At a time of increasing community tensions, the rise of identity politics and fear of “the other”, could soccer play a stronger role in bridging the gaps that are now appearing in society?
It’s a fascinating idea, loosely promulgated by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews this week when he addressed a South Melbourne soccer club function honouring their relationship with the great Brazilian footballer Roberto Carlos.
Using soccer as a vehicle for togetherness might sound simplistic at best, naive and idealistic at worst. It would certainly not be a substitute for education, economic and integration policies designed to help newcomers assimilate into this country with an easier transition than they often manage.
But in a nation such as , made up of myriad ethnic, national and religious groups, the global game at least has a reach and currency that few other things do.
Almost every immigrant – whether they are a refugee from the Middle East, a new arrival from Africa or South America in search of a better life, or someone coming from Asia, Europe or North America for career or business development – will have either played, watched or at least know about soccer.
In my travels – and not just covering the game – I have found it to be the lingua franca of the street, a sort of global sporting esperanto.
That for me was never better exemplified than in New York 20 years ago when I got chatting, in a somewhat fractured way, with a cab driver. I found out that he came from Haiti, and when I told him I remembered Emmanuel Sanon scoring the opening goal for Haiti in a game against Italy in the 1974 World Cup (the Azzuri went on to win 3-1) his face lit and we became firm friends for the duration of the journey.
Andrews stressed the role that soccer has already played in in integrating millions of post-war migrants, helping them establish an identity and a community in a city they were unfamiliar with, adding greatly to the diversity and cultural mix in return.
The Premier is pushing South Melbourne’s case for inclusion in the A-League – a campaign that has been going on for several years now – but rather than concentrate on the football or economic benefits that the traditional clubs can provide if they get a seat at the top table of the game, Andrews talked of the role that those clubs, and the game, has already played in creating the of today.
“You go back 50-60 years and you think about our capital city and our state, and indeed our nation, much more broadly,” Andrew said.
“We didn’t celebrate our cultural diversity, we didn’t know what multiculturalism was. We barely knew what football was. We had a very black and white view of what defined us and almost an intolerance to things that were a little bit different.”
Soccer had played a key role in changing for the better, Andrews told the crowd, helping provide immigrant communities a hub, through clubs and social values, where they could find their feet in a new environment but also retain some of the cultural values which would enrich the broader n society.
“Trailblazers, leaders just like the South Melbourne Football Club not only provided an option for all of those who came to Melbourne (and) Victoria after the war to build a better life for themselves and their family, and in so doing to build a better state for all of us and a better for the future.
“It wasn’t always easy. In fact, it was very difficult at times. And we look at, all these decades later, football, the beautiful game, has never been in a stronger position than it is right now – and that is not due to big TV rights deals, it’s not due to the money that’s in this game.
“It’s due to the hard work of clubs like South Melbourne and others never forgetting where they came from, never forgetting their critical purpose to unite and celebrate and to pass on values and learnings to the younger generation, to pass on culture, to be part of the community, to define what a modern, multicultural, inclusive, sport-mad Victoria and Melbourne was all about.”
Okay, Andrews might be said to be playing to the gallery somewhat given the nature of the event and the constituency he was addressing, but he could have taken a much blander line and merely soft-soaped for a minute or two before enjoying dinner and the highlights package accompanying some truly extraordinary Roberto Carlos goals.
Soccer certainly can’t build all the bridges required to bring in disaffected and disengaged parts of the community, but it can help as a pathway, particularly for young men who often find themselves alienated in a new environment.
The Roberto Carlos visit was largely a PR stunt, but the fact that they could attract a player of his standing to come out and then draw a big crowd to the Palladium at Crown at short notice for an expensive dinner says a lot about South’s latent supporter base and standing.
It is one of several Victorian bids – rivals from south-east Melbourne and from Geelong are also throwing their hats in the ring – for a spot in an expanded A-League, or at the very least in a national second division.
There is some prejudice against the club because of its Greek heritage and a perception of arrogance about its belief that it should be among the game’s elite, but that doesn’t worry its leaders, especially Bill Papastergiadis, a Melbourne lawyer who is heading up its A-League bid.
While some fans are concerned that its claims of exceptionalism could hurt its bid, Papastergiadis is happy to celebrate South’s successful past and its great historical record.
It does have some significant factors in its favour, not the least a 40-year lease on the newly-refurbished Lakeside Stadium and the newly-finished social club at the venue.
Papastergiadis remains optimistic that finances will not be a problem, saying that the terms of its long-term lease deal mean South could break even with crowds of just 1500 at A-League games, although he is confident that gates would be 10 times higher.
Will they be successful? That is in the hands of the FFA. But it won’t be for lack of government good wishes, anyway.