Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Soccer and Anzac

This piece was written in 2012. Yet I think it retains a freshness and perhaps a timelessness that is important. It is by far the most popular article on this site and I'm sure people keep coming back to read it. 
It formed the basis of 9000 word piece "Fronting Up: Australian Soccer and the First World War" published in June 2014 in the International Journal for the History of Sports
Each year on Anzac Day members of the Australian soccer community wonder, sometimes aloud: does this day have anything to do with our game? Where do we fit in the Anzac picture? 'No,' and 'Nowhere,' are the usual answers.

Considered by many a 'foreign game', soccer can seem so out of place and time in any story about Australian national development, growth and maturity. So surely the game played by Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters (and Poms and children, two categories missed by Johnny Warren) has no place in the tales of our warriors and heroes at Gallipoli and elsewhere? It just doesn't quite sit with the received legend. Perhaps these attitudes are breaking down today but there is long history of excluding soccer from the 'legend'.   

In 1931 a most extreme example of this exclusion was published in Hobart where soccer authorities sought access to the North Hobart football ground, normally reserved for Australian rules. They requested its use for representative games on the two days of the season when it was not needed by the STFA for first grade matches. Typically there were expressions of resistance to this desire, one of which was a letter to the Mercury penned by ‘Derwentside’. He argued that 
“Soccer” players and followers in Hobart are in a minority only a self-centred, and, which is worse, a selfish, player or supporter, would deny. Whatever merits “Soccer” has as a winter game, it has not here the following, status, or genuine sportsman-like appeal to the average Australian as the game which some fifty odd years has evolved under the name of Australian football. The proper development of a nation’s national pastimes, particularly the winter ones, does more to build up a virile nation than attempts to foster - or is it foist? - an exotic pastime upon them. Among the many thousands of Australians who manned so doggedly the trenches and trudged the fields of France and Flanders - to say nothing of the Gallipoli campaign - not a small percentage got the qualities which made the A.I.F. world renowned from the fields in at least four States devoted in winter to football played under Australian rules. 
This is one more letter published in relation to one more moment in the interminable squabble for playing space in Australian sport. And it articulated many of the sentiments that had come to take hold in the Australian sporting imaginary: soccer is low, unpopular, unestablished, minor, foreign (“exotic” in fact) and is being imposed/foisted on Australians by selfish and self-centred agents of foreign influence. More significantly here, it excludes soccer and its culture from the realm of Australian miltary history, particularly Gallipoli.

Yet soccer does have its place in the story. Indeed, soccer was at Gallipoli, and not merely in spirit. It was played there. The stunning image below of a soccer match being played at Gallipoli is the kind of picture that leaves nothing to be said. An organised game of soccer was played between Allied troops and they were being cheered on by hundreds of others. At Gallipoli.

The image is located at 5.49-5.52 in this public domain video. The game was
conducted as part of the illusion that the Allies were carrying on as normal when
in fact plans were being made to evacuate the Gallipoli Peninsula

While more evidence is needed to connect this image directly with Australian troops, they certainly played soccer on Lemnos in December 1915. Lemnos was loaned by Greece as a base "for operations on the Gallipoli Peninsula" and the following image shows members of the 6th Battalion playing there against a team from HMS Hunter. The men were likely en route to Egypt after participating in the Gallipoli campaign.

The team from the destroyer HMS Hunter playing a game of soccer against a 6th
Battalion team at a camp on the Aegean island of Lemnos. Australian War Memorial.

More symbolic and potent evidence of the Australian game's intimate connection with Gallipoli lies in the remarkable story of the Soccer "Ashes". They were conceived in 1923 during New Zealand's tour to Australia.

Mr. Mayer (manager of the New Zealand soccer team) took back to the dominion the ashes in a box with a history attached to it. Mr. W. A. Fisher (secretary of the Queensland association) possessed a silver safety razor case presented to him when he left for the war, and it was with him when he landed with the Anzacs. He presented it to Mr. Mayer, and it contains some of the soil of Queensland and New South Wales, whose representatives played in the test matches. Mr. Mayer intends to have it mounted in New Zealand woods so that it may be a prized memento in connection with international matches between Australia and New Zealand. (The (Adelaide) Register, 10 August, p7)

The "Ashes" tag appeared to be a typical symbolic nod to the cricketing Ashes until it was revealed by the Sydney Morning Herald 13-years later that the case literally contained ashes.
The "Ashes," incidentally, are a genuine trophy. They are a relic of the New Zealand team's visit to Australia 13 years ago, when the ashes of cigars smoked by the captains of the New Zealand and Australian team were placed In a plated safety-razor case, which, in turn, was enclosed in a casket of New Zealand and Australian timbers, honeysuckle and maple, suitably ornamented and inscribed. This trophy bears a record of the test games between the two countries since 1922, and was won three years ago by Australia, which beat the visiting New Zealand team in every test. (3 July 1936)

The Sydney Sun-Herald (5 Sep., p 41) reiterates the story of the
Australia-NZ soccer "Ashes" during the 1954 New Zealand tour of Australia.
The 'Ashes', courtesy Ozfootball
Frequent test series over more than 30 years between the two Anzac nations, playing for a trophy that 'saw' action at Gallipoli and is inscribed with powerful cultural icons seems to be clear evidence of a deep and abiding relationship between soccer and the Anzac story.

But it is not so simple. Soccer is a game whose high points and poignancies are explained as statistical spikes or historical curios whereas its low points are seen to be the norm; its joys are accidental and its miseries systemic. The burden of proof for the soccer historian is eternal in its recurrence. So the soccer historian needs to work harder than most to have their stories even registered.

Four examples

There are many other examples of soccer being present in Australian military contexts in the First World war. The four presented below are not particularly special or significant. Indeed, they are presented precisely because of how low-key and mundane they seem.

1. A wartime awards ceremony in which a team receives winners' medals in an inter-company soccer competition.

Feuquieres, France. 3 January 1919. Presentation of medals C Company "soccer" team,
winners of inter-company football competition, on steps of the Town Hall in the village
square. Australian War Memorial

2. Another decorated wartime soccer team, runners-up in a divisional competition.

3. Soccer balls ordered for the troops.

The Euroa Advertiser reports in July 1916 seeing
. . . a cable from Cairo to headquarters, 'Send immediately six tents, 10 small pianos, 5,000,000 printed letter paper and envelopes, 50 sets of cricket material, 50 soccer footballs [my emphasis], 50 association footballs [presumably Sherrins]'.

4. HMAS Sydney's soccer team, October 1918

Group portrait of the soccer team representing the crew of HMAS Sydney.
HMAS Sydney was at the southern naval base of the Royal Navy's Grand
Fleet, near the Forth of Firth, Scotland, during a break from patrols of the North
Sea with the 2nd Light Cruiser Squadron. Australian War Memorial

These four moments, along with scores of others that could be identified and presented here, speak for themselves. And for most historians such a collection of evidence could begin to suggest a pattern. Yet the soccer historian struggles against the idea that that is all they are: a collection of instances; random, special cases that defy and deny the truth of the overarching myth that soccer, even if it was there, was never really there.

Yet it was there.

Soccer into the war

Prior to the First World War soccer had undergone something of a renaissance in Australia. After fitful beginnings in the 1880s, organised soccer spluttered into life in the first decade of the new century. Recovering from the depression and energised by waves of migrants, the game bloomed around Australia. Sydney, Brisbane and Hobart had thriving competitions. The 1912 Townsville competion, for example had 8 clubs in a population of just over 10,000. In large country towns like Rockhampton and Toowoomba, the game emerged and re-emerged like migrant-fuelled spot fires. In Victoria, the Dockerty Cup commenced in 1909 and became a central plank in the game’s re-growth. Club fixtures were regular and 1913 saw the reinstatement of the NSW-Victoria clash after a 25-year break.

War brought much of this expansion to a grinding halt. The Hobart Mercury recollected prior to the resumption of the interstate rivalry between Tasmania and Victoria in 1921:
The last occasion on which a Victorian team visited Tasmania was in August, 1914, and it was at Hobart when war was declared. Seven of the team volunteered for active service immediately on return to Melbourne. They beat the Tasmanian team on that occasion by two goals to nil, and earlier in the season at Melbourne had won by six goals to nil. Victoria have an exceptionally strong team, and Tasmania is also well represented, three members of the team, J. H. Honeysett, Stonor, and Beattie being in the team which was defeated by Victoria in 1914.
Like their Melburnian brethren, soccer players across the country were enlisting in droves. Each state felt the slashing of player numbers to the point where competitions were starting to look unviable. The Mercury claimed that "Soccer football stood out as a fine example to all sporting organisations in Tasmania. The Elphin Club had sent every one of its playing members to the war." (31 March, 1915) In South Australia player losses were also mounting. In April 1915 the Sturt Club reported losing "the services of eight of last year's players, who have enlisted in the Expeditionary Forces, and are now in Egypt, but several new men having been secured the prospects are bright." (The Register, 1 April)

While these departures were causing the game to wane, the clubs 'happily' sent their members off to war with a sense of duty and pride, as well as a semblance of ownership. The Adelaide Tramways team placed its enlisted members in a prominent position in its 1914 team photo (below).

Even though plans to form a national association were scuttled by the outbreak of war, the game carried on as best it could. The Argus of 9 August 1915 reports:
The annual international match between teams representing England and Scotland, under the auspices of the Victorian Amateur British Football Association took place on Saturday on the Fitzroy Cricket ground the authorities of which on this occasion granted the free use of the ground as net proceeds from the match were to be handed over to Lady Stanley's fund for Wounded Australian Soldiers.
Yet it was clear that the inescapable war was taking its toll. The Argus goes on:
Four of the players who took part in last year’s match are on active service, namely Lowe, Golding, Guthrie and Hyde, the latter of whom is at present in hospital at Plymouth, England, wounded. Of those who took part in Saturday's encounter 13 of them represented their various countries last year - seven for England and six for Scotland. Three of England’s representatives and two of Scotland's have enlisted and were relieved by their respective commandants to enable them to take part in Saturday's match.
The massive commitment made by soccer players to the war effort meant that the game was being played on borrowed time. And by 1916 the Melbourne competition was suspended, not to be resumed until after the war. According to the Argus, when soccer did resume, in 1919:
At the first annual meeting of the British Association, on June 16, the report covering a period of four years commencing 1915 disclosed the interesting fact that 90 per cent. of the players had enlisted for service abroad or at home. No competitive football had been played during the war.
In Toowoomba (then a town of 13,000 people) the commitment was remarkable. On the resumption of soccer in Toowoomba in 1919:
At the annual meeting of the British Football Association it was reported that 140 members of the association had gone to the Front . . . During the evening the Chairman extended a hearty welcome home to the returned men present, and Mr. S. Morgan responded on behalf of the returned men. The secretary stated that the British Football Association ("Soccer") was the only football association that had an honour roll in Toowoomba. The names of Syd. Cousens, Lit. Groom, (both pictured below) A. Dundasch, Colin Groom, W. Bury, and J. McManus were recorded in the minutes as having paid the supreme sacrifice in the late Great War. (Brisbane Courier, 4 April, p11)
Private. Littleton Campbell Groom. 42nd Bn. Australian Inf. Killed in action
10th June, 1917. Age 28. Son of Frederick William and Fanny Matilda Groom,
of Lorriane, Herries St., Toowoomba, Queensland. Australian War Memorial
Private Sydney Leake Cousens, 26th Battalion, of Toowoomba, Qld; formerly of
Yorkshire, England. Killed in action at Villers-Bretonneux, France, on 8 August 1918. He was
33 years of age. His brother 816 Sergeant Stanley Clifford Cousens, 15th Battalion,
was killed in action at Pozieres, France, on 9 August 1916. Australian War Memorial

Irymple and the Caledonians

Pre-war soccer had not only grown in the metropolitan and larger regional centres. It had taken root in the country as well. Small towns like Broken Hill, Charters Towers and Renmark had bustling soccer cultures.

Mildura's developing two-team competition in this period rescuscitated a game that had flowered there briefly in the mid-1890s (curiously, at a time when the game virtually vanished in Melbourne). Weekly matches were played between clubs based in Mildura and the neighbouring town of Irymple. This microcosmic competition provides its own story and gestures towards the general tragedy of war. Of the 11 players pictured in the Irymple team of 1913 (below), at least seven enlisted. Of this number, five lost their lives.

Yet the scale of this tragedy is sadly exceeded by the example of the Caledonian team in Perth. Eight members of the club lost their lives in active service. The following image depicts, in uniform, the club's first XI and marks its six members who died. John Williamson's Soccer Anzacs (from which the image is extracted) documents the Caledonian story from origins to the club's final demise.

Commemorating Anzac Soccer?

The Toowoomba, Irymple and Caledonian tragedies (among so many others) underline a question that many in the soccer community have asked: "Why don’t we honour the Anzac legend with a commemoration similar to those arranged by other codes?"

Perhaps the failure is for good reasons - like not wanting to get caught up in a perceived jingoism or not wanting to rain on someone else's parade. But perhaps it's because soccer doesn't actually know its own history.

And it's not as if the game has never seen a role for itself in the remembering of Anzac.
Charity Match at Moonee Valley. Under the auspices of the Metropolitan and District “Soccer” Association a match for the benefit of the Anzac appeal will be played on the Moonee Valley racecourse. Moonee Ponds United will play Metropolitan and District Association. (Argus, 9 April 1927, p25)
It's just that soccer no longer seems not to know how to approach Anzac. In 2009, Football Federation Victoria tried to institute an Anzac match between Hume City (Turkish) and South Melbourne (Greek). It produced neither the desired symbolism nor the expected fireworks. After three years, the idea appears to have been shelved.

Personally, I'm not sure I would want to see a blockbuster Anzac soccer match develop - though in the unlikely event that it could be arranged, a game between Australia and Turkey might be appropriate. I think there is already too much hoop-la around what should be a solemn and sacred occasion. But the soccer community needs to work harder to make the broader community conscious of the game's role in Anzac and military history in general, whether that be seen in a positive or negative light. We need to understand why and how it came to be that a game so 'foreign' in the popular imagination participated so thoroughly in a campaign that for many is a founding moment in a vital Australian legend, or myth. We owe it to the memories of the men who formed the Returned Soldiers team in Brisbane to remind people they were there and then returned. After all, their team's very foundation was an assertion of memory.

Finally, we owe something to the men of Irymple and the Caledonians, the ones who didn't return. War is a waste of youth and life and it is driven by people who don't get their hands dirty or bloody, but we cannot afford to forget the stories and the details of those who paid that terrible price.

We must remember but we must remember well. Lest we forget, indeed.

Ian Syson


  1. Nice piece and the reconnection of our code of football to Australian History.

  2. Really enjoyed this article. Especially hearing an officer order 50 footballs and adding [my emphasis]!

  3. Matt. Thanks for the comment. The emphasis was mine not the officer's.

  4. its called football

  5. I call it soccer. But feel free to call it football on this site. I'm not going to police it one way or the other.

  6. Hi Ian,

    Not sure if there is a better way to contact you but this article is great.

    If you're interested in writing for Melbourne Heart's mag Schip Happens!, could you drop us a line at


    The editor

  7. love the history Ian, but I don't want any Anzac Day commemoration matches in football.

  8. Great article. Unfortunately an international between Turkey and Australia would fall at the business end of the european season and not in an international window. Would love to see it though!

  9. It appears in the case of NSW the game originally used the term British Association Football then in the 1920s started to adopt Soccer. Most clubs were formed in Sydney as BAF Clubs.

    In 1917 Australian born players met GB born at SCG no 2 in an effort to raise war funds by the NSW Association. The result was a 3-3 draw. The players to represent Australia: Paling, Thompson, Robinson, Gray, Jelfs, McAllister, McClean, Miranda, Doerner, Cantle & Walk.


  10. A newspaper article about the Ashes is in the Hetherington collection titled 'Anzac perpetuated'. It appears to be from 1923 (unsure which paper) as it mentions the results of the tour.


  11. Good to read an alternative slice of history to the mainstream versions.

  12. I'm not sure why the opening remarks had to go on about the Johnny Warren lament - isn't it time to move on? The attitudes of that era were symbollic were they not more of a general unease within the community around a massive European immigration period (of which my parents were a part) to this country. Not everyone shared the sentiments but, in part - it is understandble I'd've thought.

    Prior to WWII the game of soccer was oft referred to as 'British Association' football. And we certainly know that given the Melb/Vic game was about 25 years advanced on soccer by the time it was sought to be introduced into Victoria that it clearly WAS a foreign game.

    The 1880s in Victoria meant the game had come along too late - it was less so in NSW and QLD and perhaps had the All-Golds been a soccer team rather than a Rugby team then who knows??

    Competition for grounds and especially enclosed grounds was nothing new. Enclosed grounds allowed for charging admission. And whilst in Melbourne the main task was to access cricket grounds - in Sydney we saw that Aust Football suffered from being denied access and no doubt there were other instances. To focus on one such instance and provide a quote is all well and good - however - one need only peruse the papers of the late 1880s to see even then how anti the local game some recent British arrivals could be; let alone the resistance shown by some Rugby/soccer advocates in Bris and Syd as the local game made early inroads.
    The same seemed not so much the case in Melbourne - obviously the local game was sufficiently established in a fast growing and wealthy city (fuelled by the 1850s gold rush) so as to have bedded in the local game to be clearly able to defend itself from newcomers - it seems the language was initially a little more restrained. It's pretty clear that in the Aust Football states especially - that British Assocation Football WAS an imported game played by new arrivals. 130 years on and it's still a strength of soccer and something the AFL has to continually contend with - soccer will never go away as long as Australia recieves migrants.

    re Anzac day matches - well, sports on 'festival' days such as the Queens Birthday were a common enough occurrence from the early 1800s in Australia. The British Masculinity on display in the athletics or a game of some form of 'football'. It seems entirely appropriate that there be sports on Anzac day.

    That the AFL has got a pretty good thing going that (unfortunately) highlights 2 clubs in particular and their lost players is not a bad thing. The RSL via the late Bruce Ruxton played a key role in making it happen. The fans love it and the respect shown for a simple and nice pre match is appreciated by those who attend. The media coverage can some times be a fraction over the top but what's new there.

    Yesterday I took my family to the Melb Dawn Service and stayed for the march. The numbers of Ess and Coll fans already in their scarves etc who were there for the Dawn Service and by the time they made their way across to the MCG would be sitting through their third rendition of the Last Post and minutes silence - to suggest that what they experienced is 'commercialisation' or 'hijacking' as some anti-AFL scribes try to assert is bewildering to me.

    ANd so to the soccer folk - work something out if it means that much. Do it for yourselves and to remember those associated with the game of soccer. It's your right. Just don't go attacking other codes for doing just that and doing it well.

  13. Michael, Warren's formulation is in my opinion still relevant.

    But you seem not to have read what I wrote or are responding to a different argument from the central one in the article.

    The article ponders the question of how is the soccer community to approach the Anzac issue. My position is clear: I would not like to see a branded commercial day like the footy and RL.

    We differ vastly on footy's position as a local game. It was no less imported than the protean soccer games it supplanted in Vic, Tas, SA and WA. Footy exponents were acknowledging it as an English game well into the 1880s. It becomes am 'indigenous' or 'national' game in response to federation. Your argument rests on ideology and myth.

  14. Well said Ian. On a Roar blog. one blogger wrote, we (soccer) should, and I paraphrase, should leave ANZAC day to the Football codes it means so much to? A vailed referance to race, and who is considered Australian and who is not, somehow is based on following AFL as referanced by Michael C.

  15. Always enjoy your articles but it seems a fact of life that the "it's called football crowd " - care nothing at best -and despise at worse -the old ( largely ) Anglo Celtic Australia which you ( and I ) connect to ,are now firmly in the ascendency in your preferred sport .
    To such people Australia didn't exist until their families arrived here after WWII -and I expect that they would find for instance the fact that these old players that you write about would have toasted the King at some formal dinner to be absolutely laughable if not contemptable and feel nothing in common with them

  16. Anonymous. Send me an email to talk about this. I agree with what you are saying. There is a great rift between the two major moments of soccer in Oz and it is the lack of cultural continuity from pre- to post- WW2 that has crippled our game's stability. I liken it to a cold civil war and it is not until we truly understand that history that we can tell the full story and move forward properly.
    A perfect example of this rift is the fact that local club games will be held simultaneously with the A League GF today. There are two soccer constituencies in Australia and sometimes they just don't meet.

  17. Last night's ABC News report on ANZAC AFL "remembrance" games airbrushed out any reference to the practitioners of any sporting code or pastime other than AFL who served in WW1. It was ridiculous. The ABC in particular cannot be allowed to get away with this.

    1. I will try to find that and make comment. If the afl is going to start pretending it fought the war then it's failures to participate need to be called out.

  18. Noel Ganville Magpie16 November 2018 at 10:02

    Please don't forget the Rawson Cup founded in 1907 but renamed the Cottam Cup after the revered centre striker of the Granville Magpies, Private John William Cottam, who was killed in action in France in 1917.

  19. Hi Ian, the Granville Historical Society is working with the GDSFA and the Kewpies to try and get the players of Granville to give us access to family archives, stumbled across your great site. We are trying to establish the players who fought in WW1. Keep up the good work.


    1918 and the unveiling of an honour board by the Toowoomba British Football Association recognising those who had fought in WW 1 including those killed. It's a long list.