Friday, March 14, 2008

"Old Soccer" gets its due

History has been a dirty word in Australian football ever since Frank Lowy's Football Federation Australia turned the game upside-down in establishing the A-League, cleaned out the bad elements corrupting the sport's administration and came up with the clever marketing mantra of "new football".

Rale Rasic

"New football" was intended to delineate this sparkling new era from what came before it – ethnic squabbles, crowd violence, media antipathy; what would pejoratively become known as "old soccer". Unfortunately, the strategy was so successful it also completely tarred the achievements of generations of Socceroos, from the pre-1965 version (when Australia duked it out chiefly against countries of the Commonwealth) to the teams that competed bravely but unsuccessfully in scores of World Cup qualifying campaigns from 1965 till 2001.

I was aghast to find when writing my book, 15 Days in June: How Australia Became a Football Nation, that the Socceroo Club, an informal grouping of ex-Socceroos cobbled together by 1956 Olympian Ted Smith, had asked the FFA prior to an Asian Cup qualifier in Sydney in late 2006 if it could hand out embroidered cricket-style "baggy green" caps to new inductees before the game in front of a 40,000 strong-crowd at the Sydney Football Stadium. They were denied their request and forced to hold their own impromptu function in the bowels of the empty Sydney Cricket Ground next door.

Privately several ex-Socceroos at the function were fuming.

Later John Boultbee, the FFA's head of high performance, defended the slight by saying: "There wasn't a lack of willingness to help the Socceroo Club but the FFA simply couldn't action all its plans simultaneously... we've been preoccupied with other things. It's always been the whole organisation's intention to embrace those who've served the game well, particularly the players."

Now, a year and a half later, the FFA is finally coming good on its "intention".

A group of ex-Socceroos including Smith, 1970s legend Ray Baartz, 1980s dynamo Charlie Yankos and record-breaking captain Alex Tobin were invited to the FFA's College Street headquarters in Sydney last week to pow-wow with FFA chief executive Ben Buckley and his staff. They put forward their ideas for such things as an Australian FA Cup-style knockout competition, the establishment of a Hall of Fame and other ways to help harness for the betterment of the game the collective wisdom and experience of Socceroos alumni.

Said Buckley: "I think it is very important that football finds a way of celebrating its history. The game has a rich history in this country and we have to find a way of embracing our past and this is the first step in that journey.

"We talked about how we can improve the showcasing of the Hall of Fame in terms of a physical structure where we can display all the memorablilia. We might launch a public drive to collect the material. Unfortunately we do not have a football museum but over time we can collate that."

This is a welcome development any which way you want to cut it, though the FFA could have saved itself a lot of trouble if it had been more proactive early on its tenure when John O'Neill, who is back heading the Australian Rugby Union, was in Buckley's shoes.

Back in 2003 Australia's 1974 World Cup coach Rale Rasic wrote to O'Neill congratulating him on his appointment and offering the FFA access to his considerable treasure-trove of Socceroos memorabilia, which this writer has seen and can vouch is the most impressive and comprehensive collection going around.

But O'Neill never responded to Rasic's letter and the entire stack of priceless football memorabilia is now destined to be housed at Rasic's football academy in Sydney's sprawling south-west.

Undoubtedly the FFA is now ruing its stupidity.

Fortunately, Buckley appears to be growing into a "football man" and much of this has to do with his new head of corporate affairs, Bonita Mersiades, who is a former team manager of the Socceroos and a self-described "soccer mum".

In barely a month in the job she has done more to re-engage with the game's "stakeholders" than her predecessor did in years.

It's clear she won't be allowing Buckley to make the sort of mistakes the FFA did under O'Neill.

Copyright © Jesse Fink and Soccerphile.com

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