Almanac Book Review – Joe Gorman on Australian Soccer

Joe Gorman, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, St.Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2017. Available HERE.

The changes in the Australian football (soccer) landscape over the past 10-15 years have been well-commented upon and the continual source of much contention and fierce debate. Indeed, perhaps there is no sport in Australia that is so thoroughly contested as that of football. While Australian Rules and Rugby League dominate the media throughout the states, it is perhaps only soccer that has a consistent support throughout Australia. Aussie Rules dominates Victoria, SA and WA, while Rugby League dominates NSW and Queensland. Soccer, on the other hand, is popular everywhere – even if the degree of popularity, expressed through the playing of the game, frequently doesn’t translate into high crowd attendances. Fluctuating crowd attendances reflect the often-ambivalent attitudes to the management of the game and highlight the difficulty facing the FFA in commanding a clear narrative in which the A-Leagues competes not only against the other leagues of the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League, but also against the global-reach of the European leagues: in particular the Premier League, Champions League and those in Spain, Germany and Italy. Soccer is perpetually fighting on several fronts.

This highly contested quality of soccer in Australia and the rapid changes taking place is reflected in the publication of several new books over the past few years. There has been a veritable boon in Aussie soccer books. These include Ange Postecoglou’s memoirs Changing the Game, Michael Visontay’s account of the rise of the Western Sydney Wanderers,  Roy Hay’s book on the first ten years of the A-League, the late-Les Murray’s account of The World Game, and John Maynard‘s book, The Aboriginal Soccer Tribe. There is also David Hill’s memoirs, which also covers his time as the administrator of the now defunct ‘Soccer Australia’. These books have been complemented not only by the research of Jorge Knijnik (University of Western Sydney) and others, but also by the emergence of independent and irreverent blogs such as Shoot Farken, edited by Athas Zafiris and Engel Schmidl, and South of the Border, edited and mainly contributed to by Paul Mavroudis. Popular English cartoonist, David Squires, has also turned his attention to the A-League.

Joe Gorman’s book though, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, is the most ambitious, thorough and researched account. Gorman, a frequent contributor to The Guardian and a PhD student at Victoria University, traces the trajectory of ‘soccer’ and its transformation into ‘football’ from the early 20th century until the present-day, much contested A-League-era. The strengths of Gorman’s book are many. Firstly, Gorman refuses to see the game in a vacuum, separate from its social-political context.  He not only gives a detailed account of the roles played by Aboriginal players, activists and administrators such as Charles Perkins and John Moriarty, but, also states the basic facts of the Colonial invasion of Aboriginal land. Rarely has this kind of commentary and straight-forward reading of Australian history been so clearly stated in a book on sport. Gorman has the reach and conviction to substantiate his reading of the intersections of Australian political and sporting history. The stories of Perkins and Moriarty are linked to the continual role of Aboriginal players in the soccer-scape, with the story of Jade North who became the first Aboriginal player to captain the A-League team, Brisbane Roar, to the Premiership in 2011.

The starting point for the book, or rather, Gorman’s chief source of material and inspiration comes from Andrew Dettre: a Hungarian refugee to Australia who would not only be a star player, but also, more importantly, become soccer’s leading advocate, critic and author prior to the eventual emergence of more mainstream figures such as Les Murray and Johnny Warren. The contested nature of the game in Australia, is fuelled by its bitter rivalries and impulse towards amnesia, marginalisation and lack of gratitude. Figures such as Dettre, who played a great role in shaping the trajectory and ambition of soccer would be largely forgotten at the moments of mainstream success and national recognition.

While the NSL era was marked by the divisions within migrant communities – Greeks, Serbs, Croatians, in particular – the A-League era has been marked by divisions between the ‘bitters’ and the ‘new dawners’. The NSL, despite its innovation in establishing the first national league of any sport, is characterised as being all that was wrong with Australian multiculturalism. That is, migrant (re: non-Anglo) communities were considered to be problematic by virtue of their bringing of the problems from elsewhere to the new country. Gorman rightly points out that it is the very much Anglo-centric reading of Australian history and social conditions which allows such a perspective to be accepted. Gorman rightly positions the other codes of Australian rules, rugby league (and union) and cricket for fostering the sense of soccer’s irredeemable ethnic and violent otherness. The binary division of ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’, Gorman shows, isn’t clear cut with the passions and contributions of ‘old soccer’ continuing to inform and contribute to ‘new football’.

Gorman concludes the book by drawing on his conversations and interactions with Paul Mavroudis – the aforementioned author of the South of the Border blog. Paul is one of those fans who has refused to be drawn into the glitter and bling of the A-League. He is not a ‘believer’ and for him the game is no longer the same. The marginalisation of fans such as Paul is not unique either to soccer in Australia or to this particular football code. As with sport elsewhere, the game has been up-rooted from its traditional fan-bases, its small and cosy stadia and any real involvement and input from fans at a voluntary, casual basis. Professionalisation, commercialisation, co-operatisation are the key attributes of sport in the era of late-capitalism. Sport is an entertainment product to be easily consumed; where ‘customers’ can easily swap between Big Bash, Twenty20, AFLW, Premier League with an ever-diminishing sense of loyalty, commitment, and above all, patience.

Gorman’s book reveals the richness of soccer in Australia and its breadth of meaning from a social-cultural perspective. The game’s forget it at its peril. This book encourages scepticism towards the grandstanding and ambition of the A-League, advocating instead a slower, steadier more balanced incorporation of the game’s earlier and other stake-holders. Soccer, and the A-League, remains vulnerable within an increasingly congested sportscape. Gorman’s book reveals the earlier struggles for soccer’s survival and thus indicates the code’s resilience.

*This piece was originally published at Reading Sideways, 8th February, 2018.

See Roy Hay’s review of Joe Gorman’s book, HERE.

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