In the ’50s and ’60s many newcomers to the country achieved cultural acceptance by doing what true Australians did: drink VB, barrack for Australia in all sporting contests, follow the footy and purchase a home with a big enough back yard for the kids to play a game of backyard cricket.
This was a good way of leaving the ways of the old country behind for all that the new country had on offer. My dad, as with many new arrivals, followed footy and cricket as a way of demonstrating his allegiance to his new home. Given that his first place of residence was only a few streets away from Collingwood’s home ground, he chose to follow the Pies.
Although the game he watched at Victorian Park was nothing like the one he followed back home, he saw it as his patriotic duty to learn all he could about his adopted country’s indigenous sport. It was, after all, a matter of opening his mind to a new ball game.
His neighbourhood spoke through footy and my dad learnt its language well enough to understand that expressions such as shirt-front, hip and shoulder, high elbow and hit-behind play did not only applied to the footy field, but to the streets of working-class Abbotsford as well.
The tone persists in certain quarters of Australian society today. No doubt we will hear people adopting a similar tenor during the World Cup tournament.
Arguments of disapproval will come from certain sports commentators who describe clashes between rival soccer fans as ethnic violence, while dismissing footy brawls as good old fashion biffo.
They are the same people who continue to harp on how soccer is a low scoring, mind-numbing spectacle that symbolises all that is wrong with the old world: mob violence, ethnic rivalries, stadium riots, and male aggression. Some will insist that soccer is a foreign game that Australians should reject in favour for our game.
Sadly, this is an attitude that harks back to a time when the architects of Australian Football such as South Australia’s Charles Cameron Smith were also campaigners for a White Australian Policy.
Thankfully, these days footy speaks to Melbournians in a language that raises public awareness of important social issues such as women’s health through its breast cancer awareness round, as well as forming closer bonds between the indigenous and non-indigenous cultures with the introduction of Dreamtime at the G to the AFL fixture.
The Sudanese and Somalian kids from the housing commission flats are however unperturbed by footy fans cutting through their game of soccer as they make their way to the ‘G’ to watch Carlton battle Richmond in acknowledgment of the indigenous origins of Australians Rules football.
These days, kids are free to follow whichever sport they want because footy is no longer perceived as our national sport. No sport is. Footy, as with cricket, tennis, rugby, netball, swimming and golf, has lost its cultural significance in a sports market that is becoming increasingly globally oriented.
Today, the success of any sporting code comes down to how well the product is packaged, promoted and sold to the public.
The AFL has proved to be very good at this, as has soccer under FFA chief executive Ben Buckley.
We now have a popular and financially viable national soccer league that attracts crowds on par with AFL and Cricket. Australia’s inclusion in the Asian Football Confederation will ensure that the game will continue to grow at unprecedented levels.
There are now well over 430 registered clubs in the state of Victoria alone, most of them running several teams from seniors down to under-7s. In addition, there are thousands of kids playing in school soccer teams, and non-FFV amateur, church and bayside leagues. And the Matilda’s cup final victory in Asia last week will inevitably bolster female participation in the sport.
Although the jeers, cheers, celebrations, and verbal stoushes at many of these games may have a different linguistic tone to a cricket one-dayer or a footy blockbuster, I’m confident that the open-minded Australian sports fan will appreciate that Australian soccer speaks to Australians as coherently as footy and cricket has.
I do hope that those who have been hostile to soccer and its supporters in the past will get behind the Socceroos during the World Cup campaign in South Africa over the next few weeks, for the sake of Australian sport.
Chris Fotinopoulos is a philosopher and teacher based in Melbourne, he writes regularly for ABC Unleashed as well as Neos Kosmos