Ever since the ‘beautiful game’ spread across the globe - imbued with the late 19th century values of muscular Christianity and Empire - many aspects of football have been inexorably linked to politics. As the largest football tournament ever to be staged on Australian soil draws to a close, issues surrounding the politics of sport are extremely pertinent.
Over the past decade, Australia has done much to align itself both economically and culturally within the Asian continent and through hosting the 2015 Asian Cup, it furthers its claim as an outward-looking, vibrant, inclusive, and multicultural society. However, the staging of a major international sporting competition also provides a unique opportunity to reflect on a significant landmark in Australia’s political, sporting, and cultural heritage; the 50th anniversary of the ‘Freedom Ride’. This article will trace the sporting connections to this seminal point in Australia’s civil rights movement, from Alice Springs via Everton Football Club, to Leigh (a small mining village in Lancashire), all through the varied career of Centre Forward and political activist Charles Perkins.
Although the country’s Indigenous sporting stars have generally been associated with the oval ball of Australian Rules Football, arguably the defining Indigenous Australian sportsman of the 20th century was a soccer player. Charles Perkins was born in Alice Springs in 1939. A self-proclaimed ‘bastard from the bush,’ it was not until he moved to Adelaide as an adolescent, that he came across soccer at Le Fevre Boys Technical School. Within no time he was showing his prodigious talent for the game by starring for the First Division club, Port Thistle. By the age of twenty, whilst at Adelaide Budapest, he was awarded best and fairest player in the South Australian State League and consequentially found a novel form of inclusion in a society that at the time, was deeply divided along strict racial lines. Mixing with the various European immigrant groups who made up the team, he wrote: “They accepted me for what I was…I learnt to relax as part of the international set, proud that I was the only Australian in it.” At a time when there were very few opportunities for the country’s Indigenous population to openly socialise with other ethnic groups, sport provided a unique - if limited chance of social interaction.
Determined to broaden his cultural horizons, Perkins jumped at an invitation for a trial at Everton Football Club in 1959. In a far cry from the luxuries of modern football, his journey to Europe was an ordeal in itself, suffering severe seasickness on the ocean liner from Melbourne to Genoa, and then robbed on the train to Paris. He eventually arrived in the United Kingdom without a penny to his name and life in Merseyside proved equally hard for Perkins. Resentful of his teammates, whom he accused of deliberately making him look bad in training, he left the club without playing for the first team and instead worked for a short time in the city’s shipyard. It was not until he moved to Wigan to live with a fellow Indigenous Australian sportsman, (the Rugby League star Wally McArthur) that things took a positive turn. Whilst dividing his time between working as a miner at Moseley Common Colliery and playing for Wigan Athletic, he was approached by the then England Amateur goalkeeper Harry Sharrett, to play Left Half for Bishop Auckland, one of the top amateur teams in the country. Having toughened up his game considerably he was offered a number of moves to professional clubs, but at a time when there was little difference between the amateur and professional games, so he chose to stay loyal to Bishop Auckland, where he was earning close to professional wages.
A key moment in Perkins’ career came with a late season game against Oxford University in the 1959-60 season. Although the game finished 1-0 to Bishop Auckland, it was something more profound that Perkins took away from the field of play. He stated in his 1975 autobiography: ‘That day it started going through my mind that I would like to go to university one day. There on that Oxford soccer field I began to think ‘Geez its lovely round here…I wonder if I could go to university?’ At the end of the season he received an offer to play back in South Australia with Adelaide Croatia. Feeling homesick he accepted and returned home with an added determination, to gain an education and better the lives of his fellow Indigenous Australians.
After his marriage a year later he made the move to Sydney, where he captained the Pan Hellenic Club (later renamed Sydney Olympic FC). Combining his playing wages with his new job cleaning Sydney Council Toilets, he enrolled on a Bachelor of Arts degree programme at Sydney University. Despite receiving little formal education, he remarkably became the first Indigenous Australian to graduate from a University in 1965, at a time when his people were not even granted citizenship in their own land. With a burgeoning interest in Indigenous civil rights gaining momentum, Perkins’ playing career came to an end the same year as he was diagnosed with a kidney problem that lead to a transplant, in the mid 1970s.
Already a local sporting hero in South Australia and latterly in Sydney for his playing and coaching ability, it was not until his footballing career was winding down that Charles Perkins became a national icon. Whilst still at Sydney University, Perkins was a key organiser of the ‘Freedom Ride’. Described by Perkins as “probably the greatest and most exciting event that I have ever been involved in with Aboriginal Affairs,” it marked a watershed moment in the Indigenous civil rights movement in Australia. Alongside his fellow students, Perkins organised a local bus to drive around rural New South Wales, to draw attention to the continuing racism against Australia’s Indigenous population. They began by causing a stir in Walgett, a small town in New South Wales, where they were almost run off the road by angry locals, who objected to their picketing of a local, white only, drinking house. To ensure maximum media coverage for their civil rights campaign, the savvy students brought an Australian Broadcast Corporation journalist with them on the bus and by the time they moved on to Moree, (where the bus barricaded a swimming pool that banned Indigenous Australians) they were front-page news.
After the ‘Freedom Ride’, Perkins remained at the forefront of the struggle for Indigenous rights and representation until his death in 2000. A key promoter of the Vote Yes! Campaign for the 1967 referendum on whether Indigenous Australians should have rights as citizens, his hard-hitting, uncompromising approach to football was matched in his political career. He continued to be a controversial and outspoken advocate of Indigenous rights, railing against the continuing racist policies of the Australian Government and national sporting associations. In the Gough Whitlam government of 1972 he became a Senior Research Officer for the Office of Aboriginal Affairs and held various other roles in a distinguished and lengthy political career, which included positions as Permanent Secretary of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and President of the fledgling National Soccer League in the 1980s.
Not a stranger to controversy, he became well known for outspoken tirades against what he saw was institutional neglect and discrimination towards his people. Ever the diplomat, former Labour Party premier Bob Hawke described how Perkins “sometimes found it difficult to observe the constraints usually imposed on permanent heads of departments, because he had a burning passion for advancing the interests of his people.” Old age did not mellow the man and in 2000, he again caused great controversy in the lead up to the Sydney Olympic Games. Not impressed with the ways in which Indigenous athlete Kathy Freeman was seemingly being co-opted into the mythmaking narrative of an inclusive and equal society by the Olympic organisers and national press, he defiantly predicted that ‘Sydney will burn’ during the event in protest. He then took aim at the Australian Football League and Australian Rugby League associations, relating how the AFL “acts in a racist manner at the highest level.”
Whilst the Socceroos, (the sporting term for the national soccer team) have recently boasted a squad that clearly shows the multicultural nature of Australian Society, with players such as Mile Jedinak, James Troisi, Massimo Loungo, and Bernie Ibini-Isei, alongside the likes of Tim Cahill, Tommy Oar and Matt Mackay, it is notable that there continues to be a lack of Indigenous footballers who appear for the national team, or play for professional clubs.
Although the dark days of racial segregation, forced child removal, and blatant discrimination are in the past, it is worth raising the question of what institutional racism remains in Australian sport and in society in general. So when the Socceroos next take to the field in the coming days, remember Charles Perkins, a seminal political figure in modern Australian history. A fine sportsman and outstanding political activist, but one who is almost unknown to the outside world.