Ethnic & Old Soccer Clubs: Australian Football Before the A-League

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“New Football, Old Soccer” – in just four words uttered in the silence of a Sydney theatre in November 2004, Frank Lowy invited all Australian football fans to look ahead towards the newly born A-League, and to drop a big curtain on everything that preceded it.

By listing the rules of the new championship one after the other, as if it were a question of explaining to those present a new sport, the president of Football Federation Australia (FFA) actually demanded an even greater effort – to pretend that that past had never existed. That was old soccer, a page to be deleted rather than a base on which to build new football. Well, Lowy was right and so was Johnny Warren (Influencer and Godfather for Australian Football) – Yep, He Told Us So!

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The first season of the A-League, inaugurated in August 2005, recorded a 161% increase in fans compared to the previous championship. Thus, marking the failure of the National Soccer League (NSL). The overall interest and excitement for football in Australia grew instantly and has continued to do so. Through sponsors, media and also, sports betting companies like BetEasy. With CrownBet and William Hill now rebranded as BetEasy in Australia, this really makes BetEasy one of the best betting sites in Australia for the A-League. There was another massive boost in the same year. In November 2005, the Socceroos surpassed Uruguay in the World Cup qualifiers, qualifying for Germany 2006, which would remain in history as the best World Cup played by Australia.

But What About the Club History of Current Players?

Take for example, Mark Viduka, captain of the Socceroos in Germany 2006. The former Leeds player, born in Melbourne to Croatian origins, took his first professional steps at the Melbourne Knights. The striker, in addition to the avalanches of goals that got a Grand Final and an NSL title in his three seasons of militancy, remembers his gesture after each goal, where he kissed the Croatian flag on the team’s logo.

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At that time, the Melbourne Knights were among the most popular and successful ethnic clubs, namely those clubs formed in Australia between the 50s and 60s. Founded and based on a specific ethnic community, in this case obviously the Croatian one. In fact, it was precisely this kind of team that dominated the national football scene, the result of the wave of immigration from Europe after World War II. Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Malta, Hungary – these are the main communities for which Australia was the place to start a new life and, of course, where to bring the greatest of passions: The Beautiful Game, as Les Murray would say (legendary Hungarian Football Journalist). From them came those clubs that, about half a century later, Lowy will call “old soccer”. To be more precise, however, old soccer was born thanks to them.

What Really Brought European Migrants to Australia were the Opportunities

Those who enter a new country, often without knowing the language; founding or joining a football club is a way to cling to a community of compatriots. Tackling crucial problems like finding a job together, was less scary than doing it on your own. Together with the clubs below, dozens of other teams began to populate the suburbs of larger cities. The following were and still are, the most important foreign clubs, which now form part of lower leagues (like the National Premier League), but many others haven’t been included or no longer exist:

  • Italians founded: Marconi Club and APIA in Sydney, Adelaide Blue Eagles, Adelaide City FC, Campbelltown City FC (SA), Brisbane City FC, Perth Azzurri, Balcatta FC (WA) and Avondale FC (VIC)
  • Croatians founded: SC Croatia (Melbourne Knights), Sydney United, Canberra FC, Gold Coast Knights (QLD) and Dandenong City SC (Chelsea Hajduk) (VIC)
  • Serbians founded: Bonnyrigg White Eagles (Sydney)
  • Jewish Europeans founded: Maccabi Hakoah (Sydney)
  • Maltese founded: Melita Eagles (Sydney) and Ajax SC (Green Gully) (VIC)
  • Hungarians founded: St George Budapest (Sydney)
  • Cypriots founded: Bentleigh Greens SC (VIC)
  • Polish founded: Croydon Kings (SA)
  • Albanians founded: Dandenong Thunder SC (VIC)
  • Ukrainians founded: Inglewood United FC (WA)
  • Greeks founded: Sydney Olympic, Canberra Olympic, South Melbourne Hellas, Megas Alexandros (VIC), Oakleigh Cannons FC (Greek) (VIC), Port Melbourne SC, Adelaide Olympic, West Adelaide SC, Olympia FC Warriors (TAS), Olympic FC (QLD) and Floreat Athena FC (WA)
  • Dutch founded: Hollandia-Inala Soccer Club (QLD)
  • Macedonians founded: Rockdale City Suns (Sydney), Stirling Lions (WA), Altona Magic SC (VIC) and Pascoe Vale FC (VIC)

Plus, many, many more!

Why Should They Have the Right to Create Their Own Teams, Rather Than Join Existing Local Ones?

This was the question that many Australians, who were against the phenomenon of ethnic clubs, asked themselves. Imagine that suddenly a blue-coloured club is born, called the Azzurri, and they start defeating your local teams. The Australian people considered it a threat. The smell of cevapi that rose from the stands during some games, or to hear the fans shouting “Hrvatska (Croatia)” was not part of the assimilation policy wanted by the Australian Government, according to which immigrants should have turned into Australians as quickly as possible.

Football Was Seen as a Barrier to the “Australianisation” Process

Initially perceived as an element that helped immigrants maintain their roots, as closed and restricted circles. However, these teams became completely open doors, welcoming players and fans of any nationality while maintaining their own identity. For many players, being part of these clubs was a unique and enriching experience. The hostile attitude of the country did not stop these teams from developing. This is the case of St George Budapest, which gave five players to Australia for the 1974 World Cup. Just this club of Hungarian roots and some other ethnic teams were among the promoters of the crazy idea that became a reality in 1977: to make football the first sport in Australia to have a national championship.

After years of state competition, the National Soccer League thus became the first league to bring together teams from across the country. At that time, however, the old Australia Soccer Association (ASA) had already set its sights on the movement – while “blessing” the creation of the NSL. The ASA had been putting pressure on the clubs to undertake the “de-ethnicisation” path for years. Moreover, the clashes that took place in the stands during the hottest matches (especially Balkan matches) helped to highlight Anglo discontent. Unfortunately, the media gave much attention to these episodes, trying to ruin the game.

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While teams like St George, Sydney Hakoah, Marconi, Melbourne Knights and South Melbourne (all ethnic clubs) shared the spoils of the first two decades of NSL, Football Australia was convinced that it was close to the point of no return. There was a desperate need for the A-League. The average turnout had dropped with the passing of the seasons, and most clubs were heavily in debt. The logic behind the creation of the A-League was to get a team involved for each city, concentrating the fan base. This excluded the ethnic clubs, who were unable to attract supporters from outside their communities.

In a Commercial Sense, The Ethnic Element of These Clubs Had Become Their Limit

In 2004, the NSL held its last season and a few months later, Lowy and the new FFA, the ASA substitute, were already discussing the future. There were to be eight teams, many of which were formed from 2000 onwards, without any promotion and relegation. It was a way to inject money into the system. There was nothing , the teams had no history. They rented stadiums, created names, logos, colours, etc. The candidacy was open to all, but excluded ethnic clubs. By 2020, the A-League will expand to include 12 teams.

Since 2014, the FFA Cup has been the only opportunity for ethnic teams in the minor series to participate on the big stage. They can confront the giants of the A-League, a competition that “heals a few wounds”.

Image credit: Football NSW

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