In 1998 Soccer Australia sold all TV rights to its properties, including the Socceroos and the NSL, to Channel Seven on a ten-year contract.
It proved to be no breakthrough. Seven, then an aggressive competitor for the AFL rights, appeared to quite deliberately bury the game from public view just to appease the Aussie Rules governors.
This is no idle rumour.
This suggestion came out in evidence in a 2005 court case in which Seven was suing several companies including Foxtel partners, News, Publishing & Broadcasting Ltd and Telstra. Seven claimed the parties conspired to drive its pay TV sports channel C7 out of business by ensuring it did not win bids for the NRL or AFL rights in December 2000.
During the court case it was revealed the executive in charge of C7 at the time, Steven Wise, lamented in correspondence that the AFL was not giving Seven credit that they had secured the soccer rights and suffocated the sport by not showing it on free to air television.
That was just 14 years ago. Fans of football who are still very much around today will not have forgotten it and have been loath to trust so-called mainstream commercial networks ever since.
It was probably the worst case yet of powerful forces at work in trying to sideline football as a sport of mainstream potential, and seen by the AFL as a long term threat to its market dominance.
But it wasn’t the last. Less than a couple of years ago the AFL attempted to stonewall Australia’s ambitious bid to host the World Cup by using its muscle to deny football access to major venues during the 2022 tournament. It very nearly succeeded in derailing the bid. In the words of Frank Lowy, 'they tried to f..k us’.
I recall these things now because, it appears to me, there is a new attitude of contentment and complacency within and outside the football family by those who believe that the anti-soccer pathology prevalent in Australian society for so long has somehow gone away if it ever existed at all. It hasn’t.
Of course it is true that what drove Seven in 1998, and the AFL more than a decade later to try to 'screw soccer’ were commercial imperatives rather than deep seated prejudice against what they call 'the round ball game’.
But they would have been comforted by the underlying social chauvinism feeding the notion that, after all, soccer remains the 'wogs’ game, so who cares if it dies or at least languishes on our sporting margins?
Last week I filed a column for this site in which I implied that the high editorial priority given in the media to a virgin sport called big bash or 20/20 cricket may be another case of what Johnny Warren called the 'sheilas, wogs and poofters’ mentality. The implication was that media space for football was being suppressed further in its summer season in preference for something the editors and producers might deem to be more 'Australian’ than soccer.
I was surprised by some of the responses. Readers accused me variously of being paranoid, insecure and of having a siege mentality. Others lectured me on commercial realities, like the high TV ratings and audiences of the Big Bash governing the volume of media space given to it.
That’s fine. Opinions are an entitlement and I welcome them. But let me respond, taking the last point first.
As a TV sports executive with long experience (I was SBS head of sport for ten years) I do know a little bit about sports television and sports media even if I don’t know jack about football. It is not that simple.
Media executives by and large are reactive people and public curiosity and popularity do naturally determine where they allot their space or airtime. But they are also responsible for driving that level of curiosity and popularity by the level of space or airtime they allot.
It then becomes a never ending circle and a vicious one from football’s standpoint.
The media, under the notion that, say, big bash cricket commands most public interest, will give a generous allotment to it. Because the media organs compete with one another in the same market, that allotment then becomes more and more generous, ballooning out disproportionately, acting as a massive promotional vehicle for that sport or event and squeezing back further and further the space and time allotted to other sports.
This in turn results in even further growth in popularity for the favoured sport and, because their exposure has shrunk, conversely reduced market appeal of other sports.
These are the laws of media nature which have been with us since the year dot.
But it shouldn’t be this way. At its peak in in the 2007-08 season the A-League averaged an attendance of just under 15,000 fans per game which was a bare whisker below what the NRL was averaging.
But did the press coverage reflect that comparison? Not in your life. The tabloids in the eastern states where NRL is king still gave five pages of daily coverage to rugby league to the A-League’s one. And you can apply the same disproportions to TV and radio.
So just ask yourself, where would the A-League’s popularity be if there was a more realistic, not to say more just distribution of media space and the league got the allotment appropriate for it? Where would it be if it got, say, four full pages of coverage per day to the NRL’s five?
But in addition to this glaring favouritism, which the editors and executive producers will explain by citing so-called commercial realities, there is the more primitive, cultural form of the 'sheilas, wogs and poofters’ mentality which continues to linger, though in probably lower volumes than decades ago.
We have supposedly come a long way since Johnny Warren in 1969 took part in an open-top Socceroo motorcade through Sydney and, edging past a pub with beer swilling patrons spilt onto the footpath, copped a hurl of 'dago bastards’, 'f"¦ing poofters’ and 'go back to where you came from’. This was after the team came back from tour of duty spreading Australia’s goodwill in Vietnam.
But the stigma still lives. Influential media columnists and commentators, with actually little else of substance to say, continue to try and soil the game as some kind of alien animal to which real Australians will never take because there are far too few goals, there are too many prima donna divers, there is no video refereeing and their fans are far too violent and, in any case, not like us.
'Don’t worry, it’s only soccer,’ one of these grubs wrote after Australia lost its World Cup bid.
Every minor altercation that happens outside a Collins Street café as fans make their way to Etihad is described, no less than before, as a 'soccer riot’ or 'soccer brawl’.
A brawl between two sets of fans with some kind of Balkan axe to grind at the Australian Tennis Open is described by the media as 'ethnic violence’, never tennis violence. Yet a slap and a tickle between fans at the football is invariably 'soccer violence’.
This mentality, this deep seated prejudice still lives and breathes in our country and there is no sign it is going away anytime soon.
I hope I am wrong when I see signs that many younger fans of football, who have not lived through what us older timers have over many decades, are accepting this grimy attitude and are even offering apologias for its perpetrators.
But that is the impression I am getting, a suggestion that we in football should accept our place in Australian sporting society and live with it.
Well, I don’t accept it and neither do I have to. And the great man, who dedicated the title of his autobiography to this shameful presence in a country that brags about its sense of 'fair go’, wouldn’t accept it either.
What a crying shame he’s still not around.