The Death and Life of Australian Soccer (2017) by Joe Gorman is a marvellous history of Australian men’s soccer leagues since World War Two.
Australian soccer or football is an odd beast. in a country with four national codes of football it has, for decades, been the most played but least watched code. In addition, after being played mainly by some British migrants the game changed radically with the surge in post war migration.
For many people with a wog name, like myself, the game is tied up with identity. There are memories of going to games with parents, there are memories of watching games in places that were known through family stories. And yet, it was clear that some teams were not really for you to support. Gorman captures the issue with real skill. He also looks at the issue of ‘which team do you support’, Australia or the team of your ethnicity.
The book starts with post WWII immigration and the story of Andrew Dettre, a Hungarian immigrant who wrote for Soccer World and later worked in the Whitlam government.
There is a chapter on Canberra City, a club which was a prototype for A-League type teams that are without an ethnic base that represent a whole city. As a child I went to Canberra City games. The book gives the team quite a bit of praise. Remembering the actual games it’s generous.
The pre-NSL soccer days and then the formation, rise and fall of the NSL gets a lot of attention. Gorman looks objectively at the quality of the ethnic clubs such as Marconi, South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights and Sydney Croatia but also goes into detail about the crowd violence, particularly between the Croatian and Serb teams.
The rise of the A-League and it’s success is very well dealt with. Gorman writes honestly about how the quality of the football in the first years of the A-League was definitely worse than in the NSL. But he also appreciates the numbers of supporters and the depth of support for some of the new teams. The book also has the failures of a number of the new A-League teams. The A-League still has some of the financial issues that have always dogged Australian soccer.
Gorman writes quite a bit about The Socceroos, their qualification for the World Cup in 1974, 2006 and 2010. The portrait of Johnny Warren in particular is very good and really quite touching.
About the only thing the book doesn’t include is a look at the difficulty of running Australian sports teams in general. The NBL has more former clubs than current clubs, the AFL has moved many teams to avoid them folding, the NRL has merged clubs and Rugby Union is now abolishing teams. It’s worth considering this when saying how badly run a lot of soccer teams are.
The book does note that soccer is the most played game in the country. Gorman also does provide some discussion of the success of women’s soccer in Australia. About the only thing missing from the book is a bit more discussion of how many Australians did, for a long time, watch soccer, it just wasn’t Australian. From the 1980s onwards SBS had soccer on TV and before that Match of the Day was on Australian TV for years. From the late 1980s SBS also had Italian Soccer. SBS also had finals of the Champions’ League and Europa League and their predecessors. Today there are kids growing up who love soccer but don’t actually go to many, or any games but do follow Messi, Ronaldo and co. It’s not ideal, but it does involve playing soccer and watching soccer.
Overall the book is really fascinating for anyone with an interest in Australian soccer. Gorman has done great research and written a book that highlights the issues for soccer in Australia. Hopefully Les Murray, the great SBS soccer presenter, got a look at the book before he died. He would have been really impressed.