In 1987, a few from my underage cohort broke into the South Melbourne seniors, including Paul Trimboli and Kimon Taliadoros.
Kimon and I were school mates but Kimon was not bilingual and had not grown up with the fortnightly ritual of descending upon Middle Park on Sunday afternoons.
Kimon was quickly immersed in the hotbed that was Middle Park and was mesmerised by the crowds – their excitement, pathos and fervour, especially at home games when the stands would shake with chants of H-E-L-L-A-S, H-E-L-L-A-S!
One day, he plucked up the courage and asked (almost embarrassed that he didn’t know), “what does Hellas mean… because it sounds like a battle cry?”
So, I answered with what Hellas meant for me.
“Hellas – it means nothing. It’s just us, it’s who we are at Middle Park.” (!)
Typical of most Greek migrant families, we went to church, Greek school, yiortes on Saturdays and visited relatives on Sundays and rarely ventured outside the Greek migrant ecosystem.
But not once, was Hellas ever misconstrued as Eλλαδα (Greece). Sure, Hellas was largely supported by Greek migrants but also by Scots, ‘Poms’, Hungarians, Cypriots, as well as many other soccer loving Aussies.
For us, going to see Hellas was a day pass from the suburban microcosm in which we were immersed.
My dad would speak glowingly of watching players like Bourne, Bedford, Ackerley and Nestoridis in earlier years as well.
Hellas meant Jimmy Armstrong, Ollerton, Evans, Davidson, Brown, Oscar walks-on-water Crino, Wadey, Trimmers, Durakovic, Angey etc.
Hellas was never racially exclusive, was about fun, a great day out, the tension that comes with the build up to the big day and ultimately frustration or joy… all the emotional roller coaster that comes with competitive sport.
Hellas was synonymous with success, intrinsically part of multicultural Melbourne and the inheritance of every soccer loving fan.
Helping to save the Club
After the NSL was disbanded, starved of its revenue streams but still laden with expensive real estate obligations, South (Hellas) had no way to trade out of its indebted position and in 2004, was put into administration.
As a fan, who enjoyed all the privileges but none of the responsibility for 36 years, I answered ‘Lefteri’s’ trumpet call and along with hundreds of others, helped save the Club.
We formed South Saviours and raised $75,000 as part of the $450,000 required to bail the Club out of administration. No FFA bailouts for South.
And along comes John O’Neil, the then CEO of the FFA (yes that soccer aficionado that came and went like a penny banger) and he dismissively labelled all of the above… “old soccer”.
O’ Neill… isn’t he the one that wrote the book “How to win friends and take your constituency with you?”
And it wasn’t just me and our beloved South, it was the entire soccer fraternity as it existed up until then. All the great clubs and diligent people behind them who selflessly and tirelessly did all they could, as best they knew to build soccer in this country.
And yes, they were mostly migrants who volunteered their time because of their love of the game.
I won’t for a minute try to defend all that was old soccer. Over the years social norms have changed and (thankfully) so have we.
Without doubt, the FFA has got rid of many of the unsavoury aspects of old soccer and instituted many improvements including a higher level of professionalism, media exposure and a television rights deal that old soccer could only dream of. The players’ union has also helped extricate soccer from shady player payment/transfer practices.
And South and clubs like it, had to change – as they have.
But the benefits achieved by the formation of the A-League do not have to be at the expense of all that came before and by labelling it ‘old soccer’, by disrespecting this deep soccer heritage, the FFA has thrown the baby out with the bath water.
At this year’s Australian Open it was wonderful to once again witness Melbourne’s multicultural sport heritage play out in all its animation and exuberance. It was not just ‘Tsitsipamania’ or young teenagers draped in the Serbian flag but a whole kaleidoscope of colours and allegiances from all over the world. It was wonderfully civil, respectful, marvellous Melbourne at its best and the very essence of being Australian.
The FFA’s determination to stamp out Australia’s multicultural soccer heritage, means ‘old soccer’ acolytes such as myself, will (regrettably) never deem the A-league worthy of anything more than passing interest.
It is simply not good enough for Mr Nikou to now say he does not believe in the old soccer/new football divide as the organisation he leads, the FFA, has institutionalised this bias with rules such as, maximum $7,000 transfer fees for NPL clubs, a monopoly on the top flight, picking favourites and no promotion or relegation.
No consequences for poor performance? In the business world it’s called moral hazard or a (banking) cartel.
More simply, the FFA has one set of rules for the barons and one for the serfs.
Melbourne City might be backed by the biggest soccer powerhouse in the world and yet despite the coverage and despite the press, the stands are (near) empty.
Who’s missing? Melbourne’s soccer faithful.
You see, as long as my team is locked out and not welcome at the pyjama party of ten and there is no mechanism (promotion/relegation) to allow it to ever get there, I will stay away and keep my powder dry.
Asking me to support an A-League team when mine is not welcome is near on impossible – not so much because I’d feel like I am betraying South but because I’d be betraying myself. You see, South is a part of who I am.
And that goes for thousands – many thousands – of fans around the country.
If the FFA cannot understand this, then it doesn’t understand the basic psychology of a soccer fan.
This is not a case of sour grapes but simply a cry from the heartland. Your heartland Mr Nikou, that you have been empowered with great responsibility to represent, to inspire and dare I say it, welcome with open arms.
And just as Neos Kosmos has had to adapt, it has not thrown its predominantly first generation Greek readership ‘under a bus’ and deemed them ‘old soccer’ and those that are digitally literate ‘new football’. It has brought its readership (and its sixty years of heritage) on the journey.
Mr FFA, if you are serious about engaging with the soccer ‘family’, set up the architecture that would allow every club without exception across Australia, to be part of the ONE soccer fraternity and dismantle the feudal system which has operated over the past fourteen years.
It’s time to create a system that is open, inclusive, competitive, allows nature to run its course and see the cream rise to the top. A system that is equally available to all, including those who prefer their coffee from Brunetti’s rather than Starbucks.