Almanac Soccer: The A-League and the place of meaning in sport

I am a soccer fan. How could you not be? (And I call it soccer here because I have always called it soccer and, in this case, to differentiate between the codes.)

 

But soccer is not my first love, nor the game which I find most meaningful.

 

Of course I understand that is it as meaningful to others as my own sports are to me – I find meaning in Australian football especially, but other sports as well. I suppose I have read widely enough, and observed enough to see the passion of soccer fans, the depth of connection people have to the game. It is part of them – a big part of them – just as my sports are a part of me.

 

I find Australian football deeply meaningful because I love the game, I love my clubs (Geelong and Fitzroy) and because my sense of self is, to a degree (and however poetically) bound up in both. So many of my family memories are footy memories. My sense of hope is expressed in footy. My sense of loyalty and commitment are expressed (and tested) by footy. Other elements of life find expression in footy.

 

No doubt that is the same for Australian soccer fans. Add to that, in many cases, a sense of personal heritage. People are connected to the game, and the game enriches them to the heart of their being. It is meaningful to them.

 

I appreciate soccer. We kicked the soccer ball about the park in the early 1970s, but footy was the dominant code in my neighbourhood. I watched The Big Match with Brian Moore. I became familiar with West Ham and Billy Bonds and Mervyn Day and mates, because they were often featured, and bought a West Ham shirt. I reckon that was 1977. I also followed Doncaster Rovers because the day I decided to choose an English soccer team Doncaster Rovers were bottom of the English (then) fourth division.

 

My schoolboy understanding of the game had me reading about World Cups past – especially when Australia qualified in 1974 – and my Science teacher, Wally McAlpine, of Scottish heritage, talked to me about the game and its history. I learnt of Rangers and Celtic (I preferred Celtic because they wore the hoops of Geelong – how many Collingwood fans support Newcastle United – and had a soft spot for QPR even pre-colour TV). But I didn’t know of the great competitions of Europe. I became aware of Australian clubs – and was intrigued by their names.

 

Gradually I learnt, like anyone does and, given my developing love of sports history, came to understand the place of soccer in Australia. I also played soccer.

 

I was engaged by soccer. I wouldn’t miss an FA Cup final – the ritual of that event was meaningful to me. I followed the four English divisions closely – that page in Monday’s Australian (which included results from all four codes) was compulsory reading. I would even tune in to BBC sports round-up on the ABC – I loved hearing how the scores were read out – and have written about that. But I wasn’t fanatical; I wasn’t soccer-mad.

 

When I first went to England I went to Stamford Bridge (Chelsea v Villa) and the Charity Shield (Arsenal v Man United) – and have also written about that.

 

When Fever Pitch came out I read it enthusiastically. I didn’t need to be a soccer nut to relate to it. I just needed to be able to understand the importance of a sport (any sport) in someone’s life.

 

However, despite my enthusiasm for the game, I was not hanging on every result and every detail. It didn’t matter to me the way Geelong mattered to me. I was waiting for the Cats to win the flag. I felt like I was the play thing of the gods. I personalised the fortunes of the Geelong Football Club. I wrote about suffering and its place in footy and in life in Loose Men Everywhere.

 

I followed West Ham but I realised my support was for them was different when Matthew Le Tissier came along. By the 1990s I was so intrigued by the maverick Le Tissier that I started looking out for him. Although following an individual player I found myself wedded to the fortunes of Southampton.

 

Since then I have remained interested in English soccer – but followed no particular club other than keeping an eye on Doncaster – and followed the rise of the A-League and the nature of its approach.

 

I have watched the way mainstream media has reported soccer, in some cases making every effort to protect their investment in the primacy of the dominant code in the region – Australian football in the south, rugby league in New South Wales and Queensland. That dominance is secured by daily exposure and saturation coverage, but it is also secured by the deep cultural and familial roots that the dominant codes have. Footy mean so much to so many – just as the Western Bulldogs and Cronulla Sharks premierships have demonstrated. Just as the passionate support of rusted on fans of A-League clubs demonstrates.

 

Those who own, direct and administer Australian soccer have been pretty aggressive in stating their intentions. They want to make soccer the dominant code in Australia. They want to make it a hugely successful commercial venture. They want to translate the massive participation rates – over 2,000,000 players – into A-League support.

 

The point I was trying to make – however clumsily – on ABCTV’s Offsiders yesterday is that I don’t think the A-League is meaningful enough to those marginal supporters for that to happen in the near future. Nor is it likely, in the short term, to replace the meaning Australian football and rugby league fans find, and need to find, in their codes and clubs and total footy experiences.

 

I am the classic case. I love sport. I love soccer. I will attend the occasional game in Melbourne, and I will watch games on TV, weekly, sometimes being engaged (sometimes even captivated) by the entire match, as was the case in this round, other times dipping in and out. But I am not hanging out for the fixture to be released and planning my life around the scheduling of the Melbourne Victory games. Some people are – soccer and the Victory mean everything to them. That is the true supporter.

 

Can that reality be arrested by marketing?

 

No matter what the sport, its meaning is not just established by the playing of the game. The game and the club are a key part of it, but it’s what they come to represent. When people’s sense of being is connected to the game, when their identity is reflected in the game, then a depth of connection exists.

 

In all sporting cases around the world that depth of connection is exploited by sporting organisations and private owners for whom, in some cases, the game is, if not arbitrary, a means to a commercial end.  In the same way that people’s religious faith can be exploited, when people commit to something with their heart and soul they are easy targets. Those who know how to make a dollar have a captive market, an exploitable market. Why else would an AFL team have three or four different jumpers for the season, and a new set of four next year? Furthermore, when sponsors and advertisers work out that sports fans drive cars, eat fried chicken, build homes, need insurance, drink beer, try to lose weight and gamble, they get involved. Push a product to them while they are doing something which means so much to them and sell by association. Irrespective of the sport.

 

Just as I feel pillaged when I hear some of the stuff which comes out of the AFL and the Geelong Football Club, so I feel pillaged by other sports. I have an eye and an ear for it.

 

So, given the massive growth agenda, when David Gallop, explains the situation of the A-League on the eve of the new season, he needs to appeal to me. I am the classic target market: a sports-lover with young kids, with sufficient disposable income to be of interest to the commercial phenomenon which is Australian soccer. Remember, by its own definition, a commercial entity.

 

What do I hear? I hear that Australian soccer wants to grow and to grow it needs me. It needs me to bolster ratings and attendances. So please, come to our matches and watch us on TV and join a club because that will help us grow.

 

What do I not hear? I don’t hear come along because soccer is a great game, because you will feel part of that club and you will rise and fall with the performance of your team.

 

And who benefits from the growth of the game?

 

But the long term future of soccer and the A league does not depend on me. It depends on my children. Like all kids they kick a soccer ball around. Theo’s first soccer ball was given to him by our 74 year old Italian neighbour when he was about 12 months old. It was a 1990 World Cup promo ball from the TAB! Theo is now 8. We have a number of soccer balls, and footballs.

 

There is every chance that kids from what might be called ‘soccer families’ will develop the sense of meaning around the game that their forebears have. Given the exposure to soccer at school and the growth of the junior game, despite the significant expense, there is also every chance that they will find the game meaningful and they may come to follow a soccer team with all of their hearts.

 

But will they form a heartfelt connection to an A-League team? Or will it be a European team full of the superstars of the electronic FIFA game which inevitably captures them.

 

To fulfil the aspirations it has, Australian soccer has to make itself more meaningful to more people. That’s a massive challenge.

 

I have no doubt that fans of the A-League clubs find their football as meaningful as Geelong and North Queensland Cowboys fans. The test will be to acknowledge that people follow football for reasons far beyond football. It reflects who they are; it is part of who they are; it allows them to feel like they are expressing who they are.

 

Most ordinary folk are willing to pay a reasonable financial price for that, only some will pay a ransom – no matter what the code.

 

==

Read Roy Hay’s thoughtful response: “A-League, Australian football and meaning”

 

Join Roy Hay and John Harms for lunch this Friday 7 April. DETAILS HERE

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About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au He has written many columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted j.t.h@footyalmanac.com.au He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo10, Anna8, Evie7. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. Stainless says:

    JTH
    I couldn’t agree more with the sentiments in this piece as they very much reflect my own experiences and views of soccer v Aussie Rules.
    A couple of observations:
    Even if David Gallop does start to say all the right things about why you should follow the A-League, can that ever cause you to attach the same organic, visceral attachment to a competition or a club that is so obviously and recently “manufactured”? I will confess to an allegiance to Melbourne City/Heart, but remain lukewarm about following a club that in its short history has already undergone a wholesale buyout and change in identity. That they’re part of the mega-rich Manchester City conglomerate only makes it worse. In the fantasy world that is following a team, some history and tradition is needed to fuel the illusion that our allegiance is contributing to something long-standing and substantial. Isn’t this why we neutrals probably enjoyed seeing the Bulldogs win the Prelim Final over GWS more than the Grand Final itself? The knowledge that their success really meant something to a lot of long-term fans, and relief that the “pearls before swine” outcome of a GWS triumph was postponed at least for a year?
    The other challenge for the A-League is the double-edged sword of being part of the world’s most popular spectator sport. The saturation coverage of soccer unquestionably helps drive interest and participation in the game generally, but in a sporting landscape dominated by coverage of the world’s best, how will a small, insular competition like the A-League ever compete with EPL, La Liga, Serie A etc for our hearts and minds? E.g. my younger son loves watching these competitions but despises the A-League because he sees it as second-rate.

  2. Dave Brown says:

    Really well put, John. I bet you’ve all been copping it on the social meejas since yesterday. The big problem I have with the A-League is its insistence that it is a competition between the codes. This may be the case in junior participation but in terms of bums on seats and eyeballs on screens (where the $ is) they are very much complementary. I have watched my twitter feed swing from fans of a variety of different AFL clubs to fans of a much smaller number of A-League clubs (guessing based on my feed that around 90% of Victorians follow the Victory). Same people, no competition.

    Like many other Adeladeans, I have always keenly followed the fortunes of Adelaide United and we went to the A-League grand final at Adelaide Oval last year – our first A-league game in the flesh. It was incredible event – the goal celebrations were such a different energy to anything else I’ve experienced. The A-League needs to convert that into regular bums on seats / eyeballs on screens but can’t do that while you need to pay for the privilege of watching your team each week. In this market we get that for free in the AFL. While the likes of Gallop and the rusted on fans see it as a competition they are pushing willing punters away – threatening others with their own meaning.

  3. Agree with much of what you say John. I am always intrigued by how much we are all a creature of our environment. I take a passing interest in soccer and have never been to an elite game in Australia. Followed Leicester keenly at the end of last season and the other predictables like World Cup etc. BUT when I am on holidays in Europe I soak up a lot of games as part of the local colour. Mary’s family are all soccer mad and we went to a Hajduk Split game with them, and I really enjoyed watching Champions League matches in the local bars and cafes. When in Rome …….
    I can see soccer continuing to grow in Australia because of injury concerns around contact sport, and the ease of playing anywhere with limited space needed for social play. But I said the same about basketball 20 years ago, so I reckon local culture wins out.

  4. Phillip Dimitriadis says:

    Fascinating discussion JTH.
    I’ve often wondered if footy didn’t exist and our clubs were soccer clubs, would we follow them with the same pathos?
    Imagine Ablett or Daicos as strikers, Buckley or Ablett Jnr as midfielders, Billy Picken or Gary Malarkey as goalies. They’d have their own mythology structured around a different code.
    When I lived in Greece through 1996-98 I got into the game much more deeply as PB, mentions above. I got to know the players, tactics and club histories more intimately because I gave it my time, energy and attention.
    In August 2010 I watched PAOK play AJAX in Thessaloniki in a Champions League qualifier that ended in a 3-3 draw with Suarez scoring a goal for AJAX. When PAOK scored first the place erupted in a bacchanalian expression of unbridled delight and venom. It drew me in and it still remains one of my treasured sporting moments. See clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hi8u7ghQwy4

    Most of my schoolmates followed South Melbourne Hellas or Heidelberg Alexander as they were known in the old NSL. I’d go along to 3-4 games a season, enjoyed it without really feeling mad about it like I did for Collingwood. One of the key differences for many of my mates was that their dad’s would follow soccer with a passion while my old man was indifferent to it and most sports for that matter. Maybe that inter-generational bonding played a role in enhancing the meaning.
    The A-League is still relatively young, but I reckon the kids of today and the next generation will be much more flexible with their allegiances than we were because club in AFL no longer has the parochial connection to place, Geelong aside. Territorial symbolism has morphed into symbolic territorialism. Footscray’s triumph brought some of the former back, but what if the GWS and Gold Coast win the next 5 flags? A distinct possibility that may further fracture the romantic belonging to club for the children of us traditionalists.
    The NSL had the club connection and the historical significance that the A-League is only beginning to garner. Would have liked to have seen Francis Leach on the Offsiders panel as I reckon it would have added a bit more nuance to the discussion because he is one of the few commentators that follow both codes passionately. Thought-provoking piece. Cheers.

  5. I understood perfectly what you meant John on Offsiders. Soccer in Australia has been played since the 1880’s but a series of cultural and historical reasons created the situation where a code created here and a version of Rugby became the main codes. It is ironic that Australia became passionate in one English game, cricket but didn’t choose the other English game, soccer.

    The post war migration gave a boost of the game, but this also strengthened the perception that soccer was a ‘foreign’ game, that did not belong in the Australian sport culture like Australian Rules and Rugby League. And this caused the code to be marginalised.

    The advent of the A-League tried to revert this by creating teams that did not have any connection to any particular ethnic group. While this may have succeeded, it also removed the tradition you talked about. many of those who followed Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne etc. have rejected the A-league. As the FFA Cup has shown it is possible to combine the old with the new.

  6. Paul Young says:

    Yep, I’m with you JH. I enjoy watching the A League on FOXTEL and have been to a few Adelaide United games (albeit not in the last couple of years) but just don’t follow it with any great passion and I guess I never will.

    Does remind me of a situation back in the early 1980’s when for a brief time, Brunswick Juventus shared the Gillon Oval in Pearson Street with Brunswick (VFA). In the 1980’s I spent a lot of time in the Brunswick Social Club, and I do say, it was a lot of time…..In those days Brunswick Juventus had the use of the social club when they palyed home games.

    After a Brunswick (VFA) Away game a few of us would head back to Brunswick for the meals put on by the Juventus crowd. Wonderful Italian food and plenty of it. We become regulars and got to know a quite a few of the Juventus committee, supporters and volunteers including ‘Rocky’ who was responsible for ‘opening up’ Lygon Street following the Americas Cup victory in 1983.

    In 1980, a mate and I went to Olympic Park Melbourne for the final of the Dockerty Cup between Brunswick Juventus and Essendon Croatia. Rocky spotted us walking through the gate and invited us up to the committee room to watch the game with the sponsors and hierarchy. They welcomed us and offered us a vino or two, of which we indulged.

    The game was fairly even despite Essendon scoring two goals in the first half to take a 2-nil lead. The Juventus faithful were convinced it was just luck and the men in black & white would over power the Croatians in the second half.

    After half time, Croatia went bang 3-nil; the Juventus supporters were getting a tad restless.
    Bang again 4-nil; and another bang 5-nil; Thy were now pretty shocked and numb. I didn’t know where to look.
    Bang again – 5-nil. Now they were getting pissed off and I could envisage a horse’s head ending up in the coach’s bed.
    BANG 6-bloody nil. I could see them seething. Pretty sure by now they weren’t putting it down to bad luck.
    Finally BANG and now it’s 7-Nil and the humiliation was complete. Even the Essendon goalkeeper drifted down to the opposite box to get in on the scoring action in the last few minutes.

    I must admit I was trying not to laugh. I found it funny how they were so upbeat throughout until that 3rd goal. I had no real attachment to them, just sort of follow them because they carried the name Brunswick.

    After the good crowds and the solid ratings on the weekend, the A League seems to be going places.

  7. When I was young, I’d follow Essendon in the VFL/AFL, and started going to games with mates during high school. But at the same time, I was also going along with my Dad to watch Melbourne Croatia/Knights and developed a love for that football as well. Going to Olympic Park to watch soccer was a seminal part of my childhood. The strange thing is though, that I never felt I could share that experience with friends and schoolmates. Soccer in the 1980’s, felt so far from ‘cool’, or even normal for a young teenager in my part of Melbourne, that I carried my affection for the game inside like an embarrassing secret.

    Today, I look at playgrounds and sports fields, and see kids wearing Barcelona, Real Madrid, Man United shirts, kicking soccer balls around. I go to A League games and see families, kids and people from all backgrounds and walks of life, and I’m incredibly heartened by how far the game has come.

    So, I found the discussion on Offsiders strangely negative given that from my perspective, the game has finally made it. Soccer fans no longer need to feel like outsiders in the Australian sporting landscape. Sure, the mainstream media is dominated by AFL & cricket, and has horrendously poor knowledge of the subtleties of the round ball game. But it doesn’t matter so much these days. Social media means there exists a large football community that can share information and opinions directly.

    I don’t think there’s any need for the game’s administrators to change anyone’s allegiances. I don’t think David Gallop necessarily needs you John. Kids growing up today play the game in unprecedented numbers, and many will grow up knowing and loving the game in a way that’s never been possible before. I’ve seen the game in Australia come a long way, and in my opinion, the A League only needs responsible management to grow and succeed.

  8. I agree with your perspective.

    Like you I follow sport with a passion, however I have no engagement with the A-League, City or Victory, I watch the results and games but not fully invested emotionally. I have a greater engagement with Tottenham Hotspurs having been emotionally invested with them for over 30 years.
    I think it is a generational thing, the longer my kids and I are engaged with a club, they will subsequently become emotionally invested. I barracked for South Melbourne Hellas because I lived in Sth Melbourne however never felt part of their fan base.
    The question is how do they engage with us, get us to games and maintain this over a period of time? There is a greater chance of our kids to become engaged. Where are the soccer cards?

    Post note: we are engaged with the Socceroos, maybe start from there.

  9. Chris Daley says:

    I think I’m gunna follow City.

  10. E.regnans says:

    Hi JTH and all,
    Thought-provocative stuff.
    Q: Why would anyone follow sport?
    A; It’s interesting, it’s visually appealing, it’s an escape from other things, it’s a chance to see competitors competing…?
    Q: Why would anyone follow a team?
    A: They represent you somehow (neighbourhood, family, state, country, other tribal grouping), they offer some financial incentive.

    I wonder about artificially constructed teams/ clubs/ franchises. e.g. When National Basketball League was popular in the 1990s – I had no affiliation with Melbourne Tigers nor North Melbourne Giants or even Perth Wildcats. So we would watch the players. Same now with T20 cricket – no affiliation whatsoever. So we watch the players.
    It’s the Tim Cahill/ Matthew Le Tisier story.

    But then, as Jan Courtin mentioned in a GWS thread once (I think), all clubs have to start somewhere. There was a day when Geelong FC was formed. And there was a day prior to that day, too.
    So any associations have to begin at some point, with a leap of faith.

    What it is that tips a passing supporter into being an obsessed fanatic is an interesting question. And the big leagues rely (commercially) on supporters acing irrationally with their disposable cash.
    “$120 for a guernsey? Sure.”
    “Silver Membership? Sure.”
    “Foxtel subscription? Sure.”
    Because once the fanaticism is there, the ready, captive, irrational market is, too.
    (AS Tony Hardy says in his lament of Richmond supporters’ day at the footy: “Sure the product is football but the customer experience is king” https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/sugar-dont-miss-the-fun-and-adventure-at-tigerland/)

    It’s no doubt in all big league interests to build fanaticism/ irrationality/ cash flow.
    And by manufacturing a tribal element to the A League, that’s probably what they are looking for.
    Here in October 2016, the whole thing smells contrived and a bit corporate. We can see the puppeteer. Like in the T20.
    It’s probably as good a way as any to build irrational purchases, though.

    As for the future of Australian soccer – it will probably struggle – because of the obvious (and unfavourable) comparisons with Euro and Asian and Sth American leagues. In TV land, all of these (and Australian footy and rugby and cricket and all other sports, too) are just another entertainment option. On an idle Thursday night they are merely in competition with Netflix and STAN and everything else the www throws up.

    “Why should I care?” is a great question.

  11. Thanks for the comments. There’s many more comments on Twitter too! So, yes Dave, I have.

    I agree AV, the A-League and David Gallop don’t need me. But if half the Richmond members decided to become Melbourne Victory members I reckon he’d be pretty happy.

    I do know this, I will continue to watch and enjoy A-League matches. I may not develop a rock solid long-term allegiance to a team, but I may – and in the interim teams will win me (like Brisbane did a few years ago). players will win me, situations will win me, the ritual of attending with friends and family will win me, and so on.

    The A-League only needs me, and the many like me, in the sense that the A-League is trying to grow. I am certainly not the one advocating a growth agenda. I suspect those who have most to gain from growth are advocating a growth agenda. That’s the case in all sports. Cricket has a growth agenda. It’s aspirations are clearly stated.

    All I am saying – and it is the same for all sports – is that people may be attracted to a competition and if their experience is meaningful they are more like to stay involved.

    I think the kids WILL decide. The differences you identify Phil are interesting. Yes, the kids are already deciding about soccer and how significant it is to them. The question is the degree to which that translates to passionate support of all of, or some of, or one of the European Leagues, the Asian Leagues, the A-League.

    Stainless, I think there are lots of factors which can dilute a competition’s substance. Changes in teams in that competition, wholesale movement of players, movement of coaches and administrators and so on. This is not just the preserve of soccer – as Peter B has pointed out. Teams that have existed to first and foremost make profits have traditionally not done so well ni the Australian sporting landscape.

    Again, thanks for reading and commenting.

  12. Luke Reynolds says:

    In total agreeance with this John.
    I only started following soccer in my mid teens. Would watch the old NSL but just couldn’t find any passion for the teams. Followed players.
    The folding of the NSL, the long wait before the new competition started, and the launch of the A-League was absolutely necessary in my opinion. In the main, these clubs have been set up right. Melbourne Victory was an easy team to jump aboard for me. Wearing the navy blue and white Victorian colours. Having Archie Thompson to watch for a decade. The big white V.
    I get to 1 or 2 games a season as a country member. The passion of the 22-24k fans that attend most home games is genuine, and wonderful to watch and be a part of in the crowd. It will grow.
    Yet, like you, I was brought up on Australian Football. I’ve seen the Victory win 3 premierships. Loved them. But not a patch on Collingwood’s 1990 & 2010 triumphs.
    Will my kids value an AFL flag or an A-League title more? Or the same? Does it matter?
    Also interested in the effect of the EPL going to Optus. Does that translate into more A-League viewers looking for their soccer hit?
    Look forward to continuing being an Australian who is happy to follow a multitude of sports.

  13. Patrick O'Brien says:

    When Arsene Wenger joined Nagoya the owner told him that he wanted to make the club the best in the world ‘within 100 years’.

    Some things take time.

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