It is more often celebrated — the great traditional association which the Rugby and Australian Rules codes of football share with our country’s military past and the stories of our servicemen heading abroad during the first world war. What is however lessor known is the arguably-larger contribution and part that soccer and the many great players, teams and clubs of that era had to play in shaping the story of our nation’s campaign.
Sports historian Dr Ian Syson who has researched this very topic 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 ultimately offering up the greatest sacrifice 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.
Records show that entire clubs and teams ceased activities and enlisted in the defence forces, and were shipped off to Europe and beyond as part of the war effort, leaving Australian leagues depleted of players and ultimately unable to operate.
The majority of soccer associations across Australia went on to suspend their senior football competitions indefinitely, at least until the end of the war, as more and more players enlisted.
With thousands of soccer players in uniform it is little surprise to learn that the game was played throughout the conflict, wherever there was a means and a way to accomplish it. Documents and even film footage and photographs show Allied forces and often Australian and New Zealand soldiers and staff conducting games in the theatre of war, including a famed match drawing hundreds of spectators which was held at Gallipoli during the evacuation of the forces towards the end of the campaign.
Whilst it can be said that footballers, and in fact Australian sports persons from ALL codes and disciplines made great sacrifices and contributions to the first world war effort, countless examples exist in documents and news articles showcasing the vastness and significance of Soccer being a sport that was leading the charge.
Closer to home, in the Courier Mail it was reported that in Toowoomba as many as 140 local players had gone to the front to fight, and as such the Toowoomba British Football Association proudly declared that it was the only football association (code) to have created an honour roll for soldiers in Toowoomba.
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.”
The toll of the war on Australian soccer will never truly be realised however there’s little doubt that the loss of so many great players and the impacts on the sport meant that an untold amount of soccer dreams went unrealised even in the early days of the sport’s development into Australia.
Entire teams left for war, and in many cases recorded, almost the entire team never made it home. For that great sacrifice, we must always remember them.
Sources: TROVE www.trove.nla.gov.au | Victoria University www.vu.edu.au/news-events/news/soccer-forgotten-in-the-anzac-legend | Australian War Memorial www.awm.gov.au | Photographs restored and coloured by Coral Sea Media