Kevin Sheedy’s comments are a disgrace to this country, a throwback to the dark old days of anti-immigration and the ‘sheilas, wogs and poofters’ mentality that football fought against for so long.
They reek of ignorance towards what modern Australia is all about.
I am referring only in part to Sheedy's comments on Sunday, after his side attracted only 5,830 people to its home match against Adelaide Crows - a figure not seen in AFL since 1996.
Sheedy's press conference:
Sheedy said that his club lacked ‘the recruiting officer called the immigration department recruiting fans for the West Sydney Wanderers’.
AFL supremo Andrew Demetriou must be hunkered down with his PR wizards, directing Sheedy on what to say to try to extracate himself from the giant - pardon the pun - hole he dug for himself.
I imagine they'd be instructing him to apologise. Profusely. They'd perhaps seek to remind Kevin that his club, which they are ploughing tens of millions of dollars into, is based in the most multicultural region of Australia, FYI.
They may encourage Kevin to a drive around once in a while, for, in case he hasn’t noticed, this is real Australia. First, second, third generation Australians, many of whom settled in Sydney's west for a better life and have contributed everything to the beautiful country we have today.
Finally they'd remind Sheedy that these fans, who he has insulted by calling "immigrants", are his market.
In fact, if it were me in their position, I'd be saying to Kevin: 'Now get out there on your knees and pretend you know who they are and that you care about them, whatever it takes. Talk of your past work with any non-Anglos, anything. Camps, coaching sessions, travel, anything you can come up with. Just show you are not a racist old Aussie with no concept of the Australia of today.'
Sheedy has seriously upset me with his comments that hark back to the dark old days of the game where many just like him, too often showed both their insecurity regarding their own sport by trying to damage ours. A deep-seated prejudice shown by associating the game with a ‘non-Australian’ slant.
But this is the very point, Kev. The game of football represents the real Australia, where everyone is welcome, where everyone has a contribution to make, because in football we understand fundamentally that we’re all wogs, every single one of us.
I’m an ‘immigrant’, Kev, and bloody proud of it.
My forebears stepped off the ships from England, some convicts, others first settlers but every one of them an ‘immigrant.’
I’m no less an ‘immigrant’ than anyone who steps off a boat - fleeing another country for economic or reasons of personal security - or anyone who settles here to start a new chapter of their lives. Here’s the trouble with ignorance, mate: it shows a complete lack of understanding of who you are, not us.
You’re an ‘immigrant’, same as us. The only difference is the type of boat.
Here’s the reason why Sheedy’s inevitable backtracking means nothing to me, because I’ve seen him do this before, a few years ago at a speaking engagement in Perth. You know the ones: where someone from cricket, AFL and rugby all argue for their game. Les Murray couldn’t make it and I was the token ‘soccer’ guy.
I was there to represent my game and at the first chance I got I talked about who we are, what we represent, how proud we are of our game and our contribution to Australian life now, and in future.
It was the first time I met Sheedy and hopefully the last.
I explained to the crowd what football is. That it is multicultural, representing the people of the world, the common language of life and a connecting force globally. I talked about how those new arrivals to Australia bring the ball in their heart and are welcomed by our community.
"Yeah, sure, the ‘boat people’, that’s your sport," Sheedy responded.
The crowd stopped dead in complete silence. This was a highly partisan group for AFL and cricket, in particular, but they knew what had just happened was an absolute disgrace.
"There you have the problem with a latent ignorance still present in some sections of Australian society, and other sports," I said. "And yes, Kev, you’re spot on, the ‘boat people’ as you call them are ours, they’re part of our family, they mostly come from football-speaking countries and we consider them one of us, Australians, like everyone else in this room."
Of course, the ‘boat people’, like tens of thousands of new arrivals to Australia every year, often settle in Western Sydney as their jumping off point into a new life, as my own family did over 200 years ago.
The reason, Kev, that Western Sydney Wanderers is flying high is because it is truly Australian, not some throwback to the past where anyone who kicked a round ball, talked differently and ate odd-smelling food was a ‘sheila, wog or poofter’. The Wanderers represent every one of us, irrespective of colour, race, background, language, religion, age, gender or social means.
This is what football is: a vehicle for everyone to come together in shared understanding and passion. That’s why football rules the world.
All of us arrived here in different ways and we’re all equal, regardless of differences and in fact because of them, that’s the beauty of Australia.
Like the people you just insulted, Kev, I’m an ‘immigrant’, part of the original ‘boat people’. I’m also proud to call every Australian, from any background who finds a home at the Wanderers as a fellow Aussie.
So, from one immigrant to another, Kev, and on behalf of everyone who lives and loves our game, maybe it's time you got on a boat, and take your ignorance with you.
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Philip Micallef is a football writer with almost 40 years of experience. He has worked for News Limited and now SBS. He is a long-time follower of AC Milan.
A journalist with decades of experience on TV and radio, Tony is an expert on all things Italian - including football.