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To choose football in this country is to choose the life of the outsider.
We all have our experiences. As a kid, the National Soccer League was a different universe to the playground. It was a secret society unlocked not by password or handshake but by culinary tastes and exotic languages.
My weekend adoration of Zeljko Adzic and Mark Bosnich would switch, from Monday to Friday, to Gary Ablett and Allan Border. This was done without second thought, so conditioned and compartmentalised was the inner working of even a young mind. Your soccer world existed separately to your life as an Australian.
As an adult, little changes. The distant table at the black-tie function watching luminaries from squash and swimming and sailing being inducted into halls of fame. Meanwhile, the deeds of Frank Farina, John Davidson, Mark Viduka, Cheryl Salisbury and Harry Kewell drift anonymously into history; living only in the stories passed from member to member within the secret society.
Football has only two living players, Ray Baartz and Peter Wilson, in the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. Level with canoeing. Baseball has more players inducted. Hockey has ten; rugby union 11.
At times, in our desperation to be invited to the ball, we are prepared to be strangers in our own game.
Objectively, I always considered football’s story and Australia’s story to be perfectly symmetrical. Yet, despite having punctuated public consciousness in quite profound ways at different times, football has never been embedded as a thread within the orthodoxy of Australian life, be it media or politics or celebrity.
Increasingly, the mythology of Anzac Day and its observance acts as an anchor to define what it means to be Australian or to lead an authentically Australian life. Unlike other sports, football’s connection to the Anzacs is rarely, if ever, eulogised. This flies in the face of history and does a disservice to the contribution of football and footballers to the Australian narrative.
In 1916, the Sun newspaper in Sydney, under the headline ‘Footballers’ Response’, reported that of the 1500 players registered with the Metropolitan Association (one association in Sydney) some 1200 “answered the Empire’s call”.
Letters published in the Gosford Times in October 1916, from the pen of then Labor candidate, Captain HJ Connell, told stories of soldiers on the battlefield playing “soccer”, or at least spending their time looking for “sticks” to erect as goals.
West Wallsend, described by the Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate as “one of the keenest districts to be found in New South Wales”, lost so many players to the Great War (44 in total) that it did not have enough to field a team to “defend their second place from the previous season”.
In Newcastle alone, 500 of the region’s 625 registered players enlisted in the Great War.
Ironically, the Newcastle Sun would prophesise a bright future for football, on the back of the football community’s visible contribution to the war effort: “the northern soccerites left for active service in such great numbers that, coupled with the great advance in public favour in which the game has made, bodes well for the future of the game”.
In Football and War – Australia and Vietnam 1967-1972, authors Roy Hay and Bill Murray piece together the tale of a group of young Australians who were dropped in Saigon in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War to play football.
Those Australians would emerge with our first ever international trophy and the tournament would be described as the birth of the Socceroos.
Fast forward 41 years to a Tuesday evening in mid-April.
Paul Lederer stood on stage deep in the heartland of Western Sydney with a trophy under his arm. He arrived in Australia when he was ten years old with his extended family, including his uncle Andrew. In 1956, the Lederer family had become refugees after losing their livelihoods amid the collapse of the Hungarian Revolution and would, under the care of the United Nations, set sail for Australia.
Now, as a billionaire businessman and owner of Western Sydney Wanderers, Paul would hand over the trophy for National Youth League Player of the Year.
The trophy was handed to Abraham Majok – a young man who himself arrived in Australia as a refugee after being born to South Sudanese parents in a Kenyan refugee camp.
This was the virtuous cycle of Australian life in full view. A nation welcoming a European refugee boy to its shores who in turn would build a platform that would allow another boy, two generations later, an opportunity to build a transformative life in his adopted country.
There is no shortage of commentators trying to tell us what it means to be Australian, particularly on a sacred day like Anzac Day. What is Australia if not the sum of our collective experiences and the story of its people? That football is, and has been, an integral part of shaping this nation is inescapable.
Football has given too much to this country to be content with standing on the outside, looking in.
Thanks to Andy Harper for providing reference material relating to World War I which has been developed as a part of extensive research by Ian Syson and Athas Zafiris.
John Didulica is a licensed legal practitioner and the chief executive of Professional Footballers Australia. A former National Soccer League player, Didulica was awarded PFA Life Membership in 2008 for his services to football.
This article was originally published by the PFA as On the outside, looking in.