Narrating the Nation in Australian Soccer

Oneman’s post “‘Savage’ Mascots Take A Blow” sparked some commentary about European mascots. I think it is useful, in trying to understand the status of European mascots, to look at a country where many Europeans are still not considered “white” in the same way that they are now considered white in the United States. (A number of recent studies have discussed the different process by which Irish [also here] and Jews became “white” Americans.) That country is Australia, and there is an excellent article [AnthroSource link] by Loring M. Danforth entitled: “Is the ‘World Game’ an ‘Ethnic Game’ or an ‘Aussie Game’? Narrating the Nation in Australian Soccer.”

I have to confess a deep aversion to reading anything which cites Homi Bhabha extensively, but Danforth admirably demonstrates that one is not required to emulate Bhabha’s impenetrable prose to deploy his ideas effectively.

Soccer, as opposed to Ruby or “Aussie Rules” football, is still largely considered to be an immigrant sport in Australia. Up until quite recently soccer clubs were, in fact, run entirely along ethnic lines:

This “ethnic club” system, which characterized Australian soccer for so long, was based on the principle of ethnic nationalism according to which individual clubs, like individual nation-states, constituted homogeneous, closed cultural communities whose members were bound together by a common national identity. The owners and administrators of these clubs, like the vast majority of their supporters, were members of a single ethnic group.” Ethnic soccer clubs served as powerful symbols of the diaspora communities they represented. They played important roles in fostering ethnic solidarity and pride in the face of the assimilationist pressures of Australian society. According to its president, George Vasilopoulos, South Melbourne Hellas, one of the most successful soccer clubs in Australia, was formed to “bring together” the Greeks of Melbourne and to provide them with “a home away from home.” The club, he said, is “a clear indication of the progress this community has made. They grew and prospered together”…

A specialist in Greece, Danforth focuses on three clubs which represented deep divisions within the Greeks and Macedonian community over whether or not Macedonia was a part of Greece. “South Melbourne Hellas “was the Greek team, “Preston Makedonia” the pro-Macedonian independence team, and “Heidelberg United Alexander the Great Soccer Club” which was “founded by a group of people from the northwestern part of Greek Macedonia.”

What is particularly interesting, however, is not so much the exporting of the Macedonian conflict to Australian soil, as much as the efforts of the Australian Soccer Federation (now “Football Federation Australia“) to deethnicize the sport in order to make it more profitable. While finally successful, such efforts initially met with tremendous resistance:

The owners of ethnic soccer clubs and leaders of Australia’s ethnic communities vigorously opposed this campaign to “deethnicize” Australian soccer. They attempted to defend the “ethnic club system” by appealing to the ideology of multiculturalism in order to counter the narrative of traditional Australian ethnic nationalism that had been used by soccer officials to abolish the “ethnic clubs.”

Supporters of South Melbourne Hellas and Preston Makedonia were outraged by this campaign to destroy the “ethnic club system.” They called it an “antiethnic” and “undemocratic” plan that insulted members of Australia’s ethnic communities and made a mockery of the government’s multicultural policies. They said it was an example of “ethnic cleansing,” a case of “forced assimilation,” an attempt to put a “foreign face” (an Australian face) on soccer in Australia …

In a more humorous vein, one commentator suggested that if the commissioners of the Australian Soccer Federation really wanted to enhance the popularity of soccer in Australia, they should not stop at mere “cosmetic surgery.” Applying a “Band-aid” to the names of some clubs was not enough. If they were really interested in increasing attendance at soccer matches, commissioners should consider changing their own names (Papasavas and Labozzetta), banning players with ethnic names (Blagojevic and Van Blerk), or even forbidding the consumption of ethnic food (pizza and souvlaki) at all soccer matches …

At the heart of this conflict are competing images of what it means for Australia to be a multicultural nation. Danforth contrasts the dominant narrative which is one of ethnic assimilation, with a competing hybrid narrative. In American ethnic studies these two models are often referred to as the “melting pot” versus the “salad bowl” models of multiculturalism.

Eventually, the ethnic clubs were forced out of the league, and with the 1998 World Cup finals match against Iran, it seemed as if Australia had overcome the ethnic origins of the sport.

It is also ironic that many of the people enthusiastically shouting “Aussie! Aussie!” at the World Cup qualifying match between Australia and Iran would not be identified by themselves or by Anglo-Australians as “Aussies,” but rather as “Europeans,” “ethnics,” or “wogs.” At a fundamental level, they are not members of the very national community whose team they are supporting. Finally, it is ironic that when Greeks and Macedonians wave Greek and Macedonian flags and root for soccer teams named Hellas and Makedonia, their behavior is criticized as un-Australian, but when the same people-speaking the same foreign languages and eating the same ethnic food-wave Australian flags and root for the Socceroos, their behavior is lauded as representing multicultural Australia at its best. It seems that “ethnics become Aussies for a day” when they root for the Australian national team …

In a future post I will discuss representations of Aborigines in Taiwanese baseball.

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