Nationhood is an illusionary concept. Nation-states, rather than being made up of homogenous populations, are divided internally by varying social groups, whose fault lines run along ethnic, gender, class, regional, and other identification barriers.
Adherence to nationhood relies on artificial symbols – flags, anthems, constitutions, and borders – to bind their people together into what political scientist and historian Benedict Anderson has labelled ‘imagined communities.’
The shared euphoria of the Matildas’ World Cup odyssey has been one of the most effective vehicles of creating a truly universal bonding experience in Australian history. In a time when our society is increasingly fragmented, the Matildas are giving Australians something to cherish together.
Saturday night’s victory over France even appeared to begin the process of healing one of the deepest and bitterest divisions in our national existence: the Code Wars. Vision of Carlton and Melbourne AFL fans losing their collective minds at Cortnee Vine’s ice-cold penalty sealer supports the unthinkable notion that Australians can support more than one football code at a time. Spooky.
That the AFL executive also agreed to broadcast the Matildas quarter-final match at its venues across the country has raised expectations that the long-standing sporting feud has finally begun to thaw. ‘Hopefully,’ remarked Melbourne football journalist Rohan Connolly, ‘it’s a gesture signalling a desire to help end the infantile “Code Wars”.’
Connolly, however, needs to be careful where his hopes take him, lest he become a modern-day Neville Chamberlain, who declared he had achieved ‘Peace for our time’ less than 12 months before war with Hitler’s Germany erupted.
Australian rules and football’s unity under the banner of a Matildas inspired patriotism, sadly, is not all that it appears. SEN’s Sam Edmunds reported that negotiations between AFL and FIFA executives to broadcast the Matildas match at the formers venues was laced with overt hostility on both sides.
Having received a contract from FIFA stipulating the Matildas game must be shown in full, with an additional 10-minutes of the post-match program added for good measure, the AFL responded that the feed would cease immediately upon its teams entering their respective arenas, whether the Matildas game was finished or not. FIFA’s abbreviated response was stern: ‘OK, if you’re turning it off the big screen well then you are turning it off everything’.
Though FIFA’s aggressive negotiating tactics may appear undignified at first, it must be remembered that the AFL has been far from a friendly neighbour to the world game down under. Earlier this year, the AFL decided to release its 2023 fixture on the same morning of the Socceroos World Cup knockout match against Argentina.
Football Australia, meanwhile, has not forgotten the AFL’s blunt refusal 14 years ago to lend it Docklands Stadium to support its bid to host the 2018 or 2022 FIFA World Cups. A deal to screen the Matildas game at AFL venues was eventually struck, but one that Edmunds described as something closer to an ‘arranged marriage’ rather than a happy union.
These recent skirmishes are merely the latest phase of an ongoing conflict reminiscent of George Orwell’s three-way ‘perpetual war’. Tensions between each sport – football, Australian rules, and the third combatant, rugby – which date back to the 19th century, were driven by a range of geographical and political factors.
In 1881, a Melbourne local bemoaned the indigenous games rejection up north simply because of petty inter-colonial rivalries: ‘The great objection to the rules in NSW was the fact that they were styled ‘The Victorian Rules of Football’. Had they been dubbed the Scandinavian rules, well and good; but Victorian – perish the thought!’
Australian rules and rugby’s conflict remains fierce, but comfortable. Both have fixed positions on either side of the Barassi line, and while there are occasional manoeuvres into each other’s territories, neither threatens to totally dislodge one another entirely. “The AFL is doing a great job (in Queensland), no doubt, and I take my hat off to them, but competition lifts all ships, and their competition has lifted us,” said Australian Rugby League Commission chair Peter V’landys earlier this year.
Football presents a different kind of enemy. Like fifth columnists, the game is both everywhere and nowhere in Australia. Superior international competitions siphon off the best local talent, while administrators continue to shoot themselves in the foot with their poor handling of the A-League.
But football’s enemies lay in a state of constant anxiety for the day when it finally gets its act together and brings the world game, with all its might, down upon this lonely island nation. George Megalogenis believes the Matildas stunning victory against France, which garnered a whopping 4.9 million television viewers nationally, may prove a turning point: “The AFL and NRL, the two sides of Australia’s footballing duopoly, have been dreading the moment when soccer holds the nation’s attention. Now that moment is here…”
The Matilda’s (many of whom are fans of AFL and/or rugby league) and the Australian public have shown that our sporting allegiances need not be monogamous. But as long as professional sport continues to be run on a strictly capitalist model, where executives search greedily for every dollar to impress boards and thereby bolster their own yearly bonuses, the Code Wars will rage on unabated.
There are no heroes in this shootout, only the quick and the dead.