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

 

Joe Gorman, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Queensland, 2017, ISBN 9780702259685, RRP $32.94.

 

Review by Roy Hay. Read one of Roy’s most recent pieces about Australian football. https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/the-a-league-australian-football-and-meaning/

 

Joe Gorman is the best young long-form journalist writing about Australian football today and he has now published his first book, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer, which enhances his already impressive credentials. The book began as a homage to Andrew Dettre, long-time editor of Soccer World, the green paper, which was the bible for Australian football people from the 1950s to the early 1980s. It evolved into a critical analysis of the evolution of the game and its place in Australian culture and consciousness since the arrival of the post-war migrant generation. This is no dry-as-dust treatise, rather a story told through the lives of the men and some of the women who have been involved in the game at different levels since then.

 

Dettre was the second editor of Soccer World, taking over from the founder Marcel Nagy and giving it the paper its unique character. It had begun as the mouthpiece of the New South Wales Soccer Federation but under Dettre it quickly became an independent voice, prepared to chastise the governors of the game while defending the code and its people strenuously against external critics. Dettre brought a European intellectual and strategic vision to his journalism. He argued for a national league, for a switch to playing the game at top level in summer and for the establishment of a national institute where elite youth could be trained. All these ideas came to pass, but Dettre has never been recognised for his foresight. This is something we should put right.

 

At the centre of Gorman’s book is the dilemma that has plagued the game since the post-war years: how does football overcome the belief that it is a ‘wicked foreign game’ and achieve acceptance in the Australian sporting pantheon, while doing justice to the multitude of diverse influences that feed into and are represented in it? Can it be omnicultural and Australian at the same time? How should its institutions reflect the multitude of its constituent parts and be mainstream Australian at the same time? Of course, there is a national debate raging these days about what it means to be Australian, so the problems that Gorman addresses are not confined to football. But he shows quite clearly how recent institutional changes within the game have sharpened the underlying conflict over the extent to which the old and new groups who want to use the game to reflect their heritage, community and distinctiveness can be accommodated within the new market-driven mainstream structures.

 

The real strength of the book is the patient way in which Gorman tells how we have reached the present situation as successive generations wrestled with these underlying issues. He writes beautifully and generously and makes each person he deals with come alive in his pages, whether it be a grass-roots club member or one of the movers and shakers of the game. The skill lies in not being didactic but in using the participants’ stories to reflect and convey the relevant issues. Given that I am one of the vehicles he uses for this purpose, I have to declare an interest but it is a good read despite that! You will find yourself turning the pages like you do with a really engaging crime novel, and the goodies and the baddies all get fair treatment, as they wrestle with finding a way to resolve the problems.

 

If the book has a weakness it is the failure to address the underlying structural issues relating to the governance of the game. This is very important in August 2017 as Football Federation Australia (FFA) tries to defend its position as the body responsible for the code as a whole, as it is under challenge from the A-League clubs, the aspirant clubs in various state federations, the Professional Footballers’ Association, the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA, the international football federation. It is arguable that FFA has brought some of the current problems upon itself by its heavy-handed, some would say dictatorial behaviour. However, the principle that the governing body, not the clubs and not the states, should run the game is worth defending. Way back in 1962 the principle of club control was enshrined in the governance of the game, just at the point when its focus began to shift from the local to national and international levels. The result was that the tail wagged the dog at a critical period in its history. This should not be allowed to happen again. The self-interest of the clubs needs to be curbed for the good of the game.

 

Yet the clubs are the lifeblood of the game. No one goes to watch administrators. One of my good friends, Richard Kreider, tells me he was in tears as he read about the demise of Marconi in the opening chapter. That is a powerful statement of what we have lost, and there are many such stories in this wonderful book. There is the even more distressing conclusion that there is no way, within the current regulations, for new migrants to this country to form clubs in the way that the post-war generations did. So much of the grass roots of the game today is operating outside the ambit of FFA and its constituent bodies. Has FFA abandoned its omnicultural aspirations just at the time when it should be relaxing its insistence on mainstreaming so that it can accommodate new generations of footballers and their families and their cultural heritage?

Comments

  1. Great to see such an informed and well researched book on Australian soccer/football

  2. Right on. Guido. This is a breath of fresh air and sophisticated analysis all in one very readable package. I hope lots of Almanackers will enjoy it even if it is not about footy.

  3. Good review Roy. Engagingly written. Sounds like a fascinating and worthwhile book.
    As a casual observer across different codes it has struck me how much internal warfare has appeared lately. Australian Soccer, Rugby League and Rugby Union all have the governing body at war with the clubs.
    Cricket’s governing body at war with its players.
    Only AFL seems beyond serious reproach. Success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan?
    Seems to me that sport is where journalism and newspapers were 15 years ago. The era of eternal expansion is over and for the first time in decades revenue is under threat. Free to air TV and general advertising are being eroded by technology and social media. Unless you attract significant eyeballs to subscription TV or streaming, there is no reliable income stream going forward.
    To my eye the squabbles all look like searches for the guilty and endless pleas for redistribution of a diminishing cake. And so Rome burned.
    On a positive note I will realise one of my sporting bucket list items in early October. The Avenging Eagle and I are going to the 45,000 seat stadium in Sevilla to watch a La Liga clash with Malaga. I gather it is something of an Andalucian derby with considerable historical rivalry. The atmosphere and scale of the event should be immense.

  4. You’re a lucky man, Peter. You’ll see a superb game in a brilliant atmosphere, with just a little bit of extra spice. you are right about the codes too. Though I don’t think they have quite hit the buffers yet.

    Football Codes in Australia. Projected future income
    Media contracts by code
    2017-2022 AFL Media contracts $2.5 billion, $418 million per annum
    2018-2022 NRL Media contracts $1.8 billion, $360 million per annum
    2018-2024 FFA Media contracts $346 million, $57.5 million per annum

    Source: Age, 25 March 2017

    Mind you some of the propaganda games they play are mind-blowingly self serving. There was a piece in the Age the other day by a journo in the sports section heaping praise on the AFL for having 18 per cent of their players born overseas or having one or more parents born abroad. Given that the share in the general population is over 30 per cent I wondered whether the AFL should done for discrimination! Needless to say it was not published.

    But back to your point about the future drying up of income streams, it will be interesting to see whether clubs and leagues can begin to seriously monetise their own media offerings. They have the capacity to do so now and that will grow in future, so they have a chance to cut out the middlemen, as the AFL is already beginning to do. I’m quite optimistic about the survival of soccer though it will be a long time, if ever, before they knock off the Australian game as number one in the southern states in particular.

  5. Interesting that Joe Gorman has chosen to include in the title of the book “Australian Soccer” in this age of new football.

    The interesting aspect about the imminent FIFA intervention in the FFA’s governance arrangements is that it is primarily the clubs themselves who have invited this intervention via a couple of influential club owners, i.e. the clubs themselves want a return to the old soccer governance arrangements when the clubs had most of the power.

    Regarding Roy’s reference to the wicked foreign game, it’s worth noting that the FFA, ruled by the Lowy family thanks to gaining the government’s imprimatur in the transition from old soccer to new football, turned its back on the old ethnic clubs and to this day, rejects any advances from the largest of these clubs to gain entry to the A-League.

    It remains to be seen whether this FIFA governance committee, with representation from leading lights in democracy such as North Korea, will benefit Australian soccer.

  6. Neat work, Joey. Like the national coach and the head of the Professional Footballers’ Association I think expansion of the league should be a top priority. But you need to distinguish the case for expansion and that for the readmission of what you call ‘the old ethnic clubs’. Some of the existing A-League clubs would turn in their licences if that happened. So it is not just the Lowy family that is opposed to their readmission. The key is that any entrants have to have a defined and expanding market and full capitalisation if they are to survive and add value to the A-League. The number of such clubs that meet the criteria is very small at the moment. Then there is the question of promotion and relegation. I like John Didulica’s suggestion of experimenting with promotion without relegation for a defined period to give new entrants a chance to establish themselves in new markets. If by the end of that period they have not begun to flourish then all bets are off and they must take their chances.

  7. Roy, I am a big fan of Joe Gorman. His piece in the Guardian a couple of years ago on Muhammad Ali’s visit to Fitzroy was compelling reading. I was always going to purchase this book, but now even more so.

    With all the issues currently swirling around in Australian football, I believe that it has reached a critical juncture. The next steps and decisions are vitally important to the future of the code in Australia. I hope that the powers-that-be understand this.

  8. You are right, Smokie. While I have been arguing that FFA needs to hold its nerve on the issue of club control, it is going to have to move much more quickly on a whole range of issues, including league expansion, promotion and (at some stage relegation, improving coaching and reducing the costs to parents, and finding ways of increasing the resources available for all levels of the game. It is not going to be easy.

    Joe’s book does a lot to explain how we have got to where we are, but like me he does not have a crystal ball to foretell the future.

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