Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Saturday 2 February 2019

Review of 'The Game that Never Happened'

 McDonald (taken from Goodreads
There are certain books that I believe should be kept by any Australian soccer/football fan. One is Johnny Warren's Sheilas, Wogs & Pooftahs, as is the Hay & Murray History of Australian Football, That Night from Adam Peacock and The Death and Life of Australian Soccer by Joe Gorman.
Ian Syson's The Game That Never Happened can be added to this canonical collection, and both complements and supplements much of the historical constructs and cultural observations written of in those books I have mentioned. A monograph that is erudite and argumentative, in the best historical writing tradition, this book does more to advance an understanding of the problematic circumstances of Australian soccer's 'birth' than any other title out there.

There are numerous aspects of the book that I would like to comment upon, however before I do so I must state that I have some bias as Ian has been an online amicus of mine for a few years now, and I have a high regard for what he has been doing with Australian soccer historiography outside of this book for a similar time. So feel free to take my comments with a sizeable grain of salt.

Now, onto my specific observations and comments. It is most rewarding to see Syson take the time and intellectual care to explicitly outline the purpose of his book early on, as well as the terms of reference for how soccer and the other football codes were mired in a chaotic web of opaque identities, rules and reporting in the mid to late 19th Century. Unlike the naive and superficial historical certainties offered by propagandists of Australian Rules (aka VFL/AFL) Ian Syson has taken great care to reinstate the confusion that surely existed in the early years of football sports in Australia, with their lack of uniform codification.

It is also important to recognise that Syson has taken some care to discuss early in his monograph that the sources he relies on for the emerging years of Soccer, Australian Rules and the two Rugby codes are problematic due to issues such as vague reporting, bias and lack of illustrations. The author has made excellent use of the newspapers that were reporting on football games played across Australia in the period 1860-1890 yet he has the academic sensibilities to make critical observations on the issues these media sources have as 'definitive' historical documents.

I am also 100% on board with the polemical position that Syson takes regarding his study of Australian Soccer's "pre-history". The emphasis on the hegemonic influences that have been exerted against the code in this country is readily justified by the author's research and resultant historical conclusions. His main discourse, focused on Soccer's battle for social, cultural, political and national identity in Victoria, follows through on this argument and delivers important judgements on how precarious Soccer's position was due to such antagonistic forces exerted by the Victorian code's proponents. There are also some major insights offered through such an analysis by considering the past prevailing paradigms that were tantamount to xenophobia, or an aversion to anything that didn't fit into the emerging national mythology. Syson has provided significant and undeniable historical proof for the cultural cringe that has dogged Australian Soccer for decades, including times long before the advent of the non-Anglo migrants from the 1950s onwards.

There are plenty of other positive aspects of the book I'd like to cite. For example, the role of British teachers in the propagation of Soccer in Western Australia is a great nugget in the rich seam of mining Soccer's past in that state (and one that perhaps offers more elsewhere in Australia, with teachers in public schools instructing children in the sport or playing it at institutes of higher learning). Syson does well to pull apart the skeins of confusion over where the first organised games of Soccer were played in this country, then does a similar job surveying the later emergence of the code in regional Australia.

The chapter on Australian Soccer and World War One is a seminal work in itself, and Syson is to be commended on not just re-configuring the history of sport and the 'digger' so that the round ball game is given far more respect than previously accorded, but also by making the telling point that a good portion of our ANZAC mythos has been warped by forgetting not just Soccer, but the migrant origins of so many members of the AIF. Syson has done what any good historian should do; he has taken apart received or sanctioned 'truths' and deconstructed them thanks to a combination of credible research and cogent arguments.

I could go on enumerating more and specific examples of the worthiness of Syson's historical work, however I shan't go further regarding his use of evidence and examples to support his arguments. I will however commend him on his prose; it is almost always clear, concise and highly readable. There are occasions when he plays with some very enjoyable metaphors and allusions, which reflect upon his skills in his 'daytime' job as a lecturer in literary studies. For all the academic rigour applied to the monograph, Syson has not let academic jargon impede the book's clarity.

Before I close I must say that this is not a perfect book, and whilst it has some sins these are more from omission than commission. Firstly, the lack of a detailed and considered study of the early years of Soccer in New South Wales and the code's relationship with both Rugby Union and Rugby League is rather glaring. To be fair to the author, Syson states categorically that he uses Victoria and Australian Rules as the key points of reference for his study of anti-Soccer antagonism. This is due to the extreme strength and volatility of this resistance, hence Syson examining an in extremis situation. Perhaps the relationship between the two Rugby codes and Soccer does not serve as well in this context. Or perhaps it just comes down to space, time and available sources.

A minor quibble, and one that reflects more on my own priorities than those of others who would read this book, or on Syson himself, is the lack of consideration for military and naval influences on the growth of Soccer in 19th & early 20th Century Australia. There are mentions made of some games between Royal Navy ships' crews and Australian teams, and of course the WW1 experience is well documented. However I am curious to see if these forces are more than just ephemeral historical influences on Australian Soccer. Also, and this is a subjunctive issue to that of military forces and Australian Soccer, is the phenomenon of interned 'enemy' Aliens in WW1 and their preference for the code. Perhaps this could be an area for consideration in an expanded edition of Syson's book, or a separate journal article.

In closing, I have no hesitations in recommending 'The Game That Never Happened' to any and every Australian Soccer/Football fan, and by extension anyone who wants to try and comprehend how this nation has historically created its identity (more often than not by marginalising and 'forgetting' those that don't fit the 'approved' narrative). Ian Syson has written the most effective history of Soccer's troubled birth in this country and shown with great effect that aside from the code's own efforts at self-immolation (which occur with frustrating regularity) what we see today from the 'sokkah haters' is not just a recent invention; it goes bone deep in so many of our compatriots and the nation we live in together.