NOVEMBER 2005: Australia’s recent success at the soccer World Cup qualifier at Sydney’s Homebush stadium, and media reports about the hype thus generated, have prompted lots of speculation about the prospects for increased soccer interest among the general population. 

Forecasts range from “So what ?” at one extreme to “The end of ‘football’ as we know it” at the other.

First of all — actually, before we even get to “First of all”  — a word or two about nomenclature.

This article will follow customary Australian language usage and unapologetically refer to the 11-a-side, round-ball rectangular pitch “Look Mum, No hands” game as “soccer”. North of the Murray-Murrumbidgee, which is the Aussie Rules / rugby league Mason-Dixon Line, people generally mean one or other of the two rugbys when they refer to football or “the footy”; south and west of that line, they mean Australian Football. Wherever they are, when groups of Australians talk about “going to the footy” or about “watching the footy on the TV”, they do NOT mean attending or viewing a soccer match.

The decision by some media outlets, such as the Fairfax Sydney Morning Herald, to bestow the unadjectived word “football” on soccer can evoke three main reactions. The most common, and maybe the most reasonable, is probably “Who cares ?”  People who reckon we should “get with it” or “get with the strength” or “catch up with the rest of the world” would support changing the customary Australian usage of the word, while those who question why we need to adjust our language at the behest of foreigners, or to conform to foreign practice, would regard the SMH’s move as yet another example of the bad old Aussie cultural cringe*. [Some might further add: “Why be surprised that a Sydney institution kowtows to foreigners, anyway ?”] The nation’s other two broadsheets, The Australian and The Age, have stood by our traditional usage, as have both The Examiner and The Mercury.

Celeb boosterism

In thinking about the impact, especially in the longer term, of the Socceroo win of November 2005, there are several factors to consider. Among them are the strength of inherited culture, the influence of media and celeb boosterism, the power of international money and the matter of a local pastime being replaced by a globalised one —  quite apart from whether one code of football is superior to the others.

First of all, there has to be a lot of weight allocated to “It’s what you’re born into, isn’t it ?”  By ‘n’ large Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane people are rugby people, with more leaning to league than union. Elsewhere, the clear number one is the “game of our own”, as Thomas Wentworth Wills, one of Australian Football’s founders, wanted for it to be.  Close perusals of sports results and of statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics bear this out.

However, there’s another interesting element: throughout NSW and Queensland, there are little four- and six-club AFL^ competitions which survive —  some even thrive —  among the dominant rugby codes. Take Cairns, for example:

“In less than 50 years Australian Football in the Far North of Queensland has grown from a hopeful kick in a bayside reserve to the envy of every other sporting code in the Far North. The backbone of the Cairns Australian Football League (now AFL Cairns) in recent years has been Cazlay’s in the leagues social club operation from the code’s headquarters at Australian Football Park.”  [ for the full story visit ]  (And a banner on the home page of claims 5741 club pages and 922 league pages.) Conversely, there is almost no rugby presence on the same scale in the states and regions where Australian Football is king.

So, what’s been the success rate of attempts to introduce, develop and increase the presence of the “other” code of football into established heartlands, that is, to elicit a change in sporting culture ?

Rugby League appeared to be set to take off in Melbourne after 87161 turned up at the MCG in the winter of June 1994 to watch a NSW v Qld State of Origin match.

Only 12 V/AFL Home & Away matches have drawn bigger crowds, which range from the H&A record attendance of 99346 for Round 10 Melbourne v Collingwood Monday 16 June 1958 to the most recent on Anzac Day 2000. (Now that the MCG will once more hold 100,000+ after the 2006 Commonwealth Games, will that 99346 record be broken ?)

Much smaller crowds

Has “Sydney’s own game” taken off in Melbourne ?


Two more NSW v Qld MCG games —  and, remember, these are the top crowd-magnet games in the NRL H&A season —  drew much smaller crowds of 52994 (May 1995) and 25105 (June 1997). No others have been played since, though one is promised in 2006 for Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium (currently named after, possibly, one of the most loathed corporate entities in the nation).

Furthermore, rugby league undertook club-based sorties into AFL territory —  in Perth (1995 to 1997) and in Adelaide (1997 to 1998)  —  although both franchises had at least as much to do with Citizen Murdoch’s pay-TV ambitions as with extending the reach of league. A third franchise, still going, is Melbourne Storm (from 1998). Although it won the NRL premiership in its second year, its subsequent impact in the Victorian capital as measured by attendances is minimal: average home crowd — 10962; highest season average, in the post-premiership year of 2000 — 13756; best match attendances   — 20522 at Olympic Park (April 1998) and 23239 at the MCG (March 2000), Storm’s only two 20000+ match crowds. It’s possible, and it’s been claimed in the press by its players, especially those tired of Sydney celebrity status, for Storm boys to walk totally unrecognised down Bourke Street, apart from an occasional quiet “Geez, he’s a big bastard, isn’t he !!”

Naturally, in the ways of these phenomena, NRL spokespersons talk about the “long haul” and “we’ve carved our own niche”; a Victorian government promise to re-develop Olympic Park to seat about 20000 is a recently added part of the spiel.

But, remember, even in its Sydney heartland, NRL matches average only about 14000 spectators.

Similarly, Australian Football looked to be on the march in Sydney when season 1997 saw SCG crowds for the Swans averaging nearly 37000, three times what NRL club matches were drawing.

A little club history as essential background: what is now the Sydney Swans FC was the South Melbourne FC dating from 1874. But, in a sense, its best years were already behind it when it helped found the VFL by leaving the VFA in 1897; its five VFA flags still outnumber its four V/AFL ones. When it was shunted off to Sydney at the end of the 1981 season,  it had played only two finals matches, in only two seasons, across nearly four decades (1946 to 1981). And it was broke —  not an auspicious start to a pioneering venturing in a hostile environment. Quite unlike Rupert’s cashed-up effort in establishing Melbourne Storm.

So, an SCG crowd average of 36612 in season 1997 can easily be seen as a whole lot better than the pathetic 9000+ averages in 1990 and 1992-94, and there was a lot of hype about AFL “taking over” Sydney.

Not so. Since 1997, the Swans’ average match crowd is down about 5000 (although even that average is one a figure a Sydney NRL club could only dream of).

It looks as if “what you’re born into” trumps hype again.

However, the Sydney Swans FC has established a “niche”, and quite a sizeable one, in the Harbourside’s sporting consciousness. The Swans have played twelve H&A games at Cathy Freeman’s Homebush Stadium (now also named after that communications ogre) since 2002, and their crowd figures better all but one NRL club v club crowd there, although league State of Origin and finals matches have bigger attendances.

Remember the bad news Bears

Very few pundits would have dared predict that a Sydney v Collingwood attendance at Homebush would be the AFL’s biggest crowd of that season: 72393 on the night of Saturday 23 August 2003. However, some of the old hostility lingers, exemplified by a posh school’s headmaster’s reaction of “We’ll never play that game in this school” to a petition about starting some school AFL teams signed by several dozen boys. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of halo effect Sydney’s 2005 premiership may have, and to compare it with any similar such effect from the Socceroos’ success(es ?).

[Most of these AFL and NRL statistics are taken from  —  a website that covers far more than the “rleague” of its title.]

What’s more, the Brisbane situation seems to provide evidence that sporting attendance habits can change. Remember the Bad News Bears —  the Brisbane Bears AFL club ?  This living shambles —  it didn’t even play its games in Brisbane !!  —  achieved a return to early 20th century crowd figures by often getting only 3000 fans to Carrara —  or was that 3000 legs and arms ?  Well, they have become, after a merger (some say forced) with now-defunct VFL foundation club Fitzroy, the Brisbane Lions, and have outdrawn, at 30000+ a game (at the 36000-seat Gabba), the sub-30000 NRL Brisbane Broncos (at their 50000-seat venues). Although the Lions’ winning a trio of AFL premierships, 2001 to 2003, was most likely an important a factor, it may be an example of a new sporting culture muscling in on an existing, hitherto dominant, one.

The question then becomes: will the Socceroos qualifying success, and then any 2006 World Cup success(es), be a take-off platform for soccer ?

Then there’s the hype factor.

How much of what has been reported in the media, at times quite breathlessly, is a genuine new-found enthusiasm for the round-ball game, and how much of it is simply celeb cheer-leading, especially from the Sydney A-list ?  And how much is a sad vestige of the old Australian cultural cringe, denigrating the game of our own because the foreign self-styled World Game must, ipso facto, be better ?  —  quite apart from whether the cheering was for the event rather than for the game itself.  Eight years ago, 80000+ for the equivalent match at the MCG did not produce thousands, let alone tens of thousands, more spectators at NSL club v club matches.

Remember basketball ?  Remember in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a game acerbically described as “ridiculously tall people taking it in turns to score” was being pumped up as taking over from the established football codes ?  How every kid’s ambition was to acquire oodles of (US) NBA player-cards, be outfitted in Chicago Bulls gear and be the next Magic Jordan (or whoever he was) ?

Will club v club soccer crowds regularly, and what’s more importantly, frequently, start to number in the 30000s or 50000s ?  Can the Melbourne Victory club start hoping for, indeed, expecting, 45000 cheering fans filling the Docklands Stadium ?  Can the WA and SA clubs realistically, and that means economically, apply to use Perth’s Subiaco (about 43000) and Adelaide’s Football Park (about 52000), seeing that neither venue is in use in summer ?  Will a critical mass of sports followers ditch their old game for one new to them, turning up week after week, win, lose or nil-all draw ?

That’d be the proof that we’ve forsaken our customary games for the self-styled World Game.

The moolah factor

Another thought: are the people who claim that we should all be switching from our “parochial” little football code^^ to the “World Game” the same people who campaign with such vigour against globalisation ?  Are the celebs and sensitive aesthetes who’ve been urging tariff-like protection of and tax-payer assistance for Australian film and TV are the same who are now jumping on the currently fashionable bandwagon for a non-indigenous form of football ?

Next, there’s the moolah factor.

FIFA (the French acronym for a game of English origin) has lorry-loads of the stuff to deposit Down South now that we’ve qualified for the 2006 World Cup. Can our sporting interests be bought ?  Billions pumped into the USA to get red-blooded Seppos to change from their “game of their own” to soccer has been almost as futile a W O F T A M as your latest UN scheme, although admittedly it has caught on a bit —  as a nice game for kiddies and girls.  In Ireland, just across St George’s Channel or the Irish Sea from soccer’s Britannic homeland, the home-grown code of Gaelic Football is the one which is in people’s hearts and minds, despite the successes of Irish rugby and soccer teams.

Finally, there’s the subjective judgement: is soccer the “Beautiful Game” of its aficionados ? Or is it as boringly repetitive a pastime as has ever been concocted, the British Empire’s mean joke on the post-imperial world ?

Australians brought up on rugby like a bit of “biffo” in their code of football: tough, hard physical clashes are part of the essence of what they want in their sport. Are they likely to turn to, and get turned on by, a game where the slightest ankle-tap produces Oscar-quality posing?

Those of us for whom the game is “game of our own” reckon that we Australians** have developed, over the last 150 years, a game of such variegated athletic skills suitable for players of all shapes and sizes, a game untrammelled by finicky off-side rules and where one can use all parts of the body —  would it be a cultural advance to swap so spectacular a sport for one with such severely limited scope for athleticism ?

Let M Tullius Cicero, 106-43 BCE, have the last word on this matter:  DE GUSTIBUS NON EST DISPUTANDUM (Romans, being the imperial populus that they were, talked in CAPITALS)  —  often (mis)translated, or translated too literally as There is no arguing about taste —  which is silly , because people are always arguing about taste, in wines, food, literature, art, politics, et-extensively-cetera.

What that distinguished Roman statesman, writer and philosopher probably meant was There’s no point arguing about taste.

* The expression “cultural cringe” was coined by schoolteacher, essayist and critic A A Phillips in contributions to Meanjin in the 1940s and 1950s; one essay on this attitude is in his The Australian Tradition: Studies in a Colonial Culture, F W Cheshire, 1958; one of my cherished memories is meeting him at the College Lawn Hotel in Greville Street, Prahran (an inner Melbourne suburb), just down from the well-known educational institution that employed me at the time -  Phillips was one of its most illustrious and respected teachers.

^ “AFL” is used here, and elsewhere, as a shorthand for Australian Football, a usage prevalent in the northern States (where “football” and “the footy” refers to rugby) like the way “NFL” is used for American Football (“gridiron” to some).

** Sometimes one still hears the jibe that Australian Football is just a local version of a much older Irish game; in his A Game of Our Own: the Origins of Australian Football, Information Australia 1990, ISBN 0 949338 78 8, historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey claims that there is not a single shred of evidence for any such connexion.

Apropos of who’s code was first, Kevin Taylor’s FootyStats [ ] ran this item in November 2004:
John Williamson, in a self-publishing venture, has produced in fascinating detail of words and photographs to recount long-forgotten events in “Football’s Forgotten Tour: The Story of the British Australian Rules Venture of 1888”.

As the introduction describes, a group of British sportsmen travelled half-way around the world to play the New Zealand and Australian colonials in an unofficial combined Rugby and Australian Rules tour. It was the first overseas tour by a British Rugby team and the only time an international series was played under Australian Rules apart from a short tour the following year by a Maori Rugby team and the participation of New Zealand in the 1908 interstate football carnival held in Melbourne, which coincided with the 50th anniversary celebration of the founding of our national code of Australian Football.

Williamson goes to extraordinary lengths explaining how football codes evolved and has a detailed description of the 19 matches the British team played across eight weeks under “Victorian Rules” against Carlton, Bendigo, Castlemaine, South Melbourne, Maryborough, South Ballarat, Fitzroy, Port Melbourne, South Adelaide, Port Adelaide, Adelaide, Norwood, Horsham, Ballarat Imperial, Ballarat, Sandhurst, Kyneton, Essendon and Maitland.

The detail and anecdotes which Williamson has compiled gives historical perspective to where Australian Football sits in a table on page 20 of his book [with some additions and amendations — LC]  —

Establishment of the Major Football Codes
26 August 1845 Rugby Union Football: the first Football Laws (Rules) are set down at Rugby School in England [The much-celebrated 1838 running-with-the-ball by schoolboy William Webb Ellis has almost no corroborative evidence, even from Ellis himself; “Southern” (as in “southern hemisphere” = NSW) Rugby Football Union founded 1875 —  LC].

17 May 1859 Australian Football: “The Rules of the Melbourne Football Club” are set down, [although the first “historically attested” game was in August-September 1858; VFA, SA(N)FL founded 1877; (Sthn) TFL 1879; VFL 1897; find out more about football in Tasmania, including club histories, at    —  LC]

8 December 1863 Soccer: the Football Association Rules are set down in England. [(English) FA founded in 1871/72 —  LC]

6 November 1869 First game of American Football: Rutgers University play Princeton University [But, it would not be until 1912, under the direction of the extraordinary Walter Camp of Yale University, before the US game finished acquiring those characteristics which make it so distinctive; (US) NFL founded 1922, a misleading stat because inter-college (=university) football had taken centre stage for the preceding 45 years —  LC]

1 November 1884 Gaelic Football : the Rules for Gaelic Football are set down by Michael Cusack in Dublin. [Gaelic Athletic Association founded 1884; first All-Ireland football championship 1887 —  LC]

29 August 1895 Rugby League Football : Twenty-two of the most powerful clubs in England resign from The Rugby Union to form the Northern Football Union (the forerunner of Rugby League football). [After a similar breakaway, NSWRL’s first season 1908 —  LC]

^^ The jibe that our code of football is “parochial” is one of the by-now clichéd put-downs of our indigenous game. We’ve all heard the expression “Only in America”  —  this has to be the “Only in Australia” equivalent. Is it only in Australia that a local aspect of our culture is derided, not because it is deficient in content, grace or style, or anything like that, but because it is local ?  While some might want to do so for artistic or literary reasons, do we give Mr Nolan’s Ned Kelly paintings the slash because they portray a local colourful identity or consign Mr White’s Voss and The Tree of Man to the remainder bin for dealing with local phenomena ?  Why is it that some Sydney-siders, who claim to live in Australia’s First City (and “First” not just chronologically) feel so urged to diss Australia’s only original contribution to the wide world of sport ?

And does an aboriginal influence and or connexion count for zilch only the matter of the game of our own ?  In any other context, wouldn’t this be immediately be denounced as “racist”, particularly as the proportion of indigenous players at AFL level far exceeds (a) their demographic proportion, and (b) their presence —  and not just their presence —  in every other sport in the nation ?  Besides all this, there is an international dimension to this game “played only in one corner of Australia”: visit to find out and especially to find out. 

Leonard Colquhoun 7248
November 2005