After necking a disappointing Victoria Bitter, I chose to wander around the Docklands area a final time before kick-off. As I passed the station’s main entrance, a gaggle of loud mouths descended the stairs to my left. These were Adelaide United FC’s away fans.
A goodie for the neutrals, heavyweight Melbourne Victory FC against Adelaide United was one of the final matches of the 2017/2018 Hyundai A-League. While Victory’s derbies against Melbourne City FC and Sydney FC may receive more attention internationally, Adelaide vs Victory is a hot affair worthy of just as much acknowledgement. Interstate rivalry between New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria can be dated back to colonial times, and the rivalries that exist between Australia’s 3 most populated states traverse all sports Down Under.
While the dark blue and white coloured Melbourne Victory is the choice team for many a proud Victorian, the red and yellow Adelaide United FC is THE team for South Australians. That vivid colour scheme is in no way arbitrary; blue, red and yellow are the colours of the state of South Australia. Adelaide United’s crest prominently features the three colours, but the striking shade of scarlet (often with yellow detail) worn by Adelaide United players and fans acts as a stark contrast to the various hues of blue frequently used by sports franchises and Hyundai A-League outfits from Sydney and Melbourne (ignoring Western Sydney Wanderers for a moment). The effect is subtle, but there can be no doubt that it is deliberate.
Adelaide’s unique identity is product of a history that is very different to that of other Australian cities. Unlike Melbourne and Sydney, Adelaide was originally founded not as a penal colony but as a choice destination for settlers in the New World, most notably from Germany and Central Europe who sought to take advantage of the temperate climate and abundant arable land for farming. They found that certain grape species could be cultivated very successfully in this new land, ultimately culminating in South Australia’s world famous wine industry years later. Adelaide from the very beginning was a city built by private enterprise and investment; 19th century architecture in South Australia is far more elegant and visually pleasing than the very functional and featureless edifices found in for example The Rocks area of Sydney.
Fast forward to the 21st century and Adelaide maintains a very different character to Melbourne and Sydney, but for different reasons. While its traditional manufacturing and construction industries continue to decline, Adelaide’s more affordable housing is increasingly attractive for members of the creative industries. As the Australian Summer begins to draw to a close in February and March, the city blossoms with festivals such as the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Fringe, Adelaide Writers’ Week, the Garden of Unearthly Delights and Womadelaide that attract tens of thousands of international visitors at a time. The city is now producing music and art like never before. While Australia’s two largest cities dominate the service industries, Adelaide is maintaining its proud tradition of turning its back on Melbourne and Sydney and doing things differently. It comes as second nature for Adelaideans and South Australians to proactively distinguish themselves from their counterparts in Victoria and on the East Coast. This handily explains Adelaide United FC’s use of a shocking red jersey next to the blues worn by Sydney FC, Melbourne City FC and Melbourne Victory.
Adelaide United’s birth marks a turning point in the history of Football in Australia. In the Winter of 2002 (Summer in Europe), the National Soccer League was in crisis. Crowd volumes were lower than ever and competing sides were heavily dependent on government funding just to keep the lights on. The existing state of domestic Football was not self-sustaining, let alone attractive to watch. It was clear to most onlookers that if Football were to prosper in Australia, a restructuring of the domestic league system was required, one in which clubs located in chosen geographical locations could fully capitalise on large markets for Football in their catchment areas by developing a neutral brand capable of mass appeal. This posed problems for the existing NSL clubs, many of which were “ethnic” clubs that faithfully represented various immigrant communities in Australia since their birth. While these “ethnic” clubs boasted decades of romantic history of partisan support, the fact of the matter was that their strong ties to communities defined by language, ethnicity and religion were becoming less relevant in 21st century Australia.
Perth Glory was the first outfit to emerge from the Professional Footballers Australia’s vision for future professional Australian Football. But a distinct lack of existing NSL clubs in Perth meant that fans were easily drawn to Glory. Could the PFA’s model succeed in an Australian city that hosted an abundance of “ethnic” Football clubs? That answer came in the Spring of 2003 with the creation of Adelaide United. Adelaide was a city that had seen NSL clubs representing communities of Serbs, Italians and Croats come and go. Yet in its first ever fixture on the 17th of October 2003, Adelaide United played to a sell-out crowd down at the Hindmarsh Stadium (the South Australian home of Football), beating visiting Brisbane Strikers 1-0. As Football historian Joe Gorman put it;
Adelaide United’s success proved beyond doubt that soccer could simply do away with its pre-existing ethnic clubs, create new clubs in their place, and fans would come along in droves.
The immediate popularity of the culturally neutral Adelaide United was exactly what the PFA was hoping for. A team of young Australian sportsmen with wildly diverse surnames were well received by equally diverse fans paying cash. This was the acid test. The PFA pushed ahead with plans to revolutionise Australian Football. Within a year, professionally licensed A-League franchises carefully spread out across the country began competing in front of thousands of spectators. Adelaide United has been an A-League stalwart ever since, winning the Premiers on two occasions and winning the league outright in 2016, whilst also being the first Australian Football team to reach the final of the AFC Champions League in 2008.
The match I attended was itself a great advert for Australian Football. Baba Diawara put the visitors in front in the 17th minute with a simple unmarked header from a corner. Melbourne Victory were awarded a penalty on the stroke of half time for a handball, but United ‘keeper Paul Izzo made a spectacular double-save to deny Berisha from converting. Victory would get their equaliser 10 minutes into the second half courtesy of a sublime piece of individual skill from Mark Milligan, but the Reds regained a single-goal-lead in the 72nd minute by coolly opening up the Victorian defence, Blackwood converting. Late drama saw two red cards issued to Adelaide players Adlung and Garuccio in the final 10 minutes, but a desperate final onslaught from Victory in the dying moments yielded no success.
An Adelaide United side reduced to nine men had won their biggest match of the season; Victory away (quite literally). The Red Army bounced and chanted in celebration as their players came over to acknowledge them. Disappointed Victorians made for the exits. The Reds had gotten what they wanted. Their team had maintained the proud Adelaidean tradition of standing up to Australia’s two largest cities and doing it their way.