Insight Australia’s World XI

© The Sydney Morning Herald

June 1, 2006

Football helped sustain new migrants in a strange land, with a strange tongue, and even stranger sporting codes, writes Steve Meacham.

GERMAN-born Doris Schwarzer still remembers a conversation she had with her butcher in western Sydney in the 1980s. He asked what sport her son Mark played. When she told him soccer – as the game was then called – he said: “Soccer is for softies. A real man plays football.”

By “football”, of course, he meant rugby league, or possibly rugby union. And by “real man”, he meant a true-blue Australian. “That was the attitude back then,” says Schwarzer, whose honeymoon was the four-week voyage from Bremen with her husband, Hans, in 1968. “He probably still thinks it.”

Perhaps. But it’s likely that same butcher would want to wish her son well. After all, the saves Mark Schwarzer made as goalkeeper in the penalty shoot-out against Uruguay last November ensured Australia will be represented at the World Cup, a sporting carnival arguably even greater than the Olympics.

But it’s not just Schwarzer. The 2006 Socceroos are a living embodiment of what we now call multiculturalism. Look at the surnames of the 23 players named last week in the squad to go to Germany. Among them Aloisi, Bresciano, Covic, Kalac, Lazaridis, Popovic, Skoko, Sterjovski, Viduka. True, there are no Asian names, but surely that is only a matter of time?

As Les Murray – the undisputed voice of Australian football now that his friend and colleague Johnny Warren is dead – explains: “This Socceroo outfit, by and large, are the children of migrants, the people who came here in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. And without those migrants, nd the way they replanted the seeds of football in this country, this team would not exist.”

Herald football correspondent Michael Cockerill put it beautifully in a column he wrote that night in November when Australia qualified. “In a multicultural nation in a fractured world, the Socceroos can bring together the sum of their parts: Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican. German, Lebanese, Polynesian, Croatian, Italian, Melanesian, Greek. It is a rich tapestry but last night they – and we – were one thing only. Australian.”

Murray, a refugee whose Hungarian parents fled here after the Soviet crackdown in 1956, is well qualified to talk about the way football helped sustain new migrants who found themselves in a strange land, with a strange tongue, and even stranger sporting codes. As an 11-year-old, living in a refugee camp in Wagga Wagga, Murray remembers being amazed he’d come to a country that wasn’t in love with the 11-man game that had dominated his childhood: “I didn’t know such a place even existed.” Later, when he learnt English, he found himself in playground arguments with “kids who thought rugby league was the most popular game in the world”.

Murray’s reflections on migration and football are among those used in a new exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum, funded by the NSW Migration Heritage Centre. The curator, Anni Turnbull, decided to interview the parents of five Socceroos because, “having curated several sports exhibitions, I realised how poorly represented soccer has been in our cultural institutions and, frankly, our media”. The World Cup dream: stories of Australia’s soccer mums and dads opens (at the museum and online) on Monday.

The players Turnbull chose represent the broad spectrum of the modern sport. Four were the children of migrants – Schwarzer, Vince Grella, Jason Culina and Ahmad Elrich (who was not included in the World Cup squad, to the disappointment of his Lebanese-born parents). Scott Chipperfield has Australian-born parents but was included because his distant forebears came from Britain.

“We are a country of migrants,” says Turnbull. “We’re here because of migration policy, including British migration.” Football has been played competitively in Australia since 1880, but it never really took root as a mainstream spectator sport until postwar migrants began arriving from Europe. There were many false dawns – most notably when the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 1974. But, in the title of Warren’s autobiography, most native-born Australians dismissed the people who played the game as “wogs, poofs and sheilas”.

For Branko Culina, Jason’s father and a former professional player, playing football was part assimilation, part survival. He arrived in Melbourne as an 11-year-old from Croatia. “I can still vividly remember the day we arrived. It was a Sunday. We went to our uncle’s house in Brunswick and in the afternoon we went to our first football match, Melbourne Croatia versus George Cross. Football was part of the Australian experience from day one.”

Culina has a theory that the Croatian expatriate community in Australia was bound together by two factors: God and the round ball. “Croatians were a very close-knit community when we got here. They probably still are, but not to the same extent. Soccer – or football as we now call it – and the church kept the community together.”

Croatia was then part of communist Yugoslavia. “In those days if you said you were from Croatia, people said ‘Where?’,” Culina says. “Most Croatians left Yugoslavia because they wanted a better lifestyle and because they wanted freedom. When they arrived here they found they were able to stay in touch with each other through soccer and the church.”

Did they use their Croatian sports clubs to retain their own culture or to ease their way into mainstream Australian society? “A bit of both,” he says. The soccer clubs were a way “of keeping an identity, but also searching for an identity, for acceptance”.

Up to seven players of Croatian ancestry were in the running for the Socceroo squad. Another three were born here, but have opted to play for Croatia, adding spice to the fact that Australia and Croatia have been drawn to play each other.

“We’ve got friends and relatives, both here and in Croatia, who are looking forward with great anticipation to this game,” Culina says. “But there are no divided loyalties. Our loyalties are with Australia and with our son.”

Antonio and Maria Grella will also be proudly wearing Socceroo jerseys in Germany as they watch “Vincenzo”, the most famous of their three football-playing sons. “There will be no Grellas in Australia,” says Maria. The entire family is heading to the World Cup, for their first-ever holiday together.

Neither Antonio nor Maria spoke English when they arrived as children from Italy in the 1960s. Most of their social life centred around the strong Italian expatriate community in Melbourne’s Richmond. And football was a major plank of that community.

Even as an 11-year-old Vince’s dream was to play for Australia, not Italy – even though fulfilling that dream meant having to leave Australia. Maria, in particular, remembers the anguish when Vince left Canberra Cosmos as an 18-year-old to test his talent in Italy’s ultra-competitive Serie A league, initially for Empoli. “It was hard for us, and hard for him. He was very lonely.” But now that he plays for Parma, one of Italy’s best clubs, both parents feel the family sacrifice was worth it.

Murray has a theory that the migrants who relied on football the most were those who found it hardest to fit into mainstream Australia. “Different ethnic clubs disappeared at varying speeds. The earliest clubs to die were the Dutch clubs and the German clubs because they assimilated quicker. The Hungarian clubs also disappeared quite quickly.

The Croatians had a political axe to grind. Their clubs were a political statement against the nasty regime in Belgrade. Once Croatia became independent, interest in following that club largely fell away.”

But he recalls with affection his early years in Australia. “That weekend break of a couple of hours watching a team called Budapest was a nice relief from the hostilities. Because you were there with your own mob, who spoke the same language, ate the same food. So it was being back in your homeland for a brief period.

That’s why migrants formed football clubs around the country. They simply had to.”


DALE CHIPPERFIELD was surprised to find a couple of Swiss backpackers had made a special detour to see Wollongong a couple of years ago. They were fans of FC Basle on a world trip, and they were desperate to visit the childhood stamping ground of their midfield star.

Though he has been capped almost 50 times, Chipperfield’s son, Scott, has hardly been a household name in Australia – a situation that is likely to change over the next few weeks.

Yet it speaks volumes for the Socceroo diaspora that a lad who learned his skills in the Illawarra, driving a school bus every morning before training as a way of supplementing his semi-professional income, should be feted in Europe and largely ignored in his homeland.

His mother, who lives at Corrimal, will be travelling to Germany to watch her son in action – and to catch up with her two-year-old grandson, Liam.”Scott bought Liam a soccer ball before he was even born,” says Chipperfield. But there is one problem she sees on the horizon.

Liam has a Swiss-born mother, Stefanie, and, as Chipperfield says, that means “Liam can play for either Switzerland or Australia. We’ll have to see who wins out.”
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