Australian soccer confronts three significant criticisms: it is unpopular; it is a newcomer; it is a foreign game. Yet it was played here 30 years before rugby league existed and primitive forms of the game occurred alongside the formation of Australian rules in Melbourne. Organised soccer is over 130 years old in Australia. After a few false starts across Australia in the 1870s, the first sustained competition started in Sydney in 1880 and quickly spread to other states.
Australian soccer history has ebbed and flowed, rising and cresting on waves of migration only to crash on the rocks of war, Depression and internal conflict. Before the First World War soccer spread around the country like wildfire on the back of strong migration flows. In Victoria in 1914 there were 1000 adult players, 800 of whom enlisted in the armed forces and effectively extinguished a burgeoning competition.
Historically, where there were coalmines a strong soccer culture followed. Hence Ipswich, the Hunter and the Illawarra bear a noble soccer heritage. Even in Wonthaggi in rural Victoria a strong competition existed within the town before the war.
After the war, a new wave of British migrants resuscitated the dormant game. Once again it expanded rapidly only to fail once more under the weight of internal conflict and active resistance from other codes. From the mid 1920s, councils became battlefields in these code wars and soccer was often refused adequate playing grounds. Under these pressures the 1930s Depression saw the game dwindle once more.
After the Second World War, continental European migrants changed the equation. They brought with them their love of the game and their desire for professionalism. Attendances at some club matches in Melbourne in the early 1960s were matching those in the VFL. Many soccer players were paid more than their VFL peers. This growth once more met with resentment and resistance from the dominant codes, the traces of which remain.
Today, soccer is in rude health. The professional competition (A League) is established in the mainstream of Australian sport. Nearly 450, 000 adult Australians participate in organised outdoor soccer competitions, higher participation levels than all the other football codes combined. When we add juniors the numbers nearly eclipse the other games. At its elite level, soccer is capable of generating massive television viewing statistics. A Socceroo game at the World Cup, for example, is one of the high-water marks in Australian televised sports viewing. One star player like Ronaldo can fill the MCG for an otherwise meaningless friendly game. The Socceroos are the only national football team with strong support across the country. While soccer tends to be the second football code wherever it is played, it nonetheless has the kind of demographic coverage that the other codes envy. Soccer’s numerical strengths are indicated by its status as the ‘go to’ game for Australia-wide advertising narratives that represent children at energetic play.
Yet soccer remains an ‘unpopular’ game, not in the hard facts of participation statistics but in the woolly mythologies that inform our national imagination. Television deals, council ground allocations and media biases are all guided by the reported numbers of bums on seats watching but not the feet on the ground playing sport.
Australian soccer has recently demonstrated its further potential with a new competition. The FFA Cup, now in its third year, has matched professional and semi-professional teams from across the country in exciting contests producing the kinds of thrills, upsets and heartbreaks that no other football code can emulate. Soccer has shown itself to be a truly Australian game in terms of breadth and grass roots popularity. Will the other kind ever follow?
An edited version of this article was first published in the Big Issue 12/9/2016 p.21.