Barracking For Soccer

March 5, 2003

Johnny Warren, with Andy Harper and Josh Wittington, Sheilas, wogs and poofters. An incomplete biography of Johnny Warren and soccer in Australia. Sydney: Random House, 2002.

Reviewed by Mike Heald

10411Sheilas, wogs and poofters makes a fascinating cultural chronicle, because the sport of soccer has been so tied up with Australia’s increasing cultural diversity, and the many tensions this has caused. The main episode of Australian history this book deals with is that which begins with the influx of European migrants after the Second World War, to the present day. Warren’s own career as a player began in the fifties, and he has an intimate knowledge of soccer’s affairs since that time.

Warren seems to have several aims in this book. One is simply the autobiographical urge to set down the details of his own involvement with the game: to remember, reconstruct, pay tribute, and generally to unfold the yarns he has accumulated. There are also, however, two other important, associated aims: the first of these is to promote the code, and to oppose any notion that soccer should be a minor sport in Australia. As such, the book is a declaration of support and commitment to advancing the cause of soccer on these shores. And the second objective is to explore the acutely felt question of why Australian soccer has, in recent years, so consistently failed to achieve either international success or domestic administrative competence.

Warren’s answers can be surprising. He declares himself unable to dismiss, for example, the notion that a curse placed on the Australian team by a witch doctor has been effective: ‘Every time I look back on 1970 I can’t help thinking about the series against Rhodesia, the witch doctor and his curse. As the disasters and freak occurrences that have befallen Australian teams since 1970 pile up, my belief in the curse has only strengthened.’ (p106) And yet, as a former captain, and player in the only Australian side to make the World Cup finals, Warren also offers penetrating technical analyses of the many bitter defeats. And this is just one way in which this book is often a very strange mixture of perspectives.

The question of a lack of domestic administrative competence, which today sees not a single game of the National Soccer League on free to air television and the code’s finances in tatters, is quite simply answered. It’s the usual smorgasbord of empire-building, in-fighting, pettiness, and corruption which bedevils any large organisation. In Australian soccer, it’s mainly the sheer scale and consistency of these problems which make them remarkable. Warren has anecdotes enough to destroy one’s faith in commonsense once and for all. But when commenting on other aspects of this game’s tribulations, the ex-captain’s take on it all is anything but simple. What struck me most forcibly about the book is a kind of groundlessness, so that when opinions are given, they may be contradicted by statements earlier or later in the text, they may suffer from the implied challenge of incommensurate perspectives (as with the supernatural / technical dichotomy), or they may simply strike the reader as somewhat inexplicable assertions. Thus, it is not without irony that I observe that Warren, after frequenting and indeed dominating so many grounds in his time, in this curious narrative does not seem to have any to stand on.

I don’t see this as merely a fault in Warren’s ideas or his writing. I see it as deeply symptomatic of the world of sport in general. If you try to take sport’s side, or a sport’s side, then you find yourself in a kind of nowhere. We sometimes see this happen in the old debate between sport and politics: namely in the assertion that politics should be ‘kept out of’ sport, and vice-versa. So, while a regime is obviously deriving reflected glory from a sporting event, the participants from elsewhere delude themselves strenuously that their performances are not aiding that regime. There is a bizarre example of this in Warren’s book. The Aus team was sent to play in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War.In his reflections on this episode, however, Warren seems to have two irreconcilable views. On the one hand he appears to make the brave and significant observation that the team was duped into becoming performing seals for the Americans: ‘It wasn’t until years later that I realised how the team had been blindly steered into helping the war effort.” (p70) And yet, in concluding that chapter, he suddenly declares that, whatever went on behind the scenes, ‘I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again.’ (p82) And so intelligent, politically aware analysis is superceded by camaraderie and nostalgia. This last, amoral, manifestation of sport’s daemon, is one which I’ve always thought impoverishes the whole activity. The kind of disconnected enthusiasm Warren expresses is understandable in a way, but doesn’t it also evidence an immaturity: a refusal, in the end, to acknowledge that sport does take place in a moral and political context?

Another form of groundlessness can be seen in the whole thesis that soccer should become the major football code in Australia. Warren makes many good arguments about the intrinsic merits of soccer: its international nature, its skill levels, the earning potential of its top players, and so on. And the prejudices against soccer are easily made plain. But why should a game such as Australian Rules Football be vanquished? Why isn’t it good to have a diversity of sports on the planet, and to celebrate a home-grown, if isolated code? Warren never satisfactorily addresses these questions, and so the whole argument for soccer taking over seems to be fuelled by an unenlightened sectarianism. And what could possibly be a sound argument for one code dominating another? Why should one set of arbitrary rules for a game be any better than another? There is simply no ground from which to launch an argument for one sport over another, unless perhaps you consider physical danger to the participants. But most football codes are much of a muchness in that regard. The capacity to earn a good living might be brought in to the argument. But Warren acknowledges the dangers of corporatisation, and indeed paints a quite sinister picture of the G-14 (the group of mega-clubs such as Manchester United and Barcelona) who wield their influence through such considerable figures as, for example, AC Milan and Italian president Silvio Berlusconi.

Overall, then, the driving energy of Sheilas, wogs and poofters to combat the prejudice against Australian soccer is effective in that particular conflict, but does not issue in any more universal insights into sport as a human activity, and perhaps it is a little unfair to expect it to. Warren illustrates very well the way that soccer provided a home-away-from-home and lingua franca for ethnic minorities in Australia, including, at times, aboriginals. He also chronicles his own exploits engagingly, particularly the period of his career-threatening knee injury. Descriptions of overseas tours are genuinely dramatic, especially the first Vietnam trip in 1967, and virtually make the whole book worthwhile by themselves. Sheilas, wogs and poofters, then, is welcome in that the story of Australian soccer is brought to life, and we are left keenly anticipating those chapters still to be written.

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