From ‘wogball’ to World Cup: Australia’s football journey
Once crudely dismissed as a sport for “wogs” and unfit for real men, football has shaken off its minority past to become an established part of Australia’s crowded sporting landscape.
Less than a generation ago Australians used the racial insult “wogs” to refer to the migrant communities that football took root in — primarily from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean — giving rise to the derogatory term “wogball\” for football.
Media portrayed football fans as violence-prone hooligans — a stereotype that still endures — although the sport itself was derided as “soft” because it lacked the physical contact of the oval-ball codes.
“It was nothing really to do with soccer at all, it was just prejudice against the migrants that drove this,” football historian Roy Hay told AFP.
Traditional attitudes to football are summed up by the title of influential ex-player and broadcaster Johnny Warren’s 2002 book, “Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters” — women, immigrants and homosexuals.
“‘Sheilas’, ‘wogs’ and ‘poofters’ were considered the second-class citizens of the day and if you played soccer, you were considered one of them,” explained Warren, who died in 2004.
“That’s how soccer was regarded back then and, to some extent, still is today.”
– Golden generation –
The sport was introduced by British migrants in the late 19th century and enjoyed a surge in popularity with a wave of new arrivals from Europe after World War II.
But it remained outside the mainstream as rugby league, rugby union and Australian Rules continued to dominate, along with cricket in the summer.
The late football commentator Les Murray said attitudes began to change when the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan offered Australians time-zone friendly kick-offs.
Even though the Socceroos were not in the tournament, television ratings exceeded those of rugby league and Australian Rules, proving there was latent mainstream interest in the game.
It ignited in 2006 when the Socceroos made the last 16 of the World Cup in Germany, falling to Italy when the eventual champions were awarded a controversial last-gasp penalty.
Players such as Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka — previously known only to football afficionados — became national heroes overnight.
Australia also cannily switched from Oceania to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) in 2006, easing their World Cup qualification route and gaining access to the AFC Champions League.
At the same time, the domestic game experienced a revolution under the newly formed Football Federation Australia (FFA), chaired by shopping centre billionaire Frank Lowy.
FFA sidelined ethnic-based clubs and introduced the franchise-based A-League, initially allowing only one club per city.
The idea was that local fans, regardless of background, would have no choice but to support their team, ending the divisions that had kept the game in an ethnic ghetto.
High-profile players such as Alessandro Del Piero, David Villa, Robbie Fowler and Shinji Ono were brought in to give the league added box-office appeal.
– ‘Bridge into Australian society’ –
The strategy succeeded in establishing an elite-level competition supported by a wide cross-section of fans.
However, Hay said that FFA had moved to root out ethnic influence at all levels of the game, not just the top tier, leaving many at the grassroots feeling disenfranchised.
“It really had an appalling effect on the people who had built the game up since WWII,” he said “Some of those wounds are still there.”
Hay was also concerned that new migrants from areas such as Asia, Africa and the Middle East were missing the opportunity to form clubs as those from Croatia, Greece and Italy did previously.
“They’d benefit from a club with which they could identify, in the same way as the migrant clubs of the 1950s and 1960s,” he said.
“It acts as a bridge into Australian society.”
The historian said Australia was also cutting off a source of player talent.
“There’s a lot of football played in these communities, but it’s all outside FFA’s remit,” he said.
“So they’re not using FFA facilities, not using FFA-accredited referees, instead they’re playing pick-up games in the park.”
Hay said that rather than ignoring its migrant heritage, Australian football could benefit by embracing it at grassroots level to nurture talent for the elite game.
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