Australia finds room for the beautiful game

Image of Simon Kuper

Only three years ago, soccer in Australia was such a foreign game that it could spark race riots. When two lifesavers at North Cronulla beach outside Sydney told youths of Middle Eastern origin to stop playing soccer in the sand, a fight ensued. Next thing anyone knew, thousands of whites were driving in for a “Leb-and wog-bashing day”.

Of course, soccer was only the spark. The riots had more to do with fear of Muslims and with nostalgia for the old “White Australia” policy on immigration. However, in December 2005 soccer was still an excellent metaphor for foreignness. The game was traditionally known in Australia as “wogball”, for its popularity among funny-looking ethnics.

How times have changed. On Wednesday Australia’s “Socceroos” beat a jet-lagged Uzbekistan in Sydney and should soon become the first team to qualify for next year’s World Cup. This may be the moment for soccer to proclaim “Mission accomplished”. It has finally conquered the world.

The Victorian Britons who first carried leather footballs around the planet left the job unfinished. Only Europe, Latin America and Africa fell for soccer. As late as 1990, all of Asia had fewer teams at the World Cup (two) than the British Isles (three). In fact, “World Cup” was a misnomer. It should have been called the “Euro-Latin American duopoly”.

But from the 1980s, globalisation and cable television pushed soccer into the final frontiers. Between 1993 and 1996, the US, Japan, China and India all acquired national professional soccer leagues. Australia already had one, but few Australians cared about the mostly ethnic clubs. The Serb-Croat enmities appealed chiefly to connoisseurs.

In 2005, just before the beach riots, Australia finally acquired a non-ethnic soccer league, the A-League. It entered a crowded room. Australian rules football, rugby union and rugby league all share a common ancestor with soccer, and all thrive in Australia. “I think we’re the only nation on earth that supports four professional football leagues,” says Bob Stewart, an expert on sports policy at Victoria University in Melbourne. “If you go back 60 or 70 years, Australian rules was always concerned about the threat of soccer to be the national game.”

But in the new “football wars”, soccer looked mightier than before. Whereas the early waves of British and Irish immigrants to Australia had mostly ignored the game, the more recent Asians and Middle Eastern newcomers weren’t about to start discovering Aussie rules.

Soccer enters any new country with two advantages. First, parents love it: soccer is safe for boys and girls. More Australian children play it than any other team game. Even traditionally white Cronulla, scene of the beach riots, has a soccer club with hundreds of members. Hoping to woo kids, Aussie rules is now hastily changing its laws to make itself safer.

Second, soccer perhaps more than any other sport offers the thrill of nationalism. When the Socceroos qualified for the 2006 World Cup, their first since 1974, Australians of all origins found themselves rising at unearthly hours to cheer on the sons of Croatian, Italian and occasionally even British immigrants. Some fans now spend sunny weekends indoors watching English Premier League matches or fretting over Newcastle Jets’ chances in the Asian Champions League. The country’s broadcasters increasingly call soccer “football”, which in Australia is a hard-fought honorary title. Imagine the boost to the game if the country is named host of the 2018 World Cup.

Already the Sweeney Sports Report identifies soccer as Australia’s fastest-growing team sport since 2004. It says 50 per cent of Australians are interested in soccer, more than follow either rugby code, and only a fraction behind cricket and Aussie rules.

Even Aussie rules is “concerned”, says Stewart. Elsewhere, so are Indian cricket, Japanese sumo and Canadian ice hockey. “Soccer is coming,” warned René Fasel, the Swiss dentist who heads the International Ice Hockey Federation. “I tell you, they sleep while it’s coming.”

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