Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Metamorphosis (in a Robert Manne sort of way)

This is a guest post by one of South of the Border's most frequent contributors to the comments section, Savvas Tzionis. It's an interesting ramble about a very unorthodox journey towards, away from and finally back to South. Cheers, Savvas!

This is the story of a South Melbourne fan who went from being an anti NSL (and by definition, anti-South to some extent) zealot to an anti A-League agitator (by definition, a very much pro South Melbourne fan).

I grew up in Greek family with a Cypriot father who passed on down to me, not a love for soccer, but his passion for the Carlton Football Club, much like his own uncle passed on the passion to him when my father arrived in 1951 as a 17 year old (my father's uncle having arrived in the 1920s.)

Soccer was, and has remained for him, a secondary sport. For me, the 1986 World Cup made a indelible impression on me. It councided with a nadir in the VFL, highlighted for me with the pre game entertainment at the 1986 grand final where John Elliott's Fosters Lager was horribly ubiquitous! Thus the journey began. South games, which I rarely attended, were now part of my ritual. For up to ten years from 1986 to 1994, both Australian rules and soccer were part of my diet, with Australian rules still the dominant partner.

Then in 1994, the once great game of Australian rules quite suddenly lost its aesthetic appeal, and soccer found itself number one. But, concurrently, I was also frustrated by the ethnocentric nature of the sport. The clubs seemed to be run by ultra-nationalists who had no interest in broadening the game's appeal.

I then moved to Sydney in 1998 for a year, and was fortunate enough to time my arrival with the introduction of the Northern Spirit. Those Friday night games were something else. I stood amongst the non official cheer squad (as opposed to the larger 'official' cheer squad on the opposite side), who were a motley group of English, Australian, and Southern Europeans. The English were the leaders, and rightly so, because they had the wittiest lines! It confirmed to me that we were not harnessing the latent interest in the game.

Once I returned to Melbourne, and in the wake of the missed 1997 Iran debacle which stifled the opportunity to grow the game, I drifted away from the sport to the point where I stopped going altogether. There were other external factors, but the deteriorating aura surrounding Australian soccer was of no interest to me. But when the Howard goverment was encouraged to enter the debate, I smelt a nasty rat.

I became a trolling internet soccer forum abuser, accusing the new regime of pseudo racism, and labelling its key element of change, the A-League, as the B (British and second rate!) League. I decided to attend Souths first game back in the State League against our erstwhile rival, Heidelberg. I didn't want to admit it, but it was such a sad affair, in spite of the large crowd, that I never went again (bar the odd Monday night game at Bulleen, near my home) until 2012 when I felt the urge to start attending South games again.

Why? Various reasons. My retreat from mainstream society was manifesting itself in various ways, and coming back to the Hellas fold was one of those ways. I also felt an urge to do my bit to hold on to a bit of the old Greek Australian society, and returning to Hellas was one way of doing this.

Throughout this metamorphosis, I look with chagrin to my attitude towards fans of our rival, Melbourne Knights. In the past, I saw them as the evil beast of Australian soccer; but now I grudgingly respect their steadfastness, and their realistic views of what many people think of 'ethnics', for want of a better word. Perhaps one factor is the modern history of Croatia being under a (albeit relatively benign) communist dictatorship, which engendered a mistrust in 'best intentions', very much a trait of over governance, which the FFA can be accused of.

South Melbourne squad from round 1, 2012, prior to the 4-0 win against
Moreland Zebras. Photo: Cindy Nitsos.
My initial steps back into the fold were a little timid. My first game back was against the lowly, and destined to be relegated, Moreland Zebras. Interestingly it coincided with South Melbourne Hellas' return to Lakeside after the refurbishment. I barely knew the players. Looking back now, I chuckle that my earliest memory was of Kyle Joryeff scoring twice in that game. By mid season, he was gone! Although I had dived straight in and purchased a membership, I was only attending home games for the first two years. But from 2014, I found myself attending even early round cup games. I think the trigger was the chance to visit the old NSL grounds like Chaplin Reserve to see the once middle strength Sunshine Geirge Cross. I now knew every player (not easy with the high rotation of player lists, a marked, but understandable contrast to the NSL days.) and this was a key reconnection to the club.

My two most memorable matches during this time were the penultimate 2012 game against Bentleigh Greens which sealed our fate for that year, and the 2013 elimination final against Green Gully. Extreme disappointment, followed by an elation I hadn't felt since probably the 1991 NSL grand final. Where this new chapter will take me, is perhaps out of my hands. I would like to think the club, on the back of the return to the newly improved Lakeside Oval and the finalisation of the 40 year lease, has some real foundations in place for a return to better times. The team is finally back where it belongs on top, and I TRUST(!) the Social Club will be ready soon!

A couple of people who I would like to mention is the author of this blog, Paul, whose writings have been one of the reasons I have not only returned, but have taken it up a step, (to quote George Costanza from the Hamptons episode) in supporting South.

And to George, who I met through a mutual friend back in the early 1990's, on the terraces in the outer at Middle Park. Upon returning to SMH, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw him at Lakeside, still attending, 15 years after I last saw him, still attending with his non driving father. His response to seeing me was akin to Mario from Mario's Pizza in the Frogger episode from Seinfeld ... 'Where've you been?!'

He stuck at it, whereas so many of us left.


  1. Nice piece.

    I actually stopped following South when we left the NSL. I thought that was it, it was over. I didn't attend any games in 2005 and came back from mid 2006 and a member since 2008. It's been a bumpy road since but my passion for South is even more so than that in the NSL.

    I can understand why people have deserted the club as I was in the same position, but if they were willing to come back and stick it out for a season, I'm sure the passion would return.

  2. I guess there's a lesson here for the permanently arrogant AFL, you withdrew your support as their product declined, and filled that vacuum with a competitor's product.

  3. Good stuff.

    Firstly, if your incorrectly informed I'd like to correct you on something... the tito/stalin split led to the west treating tito and yugoslavia pretty much as an ally, as they saw it as a lesser of the commo evils in the world for political reasons. This 'acceptance' and subsequent western attempts to sprinkle some pot pouri on yugo history has played an indirect role in your present opinion of ex-yu being 'benign'. Hundreds of thousands dead is not benign.
    If your just an ardent far-leftist, then I have no comment to make other than good luck with your buddy Tsipras leading the greek people to recovery from an extreme letdown of the rich man's system.

    I, like you, have taken my Australianism with a pinch of salt and sought to hold onto my identity and be anti-mainstream through the knights. However, I think I took it another step and realised that many of us ozborns might say we're Croat or Greek but walk an entirely different cultural walk. It is nearly impossible to continue the values, standards and culture of those who formed the club without having their upbringing in the old world villages and towns (a small possibility is through religion, but still a battle though). This applies in the household too, not just the clubs.
    Even by being a bulwark against any attempts to de-ethnicise us, our clubs are already changing from our parents generation who may not have liked it, but still lumped it out of a genuine high-level respect towards Australia. Yes, as ozborns the 'love it or leave it' applies slightly less to us, but nonetheless, a change is a change.
    I commend those who try to hold onto our identities stubbornly. But I still think it's slightly misguided. Unfortunately, our walk does not match our talk and we're effectively just aussies in denial.

  4. Thanks Paul,

    Love the photos you selected! I actually have no idea which of those players is Kyle Joryeff!!

    1. Back row, far right of photo. They're wearing the (hideous) grey away strip because the blue home jerseys weren't ready by round 1.

  5. I too ashamedly turned my back on this great club, after going to several post NSL games I found myself returning home saddened by what we had become. It took a long long time for me to get over and accept that unfortunately Hellas was no longer the powerhouse of Australian football it once was. Although I personally didn't attend very many games I still kept a keen interest in the club's goings on through my father and brother who were and still are regular attendees at most games, which is quite a feat considering, as like Savvas's friend George my father is also non driving, I also kept informed through social media and this great blog thanks to Paul. I then decided to return to Lakeside last father's for the final home game against Oakleigh, walking into the refurbished stadium for the first time I struggled to hold back the tears albeit with that hidious running track that now adorns our sacred turf where past, present and future stars apply their trade. I then looked around the crowd and found that the same group of hardcore fans along with a few new faces I didn't recognise were still attending games, this in itself bought upon a relisation that I am here where I belong, it triggered many happy memories of my childhood attending games at our spiritual but now defuct home at Middle Park. The deal breaker for me on the day was the playing of the famous Hellas trumpet and yes I relise that it wasn't the great Lefteri but the bloke playing was doing a stellar job of it. These faces in the crowd also triggered a sense of betrayal from within myself, the fact I had stopped attending games brought on a sense of guilt, something that I vowed to myself to remedy. I have this season attended most games with my father, brother and also a new arrival to the match day experience my 14 year old daughter. What a great piece by Savvas and thanks to Paul for put putting it up on this blog.

    Nick Vertsonis

  6. Something that a lot of people miss in the whole ''ethnic debate'' is that just like any other sporting club is different from the other, so too are the various ethnic clubs of the NSL and the state leagues

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments.

    I did, in fact, intend to write a longer piece, but one sleepless night, I started typing away, and after a brief proof reading, I was satisfied that what I had written would convey what I had felt, and in a condensed form.

    Other aspects I could have covered were:
    - the Provinciality of Australian Rules v the Cosmopolitan nature of Soccer
    - the side effects of the GFC on my thinking (it caused me to buy a local car after looking at various European Cars)
    - a more in depth look at the Keating/Howard legacy on the mindset of the country and my place in it (and how it relates to my renewed support for South)

    That might be for another time.

    1. I'd love to see this piece one day, especially point three.

  8. One thing I would say about my return to watching South is the time frame between my last regular season (1997/1998), and my return on a regular basis(2012). A 15 year gap, which was bisected in half at the 2005 mark with the commencement of the A League.

    Whilst I did make that initial effort to return, perhaps the analogy of the tanker is appropriate. It takes a long time for it to speed up (took me 7 years to realise that I didn't want to be part of the new era), and just as long to slow down (another 7 year before I was ready to return to my old club).

    Maybe this will apply somewhat to other ex supporters? A couple of the commenters have made a somewhat similar journey.

  9. Another thought has crystallized over the years I have been back at South Melbourne.

    And that is that South Melbourne has now become the club that I wanted it to be become back in the 1990's.

    More inclusive (or at least it now appears more inclusive), more media savvy, more honest (although according to a not insignificant few, that is debatable), and more humble.

    And as an aside, I note that Bulleen (who I have mentioned in my article) are back in the Top State division. Monday Night football. Many dislike it, I love it!

    1. It's a line of thinking that I too have expressed many times in recent years, that the club was in the process of a transition that would have made it the archetype of how a club like ours could continue to maintain its relevance in the coming decades without selling out its past.

      Without wishing to go over old ground in too much detail, the whole A-League situation either derailed those hopes or sped up the process of the club breaking free of its conservative streak (without completely abandoning it).

      We'll never know whether that transition - both among the stands and in the boardroom - could have been successful.

  10. My thoughts on South's current status actually pre-dated today's article by Joe Gorman http://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2015/sep/08/forgotten-story-brunswick-juventus-1985-nsl. Although it did prompt a reminder to post my thought.

  11. Ever since this article was posted, I wanted to crystallize my journey into a succinct comment.

    "It took me 7 years to discover I disliked the New Dawn. But it took me another 7 years to realise I loved South Melbourne Hellas"

  12. This has a familiar feel. http://australianfootball.com/articles/view/A%2Bfan%2527s%2Bpersonal%2Bjourney%2Bto%2Ba%2Bpremiership/2186


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.

As usual, publication of a comment does not mean endorsement of its content.