Ethnicity and Identity: Old Soccer Faces New Challenges

The first edition of Australia’s FFA Cup has been hailed as a great success, repairing some of the divisions between ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’, but new challenges must be overcome if football’s warring factions are to be reconciled.

Football in Australia is still struggling with the same old disagreements, as fans and administrators question the role that ethnicity should play in sport.

The game grew on the back of Australia’s migrant communities but now Football Federation Australia (FFA) seem hell-bent on ‘de-ethnicisation’ – doing away with the game’s ‘inconvenient’ ethnic baggage.

Ethnic clubs have been kept away from the national spotlight since the fall of the the National Soccer League in 2004, with the FFA desperate to prevent the infighting, ethnic allegiances, crowd troubles and politics that crippled the NSL era from ever returning.

The A-League was created in 2005 as a competition between broad-based franchise teams but while the league has become a massive commercial success over the course of the last ten years, the FFA is struggling to find a place for ethnicity in its vision for ‘new football’.

Joe Gorman, the editor of the Leopold Method, says football’s problems simply reflect larger issues in Australian society, as the nation grapples with questions of identity in a multicultural age.

“I think the problem lies outside of [football]”, he explains, “[football] just reflects a deep seated fear of ‘the other’ that exists in Australia.”

For Gorman, the essential problem with soccer over the last 60 years is that no one understands exactly what multiculturalism means.

“Some people think that it means you have the rights to your ethnicity, you have the rights to your heritage and you have the rights to display that in any way that you wish, while other people say the multiculturalism is about everyone getting together under one Australian identity”.

“That’s been at the core of soccer’s problems, the fact that the policy of multiculturalism has never been properly articulated or properly discussed and there has never been a conclusive statement that says ‘ok, this is what multiculturalism means’”.

The FFA want to see the community support football as one united monoculture but many of the traditional ethnic clubs, who built the game in Australia, would prefer to protect the sports rich cultural heritage.

It is a stalemate that must be resolved because football can no longer afford to be at war with itself.

A controversial new National Club Identity Policy (NCIP) has emerged as the latest battleground for the disagreeing factions.

The NCIP, which was only introduced in June, dictates that football clubs may not add any ethnic, national, political, racial or religious references to their name, logo or playing strip.

The whole issue came to a head just weeks after the policy was announced and a defining legal battle now looms between the Melbourne Knights Football Club and Football Federation Australia (FFA).

The FFA blocked the club from displaying the sponsor ‘Melbourne Croatia Soccer Inc.’ on the front of their playing jerseys just days before the Knights July 29 encounter with Queensland side Olympic FC in the FFA Cup.

The decision incensed Melbourne’s Croatian community and the Knights responded by lodging a complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The vice president of Melbourne Knights, Pave Jusup, says the FFA have so far refused to enter mediation over the issue, which now looks destined to go before the courts.

“They have made it quite clear that if we are seeking the abolishment of the policy they will not meet with us because they are not entertaining that thought at all, so that’s where we are at now”.

“I’d push for the abolition of the whole policy if possible because its just wrong and morally bankrupt, but if we have to concede some points then legitimate promotion of a sponsor is one definite point where they should not have any power”.

Jusup says the club will have a response by mid December but even with a possible legally enforced resolution on the horizon the debate could drag on even longer, with the Knights declaring they will take the issue to the Federal Circuit Court if the appeal to the human rights commission should fail.

Joe Gorman says he can see both sides of the ‘ethnic’ argument, but disagrees completely with the FFA’s approach to dealing with the issue.

“Broadly speaking, I don’t support the NCIP… If you looked at this issue outside the politics of soccer you would say it is quite racist and discriminatory”, Gorman says.

“You wouldn’t ask a social club like Marconi to change their name and you wouldn’t ask a Thai restaurant to not have a Thai name – that’s just not something Australia is comfortable with any longer”.

He also questioned the FFA’s inconsistent enforcement of the NCIP and the FFA chairman Frank Lowy’s conflict of interest in the matter.

Lowy, one of Australia’s most successful businessmen, is a former president and long time fan of the Jewish community football club Hakoah.

Lowy, who is himself Jewish, watched from the stand’s as Hakoah was knocked out of the FFA cup by Palm Beach Sharks in the round of 32.

In the same round of the competition that the FFA banned Melbourne Knights from displaying an ethnic sponsor, Lowy’s beloved club took to the field with a Jewish name, Jewish sponsor’s and a logo that includes the Star of David.

“I was at that game and you could see that a lot of people in the crowd were Jewish including Frank Lowy himself”, says Gorman.

“I think the Jewish community in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney should be allowed to have a club that supports them… but that should be extended to all the different ethnic groups”.

Of greater concern to Gorman is the impact the NCIP will have on new migrants, who will now be unable to form football clubs in Australia.

“I think it is important that we don’t set a precedence that new migrants can’t form their own clubs, because that’s really who this affects actually… I think it is totally at odds with our multicultural society, I think it goes against our multicultural principles and I think it is against the spirit of the game”.

Clubs like El Salvador, which was formed by migrants from El Salvador, are being pushed outside the system where they must either play in church leagues, in breakaway competitions or be forced to disband.

Pave Jusup believes this would be to the detriment of Australian society.

“I can go to a Greek, Turkish or Slovenian club… and that’s who they are, I accept them. I meet new people, I learn things about their culture and I think that it is good for cross cultural contact within broader society.

“Generally people want to present their culture in the best possible light and through organizing groups, sporting clubs and social clubs they aim to preserve the best parts of their identity.

“Over time I think these clubs are destined to lose the overt signifiers and traditions so trying to hold onto them as much as possible is important because if you lose things like that, you lose a bit of the richness in society. Differences are not negative in my opinion”.

In truth, most traditional ethnic clubs have an opinion somewhere between the extremes of the FFA and Melbourne Knights.

While the Knights would happily go back to calling themselves Melbourne Croatia if they could, most ethnic clubs can see the need to evolve and become more accessible non-denominational clubs with ethnic heritage.

What they find offensive is the way that the FFA sets about stripping all references to ethnicity from the game, disregarding the emotional connection migrant communities form to the clubs that represent them.

The migrant experience can undoubtedly be difficult and forming football clubs gave people access to support networks that helped them cope with the upheaval of their lives.

The game’s migrant history is understandably a source of pride for many within the football community.

The FFA Cup built a fragile link between ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’ but it remains to be seen whether a resolution is possible with the FFA and ethnic clubs determined to change each other.


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