What a year 2022 was in Australian football – dizzying highs and desolate lows, the new and the old colliding as they often do.
Less than a year ago, we braced ourselves for the very real possibility of Australia missing out on the World Cup after back-to-back defeats to Japan and Saudi Arabia threw the Socceroos and their then-beleaguered coach Graham Arnold into the intercontinental game . offs.
If you had told me back then that our World Cup journey would end with a narrow defeat to Argentina in the round of 16 and that Graham Arnold would be given a contract extension, I might well have questioned your sanity.
On the domestic front, fledgling Western United dethroned mighty Melbourne City to win the A-League final and the rise of a new generation of stars continued, led by the sublime Garang Kuol.
The intrigue of football’s ongoing structural reform bubbled along and we are not much closer to knowing what the national second division might look like. Plus ça change.
And of course, some old demons reared their ugly heads, notably the dark iconography that marred the Australia Cup final in October and the horrific incident perpetrated by Melbourne Victory supporters at the A-League’s Melbourne derby on December 17.
It was also a year of anniversaries. The Socceroos turned centenary and renewed old acquaintances with New Zealand. There were also another couple of anniversaries that went largely unnoticed in 2022 – both silver jubilees and significant moments in Australian football history.
First, however, the Socceroos.
Dust in Dunedin and cigars in Newcastle
The history of Australian rules football is a not insignificant part of the story of 20th century migration to Australia. The local football club was a sanctuary and a cultural touchstone for so many of the refugees and migrants who arrived after the wars. If there wasn’t a local club, they formed one.
Given the exclusionary policies of the time, the wave of migrants that followed the First Great War was smaller and more British than that which followed the Second. But it still stands out with a large increase in population in 1919, followed by steady growth from 5.4 million in 1920 to 6.5 million in 1930.
Although the population wasn’t quite booming, football was. At a grassroots level, rugby league was rivaling New South Wales and Queensland in terms of player registrations and becoming a concern in Australian rules.
It was against this backdrop that football took the next step, evolving from interstate competitions into the international arena in June 1922. NSW had been a pioneer, having both toured and hosted New Zealand in 1904–05, and the first Australian team ran on to Carisbrook wearing sky blue.
On the historic day Dunedin Evening post reported that the “Test match” was played “in a pouring rain and on a greasy pitch” with around 10,000 spectators in attendance. New Zealand reportedly dominated possession and forced Australia back in the early stages before taking the lead through Edward Cook after 20 minutes.
But the “happy” Australians hit back just before half-time when Tom Thompson’s cross was bundled home by William Maunder for the very first goal by a Socceroo.
Unfortunately, things did not improve much after that, either in Dunedin or in the five subsequent Tests held in New Zealand in 1922 and Australia in 1923. New Zealand won 3–1 in Dunedin and claimed the opening Test series 2–0, with the prolific Cook scoring in every game.
Despite William Maunder’s late goal securing Australia’s first win at the Gabba in June 1923, New Zealand won the series 2–1, with captain George Campbell scoring hat-tricks in Sydney and Newcastle.
The pioneers seemed to have an eye for creating a legacy. At the end of the 1923 series, Australian officials presented Campbell with an ‘Ashes’ trophy filled with the remains of cigars that he and the Australian captain, Alex Gibb, consumed. Unfortunately, the trophy later disappeared along with the prospect of creating an Ashes tradition in football.
Even if they didn’t create a physical legacy, they started something. The story of the Socceroos and Australian rules football more generally is unlike anything you’ll find in rugby or Australian rules because it’s much more interesting. It’s worth remembering, especially now.
Australia hosted Olympic football in 1956 and just three years later became international pariahs due to Football Association Australia’s refusal to comply with FIFA’s transfer policy. There have been epic qualifying campaigns, including an intervention by a witch doctor in Maputo, Mozambique, which allegedly set football back decades.
There have been crushing blows (more on that later), joyous triumphs and a gray wiggle. Australian football has pretty much torn itself down and rebuilt itself over the last 20 years, and that process is still not complete. On that theme, let’s jump ahead to 1997.
‘The biggest day in Australian football history‘
This anniversary was understandably not noticed. The club involved has not competed at the elite level for nearly two decades. The competition they were a part of in their heyday is long gone and somewhat lamented. The achievement will always have some significance, but it seemed much more significant at the time.
It’s now just over 25 years since the Brisbane Strikers beat Sydney United 2-0 to win the NSL Championship in 1997. The Strikers are still fighting away, albeit much less so, in Queensland’s lower leagues and when they go around Perry Park these days it’s unbelievable to think they were once national champions. But they were, and that performance was in some ways the genesis of the A-League.
The Striker’s win over Sydney United was seen by some as a turning point for football. Bounce Up the magazine declared that “the future of Australian football has arrived – and it’s popular, successful and multi-ethnic”.
That Courier mail giddily it pronounced the “greatest day in the history of Australian football”. They were partly right. Change was coming and ironically it ended up leaving the Strikers behind. As always with Australian football, it’s best not to get too far ahead of yourself.
Speaking of which, Queensland is a funny old place – and I’ve earned the right to say that after living here for more than 20 years now. The locals claim to love an underdog, but they really don’t. If the State of Origin rugby league hadn’t immediately gone Queensland’s way, they would have lost interest immediately.
Above all, they like a winner, and credit where it’s due, when they find one, they really stand behind it.
Strikers captain-coach in 1996-97 Frank Farina said as much in his autobiography, My world is round. The Strikers rarely attracted large crowds, not even when the team established themselves as championship contenders late in the 1996-97 NSL regular season, finishing second on the ladder behind mighty Sydney United.
But when Wayne Knipe’s away goal at Parramatta Stadium put the Strikers through to the grand final – and a home final to follow – something woke up. According to Farina, there was a crowd waiting at the airport to congratulate the team on their return to Brisbane, much to the amazement of the players.
As Farina recounted: “Striker’s fever hit Brisbane – and it was a dream come true for me and the other senior players who had never seen anything like our code in Australia”. I suppose a few of the Brisbane Roar players who were part of the club’s golden years between 2010 and 2014 could say something similar.
As Joe Gorman wrote: “At kick-off Suncorp Stadium had to be locked down for fear of overcrowding” with the official crowd figure of 40,446 a new National League record. And the suddenly football-mad Brisbanites roared their team home. Farina scored just after half-time and they rarely looked like losing, with veteran striker Rod Brown getting it later in the second half.
But the game had an additional symbolism. Sydney United, along with South Melbourne and Adelaide City, were powerhouses in the NSL and are obviously clubs with different ethnic identities. The success of an upstart like the Strikers, a club with seemingly wider popular appeal, was seen as a potential game-changer.
There had been crowd trouble at the preliminary final between United and South Melbourne, administrators were tired and the media jumped all over it, with Courier mail declaring that “Football (is) sinking into an ethnic quagmire”.
It is interesting to look back at the enthusiasm of the Murdoch press for the potential of a new ‘soccer’. Did they see it as a commercial opportunity, or was it just part of the culture wars – the ‘I’m not racist, you’re racist’ narrative? John Howard was Prime Minister, Pauline Hanson was newly elected to Parliament; multiculturalism was definitely on the agenda.
Either way, a new football happened, just in a completely different format. Whatever optimism existed in mid-1997 about the future of the NSL had evaporated by the end of that year.
Where were you on November 29, 1997?
It was one of those moments. I was 14 years old and at home in northern NSW with my father and with my mother and sister who occasionally feigned interest.
Football had been very good to me up until this point. My team, the Brisbane Strikers, were champions of Australia. I was yet to discover that I was completely hopeless at playing the game. Harry Kewell had scored in Tehran and we were almost there. Then it all came crashing down.
I still remember it clearly. Aurelio Vidmar put the Socceroos 2-0 up and mum idly wondered about a holiday in France. In public, I was appalled: “Don’t say that, mother!”. Privately, I was fascinated. “Hold on, is she serious?”.
Enter a frenzied pitch invader, Australia’s dominance waning, Karim Bagheri scored, Mark Bosnich’s 80th minute goal kick returned with interest and Australia’s defenders caught on their heels.
This is not happening, is it?
Khodadad Azizi, then the Asian Player of the Year, would never miss. However, there was still hope – ten minutes left to play against opponents who were far from blameless. But the fluency that had put Australia in front was gone. They were desperate. Graham Arnold had become the focal point of the attack. It was over.
Even Iranian coach Valdeir Vieira knew it was a steal – he said as much in the aftermath. Johnny Warren couldn’t speak as he choked back tears – and he loved to talk. Nothing was ever quite the same again.
Quite literally. The failure to put Iran away cast a sting that took a long time to fade. It was not the express reason why the then Federal Minister for Arts and Sport, Senator Rod Kemp, appointed David Crawford, then chief executive of the Australian Sports Commission, to lead an independent review into the governance and management of football in Australia in 2002.
But it was there in the commission: the review would make recommendations “to enable the sport to maximize its potential at all levels from community participation to international performance”.
The NSL was dying. The best it had ever done was get Australia close to the World Cup. As heartbreaking as that night in 1997 was, it was crucial to creating something a little more coherent and predictable, something that might attract some private investment.
If 2022 showed anything, it is that we are on the right track. The Socceroos beat Tunisia and Denmark and pressured Argentina all the way with a largely A-League squad. There is Garang Kuol and Nestory Irankunda, and as I have written elsewhere, there is a potential generation of young players of South American descent to follow the young African prodigies.
There are still a few problems, not least the tendency of some people to treat football matches as a test of the limits of public order. I mean, who brings a low-grade explosive, primarily intended as a last-ditch signal to those stranded on a maritime vessel, to a football game? Some people are weird.
Hold on, football fans.