Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Some thoughts on Joe Gorman's 'The Death and Life of Australian Soccer'

The book is out now, and is widely available at chain
  and independent booksellers. It's also available as an
 ebook. The paperback retails at about $32 in stores
Warning: this piece contains some minor spoilers. Also, it's not really a review, more of a very ragged meandering through the book's themes and other stuff, partly because I can't hold together a coherent narrative to save myself, but also because I was told (probably rightly) that I couldn't really review a book I was in. Also I've been writing this while holed up at home because I've been sick.

Before I begin there are two clarifications that I need to make about this review. The first of these is for those of you who have not read yet the book, to keep in mind that your reviewer and an element of his writings and ideology is a part of this book, used as a vehicle for explaining Gorman’s thesis. The second point is that I have read this book before; not only in the discussions over several years with Joe which have helped inform and influence it – though to be absolutely clear, what is presented here is very much Gorman’s own argument, based on his own thorough research – but especially its draft form which was a little longer but otherwise near enough to the finished product.

The point of that preface is to say the following: I admit that I was almost in tears reading what would become this book the first time around, and having read it in its completed form now, I grieve again for what has been lost so far and for what will likely be lost soon enough. I also felt that it would upset people, especially on our side of the bitter/new dawn ledger, because unlike in his journalism Gorman does not go out of his way to appease our sensitivities especially regarding our future prosperity and relevance. As for the people on the new dawn side, if they get upset at anything in this book, they always have the comfort of being able to revel in Australian soccer now being designed in their image.

For whatever optimism a follower of one of the 'old' clubs might hope to elicit from this book, it is quickly dashed by its opening gambit. Yes, the book’s title tells us this will be the case. Yes, we know the National Soccer League is already doomed, having seen it die (or be murdered) first-hand. But the opening section, in illustrating the before and after of Marconi’s rise and fall in as stark a form as possible – the classic documentarian’s technique of juxtaposing images of a paradise turned into a ruin – there is no getting away from the pall which will only darken over the course of The Death and Life of Australian Soccer’s 375 pages.

The book covers much more than the NSL, by looking at what came both before and after it. Rather than seeking to confine itself to the 27 year window of the NSL in isolation, the book seeks to tackle much bigger fish. Gorman’s main questions are the perennial ones. First, how did ‘ethnic’ become a dirty word in Australian soccer? Second, why has Australian soccer internalised its hatred of ethnicity in this way? These are the nagging questions for both soccer and Australian society at large. They are important for what happened after 2004 in Australian soccer, and the rhetoric put out that the 'problem' of ethnicity was meant to have been solved once and for all. For Australian society at large, the question is at what point should the rights of migrant communities (especially non-English speaking ones) to have self-determination and control of their own affairs be curtailed.

Though ethnicity has been the perennial question in Australian soccer, and by extension in academic analyses of the game, in recent times new ideas have been pushed toward the middle (especially by Roy Hay) about how the structural flaws of the game's governance were as important as ethnicity to the game's historical woes, and that these structural flaws are an under-appreciated element of the Australian soccer story. Gorman’s book then tilts the scales back to the ethnic question, but in a more sophisticated way than has often been done before. Previous discussions have often been superficial, couched in terms of the self-interested politics of the game itself. Gorman seeks to address the matter of ethnicity as it manifests in Australian public culture independent of soccer, at the same time as it becomes a dirty word within soccer.

We arrive then at the core problem of ethnicity and how Australian society should be organised. Should different ethnic communities be allowed a measure of self-determination, or should they be expected to assimilate? If it is the former, how much freedom should they be allowed? Can they have a presence in national affairs in a scheme and style which does not acknowledge the assumed cultural, economic, and political centrality of Anglo-Celtic Australians, and perhaps even seeks to challenge that dominance? In no other sphere of Australian life has the dominance of Anglo-Celtic culture been challenged in quite the same way as it has been in Australian soccer thanks to its often unrepentant ‘ethnic’ quality. For a game already considered to be foreign to Australia, the ethnic takeover of the game – within the governing bodies, but especially in just sheer numbers on the hills and terraces – doomed the sport to a unique kind of obscurity, one where it was simultaneously popular among its constituent communities and yet invisible to mainstream Australia.

(And in that regard, I am only interested in discussing Australian soccer from after 1945, and if Ian Syson wants his pre-1945 stuff to be included in this debate he should hurry up and publish his book on the matter.)

There is no way Australian soccer can fight back from this position under an overtly ethnic format: not in its early 1960s glory days, not by the late 1970s when the NSL was formed out of fear, not hope, and certainly not through the withering and erratic decline of the 1980s and 1990s. While the formation of ethnic soccer clubs could have been seen as migrants making a commitment to Australia in a different way, instead it was seen as an anti-Australian maneuver. This is an understandable view to take from people outside the game, but the problem was that people within the game also saw it this way.

In some respects this story can only be told by an Anglo who was not a follower of the NSL. Everyone else is too close, and likely being ‘ethnic’, only able to see the issue from the inside. Gorman’s point in the early part of the book that he and his dad, otherwise committed soccer people, only went to one NSL game is the perfect (or near enough to perfect) vehicle for exploring this issue. It presents a change from Gorman’s usual work in his journalism on soccer. There he was obliged to obliterate or obscure himself as a narrator in the great journalistic tradition, giving off the vibe of neutrality and getting his politics across by choosing which quotes to use and from whom. That gave Gorman an always plausible get-out clause should any interview subject say anything particularly egregious or objectionable or outright insane – an unusually plausible possibility in Australian soccer. Here instead we have a reassertion of Gorman’s own character, playing the role of the de facto Anglo representative.

Goodness knows that putting it like that reveals the situation's deep seated problems of anthropological neutrality, but I've never done any undergrad sociology units, and the sociology books (both pro and anti sociology) I've scavenged over the years have mostly remained on my shelves.

What balances out Gorman's Anglo-outsider perspective more than anything is his framing much of the early analysis through the experience of Andrew Dettre, a man more or less the opposite of Gorman. Where Gorman is young, Anglo and situated firmly in the role of a journalist, Dettre is (by the end) very experienced, foreign-born, and not merely a journalist but also an activist. It is an activism not limited to soccer either; Dettre had grand schemes for Australian society as a whole, and a hope that soccer could be a vehicle for driving that social change. This is an important aspect of the work. Dettre had grand and sometimes contradictory ideas about soccer, but these were tied to grander ideas about what the nation could be. They reflected his own political feelings but also his experience as a refugee and migrant. This intellectual outpouring spanned several decades, pseudonyms, publications, and literary styles. Much as Gorman would wish he could write a biography of Dettre’s incredible life, such a book would never sell. Setting a quasi-biography of Dettre within a biography of Australian soccer therefore makes sense.

But as unique as Dettre is as an Australian soccer intellectual, he did not emerge or write from within a cultural vacuum. One of the things Gorman does here is rescue the Hungarians and their contribution as a collective to Australian soccer from under the weight of the more visible Italians, Croatians and Greeks. (It also takes, or rather I hope it will take, at least some of the heat off those latter groups who often get the entire blame for the failure of the NSL and the 'holding back' of Australian soccer). The Hungarians differ from many of their more well-known rival and contemporary ethnic groups. Their immigration numbers were smaller and centred on two very short bursts of migration. They were also more likely to have been educated, less prone to forming ghettoes, and through St George Budapest, made the sincerest attempts of all the ethnic clubs to broaden their fan base.

But even though they provide much of the intellectual and conceptual heft for soccer and the NSL to move forward, Dettre is not exactly like the other Hungarians. His intellectualism crosses over into an elitism that creates a distance between himself and his audience, including other journalists. The broadness of his thinking, the depth of his feeling, and the scope of his ambition is at times overwhelming. The social marginalisation of soccer further curtails his ability to transform Australian society, and it is no great accident that he has his greatest (albeit qualified) successes when he works for the Whitlam government.

There may be those while reading this book who will attempt to trace what effect if any that Gorman's reading of Dettre's work and speaking with the man himself has had on this book. Gorman may think otherwise, but I don’t see much if any stylistic influence resembling Dettre’s in Gorman’s work. That is unavoidable in a sense, not just for the length and dedication of Dettre’s career to this cause, his intellectualism, and Dettre’s learning English as a second language; but it is also because Dettre was never only looking back but also always looking forward. When Dettre ceases looking forward with any optimism, it effectively marks the end of his involvement with the game. To that end the most visible influence Dettre has on Gorman is in declaring an end to things. In the 1980s Dettre writes obituaries for the game, for the soccer press, and for the hope that ethnicity and soccer might create a pluralist Australia. Here, Gorman writes the obituary to end all obituaries, seeing a sort of end of Australian soccer history. What else is there to write about in Australian soccer, especially in terms of the present anodyne, Anglicised arrangement?

As the book comes to a close, Gorman becomes outwardly sentimental. Not that he has treated everything that has come before as simply a matter of facts, but there is a further disintegration in the veneer of objectivity. Among the tragedies for Gorman is that individuals initially left behind by new football could be reintegrated into the new world, but not the cultural and organising structures that created those individuals. This affects not only those who were affiliated with those past structures, but also those who currently belong to groups which resemble in their self-organisation – mostly accidentally – the structures of the past. If Gorman writes an elegiac 'end of history' for ethnic soccer in Australia, knowing that the Anglo establishment and those who have joined them have quashed any hope for even a minor revival from new migrant communities, he does not fall far from Dettre's late era manifesto.

But it is worth remembering that many of those who ran and followed the ethnic clubs were in some important ways not so different from their mainstream Australian sporting counterparts, in that they were bound to a safe and conformist conservatism, something which must have frustrated Dettre immensely. Because for all the praise (if that's the right word) you can give to the NSL for its diversity compared to other sports, for large periods of time the NSL itself was at best only a narrow multicultural experiment, limited mostly to clubs formed by migrants from central and southern Europe. While on the field it had a truly global diversity, off the field it had limited interest to people not directly connected to the scene. While there were enough people from those constituent ethnic communities to sustain them, this was not an issue; but soon enough those communities started drifting away.

In time the greatest betrayal of the ethnic clubs, if one can use such a provocative term, comes not from their own or the governing bodies' incompetences, nor the disinterest of the general public who had no obligation to follow them, but from those younger supporters who turned their back on their fathers’ clubs. It is a provocative assertion, and I do not believe Gorman is making it as strongly as I am, but there is more than the suggestion that without the intervention of ethnics inside the game towards change, things may not have ended up in the direction they did. The sons of the immigrants left the old edifice to die, either by leaving the game completely or joining in the new world.

This is the most profound demographic shift of them all, and it is my assertion based upon reading this book that it is more important than the hordes of juniors and their parents, the midweek indoor and futsal players, and the silent majority who even now show no interest in local top-flight soccer, preferring instead late nights and highlights packages from overseas leagues. For all the failure of the ethnic clubs to tap into new audiences - including the spectacular failure of St George, who tried harder than anyone to branch outwards - the inability of the ethnic clubs to hold on to their core support is what ultimately dooms them; growth for most of them is non-existent, and even for the best of them only incremental.

Gorman doesn't put all the blame for this on the ethnic clubs - there is much in Australian soccer and Australian society that they cannot control, and the self-loathing of those governing the game also drives people away - but nevertheless the crowd numbers speak for themselves. Without the ethnic communities growing out of their clubs and the ethnic scene, without those supporters jumping across to new broadbased franchises or moving towards mainstream Australian sports (or leaving the game entirely), it would not have been so easy to dislodge the pre-eminence of the ethnic clubs. The desire of soccer to mainstream itself was tied to the desire of migrants to mainstream themselves, a funny thing in itself considering persistent political and media fearmongering about ethnic ghettoes.

(As an aside, one observance and one unrequited desire. The observance is that perhaps summer soccer was the greatest mistake ever made by Australian soccer authorities, because whereas when the various football seasons overlapped people were forced to choose which one they would attend, when there was no overlap it became easy to have one's cake and eat it too. The unrequited desire is for someone to write a book on the cultural history of Saturday morning foreign language schools, which would include reference to being hotbeds of street soccer.)

The arrival of Perth Glory showed what was possible in a previously unrepresented market; Adelaide United cemented the idea, because it sprouted from the topflight corpse of Adelaide City Juventus; Melbourne Victory colonised its market in a way no other team has; and Western Sydney Wanderers finished off the job, bringing Australian soccer's migrant heartland over en masse to the A-League. Some would interpret this as evidence of the migrant soccer fans evolving to the next stage of becoming Australians, but it can also be interpreted as them assimilating and subsuming their differences into a larger amorphous whole.

It also does not take into full account those examples where broadbased clubs fail, with my thoughts on this usually going toward Brisbane Strikers. Some of the blame is put onto the notion that it was wrong to expect a league with any ethnic representation to succeed, the comparison being made by Lou Sticca of the ethnic clubs being dirty water that only serves to pollute the clean water of the broadbased clubs. I guess he only came up with this analogy after the clean water of broadbased Carlton SC got dirtied by its association with the dirty water of the footy club. But if there's one thing which comes through, is that as rubbish as the management of most of the clubs ethnic and non-ethnic was in the NSL, it was the ethnic ones which survived and still survive, whereas most of the non-ethnic ones carked it quick smart.

Oh Joe, why not something about Morwell Falcons? There's so many nooks and crannies to discover about Australian soccer, and you talk about Australian soccer moving away from a democratic and meritocratic paradigm, but the Falcons only get passing mention in your book! They came from a town of fewer than 20,000, built a nice boutique stadium and social club, earning their way through the league system while other people - you know who you are - were and still are banging on about some dump called Geelong and when it will get its act together. But I digress.

Then there is the intervention of the players. Many of them were born and raised within the ethnic club system at the game’s most prestigious clubs, and thus they understand intimately the cultural framework of the game. The players become militant after being exploited for too long, and quickly become the best organised, the most professional, and the most ideologically consistent faction in Australian soccer. If there is an argument to be made about structure predominating over ethnicity as a means of examining the fortunes of Australian soccer, it is via the players becoming a new force which disrupts the decades long tug of war between the governing bodies and clubs.

There are plenty of moments in this book which will generate debate. Among them is Gorman’s belief of the sheer folly of promotion and relegation and a second division, asserting them to be anathema to Australian sporting culture. Gorman also says, more or less, that promotion-relegation cannot happen because the A-League was not just an attempt to make a successful sporting competition, but about overturning an entire system of being. Gorman argues that before the A-League was even formed that it existed as a ‘state of mind’, with the idea being that it would transcend, but not reflect Australian soccer; that all the rough edges would be smoothed out, and that the game would be gentrified. For a sport which had spent so long not doing what it was told, this is the ultimate victory or betrayal depending on which side of the side of the debate you come from.

And has not South of the Border talked about the wilful embourgeoisement of the game in Australia? Some of it has been done on an individual level (fees, extra coaching, making little Johnny/Johnette feel special), and some of it has been done on a macro level, for example moving to modern stadiums that the teams cannot afford but which look good. And always linked to that, the attempt to shed any links to the past, including the self-loathing of soccer governing bodies' past and present and their revulsion of being linked with SBS. Not that SBS is an ideal commercial partner for any sport except those like the Tour de France, but much of the commercial limitations come from them being associated with ethnicity and the game's past by sponsors, the 'mainstream' and worst of all, Australian soccer fans.

Under such a framework, finances and commercial viability are almost of secondary concern. Those arguing for promotion and relegation have to not only successfully argue that the idea stacks up financially, they also have to argue convincingly that the current system as it has been set up can and must be overthrown, and that soccer need not follow what the other Australian sports do. Considering how hard so many people have worked to make Australian soccer as much like the other 'traditional' Australian sports as possible, this will be no mean feat. It would be, as Gorman argues here, a case of soccer returning to its old guise of trying to change Australian culture instead of fitting in.

Another lesson to be learnt is that soccer in Australia expects the momentum of goodwill to sustain it, and when it does not, it starts acting reactively. Bursts of interest due to World Cup qualification (now considered a fait accompli process rather than a do-or-die event) or cream of the crop touring teams disguise longer bouts of stagnation. Spurts of heightened interest and engagement do not have the same value as consistency of interest, the kind which sustains the two major codes of football. And while the NSL was certainly not immune to acting haphazardly to its rotting stagnation, neither is the A-League and the current FFA regime safe from its own inability to truly entrench itself among the likes of the NRL or AFL, as opposed to transient competitions like the NBL or Super Rugby, whose teams have little to no local connection and no consistency of feeling, and more precipitously, no communal corporeality. Gorman raises doubts about the meanings of many of the current A-League franchises, implying a soft underbelly which would not be able to survive truly testing times.

I have long argued however that this vagueness can actually be a strength and an appealing quality for many. There is just enough clarity about who these A-League franchises are – usually the team from ‘here’ – and more than enough ambiguity so that ideological and emotional connections are free to be construed in any which way different supporters like. People are free to adopt a level of commitment that for the most part is theirs and theirs alone, and not dependent on a greater whole. And while one could point out the fact that should these entities run into trouble that they would cease existing rather than carry on in a lower league, even though the ethnic clubs have often continued, for most people who care to think about these things they too have stopped existing. 

Gorman is right to suggest that the ability to decide for oneself how committed one is to a cause means that at any moment one may simply choose not to be as committed. A book such as this by its nature is interested in those who are engaged with the game in ways aside from its recreational aspects. Thus you have among the many players, administrators and journalists people like the statistician Andrew Howe, and the late zine editor and agitator Kevin Christopher, whose presence also plays at adding colour to the Anglo spectrum. But it is missing the great mass of people, the silent majority, those who make home economics style decisions - insofar as their decision making is based around the allocation of their limited leisure time and money - about how they will follow the game. While those people are essential to the success of any mass sporting entertainment product, those people do not spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about what Gorman has long considered the most niche of topics in Australian soccer, discussions which take place in equally niche environments: the abandoned terraces of state league clubs, and the dank corners of #sokkahtwitter. 

Me having lunch with Joe Gorman somewhere in Ballarat earlier this year
 One of the things which will probably go unremarked about this book is
 Joe's use of literary depictions of Australian soccer. While I can't take credit
 for anything else which appears in this book (except the bits where I get
quoted or paraphrased, which is mostly stuff from here anyway) I will
take credit for introducing Joe to that literary material. Even better though
was Joe using other stuff that he found in Soccer World, including
work by Dettre, former Socceroo Ray Richards, and children's writer
David Bateson. I do hope it prompts people to read that kind of work,
especially David Martin's The Young Wife. Photo: Ian Syson.
So while I may have some qualms about my portrayal in this book, leaning as it does towards an almost untenable miserableness, I can nevertheless understand my being included in this book. Gorman’s interest lies in two types of people; those who were involved with running the game, whether they felt something for it or not; and more importantly, those who have thought and written deeply about the game, whose emotional devotion is much harder to question. But I am wary of being depicted as a victim; partly because if indeed I am a victim, I am not the only one.

In that sense my inclusion in this narrative is validation of two things; that I have thought deeply about the game and written about it in that way; and that I have felt deeply about the game, and that whether I am right or wrong on the matters which I discuss, there is a purity to whatever agenda I may have. That purity of feeling is not exclusive to me though. Still, seeing yourself in print in any format, let alone what is likely to be praised as a landmark book on Australian soccer history, is enough to make one feel a little anxious. It is an anxiety based not just around what strangers will think of you, but also what those who know you will think of you. In my case, the worry is that I will be interpreted (through no fault of Joe's, really) as being the definitive voice of old soccer in its current guise.

The bit where I come into the book has largely gone
unremarked upon so far, except for a friendly bit of
banter relating to my resembling one of those guys who
 loses interest in a band he likes when the band becomes too
 popular. Without arguing too vociferously against such
 a portrayal, because there's probably some latent truth to
it, it did remind me of a bit in Simon Price's biography of
the Manic Street Preachers. When the Manics break through
commercially with their fourth album Everything Must Go,
their concerts start attracting boorish Oasis and Britpop

listening types in addition to their then loyal and very
alternative audience. Basically the two types can't stand
each other, and eventually the feather boa wearing, zine
writing original fans, who had supported the band through
 thick and thin up to that point, start drifting away.
It's a great book by the way, I highly recommend it.
Lest anyone get ahead of themselves on that front, I have made it clear on many occasions here and elsewhere that I have never sought to claim such a mantle, and that South of the Border has always been about offering a place for any South fan to put pen (or cursor) to paper (or screen). That South of the Border has had limited success in that is beside the point - we have published a diversity of voices, including non-South voices - and have attempted to solicit contributions from the South public, mostly to little avail. So it goes.

Problematic then for me within this analysis is that amid Gorman’s gentle evisceration of Anglo-Celtic Australians (especially those of a pro-multicultural bent) for their refusal to engage with ethnic soccer, the absence of the British migrant is perplexing. It is all the more confusing because of oblique references made to the Englishness of Perth Glory’s Shed – the acceptable kind of ethnicity for many of those in Australian soccer who otherwise wanted to purge ethnicity – as well as noting the flood of British players who were involved in the early parts of the NSL. But British migrants and especially the English, whose numbers collectively outnumbered every other migrant group combined after the war, are otherwise nowhere to be seen.

Likewise those people who ran the clubs and especially those first generation migrants who followed those clubs are also greatly under-represented. Indeed one of my fellow South Melbourne supporters noted upon purchasing the book that I was in the index far more than long time South Melbourne Hellas president George Vasilopoulos. Though it fits in with the way Gorman has decided to tackle his subject, it feels like a massive lacuna that will never be filled. Players, younger supporters, journalists, administrators are all there, as are those who went on to found the ‘broadbased’ clubs during the NSL, but not those who were there at the beginning of the ethnic soccer club phenomenon. Some of these guys are dead, and I suppose that's a reasonable enough excuse. 

But there are still guys who are alive and kicking who probably should have been included in this. For a book that was going to end up with narrative and thematic gaps no matter how much was included, this is a major omission. Ironically, this fits in with Gorman's thesis of the Anglo rejection of non-Anglo culture, in that non-English language news sources and interview subjects are mostly absent from the book. One can't blame that on the author's monolingualism, because one would need reading proficiency in several languages to get across the thousands of column inches; either that, or a well paid research team to sift through the ethnic papers of record.

There are unavoidable issues in the book, based around treating each state and region fairly, the experience of Indigenous Australians, and the story of women’s participation, or just as often, non-participation. As much as there is an ethnic vs non-ethnic issue which dominates our thinking on Australian soccer’s past, there is also a state vs state issue; the experience of the game varies so much between regions, and it is difficult if not impossible for people to feel they have a shared connection. Some of the sojourns Gorman takes to cover this stuff works well – I am thinking here in particular of the Queensland State League section – but others seem occasionally to be tacked on, or not to fit exactly, as if Gorman is trying to cram in as many things as possible. 

To an extent Gorman agrees with this, arguing early on that there is no possibility of writing a point-to-point history of Australian soccer, and he does well to include as many parts of the national soccer experience as he does; but one cannot help but feel that there were times when some states or regions or experiences which were not covered in depth or at all. And since most of the NSL was based around Melbourne and Sydney, it makes sense if more time is spent there.

Even though they are of value and worth including, the parts dealing with women's soccer can only hope to provide a taste of that experience. This is frustrating, because women's soccer, like other women's sports both in Australia and overseas, deals with many of the same issues of assimilation and self-determination; should women's sport work with or separately to men's sport? Does women's sport lose the chance to forge its own identity if its proximity is too close to men's sport? These are questions however for another writer to confront more fully.

The book is as much about what came before and what happened after as it is about what happened during. Therefore it scoots along at some points, while being more detailed in others. There are lacunas which will frustrate people, especially those who feel that their experience or their region is not covered in enough depth. Some people will want more of the specific car crash details of bad soccer governance and outrageous incidents, but the risk is that those will be seen as the main point of the story with the bigger issue of soccer's cultural positioning being lost. Focusing too much on these risks turning any analysis of Australian soccer into a freak show, which is fine for idle internet banter but less suitable for a serious book of history.

Of course the book could be twice as long, even more formidably detailed, and better for it in my opinion. But there is also the advice Stephen Hawking's editor gave him prior to publishing his bestselling A Brief History of Time: namely, that for every equation Hawking would put in, the potential audience would be halved. Thus a book written this way is also more accessible, written not only for the initiated and already interested, but for those for whom the NSL and the world which sustained it mean little more than folklore.

Dealing largely with documentary evidence and interviews, the book does not engage much with academic debates. It helps with the book's accessibility, but there were moments when an engagement with other books, such as Ross Solly's imperfect but important Shoot Out would have been welcome, if for no other reason than more explicitly tracing different political party relationships to the game; from Dettre and Whitlam's progressivism, to the NSW Labor Right faction's ethnic bloc backing Tony Labbozzetta (which vanishes when ethnic clubs need the most support), to the Liberals changing the game and its ethnic character into something more like their own ideal of the national character.

But the book does most things very well. It nails soccer's contradictory nature; its tendency for being both ahead of the curve (Dettre/St George/Canberra City/Newcastle KB) but also behind the curve (pretty much everyone in the game at some point). It gets that the conflict of sport has never been just business, especially not in Australian soccer, whose raison d'ĂȘtre was one of primarily self-proclamation and actualisation. It gets the conservatism of the ethnic clubs, and their reluctance to cede the one major bit of power and cultural influence they have in Australian culture, but mostly their desire to be left alone.

Its selection of quotes is very good, from Mark Rudan’s 'it was their job to fit in with us'; the description of David Hill as being to the right of Genghis Khan; the lead up to the 1997 grand final being like 'the wogs against Brisbane'; and Jesse Fink's denouncement of Ange Postecoglou when the latter became Brisbane Roar coach as offering nothing because Postecoglou is 'old soccer'. But even within the structure of the book, there will be quibbles about who was interviewed and why, and I think many of those quibbles could be justified. Remo Nogarotto gets much more time than Tony Labbozzetta. Kimon Taliadoros gets interviewed in his guise as the vanguard for the establishment of the player union movement, but he does not get asked about his later time as South Melbourne general manager, which would have yielded interesting information about South's late struggles to move between its past and an uncertain future. There is almost no mention of Tony Ising, which whether you consider him one of the great prophets or the most unnecessarily bitter man in Australian soccer, seems like a large oversight.

The early reviews have been positive about the book, albeit largely thin on detail. Australia’s most noteworthy soccer historian, Roy Hay, writing his first impression of the book has largely lauded it, with his necessary caveat about the lack of emphasis on the organising structures put in place in the early 1960s. Others have focused on Gorman’s belief that the idea of promotion-relegation and second division is folly, and that there are lessons to be learned from the NSL’s haphazard attempt to implement the former. Adam Howard has gone into much greater depth on that particular matter, arguing the point that while history can provide a guide and a warning, on this matter Gorman has misappropriated the details for his own defeatist narrative.

My stance being well enough known on the promotion/relegation issue, it is not for me to continue a debate I have little interest in, preferring to let that run its own course. But Howard's point about Gorman's apparent defeatist tone is worth picking up on. Because of its sense of finality, and its desire to declare a definitive end to the past, this book leaves the reader without any sense of how things might change for Australian soccer in the future. The history of Australian soccer has been one of constant upheaval, and yet there is an assumption made in this book that that process has ended, at least in ways that we are familiar with.

Recent events in the form of wrangling for control over the game and its future direction have shown us this is not quite the case; and while I do not think that the ethnic clubs are or could be the main drivers of any future change, to present them as likely having no meaningful future is too forceful of an assertion. But that is also very much a personal take, as I would like to think there is hope, however outrageous that hope may seem, and that our resilience in the face of all obstacles could one day yield a new direction. Maybe Gorman refuses to speculate for the sake of speculation, but the lack of optimism in the book rather than creating an empathy (the feeling that we are suffering together) for soccer migrants old and new will likely only engender a hopeless sense of sympathy (feeling bad for someone's plight, but not feeling that their burden is yours as well) .

It is the kind of thing which makes me wonder who is going to read this book, and what wider impact it will have. After all, how many reviewed and discussed the Hay/Murray magnum opus? The discussion on matters of books and history among the soccer community seems intermittent at best, and for the most part these discussions are reflective rather than inspiring a call to arms. It is unfair to demand something else from Gorman here, because while he is at pains to not try and diminish the ongoing survival of the old clubs, he cannot lie and say that they have a thriving existence. The dwindling few followers of the 'prominent' ex-NSL clubs who will read this book will be able to change little about the situation.

To be clear, no one doubts the sincerity of their - our - passion; after all, it takes a certain kind of moral hard-headedness to keep following a state league club in the way that we do. In the epilogue in particular, which finishes with a rewriting of a blog post I made - a post that I know back then struck Gorman as extraordinarily poignant - there is little hope. For those with the intestinal fortitude to keep following the old clubs, that moral certainty is also matched up with what is also a rare sense of duty. While I tend to think in the book Gorman’s tone is more realist than defeatist, those two adjectives when deployed in the way they have been here are not so far from each other. The fields have been sown with salt. There will be people who will rail against that view, possibly ignoring the argument’s nuances, but Gorman is at pains to point out the violent excision of one of Australian soccer's core attributes, its ability to harbour new migrants who bring their numbers, playing talent and novel organisational attributes. Neither is there any hope that another Dettre could emerge. From which community? From which medium? To say what, exactly, and to whom? It is remarkable that an Andrew Dettre even existed in the first place.

Those picking up the book who never experienced the NSL or ethnic soccer in full flight might better understand how we got to now, but soon enough they will probably be back at the A-League, that competition dreamt up not just to rehabilitate soccer in a benign sense, but to cleanse it. If the idea of ‘cleansing’ has potentially volatile and incendiary overtones – especially within an Australian soccer context! - it is hard to argue that this is not what has happened. Damnatio memoriae it may not be, but it is as close as we can get.

My chief concern with the book then is not with its content, which I broadly agree with and which I think has been written very well. Rather it is with what will follow it? Will people merely praise the book, cherry pick certain sections out of it, and then discard its lessons and deeper message about using soccer as a means of understanding Australian society? After all, while it is a book about Australian soccer it is also a book about ‘us’ as a nation. Gorman throws down the challenge to the current generation of soft-headed multiculturalists, but will they engage with this book in the way I believe they should?

The Death and Life of Australian Soccer is not a hagiography of the NSL or ethnic soccer. For those hoping for a celebratory tome about the NSL, its great matches, players and clubs, this is not that book. Gorman writes that he hopes that in time those stories will be written – but in the meantime he emphasises that something has been lost, and there is some empathy in that emphasis. It is hard to pin down what exactly may have been lost – perhaps it is the large scale generosity of spirit from the true believers, those who literally built their clubs from scratch, not dependent on wealthy benefactors; perhaps it is the chance for a different Australia to be promoted. If Gorman is not exactly channelling the grief of those left behind, he is at least channelling Dettre's disappointment.


  1. The shorter, better summary:

    - We're all doomed.
    - We've cringed our way into an anodyne soccer oblivion for the sake of popularity.
    - Prophets are mostly only ever right by accident, usually when the fickleness of crowds changes in such a way as to coincidentally align with one of the scattershot prophecies.
    - We're all just looking for a way to feel good about our decisions, which may not have been ours to make in the first place anyway.
    - Gorman doesn't belong anywhere, the poor dear. The closest thing he can find an attachment to is Dettre's freedom to write whatever he wants, and to mean it.
    - Related to that, how good is sincerity? Pretty good I reckon. I should know, I've got sincerity in spades. (the back of the sincerity ticket says it's non-transferable though, so I can't share it.)
    - Also, this book needed more wogs.
    - It's a good book, buy it, or borrow it from a library when you can.

  2. Feel free to submit your own reviews of this or any other book for publication, or just post comments here, either way, what does it matter? Everything's stuffed, my hits are way down, the blog is dead, no one cares, we had a hood run.

    1. If the hits are really down, do you think it could be related to increased forum activity?


    2. Maybe a little bit, but its nothing to be too concerned about, it goes in waves, cycles, etc

  3. Hmm, considering I have copies of the original draft chapters, I wonder if I can sell those on ebay in the same way that some people try to sell books made up of wikipedia articles on there?

  4. The more stalker type follower of South of the Border may be interested to know that I think this is the first time I've ever published a photo of myself here, which is a hell of an achievement for nearly ten years and 2000 posts or whatever it is. It was mostly done to

    a) break up the slabs of text a little bit, and
    b) provide space for a detour into the use of literary texts which otherwise didn't fit anywhere else

    The choice was between this photo and another one of us on a train, but this one works better with my tryhard moody intellectual aesthetic.

  5. Hey Paul, this 'review' or ramble or whatever you call it is an awesome piece of football /sports writing - some great points well made. Top drawer stuff. Cheers, Paul (from Sydney)

  6. Great read as always. Out of all that i was most happy to see the word Anodyne used in your comments section.
    My band Saint Bones has a song called Anodyne and before today i have never seen it used before.

    1. It's a nice middle class variation on dull or boring,

    2. Dr Smith used it to castigate te Robot.

      You Anodyne Armour Bearer!

  7. This is a less than glowing review.


    I think it misses the point somewhat.

  8. Another review, this one done in tandem with David Hill's book


  9. An impressive write-up/review


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.