Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

From Detente to Distrust

These are the first two pages of my latest piece in the The International Journal of the History of Sport. Copyright prevents me sharing any more than the taster below. The whole article can be accessed via

Soccer’s Place in Post-World War I Melbourne

There are four main football codes in Australia. While each has a presence in each state,
Rugby League dominates in the more heavily populated Northern states of the eastern
seaboard, and Australian rules is the main code in the rest of the nation, with its origins and
historical epicentre in Melbourne.1 Rugby union is presently in League’s shadow in the
northern states (though with strong spectator interest generated by international games and
some interest, mostly at the private school level, in the Australian rules states). Association
football (soccer) has the broadest national coverage and the highest participation figures.
While soccer has some local strongholds, it is almost universally the second football code
in each state in terms of revenue and interest. Since 1880, this patchwork has been ever
changing. Its seams and tears are indices of the conflict between and within codes for much
of the games’ histories in Australia.

Yet antagonism has not always been the modus operandi in Australian football. In the
early days of codification, advocates of the football codes often saw themselves as
engaging in the one great game of football, sometimes describing it as the ‘English game
of football’ whether playing rugby, Victorian, Association or any other variation or
confusion of rules. Code delineation, competition and jealousy tend to accompany the
heightening of professionalism and the competition for enclosed grounds – as do the
search for and mythologization of origins.

In much of Australia before the 1890s, football code co-operation was common.
A Townsville Football Association, for example, was founded along these truly plural
A football association and two clubs have been formed during the week, one under the title of the Townsville and the other the Mercantile . . . It has been resolved that the association should include clubs playing under any recognised rules of football.
The short-lived Rugby and English Association Football Club of Perth, established in
1892, is a co-operative formation almost unimaginable today. Certainly, aficionados
argued for the merits of their own code but a sense of fraternity was often obtained
between them. In Sydney, Brisbane and elsewhere, much experimentation and codeswitching
occurred as clubs tried to establish their choice of code.

As late as 1909, J.J. Calvert, President of the Sydney Rugby Union was happy to speak
effusively about soccer. Richard Kreider describes his speech at a dinner to welcome the
West Australian ‘Soccerites’ to Sydney. Calvert proudly claimed to be the oldest soccer
player in the room, having played a version of the game at Oxford University.
Calvert then confessed that had soccer been the prominent game in NSW when he first began to take an interest in football administration, his services could well have been devoted to his first love . . . and although he believed that no game could possibly outshine rugby, he looked upon football as a grand and legitimate game and wished for the West Australian team to convince the public that British Association football was well worth seeing.
This contrasts markedly with the miserable reception the West Australian team received in

Only in Melbourne

Perhaps only in Melbourne does a brooding, hidebound and monolithic structure of feeling
dominate, where other codes are sometimes humoured and usually dismissed as inferior.
Yet even this attitude was softened from time to time. Melbourne’s press was sometimes
faintly supportive of soccer after a few initial warning shots in the early 1880s. In the
period immediately following the First World War, the press and the Victorian Football
League (VFL) seemed to take a positive attitude to soccer, a game which had contributed
so much to the war effort that it and its players were impossible to forget so quickly. Too
many soccer players had appeared in Rolls of Honour for their efforts to be dismissed as
marginal. It appears that in 1920 soccer belonged as a small but significant component of
Melbourne sporting culture.

While soccer’s contribution to the ANZAC story has been largely forgotten today, it
was hard to escape in the immediate post-war period. Even as late as 1927, a suburban
soccer match memorializing ANZAC was being promoted by the press. In 1920, the very
strong Northumberland and Durhams club were ‘popularly known as the “all-digger”
team.’ And during and after the war many soldiers previously unaware of the game had
been exposed to it, often with transformative effects.

What follows is a series of moments and case studies that trace a changing attitude
towards soccer in Melbourne and the rebuilding of the ideology oft-noted by Roy Hay, that
soccer is a ‘wicked foreign game’. It is a selective narrative because at this point it
remains in the service of a hypothesis.

To keep reading visit


  1. "a co-operative formation almost unimaginable today"

    Well in Australia at least. In other countries such as Germany there are plenty of examples of multi-code clubs eg. St Pauli run both football and rugby teams for men and women,

    I wonder if the inter-code antipathy is a Anglo-Celtic thing.

  2. True enough Albert. I guess few other countries have the level of competition between sports that we have.