Christopher TestaComment

MELBOURNE: FOOTBALL IN 'THE SPORTING CAPITAL OF THE WORLD'

Christopher TestaComment

The self-proclaimed 'sporting capital of the world'? This needs further investigation...

The Australian city of Melbourne has long labelled itself the ‘sporting capital of the world’. Its largest arena, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, holds over 100,000 spectators and is one of the most majestic sporting venues in world sport.

Melbourne has long been known for its elite sporting events. The city hosted the 1956 Summer Olympic Games and is also the stage for the Australian Open, one of tennis’ grand slams. Each year, the best of the motorsport world head to the Victorian capital’s lakeside circuit for the Formula One grand prix. Above all, Melbourne is home to Australian Rules football and the city’s showpiece is the ‘one day in September’ when the MCG fills and the country’s premier side is decided.

But Melbourne is also Australia’s beating heart of football. It is the only city in the country’s domestic competition, the A-League, to boast two teams. One, Melbourne Victory, was one of the fledgling league’s founding members, while the newer Melbourne Heart has arrived on the scene determined to forge a place for itself in a very competitive city where sporting allegiances mean everything. Their names are unconventional to say the least, deriders have slammed them as soulless franchises as opposed to true football clubs but they are fast taking centre stage in Australia’s home of sport.

On the road to sporting glory, the Victory and the Heart have much to contend with. Neither club is old and cannot boast decades of glorious history. The Victory was founded in 2004 following a major reform of the game in Australia. The previous top flight competition, the National Soccer League, was shut down and most of its teams, the majority of which were aligned to a particular ethnic community were not included in the new national competition.

Melbourne Victory broke ground by signing national team striker, Archie Thompson, scorer of a world record 13 goals against American Samoa in a World Cup qualifier in 2001. Football fans in the sporting capital were more than keen for kick off. Yet, after over a year of anticipation, Victory did not start life as a football outfit well. The club finished last of the Australian teams in their maiden season (only the now-defunct New Zealand Knights were below them).

Clever recruiting, however, saw them take the competition by storm the following year. Victory was champion and the football fraternity of Melbourne lapped up their success. In just two years, the blue and white fans had outgrown their smaller Olympic Park home with its 18,000 capacity stadium and were playing blockbuster matches at the much larger Docklands Stadium. The stadium’s North Terrace, led by the simply named Blue and White Brigade, set the benchmark for noise and colour from their first home game and continue to do so today.

The following year did not see the team repeat their extraordinary on field success, with Brazilian playmaker Fred having departed for Washington D.C. and Major League Soccer. All matches by now though, were being held at Docklands, a stadium more suited to Australian Rules football. Melbourne needed a venue fit for football and it needed to be much larger than Olympic Park.

The construction of the new AAMI Park, in the Melbourne Park complex alongside the home of the Australian tennis Open, the MCG and the team’s old Olympic Park stomping ground owes a lot to the early success of the Victory. The stadium was originally planned with a much smaller capacity; however the success of Victory’s crowds meant that a rethink was needed.

Today, the arena on Swan Street in Richmond, to the east of the city, is home to not just the Victory, but also the Heart – born of the successes of its great rival. Beyond the playing field, Heart has a gargantuan fight on its hands: to forge an identity in a city already captivated by a Victory side which has already won two of the six A-League championships contested. In fact, its major quandary is that it stands for little other than what Melbourne Victory does not. It wears red as opposed to blue. It has also claimed to be the side for ‘purists’ and hired a Dutch coach, former Genoa and Ajax winger John van ’t Schip, with the intention of playing a flowing style of football. Over a period of time, this counts for little. Ironically, much has changed since Heart played its inaugural match in 2010. Its current captain and playmaker is none other than Victory’s hero of 2007, Brazilian star Fred.

To date, Melbourne Heart has largely failed to garner a loyal following. A lack of both a defined identity and its own unique base are issues. While Heart has potential, it needs to establish a club image fast, as it risks being lost, a mere sporting outfit with no credo in a city full of traditional and successful sports teams. During its inception, Heart was considering playing its football out of Cranbourne, a burgeoning area south-east of the city. This would have afforded it the opportunity to be the city’s second team and amass a following along geographical lines. It didn’t happen and Heart must now look to consolidate its existence by winning titles. There is no other option. Anything less and Victory will not be challenged in its quest to be the pride of Melbourne.

Melburnian football is not however, simply the Victory and the Heart. Founded in 1959, South Melbourne was voted the Oceania Club of the 20th Century. The club, historically known as South Melbourne Hellas, with strong ties to the city’s sizable Greek community, came about as a result of a merger between three much older clubs: Hellenic, Yarra Park and South Melbourne United.

The first national competition was not launched in Australia until 1977. Then, an impasse between the football administration in the state of Victoria and the other states which forbade its clubs from joining the new National Soccer League, threatened to put a halt to the new league. Interestingly, it was a little known side called Mooroolbark who led the way, agreeing to join the NSL. South Melbourne Hellas followed along with fellow Greek-backed side Heidelberg United (then called Fitzroy Alexander) and Yugoslav-supported Footscray JUST. Mooroolbark, ironically, were to last just one season in the top division before finishing last and returning to the lower divisions of Victorian football where they remain today.

South Melbourne was later joined in the NSL by Preston Makedonia (later the Lions) and Melbourne Croatia (later the Knights) with whom they formed strong and heated rivalries. The rivalries were, however, formed on ethnic lines and attracted much criticism from the mainstream media who saw the game as an unwelcome opposition to Australia’s traditional sports of Australian rules and rugby. Ultimately, reform of football across Australia saw these sides forced to abandon their ethnic names and traditional identities or face being eradicated from the forefront of Australian football.

Many sides, such as Brunswick Juventus, an Italian-backed team from Melbourne’s inner-north were cancelled from the competition in the 1980s. By the end of the 1990s, league powerhouses South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights were no longer officially playing under the names Hellas and Croatia.

Yet despite the scorn often poured upon Australian football’s ethnic past, these sides for decades formed a backbone both for the sport of football and a wide number of immigrant populations who successfully assimilated into Australian society. In 1989, South Melbourne appointed legendary Hungarian striker, the late Ferenc Puskás, as its coach. During the 1990s, the club boasted many of Australia’s finest footballers.

In 1995, Melbourne Knights sold teenage striker Mark Viduka to Dinamo Zagreb. In 2006, the club football reform in Australia had well and truly taken place and the new identities and new faces of what was termed ‘new football’ was riding on a high following the national team’s defeat of Uruguay in November 2005 to reach the World Cup finals in Germany. After 32 years, Australia was back at the World Cup again and wearing the captain’s armband was that same Melbourne boy Viduka, a successful product of ‘old soccer’; the very epitome of ethnic football leading the way for the new generation.

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