Australian football decides: it’s hip to be ethnic

Joe Gorman Columnist

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Last season’s controversial grand final, the introduction and success of the Western Sydney Wanderers, and the high-profile signings of Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey and Shinji Ono have all been front-page news for Australian football.

The arrival of David Gallop as the new CEO of the FFA, and the announcement that the Socceroos and the A-League would return to free-to-air television next year, were both considerable achievements for football.

However, I would argue that the most important moment came off the field, through the release of the FFA’s ‘Multicultural Audit.’

The report, conducted by consulting company Red Elephant Projects, is part of Football Federation Australia’s so-called ‘multicultural fan engagement campaign.’ After some questionable attempts to engage with the football community over the past decade, full credit must go to the FFA for officially recognising what we’ve all known for the past forty years – that football’s greatest strength is in its diversity.

With the A-League boasting players ‘from all continents with 56 ancestries represented’, football administrators have been quick to claim that football is “the face of Australia.”

The release went largely unnoticed in the middle of a busy A-League season. But in truth, the tone of the report represents a profound change in the relationship between the game’s governing body and its multi-ethnic constituents.

Almost 25 years ago, as the National Soccer League (NSL) entered the 1990s, the Australian Soccer Federation (ASF) commissioned the Bradley Report into the Organisation of Australian Soccer. Like most reports into football during the NSL era, Sydney academic Graeme Bradley blamed the game’s “ethnic image” for the National Soccer League’s lack of penetration.

“In the long term”, Bradley concluded, “the ASF needs to create the image that soccer is not ethnic.” Indeed, according the the report, one of the five major problems facing football was that “it is seen as a game for ethnics.”

The report followed calls by commentators and columnists for the game to be Australianised. In early 1990, Frank Scicluna of Australian Soccer Weekly criticised the NSL as “nothing more than a bigger version of the off-season Ethnic Cup.”

Indeed, the Bradley Report became a blueprint for the reform administration of David Hill and George Negus, who looked to develop franchised, district-based clubs like Perth Glory and Northern Spirit as a way to offset ‘ethnic’ clubs such as Marconi Stallions, Melbourne Knights (née Croatia) and Adelaide City Zebras (née Juventus).

As we now know, some of these new franchised sides provided the genesis for the A-League, which has separated itself entirely from the so-called ethnic NSL clubs.

The Bradley Report, however, was no isolated voice. In fact, for the best part of its 28-year history, NSL administrators blamed poor crowds and media coverage on displays of visible ethnicity, and on the image that football was a game for foreigners.

Making the game ‘Australian’ became something of an obsession. As early as 1978, teams were ordered to remove symbols of ethnic allegiance from their names and badges, often causing enormous conflict between the governing body and the clubs.

Indeed, the de-ethnicisation of Australian football even drew the ‘father of multiculturalism’, Al Grassby, into the debate. According to Grassby, de-ethnicising the image of Australian football was “a very serious subject”, with “far-reaching effects, not only for those involved in soccer.”

Later, politicians Mike Rann and Morris Iemma also weighed into the debate, condemning the the game’s administration for distancing themselves from their perceived ethnic image.

Similarly, in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald in December 1987, the former editor of Soccer World , Andrew Dettre, criticised the governing body’s “periodic crusades to cleanse soccer’s image.” According to Dettre, football was destined to be “deeply ethnicised.”

More than two decades later, the A-League has few of these problems. Frank Lowy, John Singleton and John O’Neill laid the foundations for football to become ‘Australian’ in a way that the NSL and the ASF never could.

Ensuring that catch-all clubs are politically ‘neutral’ and representative of their geographical area has ensured, as John O’Neill once predicted, that “everyone would be pitched together.”

In truth, the A-League has triumphed by assimilating Australia’s diverse football family.

It is with some irony then, that the FFA has begun to positively conflate football and multiculturalism. The report proudly states the game’s cultural and linguistic diversity.

The question that has to be asked, surely, is why now? Why is it suddenly acceptable for the game to celebrate diversity?

Following World Cup qualification back in 2005, commentators began to celebrate the multicultural Socceroos. Michael Cockerill – who in 1983 lamented “the destructive spiral of a stubbornly ethnic game” – suddenly waxed lyrical about the rich tapestry of the Socceroos.

22 years after telling the game’s ethnic constituents to “lump it”, Cockerill was now singing the praises of the multicultural nation.

Similarly, Nick Giannopolous commented in 2006 that the “culturally integrated” Socceroos would silence critics of multiculturalism. Australia’s footballers were, according to Giannopolous, “the microcosm of our community.”

It has taken longer, however, for the governing body to get on the multicultural bandwagon.

Considering the Socceroos and the A-League’s ‘mainstream’ appeal, the FFA are currently operating from a position of strength, not marginalisation. Success had bred a new appreciation of the game’s diversity.

Or perhaps football administrators – having banned all displays of ethnic nationalism at A-League games, including the waving of foreign flags – feel that they have the ethnic element under control.

In any event, football should be proud to boast its multicultural credentials. As Craig Foster commented in late October, “Australia needs football as much as football needs Australia.”

Similarly, incoming CEO David Gallop recently argued that “no other sport can truly reflect the unique multiculturalism of our country.”

However, while patting ourselves on the back in this multicultural moment, the football community should also remember that ‘ethnics’ have too often also been made the scapegoat for the failings of the game in Australia. Football has been perhaps the most willing of all Australian sports to savage its own support base.

For now, congratulations to the FFA. It can only be positive that, in the space of just a few decades, the way in which we speak about football has transformed from “a game for ethnics”, to “the face of the nation.”

Hopefully, we can continue to celebrate diversity in the bad times as well as the good.

Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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