Sunday, 27 October 2013

In defence of 'old soccer'

The truly unique thing about Australian soccer fans is that they’re one of the few groups to despise the history of their own sport. Yes that's 'soccer', which is what people called it before the word was outlawed as part of the drastic re-imagining of the game in this country a decade ago.

Nobody seemed to care what the game was called then (and there were far more offensive terms for it than 'soccer' let me tell you), and in most places around the world they still don't, but it seems these days that the only time you’ll hear the ‘s’ word is if somebody’s giving what’s fashionably become known amongst fans and detractors alike as ‘old soccer’ a kicking. Throw in a few references to ethnic warfare and a body count higher than the Crimean War and you’re cleared to use it, but only in a negative context unless you want the crowd to boo you.

In the blind rush to reclaim the game from 'the ethnics' the virtual outlawing of the word was taken to with glee by the same people who have gone on to ransack their entire 'terrace culture' lock, stock and barrel from Europe. The violent hatred of nearly everything that came before 'year zero' has confined not only several generations of teams, fans and players, but also a perfectly reasonable term for the sport to an historical red card. But why?

When people lament the evil that is ‘old soccer’ I know exactly where they’re coming from. They’re talking about Footscray JUST and Sydney Croatia ‘fans’ butchering each other in a car park in 1987 for reasons best known only to themselves and their grandparents, or the night Australian ‘fans’ arranged themselves in the shape of a swastika as the Socceroos played Israel in a 1989 World Cup qualifier.

What these people represented was not ‘old soccer’ but pure, white hot racism and hated. To hold them up as representative of soccer from the 1950’s until Nick Mrdja won the last National Soccer League Grand Final for Perth Glory (‘broadbased’) against Parramatta Power (‘no fans of any ethnicity’) is the laziest stereotype in Australian sport, but one which has achieved pandemic levels in the last few years.

History is obviously written by the winners, which is why the treatment of Nicky Winmar by the crowd at Victoria Park is now spoken about as a horrible chapter in our racist history but what supporters of long dead soccer clubs did in the 1980's is still relevant today. That Australian society has come a long way on all fronts in the last 20 years is undeniable, and the racism and generally horrible behaviour of the past is treated as it is from the past - unless it happened in the stands of a National Soccer League match. 

It's simple enough to lay the boots into sides which have already been nearly wiped from the face of the earth, but the truth is that by the time the NSL was (quite rightly) put to sleep the ‘ethnics’ were in the minority and very much on the run. The 2000-2001 season had just six of 16 teams backed primarily by one group, and the political parties masquerading as football clubs had been long removed the national scene and either relegated to state leagues or obliterated entirely.

The problem was that none of these 'Aussie' teams was any good, and consequently without anything more than token television coverage nobody went to watch them. Even Carlton, held up briefly as the next big thing in Australian football after making a Grand Final in their first season, failed eight games into the year. One of their final matches was delayed because nobody remembered to bring goal nets along. 

Carlton had briefly been the saviour of 'broadbased' football in Melbourne. In that first season when they'd played in the Grand Final against South Melbourne the two teams had even been afforded the honour of a pre-match parade down Swanston Street. That no more than a handful of people turned up is hardly the point, but let the record show that in one bright shining moment for 'old soccer' that Paul Trimboli got to sit in a slow moving vintage car, waving at bemused people who were simply trying to catch the tram from outside Melbourne Central.

It was also probably the only Grand Final where the winning goal was celebrated by somebody tearing off their team shirt to reveal Macho Man Randy Savage merchandise, but that was as good as it got for the NSL in Melbourne after that. Channel 7 even managed to run a positive story about the match instead of concentrating on the, ahem, boisterous (AKA bin throwing) celebrations by fans afterwards.

The NSL had always been Australia's premier competition for those who enjoyed a rotating cast of clubs. Even once relegation and promotion from state leagues had been abolished sides would still crop up and fold at the drop of a hat. Who could forget Collingwood's partnership with Heidelberg that started the season with big crowds at Victoria Park and ended with the team playing in front of empty stands at the same venue?

Though they already had the numbers by the turn of the century, the 'locals' further solidified their control of the competition in its last few years despite clubs representing 'Australia' dropping like flies. Carlton were the first to go, and the Eastern Pride (nee Morwell Falcons) also failed to complete the 2000-01 season. The Canberra Cosmos at least managed to struggle through the year before being euthanised. Preposterously the league managed to get through two whole seasons (2001/02 and 2002/03) seasons with exactly the same sides participating, but the long term prospects for the competition were almost nil. 

A last ditch attempt at introducing some buzz around the competition in its second last year by introducing a finals series where six teams would play a ten round home and away competition as well as a Grand Final came to nothing as: a) about two weeks in 75 per cent of the matches were dead rubbers and b) the only TV coverage they could get was on some obscure Optus channel which showed Homeart ads whenever there wasn't a game on. The league didn't even bother playing one game between Northern Spirit and Newcastle. That 38,000 turned up to see Perth Glory win the title said more for the long-term prospects of the club themselves rather than the league they were in.

So I'm not here to try and pretend that this was a sensibly run and professional competition with mass public appeal in all markets across the country, because as keen as I am on revisionist history that would be a terrific lie. But what is most certainly was not by this point was an ethnic war zone where ancient scores from across Europe were settled in the stands by chain-wielding teenagers on a weekly basis.

By the time the league folded in 2004 the balance had swung conclusively towards the ‘locals’ with a majority of eight from 13, and the last time fans had disgraced themselves on racial lines had been three years earlier. Somehow though, in the rush to take ownership of football out of ‘ethnic’ hands, we were suddenly pitched into an alternative universe where every match had been Pratten Park 1985 no matter who was involved.

In my experience that was anything but the case, and at the risk of being banned from attending any major football event in this country for the next decade I come in defence of the much maligned NSL and the brand of ‘old soccer’ that it has come to represent.

I’d grown up on highlights of the English game every Monday night in the days when you were grateful just to see your team in a five minute highlights package.  Every once in a while you might stumble across local highlights on SBS, but to me the references to South Melbourne Hellas on Acropolis Now may as well have been about a team playing on the moon.

It wasn’t until I’d grown up and suffered the heartbreak of seeing my side relegated from the Premier League (and worse) that I took a chance on the local game and fell in love. For three brief seasons I was an NSL aficionado, and it was magnificent.

Was it meant to be confronting that South Melbourne fans called their side Hellas? After five minutes of the first game so did I. That's who they were. Not that it was compulsory; you didn’t have to swear allegiance to the Greek flag before being allowed in. In fact, to prove how ‘Aussie’ they were the NSL made you stand for the national anthem before kick-off. Even the A-League isn't insane enough to try that.

In all this time the only ethnic rivalry I ever saw was a half-hearted Hellenic power struggle between South Melbourne and Sydney Olympic, and even then that was practically identical to the rivalry which exists now between Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC with the added bonus of better sounding offensive chants in a foreign language. Who knows what they meant, but we joined in anyway because it was fun and that's what you do when you follow a team - you adapt to their culture. New Victory fans join in the chants which have become popular over the years, we did the ones in Greek which said something horrific about the opposition fan's mothers.

The argument is obviously that it's better if a side's culture isn't 'ethnically' based and everyone can join in but that was the point of bringing in at least one 'open' side for people who were into that sort of thing. Australian football might have ended up in a totally different place if the authorities had created proper 'broadbased' clubs like the Victory and Sydney FC instead of shacking up with footy sides and instantly turning off anybody who wasn't already a Carlton or Parramatta fan. Still, at least it wasn't (as some would have you believe) Croats vs Serbs, Israelis vs Palestinians or Hutus vs Tutsis by that point.

The league itself was always going to end with a whimper rather than a bang, but having walked in just as the party was ending I found myself right at home at Bob Jane Stadium. In that last season of a rapidly dying competition the idea that a brand new league would turn away a side who had drawn crowds of more than 10,000 without a dash of television coverage seemed bizarre. It was hard to believe that the people trying to lift the game off the bottom of the ocean would turn away the club who'd have made the perfect foil to the Victory in the battle for Melbourne.

They did and it still hurts today. While nobody can argue Victory’s success (despite the belated introduction of the pretty much moribund Melbourne Heart), it hardly seemed fair that New South Wales got one club in each of Gosford, Newcastle and Sydney while there was no room the team who had represented Australia on the world stage four years earlier. All of a sudden they were relegated to playing Altona Magic instead of Perth Glory.

To be fair clubs like South hadn't done themselves any favours over the years, so desperate for anybody to pay their money at the gate that they'd let pretty much anyone in no matter how impure their intentions were. I remember standing in the Bob Jane Stadium clubhouse talking to the head of security for the club about a fan who had been banned 'for life' for some reason or another, when said outlaw fan scanned his membership at the door and walked into the ground within touching distance of the guard. He continued to go unchallenged for the rest of the season and still watches the club now.

I have no doubt that many of the isolated incidents which have now become football folklore could have been stopped if the clubs had any interest in enforcing bans or if they had access to the same sort of security and surveillance which clubs do in modern stadiums, but who knows if it would have helped when the stereotype had been well and truly embedded in Australia's psyche whether it was true or not. Play my patented NSL Superquiz and humour the next person who tells you how horrible the ethnic riots were 'back then' only to then ask them to name their top five racially based conflagrations. If they can get past Despotovski vs the Melbourne Knights you may as well declare them a winner.

How foolish it seems now to have stood under, and I think held it up at one point, a "No South, No APL" banner at the club's last NSL match against Adelaide United at Hindmarsh Stadium. Not only because the FFA made the message irrelevant by changing the name of the competition, but also the fact that we thought that we were so indispensable that the competition couldn't possibly succeed without us. The truth was that the club needed the competition more than the competition needed the club, and South nearly went out of business almost immediately after they were excluded.

Perhaps they'd have had more chance if they’d bought the licence for a team in Auckland. After all, the New Zealand Knights were admitted as the successor of a club which had attracted 950 people to its last NSL match. I suppose nobody can accuse a team with no fans of having been responsible for any crowd trouble. 

Over the years I've thought about the process that severed my brief but thrilling connection with Australian top flight soccer many times. Usually it's while I'm half-heartedly watching the A-League and going for Wellington Phoenix in an equally half-hearted fashion just because in my mind they don't represent the same people who gave us the boot. In these moments of reflection I like to think that the fact that a perfectly viable but ethnically based team was excluded was more to do with the FFA wanting to clear the decks for 'their clubs' than anything else, but the blanket expulsion of any side which had more than a tenuous connection to 'old soccer' has given rise to the greatest urban myth in Australian sports.

You can see it in any story hinting at football’s past. When it was revealed that South Melbourne was trying to buy Melbourne Heart the same themes cropped up in articles and comments alike. Mentioning the “bad old days” and “old soccer” was almost compulsory, and the insinuation was clear: the return of a side which drew much of its support from the Greek community would herald a “return to ethnic violence”.

Who exactly would this violence be between? Did I miss a brief, bloody conflict between Greece and New Zealand which would cause games against the Phoenix to end with the stadium blanketed in tear gas? It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, and the insinuation that violence is bred purely by ethnicity is hardly compatible with A-League fans being king hit in the stands or attacking police

You wonder why Melbourne Victory fans who seem as keen as mustard for a proper local rival with more than a handful of fans can't see that instead of holding the ethnics at bay and acting like they solely own the game in this city they should be welcoming a proper rival. These are the same people who have adopted all sorts of macho bullshit 'ultra' stuff from Europe but who simultaneously perpetuate all the myths about the past while complaining about the treatment they receive from police and the media. Perhaps most of what they know about the 'evil' of the past was similarly beaten up by the press?

The NSL’s reputation gets worse every year, but how can fans behave as if the isolated violent acts in their 'new' league are somehow less offensive because there’s no ethnic background to them? A few thrown coins are dismissed as nothing much, but the behaviour of fans in the mid 90’s is still held as hard evidence against entire clubs today. Again, who are 'we' going to fight with now? Sydney FC, West Sydney Wanderers or Melbourne Victory? There doesn't seem to be any shortage of potential clashes, but if a fight happens at the soccer and it doesn't involve ethnic rivalry did it really happen?

When did it become so fashionable to put an ethnic twist on sporting violence? Imagine if 25-year-old Cameron George Frearson of Gymea had known in the mid 90’s that one day everything terrible which happened before 2004 would be blamed on nationalism. He’d have come up with a far better excuse for letting off a flare at a World Cup qualifier than "Because it creates a good visual effect when a goal is scored".

As I stood in the pouring rain watching South get thrashed 5-0 by a pub team a few weeks ago I finally came to terms with the fact that there’s no way they’ll ever be allowed back in the national competition in any meaningful fashion. Even if Heart were willing to sell, the FFA would be scared to death of a backlash from its stakeholders and would at best allow them to be called South Melbourne Heart, Melbourne United or something equally generic. 

Their league, their rules I suppose, but nearly a decade on from NSL’s death it’s time that we stopped racially profiling clubs and accept that the popular stereotypes were for the large part just that? That unfortunately soccer seems to attract a proportion of dickheads no matter where you watch it, and that the first priority should be to find these people and kick them out permanently. If clubs wither and die because they've got a higher proportion of arsehole fans than others then bad luck to them.

That the 'ethnic panic' is complete bullshit is hard to argue, but the point then becomes whether South could even do better than heart. Lacking a proper geographical reason for anybody to follow a second Melbourne club was there any point in bringing one in to start with? Probably not. Would the handful of supporters who would come back from Victory contribute to a decent following? I seriously doubt it, but if the 11,000 who turned up to see South's first match back in the Victorian Premier League (tellingly the total plummeted to just over 4000 the next week) showed half an interest in seeing the club play top level football again it would be a good start.

If you were a Heart fan wouldn't you have wanted this to happen? Sure you might have to buy a new shirt and perhaps not follow a team with the pansiest nickname in sport, but your 5000 fans plus our 5000 is a start. We'll build from there, abusing Victory fans all the way. You bring the A-League spot, we'll bring the legitimate dislike for their club. You could go on as you are now, but your club's just going to go broke and you'll be left with no other options but to either skulk back to Victory and try to ignore the embarrassingly forced rivalry of the last couple of years or to give up altogether and wait for the next fool to come along asking to be parted from his money by launching a 'broadbased' Melbourne club.

That there was perhaps 1500 South fans at that Victorian Premier League preliminary final a couple of weeks ago would seem to indicate that there's no coming back for the FIFA Oceania Club of the Century. I can certainly understand that viewpoint, but there's a big difference between playing on the largest stage in the country (where we belong) and against Northcote at at a park in Port Melbourne. 

Admittedly I'm not exactly doing my bit for the club these days, it was the first game I'd bothered to go to all season myself. What's the point in following your team through a mickey mouse competition every week throughout winter? I'd done it for a few years and enjoyed myself but the chronic mismanagement of the league (not to mention the rampant corruption) is enough to grind you down eventually. There's still life in the club, just no reason at the moment for it to be revived.

All the while as we're looking on with jealously the A-League continues to grow. Plenty of us sneered at the idea of it taking off, but it seems to be doing just that. I'm still not sure investing your money in a team is any more sensible than buying an NBL side or giving your credit card number to a Nigerian prince but the crowds in most venues are well above what might have been expected a few years ago, and other than a couple of hastily created expansion teams (as well as the Knights who were practically dead before they'd even began) most clubs appear to at least be keeping their head above water. The FFA are even happy to bail out major market clubs who fall over and help them back on their feet.

Yet while all this is happening a generation of fans sits on the sidelines waiting for a chance at redemption, looking at A-League fans waving banners that read 'against modern football' and falling about laughing at the idea that they know anything about hardship. It's fun to play the victim, and we're still doing it almost 10 years later, but the idea of once again having a team to spend my summer following is enough to make me pay more attention to the A-League now than I have in the last few years.

If we're going to be kept out please at least let it be for the right reasons, that we don't have the appropriate financial backing and have shed most of our fan base, not because of some antiquated racial notions of what European people are likely to do at a soccer game.

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