To European eyes, the A-League appears very americanised. Each season 14 licensed franchises from across the federation (and one in New Zealand) compete for glory in the current highest tier of Australian domestic club Football across two leagues before the top 6 compete in a series of showdown matches until the ultimate victor is decided in the “Premiership” winner-takes-all grand final in an orgy of confetti and loud pop music. For 17 years the Football Federation of Australia (now rebranded as Football Australia) has produced a very corporate and media friendly package by granting licenses to entities that can demonstrate sound financial backing, are not funded by public entities, spend below the player-salary-cap and, intriguingly, present an image that is free of any explicit reference to any nationality or ethnicity in the fabric of its branding.
Such an odd condition has actually been integral to the way the FFA has managed the A-League. The competition’s inaugural season came in 2005-2006, two years after the demise of the National Soccer League. The former edition of Australia’s highest profile national league died a slow death through the 90’s and early 2000’s with no major league sponsor, a poor relationship with its broadcaster, multiple clubs defaulting on its debts in that period and attendance figures slumping to around 4,600 in its final seasons. Former great clubs were falling all the time in a league that could not sustain itself financially quite simply due to a lack of interest.
Many of these ailing clubs that collapsed towards the twilight years of the NSL were the once mighty Football teams founded in the 50’s and 60’s by Australia’s immigrant communities. The suffixes included in the names of many organisations demonstrate this point – Croatia, Juventus, Slavia, Yugal and Budapest to name a few. These “ethnic” clubs offered solace to members of Australia’s young immigrant communities who found themselves in very unfamiliar surroundings both literally and metaphorically. In the clubhouse of “their” club, they could be indulged in their mother tongue, eat home cooked dishes originating in the Old Country and even enjoy a traditional folk ditty or two on the radio. Such clubs modeled their operations to serve their respective communities, but as Australian society matured over the decades, more confident modern Australians did not have such a need to connect to the homeland. Attendance figures slipped but the clubs did nothing to address their “ethnic” branding which in turn discouraged potential new fans from joining the clubs. This core failure of the clubs competing in the NSL at its death was to be eradicated by the FFA in its new league venture. The A-League goes to great lengths to ensure its franchises maintain mass appeal by mandating that ethnic imagery, insignia and iconography are not used in their external branding practices. This has come at the cost of clubs like South Melbourne Football Club.
Previously known as “South Melbourne Hellas”, the side to this day wears the vertical blue and white stripes of the Balkan homeland of its founders very visibly in its badge. This is one of Australia’s most successful Football clubs, with 4 national championships and many Victorian state leagues decorating its trophy cabinet. Furthermore South Melbourne is one of only 2 clubs to play in every single season of the National Soccer League until it folded in 2004. Its vocal support were feared across Victoria and their fabled, but sadly no longer standing, Middle Park was one of the classic stadia in Australian Football. “Hellas” is a true Football institution in Australia, but its existing perceived ties to the Greek-Australian community now make it exempt from A-League participation.
The club’s directors either expressed public interest in, or formally applied for, a franchise to compete in the A-League on 5 separate occasions between 2007 and 2018. And each time the FFA has either awarded the franchise license to a different bid or the entity that the directors of South Melbourne had planned to buy out found backing from a different source and thus the franchise in the league was occupied. Public communication from parties involved has been clear and concise, appearing authentic and legitimate in the details. But skeptics who know how the FFA likes to operate very quickly jump to the accusation that the only reason that South Melbourne has not been awarded a license is due to its historical ties to the Greek community of Victoria – often perceived as one of the more troublesome immigrant communities in Australia as far as Football fandom was concerned (for right or for wrong). This surely smarts for the people who purely want the best for the club – especially when one of the flagship teams of the A-League appears to continue using the imagery of the immigrant community that founded it in 1957.
The Dutch-Australian community often goes under the radar of the media, but an estimated 100,000 citizens moved from the Low Countries to Down Under in the 50’s and 60’s, often forming their own voetbalvereniginge in the process as most immigrants of the era did. One such example was “Hollandia Inala” of Brisbane who adopted the very vivid oranje of the Royal House of Nassau as their default playing colour and used a depiction of the Dutch royal lion on their badge. The outfit existed in this mold for 16 successive seasons until in 1973 the Queensland Soccer Federation imposed a name change away from Hollandia Inala to the rather tepid “Brisbane Lions” in a well-meaning attempt to promote inclusivity within its catchment area.
A merger with fierce rivals Brisbane City, a club followed by the Italian-Australians community of the city, in 1989 prompted the rebrand as “Queensland Lions”, but the club continued to play in the colour of the House of Nassau. At the advent of the foundation of the A-League, the Queensland Lions was one of the highest profile Football teams in the country and an obvious candidate for participation. The establishment of Gold Coast United resulted in another tweak of Queensland Roar’s identity to avoid confusion between the two Queensland sides. The emerging Brisbane Roar FC has been named as such ever since, continuing to play in that vibrant shade of orange and with a rampant lion on its badge – both of which are traditions passed down from the Dutchmen who dug the foundations of the side in 1957.
Domestically Queenslanders have a reputation of having a couple bolts loose inside their skulls which makes them laughable and entertaining but not to be fully trusted and also incapable of little intellectual achievement. As such, fans in Sydney and Melbourne are often irritated by the fact that Brisbane Roar FC is a true force to be reckoned with most seasons. The Roar has won the A-League Premiership twice and won the outright Championship on 3 occasions during its most successful spell in 2011, 2012 and 2014, and in addition the franchise holds the record for the most consecutive A-League games without a defeat at a staggering 36. The team is still yet to obtain silver in the AFC, but Brisbane Roar stands among the current greats in Australian Club Football. And all the while it still caries the colours and lion of an entirely different nationality.
By now, South Melbourne fans are quite used to being shafted by the authorities. There is no doubt in my mind that another franchise application will be submitted in the next couple seasons as the legacy of Hellas fades slowly. But all the optimism in the world on behalf of an idealistic chairman will not wash with everyday fans who know that South Melbourne Football Club will always be “too Greek” for the A-League. Execs and leaders of the FFA will not tolerate any manifestation of the tribalism that they believe was inadvertently responsible for the ultimate demise of the National Soccer League. For this reason, any individual or organisation lodging an application for an A-League franchise license must demonstrate that their entity does not represent any ethnicity, nationality or culture. You may say this is quite within reason and fair as it is explicitly outlined in the documentation that any applicant must sign. But it is perhaps difficult to argue that this is uniformly applied in practice when one of the A-League’s most successful franchises continues to use the national colours and animal found on the national crest of the Dutch immigrants who founded its predecessor over 60 yeasr ago.