“For the keen supporter, the club occupies the position of being, at once, both a social institution and an object of fantasy with which they identify. Once the attachment to a club is established, each new season brings with it a new set of illusions and anxieties that cannot be avoided…”
So wrote Joy Damousi and John Cash about this thing that we have called football. It’s the finals weeks in Australia. Whether you follow the rugby league or the AFL or both, or neither, you’ve definitely had to engage at some point with September. Who do you support? What kind of things are at stake? Where do you come from, what kind of person are you? Are you a fibro or a silvertail, a westie, a bogan, a toff? Even if you personally don’t have an interest or any knowledge about the game, you’re eventually likely to have to come back to the fact that sporting competition is about more than the score and the glory: it really matters. Even to reject it or to be disinterested in it, sport is something you have to have knowledge about.
It seems to be pretty much universal amongst people, in all societies at all times, that we engage in physical games of ritual and competition. We have hunted, raced, wrestled, jumped and danced around each other everywhere we’ve been human on the earth so far. The ancient Greeks competed for glory and for the gods, the Romans enjoyed the circus, the Spanish killed (and still kill) bulls for spectacle and the Aztecs sacrificed their athletes. Strangers, and one group busily dispossessing the other — for example, both the Aboriginal people and European colonists of nineteenth century Victoria — worked out a code of football between them.
If you look at sport even three hundred years ago though, you see an utterly different mentality to the one we have now. In Europe and Britain “sport” was a word associated with risk and gambling: with winning and losing money. Crowds gathering together for games didn’t respect the spectator/participant boundaries that are so obvious today, and games easily turned into riots. Gentlemen hunted, and the old pre-modern rules about which classes could hunt which species in what area were only just beginning to break down. There were no regular lengths for horse races. Football had no rules and was engaged in by groups of lower-class men, with no restrictions on numbers-a-side, without set rules. They were violent affairs, as you can imagine. Every region had its own folk traditions, and every game of spectacle was unique to its place and time.
But something happened in the nineteenth century. There was a profound reorganisation of games and physical leisure around the world; there was a Victorian revolution in sport. First of all, people started codifying rules, making voluntary associations and clubs, and deciding what was universally allowable and forbidden. They answered the questions: “Can you pick the ball up?” “How many points to score?” “Can we stomp faces, or kick someone in their shins to trip them?”
Second, with the growth of mass news technologies, and the business of sporting promotion, teams commodified. People began to have a club, or a team, or a “star”, or a country to support, and to “follow” through the consumption of information.
Last, people began to think of sport in terms of their country, and collective institutions — especially race, but also religion. In many countries “folk” games were turned into deliberately national and nationalist enterprises, with Australian Rules in this country, baseball in the United States, and Gaelic football and hurling/camogie in Ireland being three of the most obvious examples. Even today, if you ask someone in Scotland if they support Rangers or Celtic, it can be as much a sectarian question you’re asking as a sporting one.
In short, three things entered the field of games of competition and leisure in the nineteenth century: the law, the market, and the nation-state. They entirely changed the way we conceive of games and leisure and athleticism. And we’re now in the situation where some codes of sport have processes that look very much like sovereign ones: FIFA, the international governing body for football, has its own tribunals, its own (limited) representative governance, its own levying of contributions, and its own internal redistribution. Baron de Coubertin pillaged the history of the Ancient Olympics to give gloss to a profoundly new, national (and originally, eugenicist) Olympic Games, and the Olympic Committee is the junket every dictatorship wants to be on.
But let’s go back a step to the end of the nineteenth century and the start of the twentieth. For the elite, athleticism and sport was social training into codes of behaviour at once basic (trying one’s best, playing well with one’s teammates, being a good sport, leaving things on the field), and complex (in the UK especially, thinking of sport as training for Empire and for moral athletic Christianity). Class and professionalism were the basic divisions that have left our football codes in the broad state they are today: “association football”, or soccer, professionalised early and became a working-class and popular game, while rugby union and rugby league divided amongst questions of whether players should be amateurs or whether they could be paid. At the same time many other games of leisure were attractive precisely because of their class implications — the cost and exclusivity of a game (like sailing, or polo, or skiing), or the accessibility (greyhound racing, pigeon racing, football, cycling, and boxing) determined what kind of people participated.
By the outbreak of the First World War, questions of sport were clearly questions of who one was and what allegiances of class, nation religion and region one possessed. In Australia the question of whether an Australian Rules competition should keep going while the war continued divided the clubs on lines we can still see today: only a few of the clubs, the ones whose supporters and players came from the working class (Carlton, Collingwood, Richmond and Fitzroy) continued throughout the war; the rest (middle-class teams like Melbourne, Essendon and St Kilda) choosing to sit out through patriotism. In Ireland the sporting arena itself was literally also a battlefield for independence and civil war: in Dublin’s Croke Park, there is a stand built on the rubble made by British artillery in the 1916 Rising, and the pitch itself was the site of a game-day massacre by the RIC.
Football clubs in Spain provided a means of relatively safely signalling one’s support or opposition to the Franco dictatorship, with the “El Clásico” match between Barcelona and Real Madrid enacting questions of central nationalism and regional autonomy in miniature. There are large-scale soccer rituals like that twice-yearly rectangular symbolic reenactment of the 1936-39 Civil War at Bernabeu and the Camp Nou, and there are small rituals like shaking hands before and after matches, kicking the ball out of play when an opposing player is injured, and so on. Sport in broadcasting and media constitutes, for spectators, a repeating regular communion and a ritual observance in itself.
As much as it became a secular religion, sport became, and remains, a social relationship between people. But it also provides a means of interacting with people when social relationships are strained, nonexistent, or when one shouldn’t really have social relationships at all. When — thanks to the Victorian revolution in sport — you have a simple, set code, a marketable commodity and an understanding of who plays, players don’t need to share common backgrounds, language, culture, or really anything at all beyond the game. One of the reasons sport was so important for desegregation in the United States was that everyone knew deep down that black or white, they were all playing the same games. Going back to the First World War, to Christmas Day in 1914, soldiers on the Western Front briefly fraternised with each other, sharing cigarettes, alcohol, singing carols and, critically, playing football matches.
So we have in sport a means of interacting both with and without sharing a deep social understanding, and a place where we can discuss and enact the important questions in our society. It’s probably the most obvious and contested public sphere remaining to us, and the last one where it’s understood that we know as much as commentators. Let me give you the best example of this: on the ABC, on Sunday mornings, Barrie Cassidy presents two programs: Insiders, about politics, and Offsiders, about sport. This Sunday, if you choose, watch them both and consider the different ways each set of journalists behaves. Where the political journalists know that they’re a conduit of information between a sphere where political stakeholders contest each other, and are themselves a part of the process, the sporting journalists accept that any moderately knowledgeable fan who watches the match about which they’re talking can form their own opinion without them. It’s the same ABC lounge, but it’s a fundamentally different thing that each set of journalists are doing.
So sport matters. It is a place where we can think about fairness, achievement and equality, and many things that aren’t under discussion anywhere else in our society. We are similar and different kinds of people. We follow different games, and support different teams. I’m supporting the Sydney Swans this September, as I have done and will do every year. Who are you supporting — which side are you on?