Amnesia, Absence and the A-League

Sporting landscapes are constantly shifting. Teams come and go or are merged and sent elsewhere; stadiums are dismantled and constructed; leagues are closed down and started up; new formats of traditional games are introduced; women’s leagues are given attention and arrive on television screens. The 2000s in Australia – just in football terms – has seen the advent of the A-League, the W-League, the FFA Cup, the AFC Cup, exhibition games featuring Real Madrid, Tottenham FC, Atletico Madrid, Liverpol FC. Elsewhere, there has been a huge interest in domestic and international Twenty20 cricket, UFC: the former a challenge to the staid traditonality of Test cricket, the latter a fighting format capitalising on the demise of interest in boxing. The Australian Football League has invested heavily in generating interest in Australian rules in western Sydney – much to the chagrin of clubs in footy’s Victorian heartland. Football – the roundball game – has long been considered an outsider’s sport in the Aussie-land. The Howard-era Crawford Report, however, sought to change this and mainstream the game. And just as the Taylor Inquiry begat all-seater stadia in England, so the Crawford Report begat the A-League.

derby-posterThe A-League articulates city-based rivalries. And thus games between Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United are promoted as “The Original Rivalry” and Melbourne Victory v Sydney FC is known as “The Big Blue”. The Western Sydney Wanderers vs Sydney FC is expected to have a crowd of more than 60,000 – making it the biggest crowd for a domestic football game. Such specific city-based rivalry is unique to the A-League in the Australian sporting context. Rivalries between Australian rules football clubs involve a degree of city-based animosity, but these are also complemented by state-based and club-based rivalries. Footy fans in Melbourne most likely have more of an animosity towards the West Coast Eagles rather than towards Fremantle, yet probably dislike both for their Western Austlian-ness. While many Melbourne footy fans would have a degree of affection for the Sydney Swans’ origins in South Melbourne. The swell in support for the Western Bulldogs in the 2016 Grand Final from neutral supporters was largely based on an affection (and sympathy) for the Doggies, rather than a hatred of Sydney. Rugby league’s greatest rivalry is that of the mid-winter State of Origin clashes – which have no parallel in Australian rules, let alone football. City-based rivalries have been the hallmark of the A-League in its first ten years, given the small number of clubs in the league. Gallop, the league’s CEO however, has forecasted the introduction of more clubs over the coming years and efforts to increase the number of intra-city rivalries.

The A-League is one of the shining “products” of “new football” in contrast to “old soccer” (Georgakis and Molloy 2016). It is the domestic flag bearer of the code and complements the national team, the Socceroos – who can’t rid themselves of the name that retains a degree of the earlier era in which the roundball game was for “sheilas, wogs and pooftas” (Warren). But to make it new, much forgetting must be done. This is much like the process of establishing, creating and imagining a new nation (Anderson). The process must be of voluntary amnesia: forgetting our ties to earlier clubs, allegiances, so that we can create a narrative that is linear, binding and inclusive – even if not entirely representative of our lived and shared experience. Visontay shoes the trajectories of Western Sydney Wanderers fans in his recent book Welcome to Wanderland (Hardie Grant, 2016) The A-League, as such, necessarily looks forward, rather than draws on its history: it is constructed as only having minor links to the earlier incarnations of ‘soccer’ in Australia. And thus, it is no surprise that Visontay (2016) mentions how members of the 1974 World Cup Socceroos team had their life-long free-tickets to any game of football in Australia annulled in the A-League era. A kind of “thanks very much, but, you’ve had your time in the sun.”

The disassociation from the earlier expression of football is also expressed through stadium architecture: new stadiums have been built to suit the demands of the new league. While in the Netherlands new stadia are built on city outskirts (eg ADO Den Haag’s Kyocera Stadium), AAMI Park – is one of the central stadia in Melbourne’s prized ‘sporting precinct’. Football fans attend games played neatly packaged in city’s attractive sporting environment. Football fans (and Melbourne’s rugby fans) have ease of access to an elite sporting venue similarly to fans of Australian rules (MCG), tennis (Rod Laver Arena) and practitioners of athletics (at Collingwood’s Holimg_4249den Centre). AAMI Park (also known as Melbourne Rectangular Stadium) contains no traces of Australia’s or Melbourne’s footballing history. Fans embrace the new as something disconnected and cut off from earlier moments in the sport’s local history. This outcome contrasts with the plethora of statues that encircle the MCG of great (white, male) Australian rules players and (white, male) cricketers. Geelong’s re-vamped stadium (branded of course; see left) also includes the club’s history in its design. As does the specifically local and well-preserved Victoria Park. It is fans of the roundball game, however, that must forget their history; or not be presented with the opportunity to remember and venerate past greats.

The Football Federation Australia joined the Asian Football Confederation in 2006 as a means to play more competitive international football and gain easier access to competing in the FIFA World Cup Finals. (Perhaps this will be even easier with the proposed enlargening of the finals.) This also presented A-League clubs with the opportunity to play in the Asian Champions League: an opportunity largely met with ambivalence from the clubs and indifference from fans. The flights are long and games are played mid-week; moreover the timing doesn’t suit clubs as its takes a heavy toll on players’ recovery times at the pointy end of the season (Visontay, 2016). Games attract small crowds. Yet, Western Sydney Wanderers (WSW) were able to achieve a surprise win in the 2014 Asian Champions League. 5,000 western Sydney citizens got up early to watch the game together: community building, no doubt. The A-League itself, however, seemingly has little currency throughout Asia. There are very few Asian players – Shinji Ono for WSW being one previous big name – and seemingly none from Southeast Asia. The powerful (and controversial) Bakrie family of Indonesia is the owner of the Brisbane Roar; yet none of the A-League clubs have a serious engagement with Indonesia (this country’s nearest and football-mad neighbour) as a point of difference or strength. While clubs such as Liverpool, Juventus, Arsenal and others invest in Indonesia, A-League clubs and the FFA are yet to engage seriously in a sporting relationship with Indonesian football clubs and public.

The A-League is characterised by amnesia and an absence from Asia. Yet, the football is of a good quality: stadiums fill up quickly, or at least get healthy attendances, and Tim Saviour Cahill is here playing for City. Games are exciting, yet, there remains that feeling of being a part of a sporting equivalent of a shopping mall (Zafiris; see his review of Games, Goals, Glory on Shoot Farken). Naughty fans are watched by police; ultras make provocative banners and throw tantrums upon not gaining permission for them to be brought into stadia. Fighting with the administrators of the game one loves is indeed an inherent attribute of ultras, even when their clubs are begat by the men in suits. The A-League, football as a mainstream summer sport in Aussie-land: I’m on board with one of the Melbourne teams, but like one of those sensible WSW fans in Vistontay’s book, I’m going to hold off on getting a tattoo.

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