The Australian state of Victoria is home to Melbourne, one of the most localised and sporting diverse cities on earth. The passion for sport, ball games particularly, borders on religion. Although AFL (“Aussie Rules” to my UK friends) reigns supreme, almost exclusively in Victoria, soccer has been played for at least 130 years in the state. In this first part in a series on Australian state football the focus is on Victoria and the game’s journey from the glue of ethnic communities to the pre A-League heights and recent controversies.
Brunswick Juventus – Picture courtesy of http://www.ozfootball.net
One of the country’s oldest sporting associations Football Federation Victoria formed in 1884 but did not operate the first official competitive season until 1909, Carlton United of the North Melbourne suburb the first name etched on the trophy. Pre-World War Two the standard was that expected of a regional league in a sparsely populated young nation and the championship changed hands many times but curiously in a pattern; consecutive titles seemed to be fashion of the day but soon after teams would disappear off the map not coming close to titles again. For example Carlton United won the first two (1909, 1910), Williamstown (1911, 1912), Melbourne Thistle (1914, 1915), Northumberland (1919, 1920), Footscray Thistle (1929, 1930), Hakoah (1934, 1935), Moreland (1936, 1937) and Prahran (1944, 1945) and a scattering of one-season wonders in between including St. Kilda and Brunswick.
The catalyst for change, and a less balanced competition, was born out of the horrors of World War Two. Post 1945 immigrants predominantly from across Southern and Eastern Europe flocked to Australia, bringing a whole new dimension to football across all states but of course particularly Melbourne in Victoria and Sydney in New South Wales. The aptly named Juventus (full name Brunswick Juventus) formed from a merger of a cluster of struggling clubs and benefited from a substantial influx of Italian migrant players. Five consecutive titles from 1952 to 1956 and another in 1958 stamped their mark on the decade. However in the 1960s and 1970s (except a title in 1970) they were prised from their dominance by new rival migrant teams, particularly the South Melbourne Hellas and Footscray JUST. They would however win their biggest trophy in history in the later formed National Soccer League (NSL).
Overall the 1960s saw the biggest leap in progress with 23,000 fans attending a Hellas game against George Cross and an exhibition game between a Victorian representative team and Italian giants AS Roma attracted 35,000, incredible figures for a state league. Hellas, formed with a heavy Greek migrant influence, rode high in these years and won seven championships between 1962 and 1974, helped by star signings with the likes of Ernie Ackerley from Manchester United and veteran Greek internationals from AEK Athens and Panathanaikos. Hellas, like Brunswick Juventus, would later take the holy grail of an NSL title. Footscray JUST took a handful of Victorian titles in the same period as Hellas, relying heavily on their Croatian and Yugoslavian origins but over time established itself as a club based at the heart of the Serbian community.
In 1977 the league took a hammer blow to the head and despite huge resistance it haemorrhaged the bulk of it’s strongest teams to the newly formed National Soccer League (NSL) that brought together the best teams from each state, mainly Victoria and New South Wales. While the Ferenc Puskas-coached South Melbourne Hellas and the Mark Viduka-led Melbourne Knights produced some classic derbies in the NSL, for the next decade the standard of football in Victorian competition naturally suffered. The new, national, one division competition did not allow promotion so the teams that were left behind in Victoria could no longer dream of playing on the biggest stage. Crowds also diminished but one of the few benefactors was the birth of Green Gully, taking three titles on the bounce between 1981 and 1983. The Keilor Downs based club hail from Maltese heritage and during the years of the NSL (1977 to 2004) they would win three more titles making it the most successful club of the era, their status only being threatened by three season champions Altona Magic from 1995 to 1997.
In the current A-League era, the NSL’s successor, Green Gully have kept their tag as the most successful team in the Victorian Premier League (rebranded in 1991) with further successes in 2005, 2010 and 2011. Their old foes Altona Magic kept up the trend of back to back wins in 2007 and 2009 but as we go to press, Green Gully are contenders again after making the finals, as the runaway Northcote City took the Minor Premiership as expected all season.
The current Victorian football format was only reorganised last year, however the VPL remains unchanged with major changes to the lower tiers’ structure. Below the VPL sits the State League 1 with four further divisions below. In recent years one such club that has unremarkably competed in the lower tiers is Southern Stars, formerly Dingley. The club has traditionally strong Turkish links and gained promotion to the top flight in 2011. Still remaining virtually unknown they hit the headlines for all wrong reasons just weeks ago when it was revealed Victorian Police had uncovered a match-fixing scandal involving the now infamous club. The Stars sat at the bottom of the VPL table with one win out of 21 and conceding 43 goals when the revelation hit. With it’s lowly status on the world stage it is firmly believed criminal masterminds felt such activity would go unnoticed in the VPL while proceeds headed into the millions of dollars.
The future of football in Victoria will now likely be focussed on for negative reasons but in a perverse way it may elevate it’s status and prove some benefit; as criminal proceedings unravel in the media more people may become familiar with the competition and be prompted to take an interest. Without the chance or future hope of promotion to the A-League the competition only attracts noticeably small crowds. Some facilities resemble amateur park football but hope lies in the fact that it still remains the hub of weekend community activity in each ethnic pocket of soccer-crazy fans it’s serves.