by Ian Syson
It’s a long-standing problem for soccer in Australia that many of its elite juniors end up playing other codes of football at the senior level. AFL players like Adam Goodes and Brad Green were standout junior soccer players. Rugby League’s Andrew Johns starred with the round ball as a junior in Newcastle. It’s a trend that leaves many supporters wondering if we might have had more success had those players and others stayed in the game. I know the words, “He would have been a great soccer player!” have often passed my lips.
One of the reasons kids find it easy to shift codes is the idea that soccer is seen as a ‘new’ game in Australia as opposed to the ‘established’ sports. For many kids soccer is the entrée and not the main course in their sporting careers. Our national cultural memory has few soccer stories that shine above the tales of the Bradmans, the Barassis, the Churchills. John Aloisi, running like a madman, twirling his shirt above his head after scoring the winning penalty against Uruguay is a recent and rare exception.
Yet soccer is at least 125 years old in Victoria, older in New South Wales. How is it that proponents of the game have constantly to justify themselves in watching, playing, preferring this supposedly ‘new Australian’ sport?
A recent instalment of Radio National’s ‘Australia Talks’ (18/6/2009) gave me pause to think further on these matters. Host Paul Barclay interviewed soccer identities Andy Harper, John Kallinikios, Bonita Mersiades and Geoff Miles, delivering a thoughtful discussion on the current state of the game. Then the lines were opened for talk-back discussion and some of the negative calls were predictable: soccer is too boring, too ethnic, soccer gets too much government funding and so on. But the one that really stirred my interest was a ripper from ‘Nicholas in Geelong’.
Nicholas had obviously been thinking along the same lines I had in relation to the soccer potential of footy players – though from a very different perspective. He felt the Socceroo selectors were remiss in not selecting Melbourne AFL footballer Aaron Davey. “Week in, week out Davey did things with the oblong ball that would make Ronaldinho’s jaw drop.” I don’t know whether Davey played soccer as a kid but I suspect that he would have been very handy. Yet I also suspect that Nicholas needs to see a bit more of the Brazilian star’s magic in order to make his comparison stick. He might start on Youtube by looking first at ‘Aaron Davey soccer’ and then comparing it with ‘Ronaldinho crossbar’
Nicholas then delivered the astonishing conclusion: “If you take the world’s best soccer players and play them against the world’s best AFL footballers, the soccer players would probably win 3-1; playing Australian rules the soccer players wouldn’t physically last the first quarter.” This is simply a pub argument: one that can only be initiated and then had out with the aid of alcoholic encouragement – or at least that’s what I thought until I came across this story from the 1960s.
As John Kallinikios has written in his Soccer Boom: The Transformation of Victorian Soccer Culture 1945-1963, the game was undergoing a massive expansion in Melbourne in the late 1950s and early 60s. Extraordinary crowds were flocking to Olympic Park. Over 23,000 went to see a clash between George Cross and South Melbourne Hellas in 1962. In 1966 over 35,000 crammed into the same venue to see Victoria take on AS Roma. Simultaneously VFL football was undergoing something of a mild decline in attendance – albeit from a great height. The fear of a soccer takeover was growing in some footy circles.
this fear sometimes turned into the active suppression of soccer through such practices as exclusion from schools, restrictive ground allocations and concerted media attacks on the game and its participants. In Ethnic Involvement in Australian Soccer: A History 1950–1990 Moseley reports that in 1952:
the VFL directed its operatives to secure all available public sporting space in Melbourne in order to stifle the burgeoning threat posed by soccer’s migrant-inspired growth. Similar moves had been made in 1927 and 1928 when British migrants so rattled the VFL that it wrote “with alarm” of this “foreign code”. The 1950s boom in migration promised to be far more of a problem than that of the 1920s. In 1958 a Melbourne soccer club sought to lease a council ground usually used by an Australian Rules club. In response to the application one rules-supporting sneer, “let them play . . . in the gutter”. Melbourne’s reputation for paranoia was crowned in 1965 when youths daubed anti-soccer slogans over Middle Park, chopped down the goalposts and tried to set fire to the grandstand.
Soccer’s rise to prominence produced various responses, but perhaps none as fascinating as the idea of a soccer-VFL match played under soccer rules. Jack Dyer, ‘Captain Blood’ challenged Slavia-Port Melbourne to match to raise money for the Victorian Society for Crippled Children and Adults.
The idea for the game came about after Dyer had been a guest of the Victorian Soccer Federation at the final of the 1964 Dockerty Cup, won by Slavia 1-0 over Footscray JUST. Dyer repaid his hosts’ generosity by writing in his subsequent Truth column on 10 October, “I went, I saw and I was sickened. Soccer . . . It really is a girls’ game – but only for big girls.” He felt that if he were allowed to train the best of the VFL players in the rudiments of the game they would easily beat a team of soccer players.
This rankled with a number of the Slavia team, and Dave Meechan, invited onto Channel 7’s ‘Wide World of Sport’ by Alex Barr, suggested that Dyer should put his money where his mouth is.
Manolis Papadopoulos, who attended the game, also remembers Dyer generating interest in the challenge by “attacking the soccer players’ abilities as athletes and the game itself as easy and simplistic for anyone to play. Dyer believed that VFL footballers were so physically advanced and technically skilful that playing soccer would be easy for them”. Slavia accepted the challenge and the game was set for 15 November 1964.
The Sporting Globe excitedly previewed the game, “We’ve been waiting for years for this and it’s here at last . . . soccer v. footy.” The Globe was glowing with the prospect of a tough game:
“‘Captain Blood’ has already warned Slavia that it’s going to be ‘on’, and this means one thing – it’s going to be the toughest, roughest soccer match Victoria has ever seen.”
Indeed, Slavia would be facing some hardened VFL footballers. Dyer’s team contained Ron Barassi, Ted Whitten, Kevin Murray, Des Tuddenham and Gordon Collis. The Slavia team included keeper, Ray Barotajs, Peter Aldis, John Auchie, and Hammy McMeechan – well-known in soccer circles but hardly household names in the wider Victorian community.
Papadopoulos remembers the footy players making their intentions clear immediately. Barassi led the charge, literally, taking every opportunity to rough-up Slavia players. This backfired when Barassi went into a tackle and was let down by his woeful technique. John Auchie simply put his foot behind the ball and when Barassi came charging through for a massive toe-bash he found himself flying through the air and landing in a crumpled, injured heap. One report is that the footy legend was carried from Olympic Park on a stretcher. Others are less dramatic, having Barassi merely limping off injured.
Ray Barotajs alludes to Barassi’s injury in his own Truth column on 21 November: “I think the VFL boys would be the first to admit now that it isn’t a girl’s game – just ask Ron Barassi.”
Many years later Slavia right-winger, Hammy McMeechan met Barassi in a King Street newsagency where they happily recalled the match and the incident. McMeechan claims Barassi confided, “That was the injury that eventually made me give footy away.”
It should be emphasised that Hammy refutes Papadopoulos’s notion that the footy players were ‘putting it about’ or trying to bully the Slavia team. He claims that a marvellous spirit of goodwill had developed between the players, most of whom displayed the mutual respect that sports people have for each other’s abilities. After all, the Slavia players were the ones who had trained the VFL team in the rudiments of the game.
McMeechan says, “They were decent guys, especially Kevin Murray. They respected us for our skills and as people.” He also recalls a moment of hilarity when prior to the game he went into the VFL rooms to say hello to the footy players and was amazed by Paul Wadham’s size 13 boots. He put them on and went back into the Slavia rooms saying, “Look at my skis!” In the meantime Wadham returned to find his boots missing but was happy to enjoy the joke when Hammy came back in with them on such was the camaraderie between the teams.
When it came to the game, however, it really was over before it started. The footy players were so technically deficient that they stood no chance of winning. The photograph below of the VFL stars trying to clear a ball from their defence speaks a thousand words on this point.
n a moment that demonstrated just how difficult the translation was for the VFL players, McMeechan ran on to a through ball with his marker, Brownlow Medallist Gordon Collis in tow. He could feel Collis’s massive frame bearing down on him and so played a neat backheel to his captain and right-half, John Sanchez. But, instead of stopping, McMeechan kept racing toward the corner flag. And Collis kept right on following! Arriving at the flag McMeechan turned around with his arms outstretched as if to say to Collis, “What are you going to do now?” Collis turned away grumpily, to the amusement of the massive crowd.
At the break (they had agreed to play 25-minute halves) the score was 3-0 to Slavia, decisive without being embarrassing. Having now recognised what was an obvious mis-match, representatives of the VFL team came into the Slavia dressing room at half-time asking if they could play Australian Rules in the second half. The Slavia coach, former Manchester United player, Brian Birch, said, “Look at my players. Hammy’s the biggest forward and he’s only 5’ 6”. No way. We never said we could beat you at your game!”
The Sun’s soccer reporter, the American, Morrie Buckner suggested that the VFL team improved in the second half but unfortunately for them so did Slavia, running out 8-0 winners. As he wrote in his match report: “A dozen VFL stars showed little more than faith and hope when they played for charity in an exhibition soccer match at Olympic Park yesterday.”
Thankfully missing from Buckner’s measured report is the Globe’s rhetoric of footy triumphalism. Though, if disappointed, footy fans might have derived some joy from his reporting that the VFL won the four-man relay race and Barassi won the long-distance kicking competition (Sherrins and soccer balls) conducted prior to the match. To round out the pre-Match contests, Slavia’s Shepherd won the kicking-accuracy competition.
McMeechan makes a valid point when he says the might of the VFL was up against one semi-professional soccer team. “We only had the best runners in our club and we were up against men like Bluey Adams who had competed in the Stawell gift. I’m not saying we would have won the race but had we been able to select from the speedsters in the other Melbourne soccer clubs we would have given them a better run.”
In what must have been something of a culture shock a few things were revealed to the sporting public. First, the might of the VFL had been hammered by a team of part-timers, none of whom would rank in the top 1000 players in the world.
Second, soccer has its own requirements of strength and fitness that cannot be dismissed out of hand. While few would ignore the sheer toughness and durability required to play Australian rules football, too many are prepared to downplay the physical demands of soccer. While John Auchie’s tackle had an unfortunate impact, it nonetheless demonstrated the balance of technique, strength and toughness required to play the round-ball game.
But the most important lesson I think is that for too long many Australians have failed utterly to understand the technical skill and artistry of the world game and the physical qualities needed to play even at a moderate semi-professional level. McMeechan recalls with a chuckle that prior to the game, when his workmates found that he would be marked by Gordon Collis, he was told, “You won’t get a touch!” To me the only surprise in the result is that some people were surprised.
Yet I suspect that some people will still be surprised today. Had the lessons that Captain Blood and his team learned 45 years ago entered the mainstream sporting memory we wouldn’t still have to listen to the uninformed opinions of the Nicholases from Geelong every time soccer makes some ground in the cramped space of Australian sport.