Soccer played as big a part in the ANZAC legend as Australian Rules and Rugby League, according to historical research.
Sport historian Dr Ian Syson said records showed soccer’s assumed position on the edge of Australian culture during the First World War and Gallipoli campaigns – in contrast to how other football codes are celebrated as central to the ANZAC story – was misleading.
“Sporting contests were significant activities within the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) during the First World War and the AFL and NRL have assumed the right to put that sport-war connection front and centre through intensely publicised and popular Anzac Day matches,” Dr Syson said. “It is a tradition which coincides with the rejuvenation of the ANZAC legend in Australian cultural life over the past 20 years.”
He said the implied narrative was that Rugby League players from NSW and Queensland and Australian Rules players from the rest of Australia made up large sections of the fighting force, to the extent that the spirit of the soldiers and the footballers had merged in the Australian psyche.
However, Dr Syson said this modern understanding that the two codes dominated military participation stems ironically from the very push designed to cover up Australian Rules and Rugby League players’ tardiness in enlisting though the poorly subscribed Sportsmen’s Battalions.
“Several sports, like Rugby League, boxing and Australian Rules football, used the military units of sportsmen to rebut criticisms about continuing their activities during war time; other sports, which ceased their programmes, were involved because they considered it was their patriotic duty,” he said.
Records show soccer leagues around Australia closed during the war with large numbers of soccer players fighting and dying in action. Documents also reveal a flourishing soccer culture within the armed forces, including an extensive and co-ordinated soccer program within the AIF, even if not all of the participants were from soccer backgrounds.
Dr Syson said soccer was even at Gallipoli, where a match between Allied troops was cheered on by hundreds of onlookers.
Meanwhile, newspapers from shortly after the war in 1923 reported on the ANZAC ‘ashes’ soccer trophy match between Australia and New Zealand. This little known tradition, which continued until the mid 1950s, had teams competing for a silver razor tin case, containing cigar ashes, from one of the soldiers who landed at Gallipoli.
Dr Syson said soccer’s absence from the ANZAC sporting legend was symptomatic of how the game has been almost erased from the modern Australian psyche.
“Australian Soccer neither was nor is a marginal game in participatory terms, having been popular and widely played for over 100 years. The cross the game has to bear is that it is often considered marginal and foreign,” he said.
“Ultimately soccer is absent from most of the positive stories Australians tell themselves about themselves and has failed to embed itself as a component of the national cultural-mythological discourse, especially when it comes to military history.”