Book Review: The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, by Joe Gorman

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cv_the_death_and_life_of_aust_soccer.jpgThis is primarily a book about sport, but it is also so much more than that. It tells us a lot about recent Australian history, especially about post-war migration, and its urban setting. Although it is about football culture, it is also about Australian society, and the cultural place of sporting success; as well as a real insight into its urban history.

Joe Gorman is a journalist, but mostly comes across as an enthusiastic sports fan, and a lover of soccer. Or should that be football. The central part of the book is that the soccer culture of post-war Australia was fundamentally ethnic, founded in the clubs created by mostly continental European migrants. The most successful soccer clubs, prior to the creation of the A- League, were unashamedly ethnic. Indeed, most of the soccer clubs attached ethnicity to their names, especially for the Croatian and Greek teams of migrants, but the Italians and even Jewish clubs were also prominent.

But two basic things went wrong. Firstly, the Australian football federation always had a problem with ethnicity, especially when nationalistic identity led to violence between supporters. The second was that the national competition, the NSL, was never a viable commercial product that could compete with other football codes, especially once television coverage was involved. Moreover, the issue of the role of multiculturalism became a political one, and soccer exemplified the ethnic tensions in urban areas. So, eventually, administrators from other codes came along to solve the old soccer problem, and create a football league, one based on clear commercial lines.

Gorman’s historical account also explains some of the more odd features of the A-League. Some of these aspects had developed over time, such as the idea of playing a winter sport over summer, in the Australian heat. Other aspects were borrowed from other codes, especially rugby league, in having a grand final at the end of the year, rather than the winner being the top team on the points table. But rugby league also has long-standing clubs with histories of participation, whereas the A-League was started from scratch, and would effectively rub out the old club system and rivalries. It turns out that most of the stalwarts of the game see this as a backward step, and, at best, a necessary compromise to increase popularity. Gorman calls it gentrification.

Indeed, Gorman is as good at using metaphors and hyperbole as any sports journalist. He describes the A-League as a ‘membrane’ that seals off the elite game from the grassroots, and the development of individual players and club-based identities. Moreover: ‘the story of soccer in Australia…is a vast mess of shattered dreams, colonised tribes and forgotten heroes, splayed out like a Jackson Pollock painting across the landscape of Australian history.’ (page352)

He, of course, has tried to reinvigorate the memories of the forgotten heroes, both on and off the pitch. He also paints a picture of desolate former club grounds in ruins.

All of which makes one wonder what a New Zealand team is doing in the A-League. Certainly the Wellington Phoenix has been far less successful than the Breakers in basketball, for example. And Australian football is focused on Asia, having left the Oceania federation as losers. But rather than look at the elite level, reading the book makes one think of the New Zealand club system. Where I grew up, in Lower Hutt, the key figures were all migrants; but almost all were Anglo-Saxon, not Slavic. And no one had a problem with a New Zealand team that sounded like an English side.

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

The Death and Life of Australian Soccer
by Joe Gorman
Published by University of Queensland Press
ISBN 9780702259685

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