The cosmopolitan, diverse character of football’s fandom should be trumpeted and made to act as a form of invitation to all Australians to come to the A-League.
Sometime in late 2009 I got a phone call from Don Matheson, then owner of North Queensland Fury. He wanted me to come to Townsville and do a whistle stop tour of the region, giving talks to the local communities about the virtues of supporting football and Fury.
Matheson felt the sizable ethnic population of the area was not actively backing the club and needed some convincing and engagement.
He had a point. We know that towns like Mareeba, Innisfail and Ingham, and their broad environs north and south, are football sleepers – the nurseries of Frank Farina, Steve Corica, Manis Lamond, Shane Stefanutto, Wayne Srhoj, Zenon Caravella, Adam Sarota, Tahj Minniecon, Kasey Wehrman, Mitch Langerak, Clint Bolton and Michael Thwaite, all products of a region that has punched above its weight in contributing to the broad outcomes of the nation’s player development.
Matheson, with his money running out, was in the mood to harness a regional football culture that went back as far as the advent of immigrant labour manning the sugar cane industry of the region.
In the end my trip never went ahead. By the time it would have done, Matheson’s appetite for losing money was gone and he was out of the club.
More’s the pity. Connecting with the region’s ethnic communities was critical if the Fury venture was ever to be a success and if its ultimate demise was to be averted.
It should be a lesson to all A-League clubs, but especially the league’s governors at FFA. The ethnically divided league that was the old NSL is dead. But its legated constituency, now as a united force, potentially and actually, is not just alive and breathing but is the lifeblood of 'new football’.
It’s troubling and worrying that this is not being noted by football’s governors, especially those who devise the game’s marketing strategy.
In fact what is happening is that the milling throngs, most of them young people, who hail from the ethnic communities and have a congenital love for football, are being shunned, ignored and being turned away. It’s a recipe for disaster.
Let me explain why I believe this.
Over 40 per cent of Australia’s population is from a non-English speaking background, 'ethnics’ according to the popular vernacular. The majority of that 40 per cent, nine million people, would nominate football as their favourite sport.
These people, once divided in following clubs under their individual cultural banners, are now united in supporting their A-League teams, chosen according to where they live. They are mostly young, second or third generation sons and daughters of immigrants, who have been brought up to love their football.
This is not only a magnificent success story for the A-League but a wonderful testimony to how the league can unify a once divided rainbow constituency.
But I’m not sure if the game’s governors get it.
It’s sad because the unique cultural diversity of football’s fandom should not just be understood. It should be celebrated and even used as a marketing tool, to distinguish it from other sports as a reference point for the game’s identity and as the game of the real Australia.
Recently, the topic of 'no more souvlaki at the football’ got some good traction on Twitter. Fans, myself included, nostalgically bemoaned that with the demise of the 'ethnic’ clubs, out went the chance to have some tasty snacks at the football: souvlaki, cevapcici, sarma, langos, bratwurst rolls and panini with mortadella and cheese.
What we now eat at A-League matches is, I’m sorry to say, bland meat pies, sausage rolls and soggy chips, washed down with dishwater coffee.
Even the street sellers, vending salted pistachios and pumpkin seeds, are rarely seen at the football.
The point being that with the birth of so called 'new football’ some of the game’s multicultural richness, however unwittingly, has also been removed from the game. The new governors never understood that the vibrancy provided by the cultural diversity of the fans is a plus for football, not a minus.
All the governors seem to relate to when thinking about 'old soccer’ is visions of national flags, flares and ethnic violence on the terraces.
They seem to want to move football, or at least its image, as far as possible away from the supposition that it is a game characterised by its culturally diverse constituency. Yet, of course, they welcome the 'ethnics’ as paying spectators and season ticket holders.
What utter nonsense and hypocrisy is this?
Contrary to hiding it – and living in denial – the cosmopolitan, diverse character of football’s fandom should be trumpeted and made to act as a form of invitation to all Australians to come to the football.
Football, as its history and global reach shows, is the most inclusive sport of all. This inclusiveness should be corporate policy at all levels of the game and should be proactively pursued.
Finally, back to Fury. Here’s an idea suggested to me by a fan: Why not get Clive Palmer to shut down Gold Coast United and give him the North Queensland license? At least in Townsville there appears to be some passionate community support for a football team, unlike on the Gold Coast.