Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Calm and the Storm

Soccer reporting in Melbourne and Perth, 1908-1914

This is the text of my Worlds of Football Conference II conference paper to be delivered today at the MCG. It borrows substantially from this post on Perth Soccerphobia and also relates to my recent posting in the 38 reasons Australians shouldn't play soccer.
I’ve spent the past four years examining the digital newspaper archive in the NLA’s Trove collection. I have been interested in the newspaper reporting of soccer through the years, particularly in Melbourne and the other states colonised by Victorian rules in the late 1800s. I am working towards a genealogy of rhetorical figures or tropes (positive, negative and neutral) used to describe the game over the past 150 years.

The material presented here is derived from a limited archive in terms of dates (up until mid-1950s) and variety. Only the Argus (and a few suburban papers) in Melbourne have been digitised by the NLA.

These newspapers regularly articulate a cultural rejection of Soccer as an appropriate game for Australians. This rejection is conveyed via tropes that echo down through the years, many of which go back to the first flowerings of the game in Australia – something that might be reflected on by contemporary utterers of such criticism. They belong to a long tradition, one which has continually figured soccer as a new and foreign game for the past 130 years.

The rhetoric of refusal comes in phases:

1. Initial response (1883-1914)

Tend to be technical criticisms and observations of the game. They are also individual judgements about the kind of people who play it. There is also a sense in much of this criticism that this feeble game is not worthy of expending too much energy on. Let them play their game. They’re not troubling anyone.

2. Cultural-political (1905-1939)

The second phase of reception tends to be much tougher in its criticism. Layered onto the attitudes of phase 1 are cultural-political tropes. Generally, soccer is seen as a “wicked foreign game” as Roy hay has noted. Crucially, the rise of these criticisms also co-incides with the onset of ground allocation stress, initially in Perth and then spreading to the rest of the Australian rules states after ww1.

There are two further phases.

3. Post ww2 xenophobia (1950-1970)

This is a period of massive influx of European migrants during which an at times xenophobic community is confronted by significant cultural and sporting difference. These tensions come to a head in the 1950s in Melbourne with a serious moral panic created around soccer’s presumed intensions to smash footy. No longer is it “let them play their game”, it’s “let them play in the gutter.” For many people it is war.

4. Post 70s

In this phase soccer is no longer a cultural ‘secret’. The broader community is aware of the game as never before.
  • Participation figures are rising
  • First World Cup Qualification
  • Broad consumption of English football via television
  • NSL is the very first national league in any football code.
Important to remember that one phase does not replace another. Most of the tropes echo down the years to add their voice to more contemporary rejections. Moreover, there are other voices some of which are supportive and inclusive.

This paper focuses on the transition period between phase 1 and phase 2.

When soccer reformed in Melbourne in 1908, after its long hiatus, the Australian football environment had changed. An age of relative innocence was over and competitive, professionalised football codes had emerged from late 19C amateurism.

The rhetoric of nation and nationalism had changed the way football codes were perceived and reported. The promotion of Australian rules shifted from being a simple cultural preference to an act of cultural-political duty. The Australasian Football Council had in 1905 established a propaganda wing of its organisation and, having misappropriated the term “national game”, set about converting the rugby states (and New Zealand) to the so-called indigenous game, Australian rules. Taking the long view this is the process that gave us the farce of Izzy Folau.


In the West soccer and not rugby was the focus of Australian rules authorities and I think it’s accurate to say that Perth in the early 1900s witnesses the first substantial flowering of soccerphobia in Australia. The pressure of ground allocations and the perception that English school masters were forcing Aussie kids to play soccer resulted in a great deal of tension between the games and their journalistic mouthpieces. A series of nasty inter-code battles in Perth added a layer of ideological and political objections to the kind of observational journalistic judgements of soccer that predominated in Melbourne’s football coverage.

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.

A year later The Inquirer & Commercial News raised the stakes. ‘Follower’ wrote:
an insidious attempt is being made to instil a love for the British Association game into the hearts of the schoolboys in this colony . . . . 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 . . . 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.

Soccer retaliates with rhetoric of its own. This back and forth lasts until the war.

The final word from pre-war Perth goes to ‘Boundary’ in the West Australian. Writing 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 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.


Even though soccer was quietly getting on with the business of growing after its reorganisation, the Melbourne press and the VFL seemed not to take it as a serious threat. It seemed worth neither talking up nor talking down. The older tropes of peculiarity and Britishness sealed it off from both serious consideration and viscious condemnation and the Melbourne ‘hosts’ could afford to give the ‘guests’ a courteous welcome. The Argus’s ‘Observer’ wrote in July 1910:
Although the British Association game is being played now by a good many clubs in Melbourne, and it is the particular game which excites the wildest enthusiasm in England, the same difficulties that hamper the Australian game in Sydney, and the Rugby game in Melbourne, will prevent its becoming really popular. At the same time, there are always in the community enough Englishmen trained to that particular game to constitute a few sides, and keep it going. In their special spheres, each game can afford to treat the others as in the hospitable and courteous light of guests, but anything like serious rivalry does not to my mind, come into the question.
The Argus claimed that though “British Association football was gaining popularity, it was not clashing with other sport, because those who played it would not spend their time on any other kind of football.” While it was seen to have no claims on Australian rules footballers (boys or men) or spectators, and while grounds were not an issue for dispute, soccer carried on unmolested.

Despite a flourishing eight-club and two-division competition the Argus failed to take the game seriously on a regular basis until 1913. In 1912 the reports are sporadic and even Victoria’s mauling of Tasmania on the hallowed turf at the MCG failed to generate a great deal of column space. The game fared little better in the first part of 1913. Match reports were sparse and usually minimal even though the papers sometimes acknowledged a substantial interest.

Standing out from this meagre trend was an example of what today might be called a ‘feature article’. In July 1913, a long piece was published expressing surprise and wonder at this game being played in Melbourne’s midst. While it referenced the peculiar, the unestablished and the exotic, it nonetheless reined in some of the other conventional prejudicial tropes. It allowed the game some quality and popularity and supportively bemoaned its lack of an enclosed ground.
“Soccer,” the more popular of the British games of football, has established a fair footing in Australia in the last few seasons, though, like every other exotic, it must have a hard battle to hold its own in public esteem with a purely local and long-established game, to the points of which Australians are bred from infancy. With the steady inflow of people there is increasing room for an old-world game, and some twenty teams are now playing under British Association rules in or about Melbourne, considerably hampered, of course, by the fact that there are few, if any, enclosed grounds with level turf at their disposal. The annual match between teams representing England and Scotland, played on the Fitzroy ground on Saturday, had about 4,000 enthusiasts watching. It was an excellent opportunity for realising the merits of the game.
And this was meant in good faith, because the author followed up with a comparative analysis that pointed out soccer’s qualities rather than put it in a poor light against Australian rules. Indeed, Australian rules might be able to learn something from the game with some study. Instead of chuckling quietly about heading, the author celebrated it as an impressive skill.

The wonderful thing is to see men jump into the air, receive a round ball, heavier than ours on the crown of the head, and direct it just where they want it to go; the other point that impresses one is the remarkable accuracy with which the players kick the ball in all sorts of positions that would be impossible and disastrous to Australians. They meet it is it flies feet high in the air and drive it a long distance considering the shape and weight of the ball; but, of course, there is no drop kicking, and only in the case of the goalkeepers an occasional punt. The beauty of the game is its combination. Wanting what we call “system” it would be nothing, and the longer you watch it the more you appreciate that point. Men are always playing for position, rarely if ever “bullocking” it. The best of our men might learn a lot – develop entirely new and desirable points in the Australian game, by seeing a few matches at “Soccer.”

This article seems to signal a change in mood, inaugurating a tendency to publish substantial match reports, culminating in the Dockerty Cup final report in October 1913 which began: “The match at Middle Park on Saturday between Yarraville and St. Kilda attracted a large crowd of spectators, who were treated to a fine exhibition of football.” It captured some of the game’s excitement and tension, describing Yarraville’s 4-3 win at the death as a lucky one.

In June 1914, another long piece in the Argus seemed to amplify all of the positives of the previous year’s feature article. It spoke to the popularity and growth of soccer in Melbourne at this time, acknowledging crowds of sometimes between two and four thousand down at Albert Park. By comparison the weekend after this piece was published 3,568 spectators turned up at the MCG to see Geelong beat Melbourne, though this figure does seem to represent a lower crowd than was usual. Perhaps the long trip from ‘Sleepy Hollow’ reduced visiting numbers.

It is written by an outsider, one brought up on Australian rules but who is sympathetic to soccer. He sees it as a migrants’ game, even though locals are starting to get involved. Victoria’s strength in a recent intercolonial game against NSW was very much determined by its being made up of experienced migrant Scottish and English players as against the callowness of the native born from the north. Soccer is seen to be technically skillful, a “pretty” and “clever” game lacking the corruption of professionalism that has poisoned the “Australian game”. Moreover, it has a referee who tends not to interfere and is respected. This latter point leads to the fascinating implied claim that Australian rules is a hotbed of corruption and match-fixing.

Seems that some things never change!

This article is possibly one of the first ‘sleeping giant’ articles published in Melbourne. Rarely, if ever, before has the game been described in such glowing and growing terms by a Melbourne journalist. Not only is it optimistic, it gives a solid foundation for such optimism. It is a game changer, or at least signals the fact that the game has changed to the extent that the Emerald Hill Record report on 1 August was nothing out of the ordinary. Yet it represented a massive change from the muffled silence of years gone by: “The semi-finals of the Dockerty Cup attracted a large crowd to Middle Park, chief interest being shown in the game between Thistle and St. Kilda.” The Argus breathlessly followed the four scoreless hours of the Dockerty Cup final and its replay between Thistle and Northumberland & Durhams without so much as a peep of complaint that no goals were registered.

Soccer again was on the edge. But this time it was on the edge of entering the mainstream of sport coverage in Victoria. While it had grown rapidly in Melbourne, other cities around Australia experienced similar levels of interest and participation. In every major city there was a bustling, energetic and growing soccer competition forcing itself into the consciousness of population via a media that was either doing its duty or was forced to acknowledge the game through various forms of pressure.

Nothing could stop it now.

1 comment:

  1. Daryl Adair has left a new comment on your post "The Calm and the Storm":

    Hi Ian,

    in case you haven't seen them, there are a couple of articles that address gambling, alcohol and corruption in "footy". See:

    Important to keep in mind that gambling was common (legally or illegally) in many sports. The main problem was that of corruption, most notably in prof sculling, athletics and cycling, where it was "easier" to decide a contest than in a team sport.

    Have never heard of gambling problems in Oz soccer! Proper gentleman, it seems.

    Cheers, Daryl