Contemporary Australian Football (Soccer) players do not fit the European stereotype of the average Australian. Jedinak, Cahill, Schwarzer, Kruse. They’re a diverse bunch, as are Australian fans watching Football. Australia is a lot more culturally and ethnically heterogeneous than Europeans tend to imagine, as the Socceroos demonstrate.
The cliche Aussie tends to be a tall, Protestant, heavy-drinking yet muscular type called Mitch with either a Scottish, Irish or English-sounding surname. I would argue that this portrayal in part comes from exposure to athletes playing the sports that Australia has historically dominated; Rugby, Aussie Rules and Cricket, all of which have long been the preferred sports of the “Old Australian” establishment that has its roots in British colonisation. Joe Gorman’s book “The Death & Life of Australian Soccer” excellently chronicles the history of Football in 1950’s and 60’s Australia (a time of extensive migration from all over Europe) and how the existing sporting institutions reacted to the arrival of these immigrants.
These “New Australians” often found themselves subjects of aggression, victimisation and intimidation from English-speaking “Old Australians”. The Australian-born citizens largely associated Football with immigrants, an association that was perhaps justified, and the increasing popularity of Football at the time was seen as an example of immigrants failing to integrate into traditional Australian society. “White natives” attacked Football enthusiasts and their media and vandalised Football pitches in an attempt to discourage participation in the sport. Growing interest in Football scared the existing Australian sporting institutions. Attention away from Cricket, Rugby and Aussie Rules would ultimately result in less revenue and expenditure in these sports, as immigrants were unlikely to develop a taste for them. Aggression toward immigrant-led Football was a means by which the white Protestant classes of Old Australia tried to beat cultural assimilation into the New Australians in order to maintain the status-quo in Australian sport.
Such fears were unjustified. Australia has come to embrace Football in the 21st century, but Cricket, Rugby and Aussie Rules remain the sports that Australia exceeds at on an international stage, still played almost exclusively by white “Old Australians”. It is for this reason I believe that we in Europe stereotypically imagine Australians as white Protestants. Our familiarity with Australian Cricket and Rugby stars predominantly coming from these backgrounds leads us to assume that they accurately represent contemporary Australian society. They do not. Even if former governments pursued policies designed to eliminate aboriginal culture and quickly assimilate newcomers to that white Protestant Australian culture, modern Australia is a leading nation in terms of successful immigration.
In 2018, 27.7% of the Australian population are immigrants, compared to 14% in Spain, 8.3% in Italy and 8.3% in Malaysia (a country whose history has been defined by migration); three nations with far larger populations. The average Australian goes to school with children of Balkan, Asian and Pacific backgrounds. Exposure to diversity breeds tolerance; look at the turn-out for the same sex marriage referendum last year. 62% of the electorate voted in favour of same-sex marriages. Would the result be the same in Eurasia or the Americas? Scandinavia, the UK, Germany and the Low Countries aside, I don’t believe so. Diverse Australia is undoubtedly among the most progressive and tolerant of all developed nations. But because the leading Australian sports are dominated by the white Protestant “Old Australians”, the rest of the world maintains an inaccurate view of contemporary Australian society. Australian Footballers offer a far more realistic microcosm of modern Australia.
Many of Australia’s original Football clubs in the 20th century represented and were run by migrant communities who used the clubs as a social hub. Historic Australian Football club names emphasised the ethnic community they “belonged” to; Pan Hellenic, Marconi, Slavia, Hakoah, Hollandia, Napredak…. The creation of the modern Hyundai A-League and its corporate, advertising-friendly structure has given birth to franchises that have eclipsed these aging clubs, deliberately avoiding association with specific ethnicity to encourage diversity among supporters. One can objectively appreciate this policy, but it does forsake an additional ingredient in current Australian Football culture, for right or for wrong.
However, immigrants continue to make their mark on Australian Football Culture. One of the Hyundai A-League’s youngest franchises has become the choice club for the modern migrants to New South Wales. The Western Sydney Wanderers FC exploded onto the Australian Football scene in 2012 with a competitiveness which has sadly petered out since. The fans quickly gained a reputation for their edgy, colourful, raucous and above all legitimate fan culture. The main Ultras group of the Wanderers, the Red and Black Bloc, are easily the standout fan group among A-League franchises in the eyes of onlookers abroad. Cross-town rivals Sydney FC symbolise the Football establishment and the capitalist-breed of modern Football club, while the WSW occupies the position of club for those who go for the atmosphere.
As the name suggests, the Western Sydney Wanderers are located in the Western suburbs of Sydney. These neighbourhoods, located far from the high-rent areas close to Sydney’s famous landmarks and CBD, have become synonymous with the more recent waves of migration to Australia, as economic migrants can more readily afford to live here. The boroughs of Parramatta, Blacktown and Liverpool are the known go-to places for shawarma and moussaka. People growing up in these neighbourhoods will naturally inherit their parents’ interest in Football, playing during their school years and learning from their relatives’ fan traditions. And the Western boroughs of Sydney, populated with second and third generation Iraqis, Croatians, Lebanese and Hungarians, have historically made a significant contribution to the Australian national team.
The in-game behaviour of the Western Sydney Wanderers fans is far more recognisable as the “Ultra Model” support seen in Central and Eastern Europe than that of fan groups of any other A-League outfit. Wanderers fans, led by the Red and Black Bloc, create tifos, chant in unison assisted by a capo, swing carves and shirts above their heads and arrange pre-match corteos to the stadium. Our visit unfortunately saw the Wanderers play in the soulless Spotless Stadium at Sydney’s Olympic Park as their home, the Sydney Showground Stadium, was deemed unfit due to weather conditions. The vast size of the Spotless Stadium diluted the Wanderers’ famed support as much as the disappointing 2-0 loss to visiting Brisbane Roar did.
The players and fans at clubs like the Western Sydney Wanderers present a more accurate picture of modern Australia to Europeans who are more familiar with the white protestant stereotype associated with sports that Australia dominates in. Australian Football has always been led by immigrants, and in 2018, the terraces of the Western Sydney Wanderers are the best place to observe Australia’s immigrants shaping Australian Football Culture for the better.