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  • Writer's pictureAntonis Pagonis

Why cultural identity can be a point of difference for Football Australia's National Second Tier

Football Australia’s proposed National Second Tier competition is expected to start between March and April 2025, with its introduction holding greater significance than just the football played on the pitch. The cultural and historical context of the competition is set to be an antithesis to the A-League Men, which, should it be channelled positively, can prove a point of difference as it looks to find its feet.

Most of the clubs entering the National Second Tier have a distinct ethnic identity. (Ken Irwin)

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard recently made headlines at the inaugural Alliance for Responsible Citizenship in London for his view on multiculturalism, a cornerstone of Australian society.

“Multiculturalism is a concept that I’ve always had trouble with. I take the view that if people want to emigrate to a country, then they adopt the values and practices of that country,” Howard stated.

Howard’s comment raised eyebrows due to Australia’s history being punctuated by its ever-expanding multiculturalism, starting with the hundreds of Indigenous groups spread across the continent years before the first settlers landed on the country’s shore.

When the British arrived, they certainly did not “adopt the values and practices” of the country they colonised; instead, they imposed their own. The nation felt migration waves after gold rushes and global events like World Wars, which saw Australia positioned to become a melting pot of cultures from every corner of the globe.

Regardless of their origin, all first-generation migrants can relate to experiences with racism in their new country, making their initial days in Australia painful.

The solution to their new home's problem was to create safe spaces, communities, and homes away from home. To create places where Greek children could play with other Greek children, Italian men could spend time and feel accepted by other Italian men facing the same struggles, and where Croatian women could socialise with other Croatian women, bonding over their shared culture, which was frowned upon in Australia.

Unsurprisingly, these newly formed communities were built around the one shared love of those European cultures: football. Thus, Australia saw the birth of 'ethnic' clubs such as Preston Lions (1947), APIA Leichhardt (1954), Sydney Olympic (1957), Marconi Stallions (1958), Sydney United (1958), South Melbourne (1959), and many others around the country.

As the years wore on, some of those clubs transitioned from their local leagues to the National Soccer League, where they represented their culture and people on the national stage.

The cultures mentioned earlier slowly began to be more accepted in modern Australia, leaving their mark by shaping the country we live in today. But those social and football clubs remained and went from strength to strength.

Australia may have been a relatively young country. But because of the passion of its communities, it had a professional football league unique to any other in the world, with most clubs representing a culture from the other side of the planet.

The competition was characterised by the pride those communities had and the success some of its top clubs accumulated by becoming a symbol of this pride, as were the players developed in their systems who went on to bigger and better things. One standout example is still going strong today in Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou. He migrated to Australia as a young child, and he and his father found a haven at South Melbourne, a club which he went on to captain and coach.

When the NSL collapsed in 2004 and was replaced with the A-League, part of Australian football’s soul collapsed.

The A-League has undoubtedly been a positive for Australian football, and it succeeded in replacing a financially insecure competition. But the side effect of Australia’s professional game starting with a clean slate was years of history, pride, and passion suddenly being shunned for football clubs who, minus Perth Glory, and to a lesser extent Adelaide United, were merely concepts not that long before.

Many in those communities juggled supporting their original clubs in their time of need after they returned to local competitions with their state’s new 'franchise'. Most were upset with the treatment of the institutions their families helped build and stuck by their clubs, or in some cases, ultimately walked away from the game.

For these clubs, being effectively relegated to their local competitions with no roadmap to returning to former glories was upsetting enough. But in 2014, on the eve of the FFA Cup's first edition, Football Australia added insult to injury with the National Club Identity Policy (NCIP).

This policy meant that months before the long-awaited return of some of Australian football’s biggest clubs to the national spotlight, a decade after being expelled from it, they would be banned from displaying logos and names featuring "ethnic, national, political, racial or religious connotations either in isolation or combination."

South Melbourne could no longer be “Hellas” or display a Greek flag. Sydney Croatia would have to do with being officially known as Sydney United 58. Preston Makedonia Soccer Club would drop their country's name and formally adopt the 'Lions' moniker.

For people who have lived through or heard their relatives talk about the struggles of adapting to Australia as members of a migrant community, this policy felt like the darkest tone of their country’s racist shadow creeping into prominence once again.

The unpopular policy was rescinded years later. But it left its mark on communities that had already seen their clubs financially collapse and relegated to local leagues with no promise or roadmap of a return. The silver lining was that they could claim the national spotlight via a cup competition.

Since renamed the Australia Cup as a nod to the past, the FFA Cup galvanised these communities who, for a decade, were starved of their former glories. The competition saw the debate about a second division and a connected football pyramid kick off once again, and a long-winded road led to Football Australia announcing that a National Second Tier (NST) competition would kick off in 2025.

Thus, 21 years after the NSL collapsed, some of Australia’s most historically significant clubs, and some of the more ambitious NPL clubs who have formed since, will have the opportunity to enter a national spotlight every week, with the plan eventually leading to promotion and relegation with the A-Leagues.

Compared to the A-Leagues, what this proposed competition has is a point of difference that can see it become an unprecedented success, shaking up Australian football and the country’s sporting landscape as a first professional, fully integrated second division. The catch is that should it not be executed correctly; the competition can set back the cause for a generation.

The differences boil down to the traditional 'club' against 'franchise' argument, which can be tiresome when the two are not directly competing. But it can also be a source of genuine rivalry if and when two sides of Australian football history are competing directly with each other.

Over the 19 years of the A-League competitions, communities have been artificially built to back their newly created teams, which had a vast state or geographical area they represented in the early days of the leagues. Meanwhile, most teams entering the NST have an emotional connection to their communities, which supersedes the notion of supporting one team in your city because there is no other choice.

The A-Leagues have a history of about two decades, with some clubs being more successful than others. Most clubs entering the NST have two to three times the history to lean back on, be it purely in years or, in most cases, silverware.

For the better part of the last 20 years, the clubs entering the NST have had to build communities focusing on the grassroots side of the game to survive. The relationship we will see to commence this new competition will extend much further from that of a company to a customer. It will often grow to a large family created organically throughout the years.

How those families accept, embrace, celebrate, and represent their clubs in their new spotlight will go a long way to deciding how this competition fares. The ethnic backgrounds of clubs should be celebrated, and should they be channelled correctly, they can be vessels for inclusion in modern Australia, not the exclusion we have seen in the past.

An example is Nestory Irankunda and his love for Adelaide Croatia Raiders. Irankunda’s junior club does not hide its heritage but embraced a player born in Tanzania to Burundian parents, amongst many other players from diverse backgrounds, like he was their own, so much so that he remains a regular visitor to the club, even as a professional footballer who has recently signed for Bayern Munich.

There are countless similar examples within most 'ethnic' local clubs around Australia, and those institutions should wear this inclusion as a badge of honour. Despite the racially charged treatment they have received over the years, most have embraced the melting pot that is modern Australian society.

Rivalries between different ethnic and religious groups have run deep for years. But that cannot get in the way of what is being built. Fans will support their teams in their most significant moment in two decades. But they must ensure they do not cross lines, which will make many outsiders feel uncomfortable backing their teams.

The communities built by first-generation migrants were crucial for the different cultures to thrive in their early days in Australia. But what often occurred was the ideology of those mother countries being adopted as part of the identity of their Australian diasporas.

While the positives have shaped Australia today, the extreme pockets of those cultures can disrupt society with actions inconsistent with modern Australia and its values. A poignant example was the Ustaše-sympathising element of a part of the Sydney United fanbase being exposed during the club's 2022 Australia Cup run.

That is an extreme example, and Sydney United is far from the only club with extremist elements in its fanbase. But it is something that, should it not be managed and controlled, can cause neutrals to stay away, keep new fans from engaging with the product, create negative headlines, and can undoubtedly contribute to the downfall of a league that will be fighting to show its viability from the get-go.

Europe has a complicated, intertwined history, with many cultures clashing. While that can create 'real' rivalries on the pitch, this sentiment must remain in the stands for the league's success. It is no secret football receives a lot of negative media in Australia, and violent, anti-social behaviour rooted in the ideology of countries that have since evolved to be far more progressive than they were 80 years ago cannot be allowed to sabotage football's new venture down under.

For good or bad, these clubs will become the poster children for what their cultures stand for in modern Australia. Creating an inclusive and safe environment for all participants, be it on the field, in the stands, or in the club rooms, is vital to the survival of a new league and the clubs.

In making the jump to the professional game, clubs require a lot more than only the support of their communities to grow into what they want to become. Current Football Australia Head of Marketing, Communications and Corporate Affairs, Peter Filopoulos, shared this sentiment with Greek-Australian outlet Neos Kosmos after the NCIP was rescinded during his time as Football Victoria CEO in 2019.

“If I can use an example, I think clubs that have embraced their multiculturalism beyond their mono-ethnic roots, it might be counter-productive to go back to their mono-ethnic identity," Filopoulos shared.

“For me, I think the opportunity is, that now, clubs are able to celebrate their rich history and multiculturalism and diversity, without fear. They can embrace it. Whether that extends to mono-ethnic names, and logos being changed, I’m sure there will be some that choose to do that. But I would also encourage clubs reaching a wider audience, beyond their mono-ethnic community because that’s the only way we’re going to grow.”

It is important to remember that while cultural differences and rivalries run deep, friendships do, too. South Melbourne and Sydney Olympic being united by their Greek identity is an example of what to expect regarding a 'friendly' rivalry.

A feature the NST will have that the A-Leagues do not have is friendly rivalries between clubs of similar backgrounds, which can create experiences that do not exist in professional Australian sports. This aspect is certainly one that modern Australia is familiar with, as multiple events are staged across the country every year to celebrate culturally significant days for different ethnicities.



One aspect that united all of these cultures in a post-World War II life, in a foreign new land that did not fully accept them, was a shared love for football, a love each displayed in their unique way.

In 2025, 'old soccer' will again enter the national spotlight but not as a sideshow to 'new football'. Instead, it will be a direct competitor. Fundamental business principles suggest that when 'producers' engage in competition, the winners are always the 'consumers'. This theory will be confirmed again as more players receive opportunities and Australian football fans have a diverse landscape to enjoy and support.

We know the A-Leagues competitions and what they have been for the best part of 20 years. The selected NST clubs have a unique opportunity to redefine themselves. It is up to them and their stakeholders to grab it with both hands.

It is also an opportunity many clubs have been clamouring for years, and should it be executed correctly, Australian football may find the part of its soul it initially did not want and has shunned for almost two decades. The ball is in the court of these clubs now, and luckily for them, it is the same round one they used to set the foundations and make football a prominent feature of Australia's sporting landscape in the first place.

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1 Comment

Nov 29, 2023

Very well written article. I sincerely hope the NSD manifests a positive identity for Australian football culture.

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