AUSTRALIA. I have a few problems with Australia.

First up there’s the whole ‘red centre’ thing. I’m red/green colour blind. Stood with a thousand people cooing ‘oooh’ and ‘aaah’ and ‘look at the colours, they’re amazing’ as the sun set on what, to me, looked like a massive brown house brick. People with tears streaming down their cheeks, visibly moved by nature’s wonder. Me, stood shuffling from foot to foot, visibly scunnered by nature’s cruelty. I see better in the dark so in your face Charles Darwin.

(Photo by nosha on Flickr)

(Photo by nosha on Flickr)

Then there’s the spider thing. In 1999, I was alright with spiders. I’d see one, I’d get a glass from the cupboard, I’d pop the glass over the top of it, maybe seal it by sliding a newspaper underneath, open the door, and set the little blighter free, my mum’s words ringing in my ears, saying “Don’t kill them – you’ll make it rain”. But then Australia. Sat in my garden in Subiaco, Perth, seeing a little spider scuttle over the arm of my deck chair, my flatmate casually informing me that it was a Redback, and that it was potentially lethal. A morbid fascination emerged from that point. Something primeval. We toured the nation in a Holden station wagon. At each campsite, I’d find myself stood in kitchens, or in laundry rooms, staring into some electrical fitting or other, a little web tucked away in its corner, a tiny terminator slowly devouring its fauna du jour. Poisonous fangs. Urgh. And then, when we drove inland and into Coober Pedy, famous for its Opal mining industry, I came face to face with the Golden Orb spider. I couldn’t see it, mind. Needing a piss in the middle of the night, I emerged from my tent and, brandishing my little mag-light torch, focussed the beam on the ground, hoping to avoid snakes, crocs, sharks and sundry other killers as I found a clear spot to unfurl the anaconda. A few seconds later, as the lower half of my body kept walking, I became aware of that my top half had kinda stopped. I was in the middle of toppling over. And it all happened in a split second, but my torch flashed up, and it hit me – I’d walked into an enormous spider’s web. My mate and his girlfriend, in their tent a few yards away, reported that when they heard me scream, they thought I’d fallen down an Opal mine. Only in Australia do you get spiders evil enough to spin the kind of web that makes small trees bend to their tension. The nightmares began after that. I developed the habit of pissing into an empty juice bottle, which I affectionately called “Mr Juicy”, such was the intimacy of our relationship. Such are the perils of ‘going bush’.

But it’s not all bad, Australia. You’ll be sat on a beach and a school of dolphins will gently loll their way by, eyeballing you, having a laugh and a squirkkkk. You’ll go for a chippy and find world class calamari n chips on the menu. And ‘Gummy Shark’. Driving in the outback, you’ll stop for a sandwich and a pack of camels will canter by. People stroll by and skoosh you with sun cream. There’s Victoria Bitter. And Bundy Rum. And the pies. They make a mighty fine pie, the Aussies.

And then there are the Aussies themselves. I remember being stood on the start line of the Perth 10K on Australia Day in 2000 (a big year for Australia), fixing the little safety pins on my race number, and being startled as my fellow participants stood erect and sang their national anthem together. Those with running caps removed them and held them to their hearts, hammering it out with gusto, “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free…”. They love their country, the Aussies. And their love for their country is inextricably mixed with their love for their sport. That’s my kinda nation, spiders or no spiders.

They’re spectacularly good at sport. They win things. For a country of around 20 million people, they punch above their weight in a ridiculous number of codes. Why is sport such a big part of Aussie life? And where does football fit in?

Ian Higgins (of the brilliant Triple H FM) has a fair idea. “I guess sport is as much a cultural thing for us as anything else. Maybe it’s the good weather and the fact all our major cities are coastal – hence why we’re always at the beach. We spend our whole childhood outdoors and that promotes activity and sport and competition from an early age. We love sitting in the sun watching the cricket with a lager, parking ourselves in pubs to watch the Wallabies and wearing our colours around town like tribes. The Melbourne Cup is touted as ‘the race that stops a nation’ and it’s fairly apt in its description of more than just a horserace. On a global scale, sport is our identity as well. If we weren’t good at sport we’d be as equally forgettable as most other parts of Oceania.”

That sport was woven into the fabric of day-to-day life was palpable when I was in Australia. Every street, and every park, you’d see people playing sport. Batting balls around. Kicking those stubby nosed Aussie Rules footballs to each other with daft little vests on. Mullets everywhere you looked. But rarely would you see ‘proper’ football. As I travelled round, it seemed to me that Melbourne was the heartland of the sport there. I’d been to see Perth Glory (with an Auckland side visiting for what must be the longest away tie journey in any domestic league), and it was fun, but it was obviously marginal there. Then I went to Melbourne and there was an actual football feel about the place. Pictures of European teams on the walls of shops and restaurants. Thriving Greek, Turkish and Italian ex pat communities, and areas like Carlton with football tops on the backs of the locals wandering the streets (when I’d hardly seen any elsewhere). But things have changed. As TAW’s own Andy Gargett explains, football’s bigger than just Melbourne nowadays. Football in Australia is growing on all fronts.

“You just need to look at the support for the A-League’s newest team Western Sydney to see its got a large and passionate following.

But Melbourne by its nature, helped by the majestic MCG, certainly has bigger live sport culture. You could tell Melbournians that snail racing was on at the MCG and we’d turn out in droves. It’s the done thing.

Football in this country is intimately linked to ex pat communities. Carlton is traditionally an Italian area, during World Cup time, Lygon Street (the main street) is full of Azzuri colours. In Sydney, we now live on the main street in an Italian suburb (Leichhardt). During the last Euros it was a party atmosphere and hard not to get swept up in it. My wife and I watched the final, kick off was about 5am, in our local pub packed rafter to rafter with people cheering on Italy. (We were quietly supporting Spain.)

Football is growing significantly in popularity Australia. Part of that is pay TV has made it easier to watch games particularly the Premier League. But that alone doesn’t account for why it is now has the biggest participation rates of all sports.

In many ways football and its rise is reflective of a successful multicultural society in Australia. The amateur club I played for in Melbourne had an anglo tradition but was a real mutli-ethnic club. But most weeks we’d play a Croatian, Serbian, Mauritian, Polish, Greek or Italian side. Away days at these clubs were brilliant. We’d sample food, beer and hospitality as if we were in Croatia or Serbia etc. These clubs are focal points of various ethnic communities in Australia, and a great vehicle to celebrate the culture from their country of origin and share it with others.

Football is increasingly seen as a threat by the two dominant codes Aussie Rules and Rugby League. For good reason. It is very much a part of fabric of modern multicultural Australia.

Ian develops this theme (and harks back to the pain of their exit to Italy in 2006). “I’ve been banging on about how I think it’s inevitable that the A-League will eventually become the dominant code in Australia. Whether or not that will happen is another matter, of course, but statistically our football league is flourishing like no other. The A-League has been going for 9 years now and its growth, in terms of crowd attendance and television audience, is exponential. The biggest advantage the Aussie Rules and Rugby League codes have is that they’re broadcast on free-to-air television. 6 times as many Australians watch the AFL and NRL on TV because of this.

However, the A-League is already watched by more people on television than the Super 15 Rugby Competition. Football’s participation rate is nearly double any other code, most of which are juniors. In my opinion, i think the A-League being the biggest code – or at least significantly challenging the AFL (the AFL is the 4th most watched sport in the world in terms of crowd attendance behind the NFL, Bundesliga and EPL) – is probably less than a generation away. I think football will explode here after another golden generation, similar to what we had in 2006, (Kewell, Viduka, Cahill, Neil, Emerton, Schwarzer) goes gangbusters in the World Cup. And those fucking Italians don’t go to ground so easily.

The MLS and A-League are in quite similar positions – gaining momentum but still relying on ageing superstars to market the league. We’ve had Allessandro Del Piero out here in Sydney for the past two seasons and he’s been a massive success. Previously, across the league, we’ve had Fowler, Heskey and Dwight Yorke who’ve experienced varying degrees of success but we can’t offer the money that lures the likes of Beckham, Henry or Pele as our league still operates on a salary cap with the exclusion of one marquee player.

Australia play Greece in a friendly at the MCG, 2006. (Photo by: Charles Gregory)

Australia play Greece in a friendly at the MCG, 2006. (Photo by: Charles Gregory)

In terms of growth in participation I’d say that more and more people above the age of 13 are staying in football. Football in this country has long been the most popular junior sport from ages 5-12 but most them move into either AFL or a form of rugby as they go through puberty and testosterone begins to flow through adolescence. I know a couple of guys who wanted to play football at school but their fathers wouldn’t let them and forced them to play rugby.

10 years ago you were either a “wog” (ethinic) or “gay” if you played football. Our attitudes towards football and society in general were pretty backward. It may still be that way in certain parts, but our attitudes towards football have, and still are, most definitely changing. More kids are playing football for longer and the biggest thing going for the A-League is the number of young families going to matches. It’s the single biggest reason I think football will take over here in less than a generation. And all of these kids are going to be watching our Socceroos at 5am and 7am (our time) before school and taking a football to school rather than a rugby ball and having a 5-a-side at recess and lunch. Right now, most people in the parks around town are involved in a game of “touch-footy” but, again, in another few years that game of touch rugby might be ‘keepy-ups’. A lot of corporate games and team building exercises revolve around touch rugby competitions involving employees of both sexes, so you see a lot of that going on in parks. But we all know there’s no greater feeling than scoring a goal, so maybe offices should think of a football 5-a-side next team-bonding exercise.”

So what about the style of football Aussie fans see on the pitch? Jaydon Munn feels it’s a factor in the game’s growth. “Things will continue to grow as the Hyundai A-League becomes more mainstream and ingrained in the sporting landscape. The competition itself is going from strength to strength; it was shown on free-to-air TV this season for the first time. Brisbane Roar and Adelaide United are two teams that are playing a really attractive, possession-based style of football, and the new Western Sydney Wanderers side has produced some crowds and atmospheres to rival those in Europe.”

So an outdoor culture, a game led at national level by a young, progressive manager who encourages his players to express themselves. A league that, based partly on that manager’s example (and the success he enjoyed with that approach) enjoys increasingly attractive and entertaining football. Increased exposure in the national media. Increased attendances and an explosion in participation at grass roots level. Could 2014 be the start of something big for Aussie football?

It’s a tough ask – the group’s no doozy. But being Aussies, you can be sure their heart and soul will go into it, and they’ll learn whatever lessons they can from the experience.

In our next instalment, we’ll take a look at the squad and how that forward thinking manager (Ange Postecoglou – try saying that without your teeth in) will get them playing. Thanks to Ian, Andy and Jaydon for their help with this article, and to the other contributors who’ll help with the ones to come.