Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Soccer and the Communist Archive

Trove has once more proved a bonanza. 

We are constantly seeking new lines of archival research. 

A couple of months ago Garry McKenzie found a some soccer stories in MIMAG, the glossy corporate magazine of Mount Isa Mines. Further invesitgation revealed a substantial soccer history of the region, including results, team lists and images. 

In this last week I have found another such string of information hiding in plain sight. In a sense it was under my nose all of the time because I had researched the area extensively in a previous role to do with Australian literature. Specifically, Tribune (the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia, a Stalinist organisation) which contains its own soccer narrative within its pages. 

Moreover, its photographers have left a tantalising collection of negatives that point to more substantial holdings.

One advantage that the Tribune has in Trove is that it runs all the way to 1976 whereas the holdings of most other publications stop in 1954 (for copyright reasons).

The following is from the 12th of August 1976

To be accurate, by the mid-1970s soccer references have largely thinned out. Because of the CPA's departure from the Soviet line, the USSR's tour in 1975 received little (or perhaps no) coverage. Some of them are also references to other sports by way of comparison. RL Players Union for example.

The 60s and the previous two decades are the decades where soccer gets some decent focus, albeit inconsistent. In the immediate post ww2 period the game becomes relatively prominent, perhaps on the back of the sentiment expressed in the following letter to the editor from March 1945:

Tribune, Thursday 22 March 1945, page 6

Letters To Editor
Soccer News 
Dear Sir.—I wish to suggest that some space in the Sporting section be devoted to Soccer News. The visit of the British Navy has stimulated much interest in this game especially as Navy teams including many prominent British players will be competing in the forthcoming season. Five thousand people attended a recent exhibition game in Bankstown. One hears widespread disappointment at the inadequate reports of the code to the daily papers and I am sure that if regular reports could be published in the Tribune we could win many supporters for our paper.— HECTOR ROSS

There's a sense that Tribune is aware of the potential of the game to boom and that reporting on it is a way into the hearts and minds of workers. 

It also demonstrates some familiarity with issues affecting the game.

It understands the fundamental mechansim of soccer's constant tendency to split on the back of club v. broader interests. On 14 Mar 1947 it reports "the Soccer authorities have made many blunders in the past. Broad-minded control is essential and the authorities should not let parochial club interests mar their major decisions." It's a sentiment that we still hear today.

The Tribune is also across the constant question - the sleeping giant question - about whether soccer will ever take a place alongside the dominant football codes.

So I suspect there are a number of socceristas involved in the Australian communist hierarchy.

While this all sounds pretty useful, and it is, there is a rider. They are not particulalry interested in the game for its own sake. It's used as a way into other issues: as a stalking horse, a pretext for political attacks on opponents, a vehicle for the promotion of the Soviet Union, an issue to attract migrant workers.

As an example of this lack of love for the game, in 1963 Tribune quoted famous communist author Frank Hardy as making the light-hearted comment that "Socialist Australia would not abandon Rugby and Australian Rules in favor of soccer". 

So why would an organisation that claimed to be part of an internationalist movement wants to assert parochial local culture over global cultural commerce? Without getting too far into the complexities of Australian left-wing politics, this is a period in which cultural nationalism asserts itself on the left. The straight promotion of soccer shifts to more careful and qualified support.

So what will you find in Tribune:
  • glowing and substantial coverage of tours from Soviet bloc countries
  • a curious and obsessive Melbourne-centred focus on Croatian soccer supporters and the purported links of some of them to the Ustashi
  • features on individual communists and trade unionists who are involved in the game
  • at times reasonable political/cultural analyses of the game in Australia and internationally.
In 1967 in an article title "Australia Shines in Big Soccer" it asked a question close to my heart and the rationale for IYKYH: "SOCCER is reputed to be a "young" game in Australia. When was the first Soccer Association formed here?" In doing so the author reveals a nuanced and deeper understanding of the history of the game than might be expected. It's almost as if the writer anticipated the idea of: short memory!

Steak Knives

But that's not all. The Tribune had another string to its propaganda bow: photography. It sent photographers to cover many of the touring Soviet bloc teams. I have found three small digital cachets of photos, two of which are linked here:
They are high quality photos taken by good photographers. Their existence points to the probabilty that there are many more such cachets, yet to be unearthed.

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