Sunday, 17 November 2013

Soccer Boom: The Transformation of Victorian Soccer Culture 1945-1963 - Book Review (reprise)

This review of mine originally appeared on the now defunct Das Libero site, probably some time around 2007? Who can remember now. Here it is for posterity's sake, sloppy typos and grammar included.

When Push Comes to Boom

Association football in this country has been viewed as a foreign game for as far back as anyone can remember. For those opposed to the sport, this foreignness is amongst the game's chief evils. It's played by people who aren't from here; many of its customs are seemingly borrowed wholesale from overseas; when we do have decent players they are taken to foreign leagues and lands; when we have decent national teams, rules dictated by foreigners make the task of our team compiled of players playing in foreign lands all the more difficult. Those who love the game often lament Australians’ lack of appreciation of the sport, attaching to it a lack of worldliness; they denigrate the standard and players found here; or they complain that people in this country don't understand 'real' football culture, which can only be found overseas or – in an opinion held by some people in the more recent era of the game's boom – only among those who looked after the sport before it was cleansed and made mainstream.

Thus the immigrant influence has also become the dominant way in which the game has been viewed academically. John Kallinikios' Soccer Boom: The Transformation of Victorian Soccer Culture 1945-1963 is an important book because it diverts from that view. It attempts to cover soccer's change by minimising the 'ethnic' factor and instead focusing on the processes by which an amateur participant sport became a (semi) professional and spectator-orientated sport.

At the beginning of the era the book seeks to cover, the local game is in stasis. It is strictly amateur (to the point where even player transfers between clubs are rare) and most clubs play on open parklands. Tactics used are perhaps 20 years behind the rest of the world and the game’s Anglo-centric administration only has eyes for the English FA and the very occasional favours bestowed from the Old Dart. And then a sea change, primarily driven by immigrant clubs and administrators. New playing styles are adopted, spectators who demand victory necessitate enclosed venues, and players are being paid good money – sometimes more than their Rugby League and VFL contemporaries; Australian football after hibernating for 20-odd years suddenly has an ambition to be part of the world football community.

This narrative is not a major revelation. However, the originality of Kallinikios' argument lies in the contention that this wasn't done as part of some deliberate and exclusively 'ethnic' takeover. Rather the changes were necessary and occurred as part of a push to bring the game up to speed with the rest of the world, to professionalise it. Almost overnight clubs, players and administrators with the experience of participating in professional and semi-professional setups, who felt they could do a much better job than the incumbent administration, had arrived on our shores.

To demonstrate his overall point, Kallinikios delves into the varied problems of soccer's expansion. One of these is the issue of crowds. Following the post-war influx of soccer-loving migrants, match attendances rise rapidly; through this process Victorian soccer inverts from a participant-based sport to a spectator-oriented one. This generates immediate needs: identifiable boundaries between fans and players, spectator comfort, the means to collect money from spectators to facilitate these developments. Ground availability is another problem, particularly with regards to the infringement on local sporting traditions. Kallinikios elaborates on the search for a venue in Footscray, showing that the councils' reluctance to give soccer access to enclosed grounds was not solely a product of attitudes towards the ‘New Australian’ character of the clubs and the game, but also a reflection of the self-interest of Australian Rules officials (sometimes as members of the council making the decision) and fear of the backlash from the community – despite the financial benefits and the logic of making better use of council facilities.

Among the things Kallinikios does very well is put soccer in its place. The game was not merely an island enclave but part of society as well. When he draws parallels between the changes in Victorian soccer in the 1950s and the VFL breakaway of 1897, the realisation is that change is not merely that of an ethnicisation – though that is one its net results – but one of professionalisation. The administration of the time and a great number (though not all) of the traditional clubs were often unwilling, slow and sometimes simply unable to move with the times, to their eventual everlasting detriment. The fact that no winner of the league prior to 1952 won it afterwards is ample evidence of the speed and thoroughness of the old regime's decimation. The last time an 'old' club won a major trophy was in 1957 when Moreland took the Dockerty Cup.

Particularly noticeable were Kallinikios’ frequent self-references to how this work was shifting the debate, part of a new revisionist trend amongst soccer historians in this country. The suggestion is that academic soccer writers in seeking to understand the game's local history via the immigrant lens have overlooked and pushed to the margins other ways of looking at the game. Unfortunately, because the migrant influence is presented as a main theme in soccer histories the game gets further tied to that post. This argument taps into wider community notions of soccer as a foreign game. Kallinikios demonstrates this point by citing examples of soccer journalists who feared the game's takeover by migrants would be viewed negatively by the wider Anglo-Celtic population thereby reducing the game's appeal. Interestingly, their solution was for migrants to assimiliate into the existing clubs – one which bought into the broader contemporary ideology of assimilation and presaged much of the justifying rhetoric surrounding the ethnic cleansing of the A League.

While the book does a fairly good job of covering the era from a different view point of view – especially in the way it parallels the past with the present – it is not without its problems. One of these was the omission of facts which might contradict some of the key arguments. For instance, Kallinikios claims that Camberwell had no soccer tradition when there was in fact a Camberwell club in the 1930s (whether they played in Camberwell is another matter).

More significant is the minimising of the ethnic factor in regards to violent incidents and the understating of notions of national pride, avoiding such examples as George Cross only allowing members of Maltese background to join and Greek-Australian newspapers advocating the separate Greek clubs should unite for the 'glory of Hellenism'. (This eventually happened when Yarra Park merged with Hellenic, with the new entity taking over South Melbourne United soon after primarily to gain access to their Middle Park ground.) Kallinikios' assertion that this sort of thing mainly came about in a later era is where his argument falters, as there appears to be sufficient evidence to the contrary. This is partly because even though the book claims to cover the era up until 1963, in reality it falters well short, leading to the book's other main drawback, its lack of a post-script. I was disappointed that is no mention was made that Schintler Reserve, the long sought after ground in Footscray, is now gone and on its long-since faded line-markings sit shipping containers. And with so much of the book’s focus being on Juventus and Hakoah, the former's decline is ignored even as it was surpassed by South Melbourne Hellas, George Cross and Polonia. In Juve's case in particular, failure to mention their eventual demise 30 years on largely through their lack of a home should be considered an oversight.

Despite these shortcomings, Soccer Boom is still an essential read for anyone interested in the game's history in this country, especially for those looking for a different perspective. Its clarity and accessibility also make it more than suitable for someone not completely familiar with the game's past. It will be interesting to see what responses it will generate from the more traditional historians challenged by Kallinikios, as well as what will follow in its wake from among the revisionists. And as added bonus, you get an Australian soccer book not obsessed with New South Wales. Surely that makes it all the more worthwhile.

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