Book Review: The Death and Life of Australian Soccer

Rockdale City Suns v Bonnyrigg White Eagles – regional soccer in Australia [Credit: Gary Andrews]

Sydney-based football writer Gary Andrews casts his eye over Joe Gorman’s assessment of soccer Down Under in The Death and Life of Australian Soccer.

Does Australia have a soccer culture? The casual international observer may readily associate the green and gold with triumphs in rugby union and cricket while sports fans Down Under would as likely put AFL (Australian Rules) or rugby league ahead of football as the national game.

An alternative argument comes Joe Gorman’s meticulously researched history of Australian soccer, where the writer makes a persuasive case that not only is football the only truly national sport, it’s also the backbone of immigrant integration into wider Australian society. Indeed, the issue of ethnicity is so intertwined with soccer in Australia.

Like Ulrich Hesse-Licthenberger’s Tor! and Phil Ball’s Morbo that detail the development of football in Germany and Spain respectively, The Death and Life of Australian Soccer is more than just a history of the sport, but a detailed examination into the evolution of a young nation that has often struggled with the integration of recently arrived immigrants into society, and saw soccer become a frontline on this struggle.

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At the heart of Gorman’s book is the dichotomy that Australian soccer has struggled with since the game started to establish a foothold. On one hand, immigrant clubs such as South Melbourne Hellas, Marconi or St George Budapest acted as a focal point for the likes of the Greek, Italian and Hungarian immigrants, but struggled to attract Anglo-Australians away from rugby league and Aussie Rules.

On the other hand, Gorman neatly details how both the national team and new clubs in non-ethnic heartlands such as Newcastle or Canberra tapped into a passion for the game that existed beyond the ethnic roots, yet when regular attempts were made to de-ethnicise the game in the 1980s, the two forces usually ended in failure. And yet, the writer shows how hard it is to divorce these issues from each other.

The chapters that detail the development of Australia’s “golden generation” is a case in point. The book charts the arrival of the precociously talented Mark Viduka through Melbourne Croatia.

Along the journey, Gorman introduces us to a dizzying array of individuals from across the spectrum, all of whom contribute to the growth of the game. There’s Charles Perkins, one of the first indigenous Australians to compete in professional sport, even via a brief stint in England, Johnny Warren, one of Australia’s greatest ever players, and journalist and doyen of soccer writing in Australia, Andrew Dettre.

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If anything, this is as much Dettre’s story as it is that of Australian soccer, and Gorman has based a lot of this book around conversations with the Hungarian immigrant who led the charge of football writing and did much to shape the game throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, even making it as far as the corridors of government, but eventually becoming marginalised and disillusioned as the game changed from the 80s onwards. Often contradictory but always insightful, Dettre spent much of his career wrestling with “the ethnic questions” of expanding the game to Anglo-Australians while staying in touch with the communities who built up the game and clubs in the first place.

There are a few minor criticisms of the book. Gorman’s research is so meticulous and in-depth that he has more stories than he sometimes knows what to do with. The result is some characters, like Ulysses Kokkinos, a talented playboy who stowed away on a ship to Australia, vied with John Kosmina for a spot in the national team, and was eventually jailed for extortion and blackmail, are afforded a couple of pages when it’s clear there is an equally fantastic story here that could use more space. Such is the tyranny of editing. The book also naturally focuses on Sydney and Melbourne, sometimes at the expense of Brisbane and Adelaide in particular.

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But these are minor points in what is one of the most comprehensive accounts of the growth, decline and subsequent growth again of Australia soccer. While the first half of the book is a story of passion, the second is a story of ruthless pragmatic management, and the reader is rightly left with an uneasy feeling at the end. Australia may finally have a successful, well attended national league but all statistics and knowledge is reset from the start of the A League. To critics of the English Premier League, some of this may seem incredibly familiar.

At a point where the A-League is facing questions about its management and expansion into new territories and the national team is struggling relative to a decade of success, Gorman’s book has never been more vital.

Be sure to subscribe to our Football Travel podcast, as we’ll be talking to Gary in more depth in November 2017’s episode about Australian football.

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