Thursday, 6 November 2014

Johnny Warren and George Negus time capsule - ethnic question 1996

I wasn't going to do anything for the 10th anniversary of Johnny Warren's death - it had both not occurred to me to do so, and neither am I into beatification - but some of the commentary around Warren's legacy - whether he would be proud of where soccer has gone in Australia, and the treatment of the ethnic clubs - was mildly interesting, in a 'party like it's 2006' kind of way.

If, as I've mentioned previously on Twitter, the Crawford Report is the Australian soccer equivalent of the Christian bible that no-one's read but everyone quotes, then Warren is Australian soccer's Jesus, a figurehead whose existence could be co-opted into whatever cause you needed him to, a situation made easier by the fact that now that he's gone, we - and I mean all Australian soccer fans - can turn him into pretty much anything we want, and which suits our particular agendas. WWJWD if you like.

One particular aspect of the debate, as noted earlier, was about the treatment of the ethnic club constituencies in the game, and in particular comments made back in 1996. While digital newspaper archives have improved (especially for pre-1950s stuff), the fact of the matter is that unless one has access to university databases, archival newspaper material in a digital format from the 1990s is very hard to get a hold of. 

To that end, here is a snapshot of the 'ethnic' debate, as it was at the time, no more, no less.

The old curse rears its ugly head, Warren, Johnny. Sydney Morning Herald [Sydney, N.S.W] 22 Aug 1996: 48.

Television commentator, writer and former Socceroo captain JOHNNY WARREN has his final say on soccer's LOST CHANCE .

Soccer's shameful "ethnic logo" controversy may end late today with a simple compromise - the tweaking of a symbol here, a change of colour there.

What the weeks of bad blood and distraction will prove in the end is one, big, blank nothing.

If Soccer Australia bosses David Hill, George Negus and company were hoping to lead the revolution, if they were hoping to storm the barricades of the recalcitrant old guard, then they failed.

They succeeded only in changing some logos. The club boards are still the same, the membership is still the same, the staff is still the same, and the players are still the same.

And so they should be, for they are the heart and soul of soccer in this country.

The muscle-flexing might have given Soccer Australia a real adrenalin rush, but this little exercise has fooled no-one.

Who cares about logos? On my list of 1,000 things soccer can do to improve itself, changing the logos of ethnic clubs does not figure.

My father, a passionate man about soccer, told me two wise things about the sport in Australia. One was that the code would not reach its potential in this country because "they always fight amongst themselves".

The other was that soccer is the only Australian sport where the officials are better known than the players. Both applied in his day and they apply now.

The fact is that this latest fight is just one of a series over the years that has stunted the growth of the sport. The controversy over the colours in a club logo should have been dealt with behind closed doors at the administration level.

But no. Soccer Australia dragged it out only weeks before the start of the competition and all it served to do was distract everyone from the game itself. Soccer has shot itself in the foot again.

The ethnic purging attempted by Soccer Australia was nonsense, as I said in the column that I wrote in the Herald on Tuesday. No other sport would countenance such a move on one of their members.

I can speak with authority on this issue because of my longterm involvement in the sport. Unlike SA commissioner George Negus, I have lived all my life in soccer and have experienced first-hand the passion and commitment of the people who are now being threatened with expulsion.

I played with St George, a club of Hungarian origin. I was there when members passed the hats around the stands to raise money to build the club which in 1974 provided eight players for Australia's only successful World Cup campaign. These are people who should be treated with respect not disdain.

The competition starts in a few weeks. Perhaps some teams will have new logos. Perhaps it will be a competition missing a few clubs.

The sad part about it all is that Hill and Negus have made the headlines but the fans have no idea what the starting line-ups are.

My father was right.


Soccer must change to grow, Negus, George. Sydney Morning Herald [Sydney, N.S.W] 21 Aug 1996: 44.

Soccer's "ethnic" controversy reached new heights yesterday when Johnny Warren, writing in the Herald, took on the sport's hierarchy. Soccer Australia commissioner GEORGE NEGUS replies to Warren and reveals he would have handled the dispute differently.

I've agreed to write this article in response to yesterday's spiteful and personally jaundiced piece by John Warren, but, to better understand my motivation, let me put this in context.

This mess should never have happened. I have stated this view publicly and privately. There was always another way to deal with it, but irrational antagonisms have rendered the current hiatus inevitable. But, that's spilt milk.

On Monday, I was approached by the Herald and asked to respond to whatever was in John's piece, which, the paper indicated, was critical of Soccer Australia.

Fair enough. But what I didn't expect was that John's comments would degenerate into mean-spirited, personal slurs and insinuations. John has bought into the debate in a way that does him no credit, the rest of us a lot of harm and helps absolutely no-one! That's why I am responding.

To attribute racist and discriminatory attitudes to people involved - including myself - is a low, black act and probably actionable. So is to suggest that anyone - including myself - is involved in soccer at this point in its turbulent history to take the credit for any advances the game makes.

Come on, John. You're better than that. I don't think I'll sue, but, I can tell you, I am angry enough to be tempted!

Anyone who interprets as racist and discriminatory attempts by Soccer Australia, David Hill or anyone else to "Australian-ise" - as distinct from "de-ethnicising" - the world game by spreading its influence and attraction as far afield as possible in

this country, has either missed the point entirely or has his own curious agenda.

The sad thing is that much of what John had to say was intelligent and perceptive, even helpful. His analysis of Australian soccer's past is accurate. But, his view of the present is horribly flawed and unfortunately, as I say, personally jaundiced. Worse, any vision he has for the future of the game in this country appears to be non-existent.

As a non-elected Commissioner on the SA Board, I am somewhat at odds with Soccer Australia about the strategy that has been adopted on this so-called "logo issue", but, that's also academic at this point.

Instead, let me quote none other than the incomparable Mark Bosnich from last weekend's press.

Mark had this to say on the whole issue: "I feel sorry for Australian fans. There are so many people who are denied the game. I feel a little awkward that those fans can't come and watch a team they can identify with. It's up to the people involved in the game - of all ethnic backgrounds - for the sake of Australian soccer, for the sake of themselves, to make soccer into an Australian game."

What more needs to be said? Mark has said it all - as a young man of proud Sydney Croatian origins.

The point that John makes - and, it appears, simultaneously misses - is that soccer is the greatest, living, breathing example of multiculturalism this country has.

But, multiculturalism, John, is a two-way process. In this case, it involves non-ethnic Australians benefiting from soccer's old ethnic roots and the original ethnically based clubs benefiting from and becoming part of non-ethnically based Australia. It's all about two-way multiculturalism, John, not racism and discrimination.

Ultimately, this issue has nothing to do with logos, national symbols or even merchandising. It has nothing to do with whether John Warren, David Hill or Tony Labbozzetta - or even yours truly - is right or wrong.

It's about attitudes and vision. It's about removing forever counterproductive rivalries and power bases. It's about acknowledging the ethnic community's indisputable contribution to Australian soccer, without alienating the growing non-ethnic throng of soccer players and supporters. It's about the future, not the past.

That's what I meant, John, by "getting soccer out of the ethnic ghetto" and into the mainstream of Australian sport and society, where all matters ethnic - including soccer - are better enjoyed and appreciated.

That's contemporary Australian egalitarianism, a far cry from the dark image you paint of discrimination. It's also the "Australian identity" that John refers to but chooses to misread in this context.

I became involved with Soccer Australia to employ my profile, experience and contacts for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of kids - more than in all the other codes combined - running around the soccer fields of this nation every weekend - regardless of where their mothers, fathers, grandmothers or grandfathers were born!!

Like so many others, I want my soccer-mad nine year-old, his six year-old brother and their mates - many of them of ethnic descent, even though they wouldn't even know - to be proud of the game they love, not to have to apologise for its dubious history of inaccessibility to so many young and older Australians, particularly at the club level.

Call me an idealist, John. But, don't dare call me a racist. What is racist, however, is to deny non-ethnic Australians - who make up the majority of soccer's players and supporters - access, for whatever reason, to the game they play, love and support.

Speaking as a besotted "Europhile," the ethnic community might have introduced many Australians to the world's best and most popular game, and they should be thanked and acknowledged for that - but, they don't own it!!

And my Italian, Croatian, Maltese, British and other friends of ethnic backgrounds agree.

They also want soccer's enormous potential in this country - which has been talked of, but, never really acted upon since before John Warren's illustrious time as Socceroo captain - to be realised.

 This will not be achieved while we keep re-igniting old embers, John. But, that's what you've done.


  1. The Negus line appears to be the winner in todays terms.
    Maybe he is the one that should be venerated?

    1. Paul Wade, too, was and is a massive proponent of the kind of line Negus was pushing as well. Indeed, in his book Wade went further than that, talking about what today seem like very A-League kind of concepts to do with franchises, marketing etc, and getting as far away from the ethnic angle as possible.

  2. My goodness, I broached this very same subject on Facebook today! I made the point that Johnny Warren was a supporter of the clubs, but your post indicates I understated his support!!!

    Savvas Tzionis

    1. I think it's important to see these debates in their context - that being 1996 - and that people may have altered their viewed over the course of time. Having said that, apart from the inherent historical interest in this time capsule piece, it's interesting to see how the arguments are still being played out and expressed, especially in the context of the NCIP.

    2. Warren's words on the SA fiasco in 1996 are almost wholly applicable to the NCIP today. Funny that.

    3. Yet as we saw a few weeks back on this very blog many South fans now support the Negus line with all their hearts, including the South board. Funny that.

  3. That's what I considered as well. I am pretty sure he was one of the people who pleaded with Lowy to be involved in the game. And his offsider Les has been a bit mooted on these issues.

    Savvas Tzionis

  4. Interesting what you say about Paul Wade. I now remember a conversation I had with a fellow South supporter about two months ago whilst watching the home game where South celebrated a milestone of some sort, and many older players were in attendance.

    My friend works as a doorman in a pub in the Ringwood/Croydon area.

    On the Friday night that had just passed, there was a birthday function and who should be in attendance, but Paul Wade!!!

    My friend asked Wade if he was going on Sunday to South, and Wade said he didn't even know about it. Wade may also have said that he wouldn't have gone anyway. Apparently he lives in Sydney now. That may or may not have been a factor.

    If what you stated above is true, then may that be an indication that he is not overly welcome?

    Savvas Tzionis

    1. Wade's lived in Sydney for many years now.

      Still, it'd be disappointing if he came to Melbourne and didn't even give a thought to what his old club was doing. Is he that bitter?

  5. MelbCro - small minds, think small my friend. Please do not belittle South for wanting to expand our support base and share our proud club with as many as possible. South were formed as a football club first and foremost - not for political purposes. As such we had an obligation to grow the game - and we also had an obligation to the some 40% of South members who were not from a 'traditional' Greek background. Your Club thinks small - our Club has vision. Enough said.

    1. !00% you are one of the losers on the South board.

      Last time I checked your club was playing in the NPL, where you have been stuck for a decade playing in front of small crowds. What vision! You are no better than the rest of us.

      And nice job re-writing your clubs history mate. You basically just belittled your club and its founders, truly pathetic. If ethnicity was irrelevant to the clubs foundation then it would not have been founded as an ethnic club in the first place.


A few notes on comments.

We've had a lot of fun over the years with my freewheeling comments policy, but all good things must come to an end. Therefore I will no longer be approving comments that contain personal abuse of any sort.

Still, if your post doesn't get approved straight away, it's probably because I haven't seen it yet.

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