Socceroos World Cup success Built by migrants, for all Australians

Monash Lens

Australia’s World Cup campaign is over. But the Socceroos’ progression to the tournament’s knock-out stage marks arguably one of the greatest and most significant sporting achievements by an Australian team or individual.

  • Tom Heenan

    Lecturer, Monash Intercultural Lab, Faculty of Arts

Indeed, there are few challengers.

The Allen Bond syndicate’s 1983 America’s Cup win is often touted as Australia’s greatest achievement. Granted, Graham Arnold’s underdog outfit was not pitted against the elite New York Yacht Club or funded by a convicted fraudster in Bond. Nonetheless, the Cup did attract considerable local attention, though most American eyeballs were glued to Major League Baseball’s play-offs.

Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles also have their campaigners, though their claims are more sentimental than serious. In Bradman’s swan-song tour, the Australians trounced a war-weary England cricket team. So poor was the standard of English cricket at the time that the Marylebone Cricket Club considered rationalising England’s future Test commitments because of a shortage of fit and well-fed players.

The odd Olympic performance, periodic football dynasties, and a handful of world boxing champions may make the cut, but they do not rate alongside Arnie’s Underdogs. They took on the world’s best in the world game and, as Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett wrote of Australian soldiers on Gallipoli, they were not found wanting.

The road to the World Cup

The globe’s eyeballs were glued to Arnie’s Underdogs and deservedly so. After an early winning streak in the qualifiers, they slumped against more powerful Asian teams, only qualifying in a penalty shoot-out against the more highly fancied Peru.

In getting to Qatar, few Australian teams have overcome the logistical difficulties that confronted Arnold’s. Australia’s tight border restrictions limited them to four home games during the qualifiers.

On arriving in Qatar, not much was expected, especially after the team’s 4-1 drubbing against France. But unexpected victories against Tunisia and the highly ranked Danes, pushed the team into the knock-out stage, equalling the feat of the much-vaunted 2006 ‘Golden Generation’.

Australia’s place in the world: Sporting underdogs

Though Arnie’s Underdogs faltered against Lionel Messi’s better-credentialled Argentinians, their overall performance has been hailed widely as one of Australia’s greatest.

It is not an overstatement. Their record is not only the best by an Australian team in a World Cup, but also the most significant. Furthermore, it has revealed much about Australia’s place in the world.

Traditionally, sport has provided one of the few vehicles for nationalistic grandstanding on a global stage. The feats of Australia’ cricketers, tennis and rugby players, and the odd yachtie or two, have been used to showcase the national type’s attributes at Twickenham, Lord’s, Wimbledon and the New York Yacht Club.

According to the sporting commentariat, Australia prides itself on being the ‘underdog’ and ‘punching above its weight.’

As the Anzac and bush myths highlight, Australians seemingly like lost causes. They bring out the Aussie spirit, evident in the packaging of the 1983 America’s Cup win. Arnold’s team was no exception. Before the World Cup commenced, Arnie’s Underdogs were written-off as the latest Aussie lost cause.

But this team was different. They were not the past ‘Whitebread’ sports heroes, like Bradman, Laver or John Bertrand. Like previous Socceroos teams, Arnold’s was a product of Australia’s post-War migration that industrialised the economy, enriched cities’ cultures, and formed ethnically based soccer clubs.

A celebration of multicultural Australia

Though Australian rules and rugby maintain their grips on regionalised winter markets, and cricket is still touted as the national sport, soccer has repeatedly shown that it is the only game that unifies a contemporary, multicultural Australia.

During the 1960s and seventies, soccer was denigrated as ‘wogball’, but the Socceroos’ qualification for the 1974 World Cup briefly galvanised the nation. All Australian games were beamed from West Germany. Exploiting the team’s success, the National Soccer League (NSL) was established in 1977. It was the first nationalised football competition and coincided with the introduction of multiculturalism.

‘Soccer is the only game capable of uniting the nation. It is time to acknowledge that it is the national game, and Arnie’s Underdogs are our most significant national team.’

With the A-League’s establishment, the NSL became a distant and maligned memory. It faltered because of escalating differences between the game’s divergent community and business interests. While ethnic communities considered clubs as extensions of their cultures, business leaders such as Westfield’s Frank Lowy saw them as impediments to broadening soccer’s market. With backing from the Howard Government, Lowy won. In 2005, the corporate assimilationist A-league was established, and Australia qualified for its first World Cup since 1974. After years of trying, Australia also left the Oceania Confederation for the more lucrative Asian Football Confederation and the Asian market.

However, soccer’s ethnic base remained intact. Without ethnic communities and clubs, Australia would not have qualified for five World Cups nor won the 2015 Asian Cup. These communities provided the foundations for the A-League and national teams, and the success of Arnie’s Underdogs.

The team lacked the English Premier League talent of 2006’s Golden Generation. Indeed, Arnold’s was widely regarded as the weakest Australian team ever to qualify for a World Cup. But it and Arnold astutely exploited the underdog trope and punched above their weight. As they progressed, the media celebrated the team’s Aussie spirit which made up for their lack of talent against far superior opponents. Though they failed, Arnie’s Underdogs proved worthy of the national type and established that they were the only sporting team capable of uniting an increasingly diverse Australian society.

While the Australian cricket team struggles to attract crowds, Arnie’s Underdogs lured thousands to city centres for early morning games. Unlike the largely ‘Whitebread’ Australian cricket team, the Socceroos reflect the diverse communities on the suburban fringes of Australian cities. With three players of South Sudanese descent, the team highlights the contributions of refugees to Australian society and sport.

Soccer is the only game capable of uniting the nation. It is time to acknowledge that it is the national game, and Arnie’s Underdogs are our most significant national team.

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