Friday, 1 October 2010

Some general ponderings on the Worlds of Football Conference

Apologies to my readers in advance, but this may very well be my longest, most jargon laden, left wing piece yet on this blog; so I can understand if the general reader, who visits this site to gain news and opinions on South (and who may or may not also be fascist sympathisers) may feel shortchanged by the experience. However, I do encourage people to have at least a skim of the article, as it might provide some folks here with an insight not only into the range of work currently being undertaken by academics into sport (and the crossover it has with mainstream/lay people), but also perhaps create a better understanding of my own social and political positioning.

This was my first such university run, scholar oriented conference, but I'm not going to bore you with the details of the catering arrangements. Rather, I'd like to provide some notes of indeterminate length of some of the papers presented and the conversations undertaken over the two days. I'll do it in one go, even though it's a fair bit to take in one hit.

Rob Hess' keynote address on the past, present and future of women's participation in Australian Rules football, was both illuminating and of course frustrating. A lot of the evidence presented, particularly the photographic evidence, gave a certain level of nuance and detail to an area that like much of women's sport, and indeed women's histories, very much hidden, ignored and undervalued.

The dress-up craze of the early 20th century means that in many articles addressing women's footy games, you can't actually be sure that it's women participating despite what the piece may say, as much of the photographic evidence appears to suggest that it was often men dressing as women who were in these contests. Other photographs showing women in footy guernseys can't be taken as evidence of continuous organised competition; more often, it was evidence of one off novelty or charity contests, or once again, merely posing for group shots in a whimsical fashion. The lack of continuity in women's footy is emphasised by the fact that the Victorian Women's Football League, founded only in 1981, had no idea of this past legacy.

While all that is quite well and good, Hess' (who has an eerie resemblance to former AFL coach Robert Walls) bias towards Aussie Rules means that there this participation is not put into quite as clear a context as I would like or deem appropriate. No mention at all that proper soccer leagues for women were organised in Victoria almost a decade before the beginning of the VWFL, and that women's sports in general were used for charity and novelty purposes, much as the rare tours and matches of soccer by Asian opponents were heralded more for their novelty.

As to the future, Hess sees a continuing boom for Australian women in footy, but I feel he over-stretches it somewhat, especially in comparison to soccer. After all, women's soccer, which has professional leagues and international competition, provides a level of competition that women's footy can never aspire to. Likewise, with the rude health of college women's soccer in the United States, talented young players from Australia may also have the chance to both play soccer and get an education at the same time, bundled with the experience of a lifetime. Maybe I go too much the other way, but footy people can have a certain degree of tunnel vision.

Jessica Carniel's look at Australia, Asia and the Geopolitics of Soccer, was by her own admission, rather slapdash and still a little primordial. Key themes which she addressed were not Football Federation Australia's particular reasons why they switched to Asia, but rather what it might mean in the context of the wider Australian nation's attitudes towards our place and role with East Asia in particular. To that end, I felt Carniel failed to adequately place the Australian game within the fullest context of both Australian soccer's relationships with Asian soccer, but also Australian society's attitudes as well. Limiting herself somewhat to comparing Australia's first (failed) attempt to join the Asian Football Confederation to our success in doing so in 2005, she did not address the attitudes to Asian and international participation in the preceding 80 odd years of soccer's existence in this country.

What this means is that there is the very high possibility of committing the oversight that different attitudes brought along with the non-British migrants along with their zeal for professionalising the local game, may have been part of the instigation for attempting to join the AFC and indeed have a red hot go at participating in World Cups and so forth - as opposed to the previous administrations overt preference ot waiting for the Old Dart to send a group of relative nobodies out here. There was however as with most of the conference, little time for questions, unless one wanted to speak with a mouth full of falafel wraps.

Roy Hay presented a paper on 200 years of reporting football in Australia, a slightly ambitious claim in terms of length, and while ramshackle in its approach, still managed to provide a very general overview of how (and who) reported on the different games of football in Australia over its history. One thing already familiar to me through being exposed to the work of Ian Syson, is in the early days of attempts to organise competitions, the lack of clear descriptions in articles of what exactly people were playing on any given day. It leads me to the conclusions that either there is an assumption on the part of the reporter that the reader will immediately understand or implicitly know what is being played - or my preferred option, that there was in most cases a uniform lack of a desire for posterity's sake, an inability to live beyond the moment and provide something of use to future generations.

Which contrasts so sharply with what happens to soccer writing in the 20th century. Despite whatever marginal positions the game found itself in, there is a demographic amongst soccer followers, both trained and untrained in journalism, who are prepared to collect, collate and maintain the game's history. The reasons for this were mulled over only briefly by me and Roy, and fell within the usual scope of why it turned out this way - namely that soccer as a marginal sport, especially within the media, unwittingly created a niche that could be filled by people that sought to do so. Thus, there are specific soccer newspapers in the 1920s, 1950s, 1980s and 2000s, all seemingly run on the smell of an oily rag.

I also put it to him that for whatever reason, the Australian soccer media's quality and scope of writing, from both a journalistic and lay perspective was often of a higher calibre (especially when discussing the nuances of the game) and more politicised compared to its footy counterparts. Within so much of the available soccer specific press, we find so much to do not just with matches, but with issues and personalities. It's an ambitious and probably unfair claim to make - but I tend to find even the most brain-dead of Australian soccer forums simmering with these tensions. Perhaps there is element of distance between ordinary supporters of Aussie Rules from their administrative masters that does not as yet exist in Australian soccer.

I was unsure how I would react to linguist Kieran File's look at post-match interviews - linguistics is an area of study that I am certainly interested in, and  find fascinating when presented well, but I also find myself struggling to deal with the terminology and unique forms of discourse. In the end, I came out of this presentation considerably underwhelmed. While quite ready to forgive the fact that the research was both apparently novel in its scope and that it was still in its early stages, File presented little that I felt was new to the field of the post-match interview.

File focused on data collected from European Rugby Union matches, and presented flow charts detailing the mode or function of the different sorts of questions asked by interviewers and the responses obtained. Perhaps it was not within the scope of his work, but I felt a little shortchanged by the lack of what I consider the obvious question - why do we care what players say especially if they're only going to provide the usual self-censored and mechanical responses? When there is the rare occurrence of something 'interesting' being said, it'll be splashed across youtube and news networks soon enough, and the giddy little thrill of seeing it live is relatively minor. Maybe when he gets data to compare the differences of post-match interviews in team sports and individual sports, as he plans to do, there might be something more substantial to chew on.

Of the various topics on offer - all the presentations were run against either one or two other sessions - those focused on social and new media and networks always tugged at my geeky heartstrings. Hey, I've spent so much time on these things over the past decade or so. All of which meant that I was a little disappointed in the papers presented on these issues, which I feel continue to either undersell and/or misinterpret the place of the online sphere.

Brett Hutchins' paper on Twitter and the new ways that it allowed players and sports organisations to bypass the traditional media, while acknowledging the importance of new media in speeding up communications in the public, still isolated it from traditional practices and functions. More than anyone who presented over the course of the two days, I'm probably being most harsh and unfair on Hutchins, perhaps because I'm more in line with Ian Plenderleith's view on these things. I wrote about it an only slightly cantankerous article a little while back, which is oddly enough one of the more popular articles on here in recent times. Go figure. You can skip that and go straight to Plenderleith's When Saturday Comes. My argument is that none of this new media is particularly new, just more organised and more open to legal action.

Which brings me to RMIT student Hugh Macdonald's look at Virtual Communities in Australian Rules Football. Hugh looked a little nervous, and I probably didn't help when I corrected him about when Richmond entered the VFL (he said 1925; it was of course, 1908). It was such a mundane and inexcusable error, of the kind that threatens to overshadow your entire presentation. Which to be fair to Macdonald, was not that bad, but ran into trouble where most essays looking at internet forums do - the almost inescapable fact that these places are temporary and elusive. Not just in data and hardware terms, where discussions literally disappear from caches, but also in the behaviour of the participants. While most online forum participants display a certain level of honesty, that level varies greatly between different people - in some cases to the point where, intentionally or not, it becomes a form of identity art, creating malleable personalities.

Whether by purpose or design though, Macdonald does stumble upon something important within an AFL context - just as the last vestiges of club differences are being utterly demolished, and where the AFL, its clubs and the media are on the verge of monopolising how different events are portrayed, the rise of the internet allows disparate supporters to come together, not to necessarily agree with each other on certain issues, but at least in the majority of cases make a social contract, whereby they choose not to be enslaved entirely to the corporate sports machine that has set up camp at the foot of Afghani like impenetrable mountains looking for the last rogue elements of resistance. It's a guerrilla campaign, and as mentioned earlier, not everyone is on the same page when it comes to what's being fought for. But the fact that there several outlets providing access to resistance shows that the internet can do some good, even if it's only providing a place to run to.

Dave Nadel's paper on the state of footy in Gippsland was interesting in as much as it allowed a moderately in depth look at how regional towns, and especially those with very small permanent populations, are managing to hold on. Squad point systems were only briefly touched upon, as was the effect of combining netball and football clubs into one entity on survival. There was no comparison with Gippsland soccer, which was disappointing because while there are less competitions and clubs, there is still a three division competition (with the remnants of a former national league participant). Maybe it just wasn't in the scope of the argument that he was trying to make? Maybe I want soccer to be in everything.

Moving on to a completely different tangent now, to the problems, and possible solutions of football in Saudi Arabia and Jordan. These two separate papers were presented by Peter Ochieng, in part presented on behalf of the absent Majed Alahhmad (Saudi Arabia) and Qusai Mubaidin (Jordan).

In the case of Saudi Arabia, the issues of women's participation was one that stood out like a sore thumb, but so it is with the rest of Saudi society. Instead the focus was on why Saudi Arabia's performance in men's football had slipped so dramatically in the last few years, after at least being able to reach the World Cup finals. Issues of the use of money to solve the problems, the lack of patience and the lack of trust and initiative placed into its own development systems, for players, referees, volunteers was at the forefront - and similar problems seem to exist in the soccer fortunes of other Gulf States (albeit those do not necessarily have the population of the Saudis).

The lack of hesitancy to use foreign players as part of the national team (provided they convert to Islam of course) was explained within the cultural parameters of the Gulf - so much of the workforce (quite possibly due to the restricted lives and opportunities for local women) is made up of guest workers - it seems only natural to import footballers as well. The scope for improvement is also dependent on which Saudi prince is in charge - a 'progressive' may seek, for whatever reason to undertake the necessary changes, but there's no guarantee that Prince will remain in that position for long - and the archaic method of having to personally consult the one person with any power makes things go slower. Still, the one bit of obvious hope for the game in Saudi Arabia is that the more religious lobbyists, cadres, demographics, call them what you will, show little interest in football, allowing more leeway perhaps than in many other sections of society. The climate of the region doesn't help though.

In the case of Jordan, a small population (about 5.4 million) and limited financial resources makes things harder. And yet, there has been improvement of late for the Jordanians, by restructuring its internal systems and attempting to promote the abilities of its young players overseas. All this work is still in a very nascent stage, but there appears to be an acknowledgement that they should send their best young players to Europe to develop further. For both Saudi Arabia and Jordan, comparisons were made with other Middle Eastern and Arab nations, highlighting the importance of human resources - administrators, referees, coaches - to a national team's success.

Which leads into Peter Ochieng's discussion on African football, and the surprising (to me) and important re-evaluation of the influence of player managers and agents in the footballing fortunes of a particular nation. It's fair to that say player agents have a bad reputation, and in the public's mind at least, a well earned reputation, And yet, properly organised, accountable, well trained and ethical agents can have a tremendously positive influence on footballer's lives - for many young footballers, living thousands of miles away from home, their managers may often be as close to father figures as they may get.

This can be seen in the transformation of the industry from being dominated by player agents, whose main goal is to help negotiate contracts and then departing the scene, to full service player manages, on beck and call 24/7 to iron out any situation as it arises. The other side of Ochieng's argument, is that competent player agents can also be a means of both providing avenues to players to more lucrative employment, but also to create an environment where prospective clubs looking for new players are made aware of the widest possible range - this links back to the Saudi and Jordanian examples, where the argument is also made that as part of reforms, more player managers and agents are required to establish the networks and open the door to these opportunities for player from so called football backwaters.

I also managed to have a good and lighthearted chat with Ochieng, mostly centred around how we got to where we were and/or are in Australian soccer, and comparing each other's corruptions, with his example of his native Kenya, where the official responsible for providing the uniforms to a team of athletes ending up selling them. Well, he won that debate, though my buddy Gains' recollection of the Indonesian FA boss who was running his organisation even while he was in jail is still way out in front.

On to the second day, with the opening presentation being the keynote address by Jayne Caudwell, on Football in the UK, LGBTQ Participation and The Justin Campaign. For those like myself, unaware of the Justin Campaign, it's an anti-homophobia group with the specific aim of tackling homophobia in football. Cauldwell's was the outstanding presentation of the conference, her research rooted solidly within academic theory and yet also remarkably accessible. She presented the reluctance of the English FA to assist or partake in the campaign against homophobia until very recently, and the similarities in the long road to getting action on tackling racism on the terraces.

There was also analysis of the geographical/personal space that the homophobic insults used amongst football fans (and indeed amongst the wider public) sought to penetrate and use to establish dominance over minority opinion, as well as the way it is used to transform oneself into a more usually more masculine presence (in both men and women homophobes). The problems which arise in confronting the problem were also discussed in the presentation and later on - with one of the chief issues being that soccer fans, and in particular the organised groups of mostly young men that make up chanting/singing groups at games are (mostly unconsciously) self-identifying as reactionary traditionalists - that is, people who more often than not offer no other excuse for their behaviour than the often trotted out line of 'tradition' - irrespective of how long or short, how damaging or ignorant participants may be about these traditions.

It's not just a soccer problem of course, and Cauldwell coming from an English background (she's also from the University of Brighton) meant that, so much of what she presented which made perfect sense within in an English context, comes out all askew in an Australian context, because here soccer is the 'poof's game'. I wish we could have Cauldwell spend a couple of years in Australia getting a feel for how it all works here.

Ian Syson presented a shortened version of his paper How Lost Was My Archive, looking at 'new narrative possibilities in Australian football histories'. I'd seen this presented at least once before and was familiar with its content - this was a tightened version, the most coherent so far. For those not up to speed, Syson (and all all right thinking iconoclasts) are seeking to tear down the mainly Aussie Rules created ideas of the clear and concise birth and development of the various codes in Australia. To that end, soccer's appearance in Australia has been pushed back from its 1880 Sydney debut, to an earlier date (which escapes me now, bah) in Tasmania, to other matches where half and half games were played.

The other part of Syson's work was to do with promoting the work of the National Library of Australia's newspaper archives, which we've spoken about in other places on here. While the positives of the archive were extolled, the dangers of using it to the exclusion of other sources and traditional methods of research were emphasised, especially with the 'magpie approach' of picking out bits and pieces and moving on and the pitfall of ignoring the cultural environment that exists around certain articles. That, and the fact that other newspapers and sources could have quite different views of an issues, or whether they give it any importance whatsoever.

Steve Watters talk on The ‘Battle of Solway’ Wairarapa versus Hawke’s Bay, was interesting mostly within the context of learning a bit about provincial New Zealand rugby, but for me, not too much else. It's a good story, but it really did seem out of place amongst much of the work being presented, as if the details were mostly already settled - certainly it didn't seem to be a 'lost' history of any sort.

Ken Mansell's look at the Charles Boyles photo collection was a bit of a revelation to me. Boyles took photographs of many sports, but principally footy, between 1916 and 1953. They are almost uniformly artless and mundane photographs of teams and players across the decades - there are no action shots, no crowd shots, just posed photographs. Boyles sold these photos around the football grounds of Melbourne - such was his lack of interest in any sort of posterity, that he left no notes, no writings, and none of the photos are marked with anything other than a copyright notice consisting of his name and address on the back of the photos.

Thus, many of the photos are now of unknown and unidentified clubs and players, with often the only clue to an era being the grandstand that may happen to be in the background. Boyles, though crippled since childhood, created a small empire, in Mansell's words 'controlling the production, distribution and sale' of his work, and 'encapsulating, in primitive form the basic elements of the marketing colossus that is today's Australian Football League'. So many photographers try to capture 'the moment', a defining image of an era - it is part and parcel of action oriented photography, an art form seeking to find something that will survive in the public consciousness due to its unique ability to wordlessly sum up a passage of time. Boyles' photos are at the opposite of the scale - they are everyday, making gods into mere mortals - though that could be because we don't know or are not intimately and personally familiar with the exploits of these past players. As an aside, I was apparently able to help confirm that an unidentified team photo from the late 1930s or early 1940s was that of the Williamstown Football Club, from the time when they seemed to have a gold guernsey with a blue sash, as opposed to their usual and traditional blue guernsey with a gold sash.

John Cash and Joy Damousi, and after them Deb Agnew, both looked at the issues faced by retired AFL players. The scope covered the practical, such as work, education, lifestyle, money, and the 'theoretical' - that is, in creating a new persona independent from football, and the requirement to create and re-mold one's sense of masculinity. The data presented was mostly of players who seemed quite well adjusted, and even somewhat already prepared for life after football. Notably, this preparation seemed to originate from within themselves, and not from initiatives originating from the clubs.

The players interviewed crossed several eras of the post-1990 AFL transformation from 'state' to 'national' competition - thus covering players from across the nation, but not omitting players who played during an era still describable as semi-professional. The AFL apparently did not consent to having current players being interviewed, which to me indicates that there are problems with the player welfare initiatives that currently exist. Are players being enrolled in dud TAFE courses just to comply with education/employment targets? What are the levels of literacy and numeracy amongst AFL players? All this, and the frequent question of whether some of these blokes even have the basic social skills to function without player managers and clubs micromanaging their affairs. Deeply concerning - but most of us will happily look the other way if our team can get a flag.

The last session I attended was a panel discussion, looking at anti-homophobia initiatives in Australian sport. Sadly, Pippa Grange from the AFL Players Association was a no-show (I don't know why), but Sunil Patel from Gay and Lesbian Health Victoria was there to talk about his organisation's poster campaign, which sought to use sport/aussie rules as a common ground to help people come out to their families. It's an interesting angle, and I fancy that if you live in inner city Melbourne you've probably come across these posters (there are several variations) adorning various walls. Next up were a couple of representatives of the queer (or queer friendly depending on your definition/choice of words) soccer club Melbourne Rovers. The Rovers, apart from playing under their own moniker in games against other gay clubs, also play within the metropolitan system under the auspices of the Yarra Jets. Once again, an interesting angle, with comparisons made between playing for a 'mainstream' sporting club as an openly gay man in comparison to playing in a gay team within a a club that is open about its zeal to be diverse and open, and yet not listing the gay wing of its club amongst its achievements. We have a ways to go it seems.

Jayne Cauldwell was also on the panel, as was Eric Anderson, an American who's done some work amongst British youth with regards to their attitudes to homosexuality, and boy was he keen to tell us the good news. And it is good news. Turns out that in much of the nation, when choosing the most average/median schools they could find (both public and Catholic) that young people's attitudes to homophobia are markedly different to even those of people their age ten years ago - and by different, I mean far more progressive. Maybe it's just a British thing at this stage, but evidence in Anderson's research suggests that homophobia is quickly attaining the status of racism.

So why was I not as ecstatic about these facts as I should have been? Can it be the classic lefty preference for truly unwinnable causes, that should certainly not be won, lest we get what we're actually fighting for? Do I hang around South people and other assorted reactionaries too much? Or was it just the fact Anderson paces along the front of the audience like the  self-help guru, eager to sell us the message that will save us? Maybe a bit of all those things. He was up there for maybe 10-15 minutes, and I felt exhausted by his approach and demeanour, and could not contemplate sticking around for his keynote address, though I don't doubt that it was informative and passionate.

Nevertheless, it was a pretty full on and worthwhile couple of days, providing much food for thought. And if you've managed to get this far through this article, I hope that some of that feeling has entered your headspace too. I just hope some of it makes sense.

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