Thursday, 17 November 2016

Joining the Cartel: South Melbourne and the A-League

Let's not be too optimistic here (or pessimistic if that's your thing), the seas will rise and swallow the eastern seaboard of Australia before the FFA, A-League, the media and assorted shadowy figures will allow South Melbourne to rejoin the national competition. I've got a vested interest but it's not the worst idea in the world, years later they've finally realised that supercharged derby games are where the TV money is so why not bang a third team each in Melbourne and Sydney and start theatrically rolling around in money like Scrooge McDuck? Or you could put new teams in Hobart and Canberra just because and 3000 enthusiasts can get their rocks off while TV executives slash millions of what they'll pay for the rights and the rest of us die of boredom.

But before we get to the pros and cons of a return to what is almost universally considered "a return to the bad old days" the TL:DR story of how I came to take an interest.

My first exposure to football was through English first division highlights in the late 80s, and for the next few years I followed what was happening on the Monday night highlights show and via a permanent order for the latest Shoot! and Match magazines at the Tooronga Village newsagent (you know, the one that had the Rolling Thunder arcade machine which for some reason let you pick what level you started on). They were usually three weeks behind but that didn't matter, it was a new world where teams rose and fell on the strength of their performance rather than scraping along on the bottom for years on end because there was nowhere else for them to go.

Around 1993/94 I decided it was time to stop sitting on the fence and take interest in a particular, and for no better reason than them being the most unfashionable side in the top division I chose a long distance love affair with Wimbledon. Season 1996/97 was as good as it got, the season where we were the last team standing in the race for the treble before winning nothing but a start in the Intertoto Cup. It couldn't last, and by the end of the decade we were in permanent survival mode.

When the Dons slipped out of the EPL I expected they'd never return, and steadied myself for a life of following the club via the internet and the BBC World Service like the pre-Pay TV era. Due to some colossal unpleasantness they not only missing promotion back to the Premier League but were forced to reform in the ninth tier of the system. In most countries you live in hope of hauling your team up from the ninth level to the top flight, here if you're not in the big league you can only hope to boss a state competition. Whoopee.

In early 2002 the search for meaning in football took me somewhere I never thought I'd go. In my household the NSL was like the VFA, something you'd see the scores of and go "ooh, that's interesting" if a team registered an irregularly large thumping. The only time it ever registered with me was when the Greek dropkicks at school lied through their teeth when claiming to have been pivotal to the low level wild scenes at the '98 Grand Final. Didn't care, wasn't interested in anything happening domestically even after they introduced flavour of the month "broadbased" sides like Carlton or Parramatta who would go on to die unloved. But like a vulnerable person stumbling into joining a cult my distress at Wimbledon's plight led me to explore dangerous new territory. Or as it turns out actually quite safe territory.

My first game was January 18, 2002 at Bob Jane Stadium. It might have been media coverage over the re-signing of Con Boutsianis that led me there, I knew he was the guy who'd fucked up his big chance in Britain by agreeing to drive the getaway car for an armed robbery, and thrillingly despite the fact that he probably shouldn't have been playing as part of the agreement that facilitated his transfer from the lamentably named Football Kingz he scored the winner against them in the dying minutes. I don't remember the goal (certainly not as much as this one, still the best I've ever seen live) but it was reportedly a cracker so no wonder I was immediately hooked.

My first true love will always be the Melbourne Football Club, but this was something I could very much get into during summer. I knew very well how soccer worked and had been racially profiled more than once for championing it in the school ground over more 'Aussie' pursuits like clotheslining your classmates while playing British Bulldog. I'd hung off every goal from far flung English grounds for years but being there was different. The crowds were ordinary even by NSL standards but there was an electricity in the air that you didn't get at an AFL game. The atmosphere drew me towards people, to join in with the community. On the other hand an AFL crowd is something to be avoided by sitting as far back in a stadium as it takes not to get away from them. Even 10 years after the peak of my commitment to South I've probably still got more personal connections there than I do amongst Melbourne fans.

For the rest of that season and the next two years watching South gave me a rush that even Melbourne didn't. Maybe because I was into them but losses didn't ruin my life like Dees defeats did (before we just got used to them) it was less tense and therefore more fun. Maybe because my best mate and I could actually follow the same team for the first and last time.

People would be astounded that we'd be going to these games, expecting that non-Hellenes were not welcome and that we'd be ceremonially drowned in Albert Park Lake. But nobody there cared, in fact gave a shit. You'd get the odd look of contempt from some 15-year-old prick who was only there to try and crack onto chicks under the cover of summer but the general atmosphere could not have been more respectful to anyone who was willing to pay their money and respect the club's background.

I thought I was going to be some sort of trailblazer but there were a significant number of non-Greeks there, and there still is now even when the core constituency has largely abandoned the club. In later years I always found it amusing that the NSL would make everyone stand for the national anthem but the all-Australian "fit in or fuck off" A-League don't bother. Maybe it was just an epic troll by Soccer Australia but by the time I turned up it was well observed, nobody sat there with arms crossed trying to belt out a foreign anthem over the top.

It was watching sport for fun, with all sorts of ridiculous antics like the "Dental Plan! Curcija needs braces!" call and response chant that led to one fan to complain about how terrible it was that people were mocking his teeth, when really it was just because his name rhymed with Lisa and the constant mockery of Sydney Olympic - including this classic sacrilegious seasonal ditty lifted from one or 92 different English clubs:

Away in a manger
No crib for a bed
The little lord Jesus lay down and he said...

*dramatic pause*

Fuck off Olympic! *clap* *clap* *clap* *clap* *clap*
Fuck off Olympic! *clap* *clap* *clap* *clap* *clap*

There was the odd internal conflict but at least it never reached the level of Victory fans putting out pompous statements about how awful it is to follow the game in this country and how poorly they're treated. Incidentally their statements look a lot like what I used to write as a parody of supporter groups.
My favourite moment of the NSL seasons was when I'd somehow ingratiated myself to the point where I was involved in a supporter meeting with the "head of security" about a particular fan who'd been banned for some perceived naughtiness, and just as this clown was running through all the reasons why Mr. X would never be allowed back at South who should walk right behind him but the man himself. He's still going, the head of security didn't last the season.

Of course for all the good times like the 6-4 win over Sydney Olympic or beating Melbourne Knights away we all knew the league was going to be killed off sooner rather than later. That wasn't such a big concern, how could they leave out the best drawing side on the east coast? Quite easily as it turned out, but only pessimists saw that coming at the time. Maybe we should have seen it coming when questions at the AGM (usually about where the money from the FIFA World Club Championship went) would be answered quickly in English then the Greek translation would take about five minutes but nobody expected a full scale ethnic cleansing of the competition.

The article that labelled the NSL "the dead man walking of Australian sport" was right, but when it opened a story about 10,000 people watching a game against Parramatta I just expected that the good thing I'd stumbled upon was going to continue. Incidentally somebody nicked my primitive Nokia 3310 phone with a ridiculously large Snake II high score that night, so feel free to use that as evidence towards keeping South out when you're calling SEN talkback.

Right up until 2008 there were times when I felt like I preferred going to VPL games than the AFL, and that if any club was going to drive a wedge between the Dees and I that it would be South. Then the Dees went utterly tits up in a way that no other club has since Fitzroy (which you can read all about here sports fans), and as much as it sounds like a convenient excuse that crisis occupied all the energy I had for caring about sports.

I started to lose interest after the famous South vs Victory friendly in 2007, when our fans did everything they could to behave themselves (except one bloke who was running away from security for some reason and face-planted a locked 'automatic' door which he'd expected to facilitate his escape by sliding open) while the lot at the other end spent the evening ripping flares only to get in the car and hear a cavalcade of talkback callers moaning about how the ethnics had done it again and how this was proof of why they should never be admitted to the top flight. What was the point in going on against that?

Once the pipedream of that night opening the door for South to become Melbourne's second A-League team died my interest started to ebb away quickly. The travelling circus of playing village teams at shit grounds in a competition run by gibbons became progressively less attractive, and once I did what I thought I'd never do and first got married then had a kid my days of spending one half of the weekend on the Dees and the other half on Hellas were over. South in Summer would be far more convenient, but it's not going to happen.

I still hang on the results now, and the handful of times I've been to games in the last few years it still feels right to be there supporting the club but when you've got nothing to play for other than a state league trophy what's the point? If they shut off the English league at the EPL and left everyone else playing for the glory of winning The Championship would anyone bother? Not every team can be in the big time, but that's my fault for choosing to follow the biggest side in town for the first and last time ever. If I'd obstinately followed the Port Melbourne Sharks there wouldn't have been so many problems.

Ever so slightly to my shame 2007 was the first time I properly sampled the A-League. My bitterness had subsided just far enough that I'd developed fear of missing out and decided I had to go for somebody. I didn't mind the like, just still harboured a grudge against Victory and its fans so decided to sneakily cavort around with the newly formed Wellington Phoenix. I still watch them on TV but it's not the same, a loss doesn't affect me even remotely as much as a South one. The first time they ever played in Melbourne I tried to capture some of the same atmosphere by going to the pub with the fans beforehand but it offered nothing except a free ride to the ground in a minibus put on by the cops because they were spooked about fan violence after a Victory vs Adelaide dust-up before the last home game.

The people who really deserve to see South have their day in the sun again are the ones who have admirably hung on while the mentally weak like me dropped away. Maybe they don't want to be in the A-League, maybe they prefer the club's almost guaranteed survival at a lower level instead of a death or glory tilt at the top flight. Either way I'm not sure they'll say no if it happens, and they're what this should be about. If you're tempted to bang away at your keyboard or call the radio to lament how awful it would be to reopen the door to some mysterious spectre of violent behaviour maybe seek one of those people out and talk to them. Ask them why they never declared even a token interest in an A-League club, and why South is so important to them. Chances are they're not going to run you through with an ornamental sword for making a polite enquiry.

So if expansion is inevitable why not South? At least this time they're seemingly doing it under their own name instead of hiding behind ridiculous disguises like "South Pirates" or "Southern Cross FC" *vom*. Other than a pair of inflatable sauce bottles and a band belting out the Tetris Type A music they're probably better suited for being in the competition than Central Coast, and the aforementioned third leg of the Melbourne derby circuit will do a lot more for coverage of the competition than another thrilling clash between the Mariners and Newcastle which has no better basis for being hyped up than that they're connected by the same highway.

The same people who are deeply concerned about South slicing a few thousand off Victory and City's supporter base (and in the case of the latter, how will anyone be able to tell the difference?) are probably the same ones who'll clap like trained seals when a team is parachuted into Sydney's southern suburbs. So if that argument is unrealistic, and if we're all in agreement that the list of other reasonably safe expansion candidates in Australia is paper thin, what is there left to say no with? Why, tired cliches that haven't been relevant in the 21st century of course.

It's popular to rubbish the claims of any 'traditional' aspirants to a national league place with the claim that it will somehow turn the terraces into a multi-ethnic war zone that will require the intervention of UN peacekeepers. There's a strange political alliance promoting that view between "sack ALL foreigners" Herald Sun readers and the sort of people who spend 75% of the day arguing over the internet about how Australia is a terribly racist country.

I have no doubt that if South somehow got a start (and I bet you if a good old fashioned English giant owned by an international oligarch backed the bid the FFA would do a hammy trying to admit them as quick as possible) a few people would make dickheads of themselves and some outsiders would try and provoke drama to try and make them look bad but overall I don't see anything happening worse than say fans hitting each other with computer equipment, throwing chairs in the street, attacking innocent diners in a steak restaurant, planning to kidnap each other or just plain old punching on with security guards. The fact is that unless you've got Clive Palmer's golden touch and can crash attendances to near triple figures then every team is going to attract some percentage of dickheads. It's just a case of whether your agenda requires covering it up or screaming it from the rooftops.

The same people who almost have a stroke rushing to complain about these stories are a fix up by a pro-AFL/NRL media are often the exact same ones you can rely on for a "nah, we don't want to go back to the bad old days of the NSL" quote whenever the idea of a traditional club being admitted is raised. At least the rabidly anti-soccer people are honest in their hatred instead of being two faced gits.

Even if you do choose to believe that the introduction of a single club traditionally identifying with a single nationality is going to open the gates of hell then answer this. Who are they going to ethnically riot against? Have the Newcastle Jets recently been sold to a consortium from FYROM? Are Central Coast Mariners going to relocate to Northern Cyprus? No they bloody well aren't, so explain to me exactly how this is going to change anything other than by adding a team which will instantly be more relevant than Melbourne City in every aspect other than having owners with more money than brains.

In the meantime please compile a list of your all time top 'ethnic' riots. The way people speak about them they must have happened at every game, so it only goes to reason that you'll easily be able to reel off at least five absolute rippers. Here's your starter for 10 points...
Now that you've compiled a definitive list try removing any involving teams that weren't in the NSL when it closed down. Old mate swinging the suitcase is out, as is anything involving thinly disguised political parties like Footscray JUST or Preston. You'll still find a few but it's a cheap lie to try and pretend that it remained a scourge on the top level of the game until the old league was mercifully euthanised. Unless you count a team from New Zealand as 'ethnic' then in the last season of the NSL eight of the 14 teams were 'broadbased'. You could bring all the teams back right now and it wouldn't set off any more than the lowest level soccer panic alarm. It is a complete non-issue, but if you tell a lie long enough etc.. etc..

If I was going to argue against South for the A-League I wouldn't bother with the tired cliches, I'd point out that moving 10,000 people to Lakeside Stadium was a prick of a thing to do then and it would be again. Great news for the Route 12 tram, even better news for the City of Port Phillip whose parking inspectors will run riot fining people for illegally parking in suburban streets. It's a reasonable ground with an unreasonably small parking capacity. Not to mention a bright blue bloody running track between the stands and the pitch. Still, you'd play at Waverley Park if that's what it took.

The league can't go on forever with this same tedious handful of teams playing each other every six weeks. It will eventually expand, but that won't come as the result of any 'old' clubs being allowed in. That idea is the dictionary definition of 'too hard basket', and everyone involved at the top level will be so scared of the media screaming "I told you so" at the first sign of trouble that they'll be much more comfortable introducing Red Bull Geelong. Good luck to them I suppose, at least if Red Bull turn up with their millions of dollars that will be one team the league won't have to financially bail out when they get themselves into deep shit.

And if South somehow make it back I will respectfully disengage myself from the Phoenix and like an Oakleigh or Heidelberg fan I'll slink back in the side door and resume play like the last nearly 15 years didn't happen. Is Kristian Sarkies still poised to be the next big thing?

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