15/04/2024

Sydney United players celebrating with their fans, as they display banners that have been called into question by many. (Photo: Sydney United/Instagram)

The Australia Cup Final saw two contrasting football clubs clash with each other in a classic David and Goliath story.

On one side was Macarthur, a recently manufactured club that is in the third year of its existence in the A-Leagues with exclusively professional footballers.

Its opponents, Sydney United, a club that has existed since 1958, is known as a breeding ground for a plethora of Socceroos that finds itself in the NPL and is currently represented by part-time footballers who juggle work with their club commitments.

The casual Australian sports enthusiast would usually be attracted to the latter, but that was sadly not the case. The alleged actions of parts of the raucous Sydney United contingent turned off much of the support for the underdog story.

United entered the final after beating two A-Leagues sides, including Champions Western United, and were brave in falling to a strong Macarthur side. Unfortunately, this incredible cup run has been clouded by allegations of racism.

Racism is not a new enemy to football, but traditionally it has come from the outside.

Johnny Warren insisted on the title ‘Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters’ for his biography to show that the people that played football were categorised as either women, foreigners, or homosexuals, in other words, part of traditionally marginalised and maligned groups in Australian society.

Johnny Warren’s biography looked at racism in Australian football in detail. (Penguin)

This hate caused those groups to go into defence mode and create safe environments where they could enjoy the sport they loved. When looking at the local football landscape, that fact is evident, with clubs around the country associated and often carrying the name or likeness of the ethnicity or country they represent.

Despite those clubs strengthening the local ethnic communities and everything that makes them great, the ugly sides of them also saw found a breeding ground that saw outdated, often hurtful attitudes go unchallenged until they became the norm. Unfortunately, that created its own problems.

When you grow up having to go out of your way to defend your ethnic origin, the nationalistic attitude becomes hard to shake.

When the competition saw Serbian, Croatian, Greek, and Italian clubs come up against each other the rivalry often escaped the football field and created ugly scenes, fuelled by those same ethnic origins those clubs were built to preserve and protect against such attacks.

As Australia evolved as a country, the interest in football extended far beyond the traditionally marginalised group. With around two million children playing the sport in this day and age, Football Australia took action in 2015 to make the landscape more inclusive.

The National Club Identity Policy (NCIP) was introduced in 2015, which meant clubs were limited in the way they displayed their names and logos. Words like ‘Hellas’ and ‘Croatia’ along with national flags were forced off any official club communication and merchandise.

The goal was for inclusivity, but fans who had grown up feeling marginalised and mistreated because of their origins only felt more aggrieved. This negativity only incited more hate against the establishment and reinforcement of the notion that their culture was being unfairly targeted.

The years went on and the NCIP was removed. Australia, more tolerant than it has ever been – albeit not a high bar – welcomed the unique aspects of each club with players embracing the culture instead of being turned off by it.

The Australia Cup competition has brilliantly highlighted cultural aspects like the food and music at local grounds throughout the country.

At the same time, it should serve as a platform to highlight and out anti-social behaviour that is not acceptable by anyone in any culture as the game heads towards a united future.

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Knowing the proud background of clubs like Sydney United and the feelings of disappointment fans of such clubs harbour as a result of their culture being disrespected, it became ironic when a section of the Croatian club’s fans allegedly chanted through and even booed while the Welcome to Country ceremony was conducted at CommBank Stadium on Grand Final night.

Indigenous Australia’s culture is a rich one, one that has been present in this country for thousands of years, and like the Croatian one, has been suppressed for years and is only starting to receive the respect and recognition it deserves.

Sydney United’s history is an admirable one; Australian football would be a worse place if it wasn’t for its contributions, along with many other ‘ethnic’ clubs from around the nation.

Unfortunately, nothing can be done to rectify the mistakes either side has made in the past. With conversations about a National Second Division heating up though, and former NSL clubs like Sydney United being prime candidates for inclusion, Australian football needs to work together to achieve a better future by learning from previous mistakes.

Like many former NSL clubs, Sydney United as an entity may be one that will command respect and attention in a National Second Division, but there will be apprehension about its inclusion if the passion of fans keeps being displayed in unacceptable ways.

Racism is not acceptable. Making anyone feel uncomfortable about their culture is not acceptable. There may be many things that divide Australian football, but overcoming hate to play and watch the sport we love is what unites each and every stakeholder of the sport.

Challenges will come from the outside, these ‘ethnic’ clubs know that too well, and unless football in this country can face them as a united front it will not get anywhere.

Clubs and their stakeholders have a responsibility to ensure their houses are clean when they are on display for the world to see. Even isolated anti-social incidents threaten to ward off potential players, supporters, and sponsors. Broader society will paint the clubs, cultures, and the sport itself with the same brush of historical stereotypes.

A perfect example of football presenting a united front unfolded in South Australia just over a week ago, when West Adelaide Hellas Women won its first ever Championship.

Both fans and players were pleasantly surprised to hear the Federation’s soundboards playing the Zorba, triggering a traditional Greek dance, something that would have been unheard of a few years before due to the NCIP.

Fresh after lifting the trophy and with only a couple of Greek players in the side, women from many different backgrounds came together to celebrate a Championship while also celebrating the culture of the club they love in a way that everyone could enjoy, join in and appreciate.

If Australian football is to make the most of its untapped potential, all sides need to get decade-long chips off their shoulder and create an environment people from all walks of life want to be involved in.

Be it young fans, players, parents, casual fans, and sponsors; the sport needs to be open and welcome to all of them.

There is no room for racism, there is no room for ignorance from either side, and there is no room for the division that has kept the game back for decades to rear its ugly head in what is potentially going to be the biggest 12 months Australian football has faced in decades.

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