth and beyond. Local Australian rules authorities were determined to fold back the soccer push into schools; soccer authorities were keen to stay there and expand. In 1905, ‘Half-Back’, the Australian rules writer of the Daily News wrote in apparent frustration, framing the issue as an ongoing battle between Australian footballers and English teachers:
The State School Athletic Association has decided, by a very large majority, not to be bothered, for the present season, at any rate, with the Australian game in the schools. The schoolmasters, had they allowed the deputation from the Australian Footballers to wait on them, would probably have been relieved of all trouble in the matter, as they will be, notwithstanding their determination to foist ‘soccer’ upon an unsuspecting, and unwilling public.
This is vaguely menacing and demonstrates the heightened nature of the tension in Perth football circles. ‘Half-Back’ subsequently mentions the formation of the “Young Australian League” (originally the Young Australian Football League), an Australian rules organisation whose name connotes clear nationalistic overtones.
Cashman locates the formation of the YAL at around the same time, over the same issue. He cites Victor Courtney’s biography of the League’s founder, John Simons, which explains the motive, while Cashman himself points out the contradiction:
A deputation to the State Education authorities in 1905 was informed by a ‘pompous official’ that ‘the Australian game was not to be played by schoolboys and that was the end of it’. Promoting Australian football against this perceived threat was a core activity of the League even though Simons conveniently ignored the fact that Australia’s indigenous football game had descended from British football in the 1850s.
This tendency to aggressive nationalistic rhetoric was to be expected in a period in which Australian rules’ peak body (the AFC) and the VFL asserted as a matter of policy the game’s ‘national’ origins and its primacy as Australia’s football code. This assertion found its ultimate expression in the modified Federation slogan, ‘One Flag, One Destiny, One Football Game’, adopted by the AFC in 1908. The language of war, struggle and patriotism comes to dominate in a new phase of activism in Australian rules in which the ‘home’ and ‘colonised’ states need to be defended from invasion and counter-invasion, and the ‘rugby states’ need to be colonised and converted.
The Perth Daily News reported on the formation of the Australasian Football Council (AFC) in November 1905:
The Australian Football Conference, which concluded its deliberations on Friday week, says the Melbourne “Age” was an important event in the history of the Australian game. Up to the present, though the guidance of the Victorian League has generally been followed in some points, the other States have interpreted the laws in their own way. The conference was called with a view to overhauling the laws and making them more definite, and also to see what could be done in the way of further promoting the interests of the game throughout the Commonwealth and New Zealand. With this in view, an Australasian Council was decided upon to consider all aspects of the game, and to make recommendations to the various States’ associations. The council is to be comprised of two delegates from each State, the Sydney League to have one and the Broken Hill Association one delegate each; the Goldfields and the Coastal Association in Western Australia will have one delegate each; North and South Tasmanian Associations will be represented by one delegate each, and the North and South Islands of New Zealand by one delegate each. The secretary of the Victorian League is to be the secretary and convener of the council, which will hold its first meeting in Melbourne in November, 1906. Thereafter it is supposed that the council will hold triennial meetings. The seventeen gentlemen comprising the conference from all the States and New Zealand set about their work most earnestly.
It was an understandable rationalising process for a game that had not quite established common aims, goals and rules around Australia. The report then moved into a more ideological mode, recognising that “the game was purely Australian in its characteristics, and in keeping with the federal spirit, the desire to make it the leading winter game, for all Australia was very strong.”
In keeping with this belief, the AFC adopted a propagandist attitude:
It was decided that each association should set aside a certain percentage of its funds for what was termed ‘propaganda work,’ that is, of making converts among schoolboys. In Sydney, Queensland, and New Zealand Rugby has a strong hold, and in Western Australia both Rugby and British Association football are played, the latter game being fostered by English school masters in the public schools.
In 1906, the Australasian Football Council formally moved to align this propaganda work with the VFL’s “‘propaganda fund’, as they themselves called it, which was used for the advancement of the game in Victoria and elsewhere.” The AFC moved that it
should be topped up by a contribution of 5 per cent of all net gate receipts of all matches played by the representative bodies. In other words, a decision was made to boost the ‘fighting fund’ in order to counter some of the gains that were being made by other codes in other areas.
The Adelaide Advertiser reported on the discussion of the ‘propaganda fund’ at the AFC meeting in Melbourne on 27 August 1908 during which the delegates complained about the pressures they were feeling from other codes.
Messrs. Butler and Nash (N.S.W.) pointed out that their league had to fight a formidable competitor in the Rugby Association, which had outbid them for the leading playing grounds. The New Zealand and Queensland delegates said they were faced by a similar difficulty.
In line with Western Australian preoccupations, their delegate complained once more of soccer in schools. “Mr. J. Webb (W.A.) said the difficulty of his league was to compete with the English schoolmasters in the public schools of his State, who encouraged their pupils to play the British Association game.” Perhaps this complaint fell on partially deaf ears, because while the Council “resolved to continue the 5 per cent levy but to exclude Western Australia and Tasmania from participating in the fund,” it also resolved to disburse the funds to the ‘Rugby states’: “50 per cent to New South Wales, 30 per cent to Queensland, and 20 per cent to New Zealand.” Perhaps the practical issue of grounds was deemed to be more urgent than the ideological issue of soccer-teacher influence. The decision may also represent the Council’s confidence of their game’s enduring appeal in the ‘established’ states.
Soccer in schools also became an issue in South Australia. The following piece from the Broken Hill Barrier Miner in 1912 begins with the language of tolerance and “room for all” but soon enough shifts to the rhetoric of militant protectionism if the hegemony of Australian rules should ever be threatened.
The arrival of so many immigrants has got the English styles of football going great guns in cities where the Australian game was practically the only one played. Still followers of the locally made rules are not disturbed at the mild boom amongst the other fellows, pointing out that there is room for all. Still it must be a bit disquieting to them, to learn that the admirers of soccer were endeavoring to get their game introduced into the public schools, on the ground that there is less risk of accident in it than in any other style of football. If this attempt meets with the approval of the Education Department, I am prepared to see the South Australian League raise a noise loud enough to be heard all over the Wheat State, and we may expect to see the South Australian Parliament prevailed upon to protect the home industry. It is at the schools that the footballers learn the rudiments of the Australian game. Therefore be prepared to hear the cry of “Australia for the Australians” shouted aloud from the housetops if an attempt is made to make soccer the national brand of football.
Hess et al provide the context for understanding this new language of conflict as stemming from the “propaganda” aims of the AFC/VFL. Yet they do so without acknowledging the place of soccer in the discord, leaving the tension as a bipolar one between Australian rules and the Rugby codes divided very much on Barassi-line principles. The absence of soccer in Victoria in the period when the policy is being formulated certainly contributes to this perception of bi-polarity, though the sheer energy of the dispute in WA might have drawn more attention.
Even in WA, some correspondents sought to downplay the ‘soccer threat’, sometimes humorously. This was a strategy used periodically throughout the twentieth century, even when code tensions were at their highest. Downplaying one’s opponent’s presence can be understood as a useful political-rhetorical strategy. However, this response from ‘Free Kick’ in 1906 beggars belief in its wilful forgetting of the vitriol of the previous five years and naïve failure to anticipate that which was yet to come.
The British Association football authorities might well, after reading last Saturday’s notes by ‘Penalty’ cry “Save us from our friends!” ‘Free Kick’ has closely followed the football comments in the metropolitan Press during the present season, and, never once has he seen a hostile reference to the British Association game, the chief form of professional football in England.
Even as he declares his innocence (in the third person) ‘Free Kick’ nonetheless wields the ‘foreign game’ epithet in full knowledge of the inferences that will be drawn and the mythologising work it performs.
This vitriol continued to border on the absurd right up until the First World War. Inter-codal conversations in the Perth press were reduced to an unproductive, seemingly interminable tit-for-tat of whinge and counter-whinge. ‘Penalty’ wrote in 1908, in a subjective and exasperated defence of soccer:
When one thinks of the handicap of junior soccer football in the way of suitable and accessible playing grounds and the awkwardness of the hour at which it mostly has to get going, one cannot help admiring the spirit that actuates the lads for a game which is unfairly stigmatised as “imported” and un-Australian. These lads have not only to suffer sufficient handicaps in this way, but it is they who bear the brunt of unsportsmanlike criticism from companions who incline to another game. . . I feel it a duty to speak well of the Junior British Association for the fight they are making for freedom of sport, and the right to pursue their recreation in whatever channel they think they can find most enjoyment. When these lads are met with such cries as “dirty soccer,” “imported game,” “child’s game,” and all the rest of the derogatory terms, they can always console themselves with the thought that Australians have nothing to say adversely to English cricket, which they play to perfection, and to the admiration of the sporting world, and which is none the less a clean and honest game, because it was “imported.”
While the point about cricket is impeccable, it is hard to envisage the complaints of bullying creating much sympathy outside of soccer circles. Indeed, the chances are they would merely confirm prejudices already held. ‘Penalty’ nonetheless drew a new element into the tension, one first intimated in reference to the collapse of soccer in 1893. The access to playing fields was an issue that was to intensify all around Australia as soccer grew rapidly prior to the First World War.
A 1912 report of a WAFL meeting noted that a
letter was received from the Modern School, asking the League for permission to use the Subiaco Oval for playing ‘soccer’ football prior to League games.
A Delegate: Oh! let’s write and tell them that we will fix up all their grounds and fixtures for them! (Laughter.)
It is truly remarkable that dialogue like this found its way into minutes and then into the press. And while it seems an impractical and vain request – and is possibly one made simply to prove a point, a point which is proved – it nonetheless foreshadows a spirit of vindictiveness, spite and nasty politics that guides the process of ground allocations for years to come and is probably still alive today.
Perhaps the final word from pre-war Perth should go to ‘Boundary’ in the West Australian who wrote in 1914 about the issue of foul play in Australian rules. He claimed that those “at the helm do a lot, but they cannot accomplish every thing. Therefore they desire the co-operation of all well-wishers in tabooing the foul player, and anything that would tend to hinder the progress of soccer.” Foul play needed to be cut out because it was damaging the game. But bizarrely, the integrity of Australian rules is seen as being secondary, in this construction, to the greater purpose of hindering soccer’s progress. The syntax of expression makes it clear that at least some Australian rules journalists had so internalised the rhetoric of the code war and its attendant soccerphobia that the battle against soccer is presented as the primary goal of Australian rules supporters and journalists alike.
For the first time we start to see football prejudice as more than simply the bias or taste of a journalist or correspondent. It has become what Raymond Williams called a ‘structure of feeling’, a structured attitude of preference, taste and discrimination generalised across a community. Journalists and editors now have a role in conveying a particular sporting opinion in much the same way as they would be expected to hold a particular kind of political opinion, depending upon the newspaper’s policy. The only difference was that in much sports’ coverage in the southern and western states there seemed only one policy.