June 2006

The Nation Reviewed

The greater glory

By Malcolm Knox

Paradise is once again at hand for the persecuted tribe of Australian soccer, or ‘The One True Football’. This month, the Socceroos’ participation in the World Cup – for the first time in 32 years, and for only the second time ever – is set to awaken the ‘sleeping giant’. Yet again, the code’s prophets are hailing its coming ascendancy. Yet again, they will be disappointed.

We must be careful about nomenclature. After years of threats and zealotry, Australia’s metropolitan newspapers last year bowed to pressure to call soccer ‘football’. Fanatics (no other sport’s followers deserve so richly to be called by their full name) saw this victory as a necessary precondition to ending the historic mass-media conspiracy to keep the World Game pinned down. Due to the media conspiracy, crowds and TV audiences for Australian soccer – oops! football – lag a long way behind those for our most watched sports of cricket, Australian Rules and Rugby League. Local round-ball even has a lower media profile, in New South Wales and Queensland, than tweedy Rugby Union.

The ‘sleeping giant’ theory rests on the discrepancy between spectatorship and participation. According to the federal sports ministry’s 2004 report on participation, Australia’s most popular organised sports are gym, golf, tennis and netball. Soccer ranks fifth, ahead of cricket (eighth) and Australian Rules (tenth), with the Rugby codes much further down. Of Australians aged 15 and over, 659,000 play soccer, 451,000 Australian Rules, 172,000 Rugby League and 144,000 Rugby Union. That’s a big difference, and round-ball’s lead is even more marked among under-15s. The theory supposes – or, more precisely, hopes – that these participants constitute a bottomless reservoir of spectators who can raise The One True Football to its rightful place.

But since when do we watch what we play? Look at gym, golf, tennis, netball – and at swimming, which has 2.6 million participants (as a casual, rather than organised, sport). And look at their TV ratings. OK, ignore gym, the only sport you perform while watching TV. Golf and tennis can barely survive in non-ratings January. Netball attracts attention when coverage of its grand final is curtailed by the evening news. Surfing, meanwhile, is undergoing an unprecedented boom in Australia, but entirely in participation, not as a spectator sport. Surfing is the creative writing of Australian sports: everyone wants to do it; no one wants to see others do it.

It may be precisely because we don’t play a sport that we love to watch it. Games of epic toughness like Australian Rules and Rugby League elicit a kind of awed fascination: those granite shoulders, those prestidigital hands, that lightning dash. The AFL is one of only five sporting competitions in the world where crowds average more than 30,000 people. In America, the biggest spectator sport is football – American football – a game far too brutal for mere mortals to play beyond the age of twelve. The gladiatorial spectacle has always been for those who like to watch. Meanwhile, anyone can kick a soccer ball in the park, whack a tennis ball at the local court, splash up and down the pool or shoot hoops in the driveway. Where’s the awe and mystique in that?

Professional round-ball does, of course, showcase marvellous otherworldly skills, but where’s the fascination in a Holden when you can drive a Ferrari for the same price? Sports viewers are, more than anything, sports-smart. As a product, spectator sport is so efficiently globalised by satellite television and the internet that consumers can choose between the Made-in-Australia brand and the superior imports from Italy, Spain and the UK. They choose with the same sense as the Muscovites who gave up their Ladas for Mercedes. If you’re a purist, rather than a parochialist, why on earth would you watch Sydney playing Perth when you’re used to Real v. Barca or Chelsea v. Arsenal? Where is the enjoyment in the local product when it is so patently less than the best?

That other sleeping giant, basketball, has accepted dormancy. Some years ago, participation rates were meant to propel the Australian National Basketball League into major-sport status. Spectators saw it differently. They could watch the American National Basketball Association – Jordan, Johnson, O’Neal, Duncan – after which the local league looks, well, local. The lure of the local product is that it is local. But in sport, as in everything else, Buy Australian doesn’t necessarily grip. Rugby League is immensely popular not only because it’s Australian, but also because it’s the best of its kind. In Andrew Johns and Sonny Bill Williams, viewers can watch a Michael Jordan and a Tiger Woods, or, more to the point, a Zidane and a Ronaldinho. Sports viewers are too smart to be conned into Buying Australian when they can just as easily buy the best.

Calling the code ‘football’, far from elevating it, underscores the local game’s limitations. Soccer – let’s call it by its proper name, ‘association football’ – is the transcendent global game. Not only is it played everywhere, but the beautiful simplicity of its rules and its almost total resistance to technology mean that it is played as vibrantly and skilfully in Senegal as in Switzerland, in South Africa as in South Korea, in the United Arab Emirates as in the United States of America. The greatness of the game is that it minimises the financial and technological differences between nations that are accentuated in too many other sports. Association football puts everyone in their place.

As it has put Australia in its place: behind Cameroon, behind Senegal, and arguably behind Togo and Côte D’Ivoire, who have edged into this month’s World Cup ahead of the African powerhouses. We can gloat about winning a World Cup in cricket or a Rugby code or – ha! – ‘International Rules’, or exceeding our per-capita entitlement in the money-dependent Olympic sports, but the World Game puts everything into perspective. It reminds us that we’re not the best at everything, not even for our size. For a country that has never needed humility as much as it does now, association football provides a perfect dose.

But perhaps I’m just reinforcing the media conspiracy. In the past, when I wrote newspaper columns arguing that Australia would gain more self-respect from qualifying for the World Cup by beating Uruguay than by beating Tahiti, association football’s not-so-silent minority of email maddies and telephone thugs accused me of being an agent of the AFL, NRL and ARU, conspiring to keep the great game pinned; tossing and turning for fear that the real football would be on network television on Friday nights. As I cowered from the hail of abuse for having the temerity to point out that Australia were ranked 46 or 64 in the world and didn’t have a god-given right to be in the World Cup, Johnny Warren rang me up. “Ignore them,” he said. “This game is full of psychos. What you said is right.”

Johnny Warren was a true man of the world. What he loved was the game, not the insularity. As he often said, if we had to compete with Brazil (which we will) and qualify for the World Cup through Asia (which we will), then even failure in the big world would bring greater glory than success in our backyard.

Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has won two Walkley awards for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life.

Cover: June 2006

June 2006

From the front page

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