As the sun faded behind the city skyline, it occurred to me that the South Melbourne (Hellas) game paying tribute to Neos Kosmos founder Takis Gogos was more than just a symbolic act – it was spiritual. His presence could be felt blanketing the cheers of the crowd, and may even have been responsible for that last goal to seal the 3-2 win against the Bentleigh Greens inside the state-of-the-art Lakeside Stadium.
The game panned out on Sunday much like the history of the almighty Souths, filled with excitement, close calls and near misses. But it was also more than just a game – it was proof that the greatness that characterised the team during its heyday cannot be quashed regardless of the FFA’s tough stance on ethnicity. And as the few die-hard fans cheered, it was obvious that the Souths have the potential to attract so many more.
The fact that the team’s A-League dreams were quashed despite its strengths has only helped make this deserving team all the more unique. Watching the well-mannered fans (‘xilokopos‘ – woodcutter – was the only ‘cuss’ word I heard uttered during the game), it became obvious that the team has grown through its tribulations, and all that is left is a story full of ignored potential, missed opportunities, and hopes and dreams that the team will succeed in what some say is a pipe dream.
The history of the team and how it has matured, makes every South’s game an emotive experience for the fans that continue to show their support despite adversity.
As Club Chairman Bill Papastergiadis explained the 60-year-history of the team to me, he painted a picture of deafening goals and championships at a time when South Melbourne stood as one of the proudest clubs in Australia.
I began to see a resemblance with our own 62-year-history at NK. Indeed, the team and our newspaper had their crescendo at around the same time when Greeks thirsted for ways in which to explore their Grecian identity. They both did much to promote the cause of Greeks in Australia in their own ways. But what was the raison d’etre for the club’s very existence was later perceived as a stigma, and it remains a barrier despite the club having dropped “Hellas” from their name.
Indeed, South’s story has been as much about multiculturalism as it has been about football, and its exclusion from the A-League raises many questions as to what is the best way to handle ethnicity in sport – and life. We’ve grown and have developed and in a world that is not stagnant, what was right ten years ago may not be the correct philosophy today. We need to ask: What is the best way of dealing with ethnicity in sport and helping teams reach potential without erasing their identity?
The Souths are not lacking when it comes to skills, assets and players. But obviously, a strong history, lofty ideals and passion are not enough in this day and age when the past isn’t always given due respect. If it were, South Melbourne would be given the FFA recognition it deserves as one of the most successful clubs in Australian football history. They were Oceania Club Cup Winners (1999), FIFA World Club Cup Finalists (2000) and have had a glorious track record playing for kin and country. But the very DNA that makes the club special has also created a Catch-22 situation that stands in the way of progress, because nomatter what happens the blue and white team has the spirit of Greece emanating from its pores.
As the Lakeside Stadium stood still for a moment of silence, I could hear the whispers, cries of “Hellas” from the bygone days, rose from the empty seats sighing for the glory days, as if craving justice.
I looked at publisher Chris Gogos, sitting beside me – reminiscing his childhood when his father would take him to the game. I wondered if he could also feel the presence of his dad, the man who the Souths were paying tribute that day.
As I left the stadium, I thought about the Souths and how time chisels away at our identity, changing us as we learn from our mistakes. Yes, maybe it is time for the FFA to transcend ethnicity and embrace it rather than shun it.
Mary Sinanidis is the Editor of Neos Kosmos.