Australia qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany by winning the Oceania group and then beating Uruguay in a penalty shoot out. And then there was that moment deep in added time in the round of sixteen when Italy received a dubious penalty and …. it was all over.
In 2010 Australia qualified for South Africa through the Asian confederation which provided stronger competition for the Socceroos than beating New Zealand and setting a World Cup record of 31 – 0 against American Samoa. Not much went right for the Australians in South Africa after the 4 – 0 first game loss to Germany and they fell at the group stage.
Qualification has been secured for the 2014 World Cup but consecutive 6 – 0 losses within a week to Brazil and France have shaken the team and led to the sacking of the coach just 8 months out from the World Cup. Ange Postecoglou has been charged with steering the ship for the next five years.
Was “Australia at the World Cup” all a miracle built on the back of a super talented generation of players? Will Australia be able to continue to qualify through Asia in the future? The Asian Confederation directly sent four teams to Brazil and the fifth placed team, Jordan, ended up in an inter Confederation playoff for a World Cup spot against Uruguay, as is traditional.
Japan and South Korea are perennial qualifiers from Asia. Iran and a number of Arab states consistently challenge for spots and it is not difficult to imagine Qatar buying a team capable of qualifying in 2018. Qatar are automatic starters in 2022 – July, December, whenever. And then there is China. If China decides to care about the World Cup: – well we’ve seen what they can do at the Olympics. World Cup places via Asia could become very scarce for Australia in future.
The nature of ball kicking sports in Australia means that a best case scenario for soccer is that it attracts a quarter of the possible talent pool, but many observers think that Australian Rules and Rugby League do at least as good if not a better job of attracting football talent. Indigenous players are disproportionately represented amongst the ‘freakishly talented’ players in the AFL yet they are practically invisible in high level soccer, while the Rugby codes have a good record of picking both Aboriginal and Pacific Islander players.
In practice this means that Australia is a soccer nation of around 6 million people, maybe. European migrants have provided the backbone of Australian soccer teams over the generations with English, Scottish, German, Dutch, Italian, Greek and Balkan descended kids all providing representatives in our best sides.
There have been over 4 million European migrants to Australia since the Second World War with half of them coming from the United Kingdom. Other significant sources of migrants from Europe have been Italy (405,000), Germany (308,000), the Balkan region formerly known as Yugoslavia (260,000) and Greece (226,000). Migration from Europe actually peaked in 1950 at 168,000 and reached a subsequent peak of 146,000 in 1970. There were eight consecutive years to 1971 when more than 100,000 Europeans migrated to Australia. Numbers then dropped quite dramatically and have only rarely risen above 40,000 in a year since then. Two thirds of all European migration to Australia in the post war period occurred before 1970 and the average age of migrants born in Italy, Greece and other European countries is well over 60.
As European migration has declined since the 1970s Asian migration has risen and Asian migrants outnumber Europeans two to one over the last 25 years. It appears that after having been the major source of migrants to Australia in almost every year since 1788 the United Kingdom has been finally deposed as the largest source of migrants to Australia with China, India and New Zealand all now providing more migrants in the last few years than the UK.
Australia now only attracts relatively small numbers of European migrants from outside the UK and Ireland and the original migrants from Europe are aging rapidly. That generation of migrants helped to build up ‘wogball’ and encouraged their kids to play the sport to keep their cultural links alive. This promoted the development of local soccer and provided the basis of our World Cup teams.
One thing about migrant groups: over time they assimilate into the broader community. Their kids marry out of the national group and they might pick up a few of the local customs like Aussie Rules or Rugby as a pastime. Soccer has had to keep replenishing itself from without to prosper. The players that made up the team of 2006 were born between the early 1970’s and the mid 1980’s. These would have been the kids of that cohort of eight consecutive years of 100,000 + European migrants in the 1960’s. Red Dog was a great film about the Pilbara in the 70’s and everyone recognised the ‘Ski Patrol’ as a group of newly arrived migrants working for the big bucks in an isolated outpost. Many members of the Ski Patrol returned to Australia’s more comfortable capital cities, settled down, started a family and pushed their kids along to the local soccer club with cultural ties to the old country.
One interesting facet of the 2006 campaign was that there were a number of players who kept their options open for a while before announcing that they wanted to play for Australia or Croatia. There were jokes at the time about the Croats being an Australia A team because of the number of players with an Australian connection. (I don’t know if the Croats thought the jokes were funny.) Was the great run at the World Cups built not just on the back of a large number of migrant groups keeping up their cultural ties with the old country by supporting their soccer team, but also by the particular circumstances surrounding the disintegration of the old Yugoslavia in the 1990’s?
Yugoslav migration to Australia peaked over three years in the late 60’s and 120,000 migrants arrived between 1965 and 1975. Since 1975 only 100,000 migrants have arrived from Yugoslavia and its’ successor states, and half of those arrived in 1990’s as the various wars raged. The violence of the breakup of Yugoslavia would have led to a number of Australians fighting in the wars on one side or another. It is likely that this fanaticism translated onto the soccer pitch. So the Australian soccer team benefitted not just from the ‘usual’ run of very talented Scots, English, Greek and Italian kids playing elite soccer but was topped off with a group of hyper motivated, nationalist inspired players of Balkan background shifting their focus from the path of military glory which ended with the 1990’s Balkan wars into their sporting endeavours. Croatia and Slovenia are now members of the EU and the other Balkan states are working towards membership. Hopefully life remains boring in Sarajevo in 2014.
And that is the concern for Australian soccer: it is a more or less unrepeatable set of circumstances that got our team to the World Cups. From here on Australian soccer will mostly have to build from within as the contribution from European migrants diminishes and the second generation wogboys vanish off into ‘Straya, where their Skip mates are interested in AFL, Rugby and cricket, as are their kids.
The major sources of migrants to Australia between 2005 and 2010 were as follows: the UK, New Zealand, China, India, South Africa, Philippines, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and Thailand. After the UK there are not a lot of countries on that list which have a stronger soccer culture than Australia. We get the rugby playing South Africans mostly, not the soccer playing ones. Our cricket team may benefit in the years to come from the Indians, Sri Lankans, Kiwis and South Africans but it is not obvious that our soccer team will.
In a few World Cups’ time we could be just another small country in Asia battling for that hard to get 4th or 5th spot against the Iranians, various Arab countries, China and some of the ‘Stans. Soccer fans in Australia will still be abusing the referee for the foul paid against Lucas Neill in the final minute of the Italy game in 2006 and dreaming of a brighter future, ever receding.