The Influence of Australian Migrant Minorities on Soccer Today

The Australian national soccer team participated in FIFA World Cups in 2006, 2010 and 2014. It has a very good chance to qualify even for the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia. At the same time, professional A-League soccer is experiencing significant growth in attendance from year to year; the quality of soccer is getting better; city derbies like those in Sydney or Melbourne can be compared to any derby in Europe or South America. Soccer is one of today’s most popular Australian sports is the sport with the highest involvement of all. But things Down Under were not always like this.


The first soccer match was played in Australia back in the 1870s, but the new game did not immediately catch the interest of the population. Until 1956, Australia wasn’t even a FIFA member and the predominate sports were  Aussie-rules cricket and two rugby codes, league and union. Soccer started gaining some interest and popularity only in the second part of the twentieth century. The growth of the game in Australia came at the same time as the huge immigrant wave arrived from Europe.


After World War II, huge numbers of European immigrants started arriving in the southern hemisphere. According to data from 1945 to 1985, more than four million European settlers arrived in Australia. The majority of those newly arrived settlers were from the United Kingdom and Ireland, but many also arrived from Southern Europe. The southern European immigrants, especially those from Italy, Croatia, and Greece, became the impetus for soccer development in Australia.


Sports always played an important role in Australia and Australian society. Sports were a way of life, and it was expected that through sports immigrants would become part of mainstream society. However, the newly arrived immigrants did not accept Australian sports. Both Rugby, whether union or league, and Australian football were completely unknown to most of them. In Australia, football was played with an oval-shaped ball, while for European immigrants football was always soccer.


When a person changes his country and continent, it is not easy to adjust to a new life. An additional problem for most of the immigrants was also lack of knowledge of the English language. The soccer pitch, on the other hand, was a place where all those immigrants were able to show their skills despite not speaking a word of English. Soccer gave a sense of community to the newly arrived settlers. It formed a bridge between their home country and their Australian born offspring.


In the second part of the twentieth century, soccer clubs in Australia started to develop from ethnic social clubs. Such social clubs were founded by immigrants as a place for socialization with the other settlers from the old country. Throughout Australia, clubs with ethnic names were founded during this period. Those clubs soon have started to dominate the sport, especially after 1957 when the best clubs cut ties with existing organizations. In 1961 they formed the Australian Soccer Federation. Soon after, the Australian Soccer Federation took over administrative control of the sport in Australia.


During this period, soccer was often exclusively associated with southern European settlers, even to such extent that it was often referred pejoratively as “wogball.”  Even though “wog” does not have an exact meaning, it was a slur to describe Southern European immigrants from Croatia, Greece, Italy, Lebanon, Macedonia, Malta, Serbia, Spain, and Turkey.


Ethnic soccer clubs in Australia were founded in the  1950s and 1960s.  Names like Sydney Croatia, Pan-Hellenic, Eastern Suburbs Hakoah, Preston Makedonia, Melbourne Croatia, Marconi Stallions, South Melbourne Hellas or St. George Budapest clearly showed in which communities those teams had their roots.


During this era, soccer made significant leaps forward and culminated in the qualification of the Australian National Soccer Team for the FIFA World Cup in 1974. Australia was eliminated in the group stage. For this story, it is important to note that the National Team was represented, among others, by players like Doug Utješenovi, Manfred Schafer, Attila Abonyi, Ivo Rudi, Branko Buljevi or Jim Milisavljevi. Their surnames were a clear indicator of their immigrant backgrounds.


This historic qualification for the World Cup was a huge boost for soccer development. A new step forward was made in 1977 when the National Soccer League (NSL) was formed. The NSL was first soccer competition uniting soccer clubs from all over Australia. All the teams in NSL were not ethnic; indeed, the league even tried to ban the ethnic names in order to avoid conflicts and attract wider masses to stadiums. However, the majority of soccer clubs kept connection to their ethnic communities. The most successful teams in the NSL were those ethnic ones like Sydney City (team of Jewish community), Marconi Stallions (Italian), South Melbourne (Greek), Adelaide City (Italian), Sydney Olympic (Greek), Melbourne Knights (Croatian), and St. George (Hungarian).


The growth of soccer’s popularity was not accompanied by on field success of the National Team. Back then, Australia was a member of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC). This was the main obstacle to further development and success of soccer on an international level. But, at the beginning of new millennium, things have started to change dramatically.


In 2004, Football Federation Australia (former Australian Soccer Federation) founded A-League, a professional soccer league with the goal of raising soccer to a higher level. Although


A-League is a successor to the NSL, invitations for the closed league weren’t issued to the ethnic clubs. Some NSL members which were not ethnically based were admitted to the newly formed league, while other teams were created from scratch. The main goal of A-League was to have clubs which represented whole cities and communities, not just certain ethnic groups.


This period coincided with the arrival of possibly the best Australian generation of soccer players. The phenomenal Australian National Soccer Team in 2006 managed to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the second time in its history. Socceroos went through a very difficult group (Brazil, Japan, Croatia) to the knock-out phase where they were eliminated in extra time against the later winner of the tournament, Italy.  


In Germany in 2006, Australia was represented by 23 players, and the majority were descendants of immigrants which gave a boost to soccer Down Under in the 1950s and 60s. This Australian National Team had six players of Croatian origin (Jason Culina, Tony Popovic, Mark Viduka, Josip Skoko, Željko Kalac, Ante Covic); three of Italian ( Vincenzo Grella, John Aloisi, Mark Bresciano); one Greek (Stan Lazaridis); one Macedonian (Mile Sterjovski); and one German (Mark Schwarzer).


It is very interesting to note that during this World Cup group stage Australia played against Croatia which was represented by three players (Joey Didulica, Anthony Šeric, Josip Šimunic) born in Australia, but who decided to represent the country of their ancestors at international level.


From the beginning of the new millennium, soccer in Australia has constantly grown. Although ethnic clubs nowadays are amateur, the influence of the Southern European immigrants on the game cannot be overstated. Moreover, the National Team is currently coached by Ange Postecoglou who is assisted by Ante Milicic.  The Captain of the Socceroos is the player of Croatian origin, Mile Jedinak. Furthermore, Danny Vukovic, Aziz Behich, Miloš Degenek, Matthew Jurman, James Troisi, Massimo Luongo, Tom Rogic, Mustafa Amini, Tomi Juric and Nikita Rukavytsya will try to qualify for the next World Cup in Russia.


Immigrants definitely helped soccer, but soccer also helped them cope with life in their new country. A couple of years ago, a study from the University of Adelaide highlighted, for the first time, the importance of soccer in the life of immigrants while adjusting to their new country.


Huge numbers of first-generation immigrants have admitted that their involvement in a soccer club helped them to adjust to their new surroundings, especially because it was usually the only place where they could socialize without proper knowledge of English.


The last Australian census was conducted in 2011. It showed that 4.8% of the population has Italian ancestry, 1.8% has Greek ancestry, 0.6% Croatian, 0.4% Macedonian and 0.3% Serbian. Therefore, the number of Southern European immigrants to Australia was never large. Their contribution to the development of soccer, on the other hand, cannot be measured.


AUTHOR BIO: Ivan Suljic is a contributor to Sports Median who is an avid soccer fan. Ivan is a Croatian who lives and breathes soccer. When he’s not following soccer, Ivan is a successful businessman.


soccer field

Soccer field ready for play.


  1. Dennis Gedling says

    Great stuff on the eve of another season and some absolutely crucial Socceroos games.

    I never knew that the % of immigrants from places like Italy and the former Yugoslavia was so low.

    Let’s hope the sport can stop treading water like it has done the past 18 months soon.

  2. Terrific summary of the history of world football in Australia. More please Ivan. My wife Marija (the Avenging Eagle) is Croatian born and the Croatian influence seems disproportionately large for its small population.
    We have been in Spain and Portugal for the last month and I have watched a lot of football in bars. Both local leagues and European inter-club competitions. The standard of games is amazingly high. The skill and the speed. In Spain football fills 80% of the sports pages in the local papers. There are kids everywhere playing in the street.
    With the Socceroos facing a difficult World Cup qualification I feel there is a general ignorance and disconnect by Australian sports fans about how small and insignificant we are on the world stage. Only 24 million people and world football is at best a 4th ranked sport behind Australian rules, rugby league and cricket. I know participation is high, but money and popularity ensures the best athletes gravitate to the bigger sports.
    The Socceroos players are lowly rated players in second string teams and leagues on the world stage. It would be like asking the VFL/SANFL/WAFL premiers to play Richmond!
    I say this not to denigrate world football or the Socceroos. Their achievements are all the more remarkable for how much they have punched above their weight. To criticise Postecoglou or the team because we “expect success” is the height of ignorance.
    World football really is the beautiful game, and the passion of the fans and the coverage dwarfs AFL and NRL. (I just wish there was something to make the scoring easier – I saw a brilliant but unsatisfying 0-0 between Athletico Madrid and Alaves on the weekend. Kissing your sister.)
    Thanks for raising the profile of world football in the Almanac community of sports nuts.

  3. Dennis Gedling says

    Did you make it to that Champions League game in the end PB?

  4. No. Too expensive. $250 each from the resale sites. Good game 0-0 at the half, and Sporting held Barcelona to a creditable loss 0-1. Went to a bar in the Algarve hoping to see it. All the TV’s on Man United thumping CSK Moscow 4-0. Barman was friendly but said the expats all have no interest in Portuguese or Spanish football! Doh.
    Hope to see Espanyol play Levante (the third Madrid team having a good start to the season) when we are in Barcelona in 10 days. La Liga schedule games for tv only a few weeks ahead. No overlaps. Just Friday night to Sunday night. Midday to 9pm game starting every 2 hours.
    We are in Sevilla now. Game was 4pm Saturday when it was 33 degrees in uncovered stands. Watched from a bar on tv as they beat bottom side Malaga 2-0. Boring game with Sevilla’s second stringers after they won in Turkey on Wednesday night in the Champions League.

  5. Yeesh a Catalunyan team against a team from Madrid in the current political climate. That’s an Almanac article right there.

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