Janek Speight wrote an eloquent, intelligent, factual and insightful article recently called FFA has gone too far in its attempt to de-ethnicise football.
The article said that what the FFA did was wrong when it stopped the Melbourne Knights from displaying Croatian emblems by way of sponsorship during an FFA Cup match against Olympic FC.
Now, I love being critical. Ask the people I work with about how quickly I can point out 73 faults in a three-sentence letter. Criticism flows fast from me.
And when it comes to being an armchair critic, I stand comfortably on the sidelines, happily telling people doing the job how wrong they are. I’ve got the likes of Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho covered in terms of my tactical brilliance and football nous.
Except there’s being critical, and then there’s missing the point about what someone or something is in fact trying to achieve.
While I won’t go to the trouble of re-hashing events that have been entirely well represented in Janek’s article, there is a single problem with one of his conclusions.
Far from de-ethnicising football in Australia, the FFA is unifying football in Australia. To say that they are dividing it misses the point of the FFA, the A-League and their National Club Identity Policy.
The FFA have made it extremely clear from the get-go, right down to the introduction of the FFA and the original launching of the A-League – old soccer in this country should be proud to be representing everyone through the prism of new football.
That previous sentence is crucial in its detail, because, here is what the FFA has never been about.
1. Disenfranchising true football fans
While it is an easy shot to take that the FFA has ignored old soccer entirely at the expense of a new, commercial, marketable brand, the idea that the FFA is about dis-enfranchising true football fans misses the point.
It is entirely interesting that the harshest critics of soccer in this country said that for too long the game was run by a minority, unwilling to allow the game to grow. That minority is not represented by ethnicity, race, religion or creed, but had previously been represented by incompetence.
Rather, what the FFA has always been about was to say that all fans of football should be allowed to come together, enjoy and celebrate the game, independent of race, religion, gender or ethnicity.
The FFA had simply determined that too many fans felt disenfranchised, irrespective of their origin, and that the game should be loved and embraced by all, while introducing a new era of fans to the game.
2. De-ethnicising the game
The delicacy with which turning the game from a minority sport fanatically played by satellite regions and areas into a national brand with global aspirations has probably not been best handled by the FFA.
And, while the first point about combating disenfranchisement certainly has been a motive, it has not necessarily always been the case. Granted, most old NSL fans have never taken to new football.
But wasn’t the idea of the A-League about creating a football identity that Australians in each and every region could relate to and embrace? Wasn’t Sydney F.C. about creating a metropolitan team that the city could support? Wasn’t the Western Wanderers about creating a team that the western region could barrack for?
It is entirely easy to call what the FFA have been doing as removing past national identities, but that is an entirely pejorative way of analysing their motives.
New football was not about removing ethnicity, but ethnically unifying. By creating a brand that everyone could relate to by finding their common threads, rather than separating each other from by being made aware of their differences.
As exemplified by the Socceroos in three consecutive world cups, football in Australia is about Australians enjoying football.
3. Implementing a NCIP that is racist?
For what it’s worth, it is easy to brand the policy as inherently racist. And to be sure, the Human Rights Commission will have their say, one way or the other.
Of course, to understand whether the NCIP is racist, you really have to look further at what the NCIP is trying to implement.
Consider this – the national identity policy does not in fact make it an infringement to do anything with an ethnic flavour or theme. If you consider the policy in its entirety, it is in fact attempting to do that very thing that could potentially occur were one to act as the Melbourne Knights have – remove discrimination.
Is Australia an English speaking nation? Well, yes, we are. That, however, is not to say that other languages should not be embraced. But in creating guidelines that demand universality, you could argue that this is in face attempting to downplay race, and embrace a nation.
After all, isn’t discrimination the act of denying participation to categories of people based on prejudice? Could you not then argue that by branding clubs or insignia for the purpose of promoting an isolated national emblem such as the Croatian flag discriminatory?
Of course it is only one of numerous arguments, and the FFA should be at least confident enough in their own guidelines and policies to implement them, and stand by them when challenged as they will be in the HRC.
Whether or not you believe that the FFA’s NCIP is discriminatory, actions will speak louder than words. The FFA will not only be judged by the rules they implement, but in how they play by those rules.
The point is this: it is hard to argue against the position that football in this country was a basket-case before the FFA was created. You don’t initiate the wide-ranging Crawford review unless there are serious, systemic and fundamental flaws in something.
But to accuse the FFA of de-ethnicising football in Australia misses the point. The grand finals in Brisbane and the creation of the Western Sydney Wanderers are surely proof that all peoples are being embraced by new football.
In fact, to accuse the FFA of anglicising football in this country is just simply without foundation.
The excitement and anticipation generated by Alessandro Del Piero, the atmosphere created at the grand final, the interest generated by a visiting Serie A champion, even the park I attended to watch the Jets play Perth at suburban Broadmeadow were far from anglicising the game.
The FFA Cup is very much proof that the FFA want a unified football in this country.
As the FFA themselves said: “We want clubs that stand for uniting people through the joy of football.”
The key word there is ‘unified’.
The FFA is far from perfect. And whatever the outcome in the HRC, they would be wise to take note of the mistakes that have very much been made, such as waiting as long as they did to even implement a nation-wide knockout tournament.
There have been mistakes. No doubt, there will be many more.
But mistaking attempted unification as de-ethnicising is incorrect. There’s nothing discriminatory about trying to bring everyone together to simply enjoy a game of football.