Conservative media, partisan fandom among football’s woes in Australia


Matt Dawson

Soccer’s popularity among young people and women hasn’t translated to more media coverage Photo: DawMatt (Flickr) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Australia has always had an enviable sporting culture – from winning the Ashes, a downpour of gold medals at the Olympics, and triumphing at Rugby World Cups, Australia’s presence on the world sporting stage has always been prominent.

But despite so much success in countless sports, there is one glaring omission when it comes to sports in which the country dominates.

Football, or soccer, is by far the world’s most popular sport.

According to Sports Illustrated, the 2022 FIFA World Cup Final achieved a global reach of more than 1.5 billion people.

But there’s a seemingly unbridgeable gap between football’s global popularity and Australia’s stranglehold on several sports internationally.

The Socceroos – the men’s national team – only qualified for the World Cup for the second time in 2005, and despite qualifying for every subsequent tournament, they have still not been able to establish themselves as a football powerhouse.

The Isuzu Ute A-League – Australia’s only professional men’s football league – has seen a steady decline in attendance and popularity ever since its peak in around the mid-2010s, after its launch in 2005.

While this could be down to Australia not taking a huge interest in football (comparatively), there are potentially more sinister reasons behind the sport’s failure in Australia.

According to ‘The Independent’, mainstream media in Australia is extremely restricted and still very conservative in its coverage of football.

Its bias against football in Australia can be explained by a couple of points.

Firstly, the way football was introduced to Australians had a big influence on the way that it is treated today.

Despite football being played in Australia since the early 1900s, the first real ‘top flight’ football league in Australia was the “National Soccer League”, or NSL.

The NSL was founded and developed off the back of prominent ethnic cultures in Australia with the majority of clubs in the NSL having links to Greece, Serbia, Croatia and other European communities.

With mainstream media coverage of sport leaning to the conservative side, this resulted in attempts to sabotage and dimmish the credibility of the game in public discourse.

The terms ‘Wogball’ and ‘a game for ethnics’ have been thrown at those who watch or follow football in Australia.

Johnny Warren, a former Socceroo, titled his biography “Shelias, Wogs and Pooftas” to highlight issues regarding sexism, homophobia and racism surrounding the acceptance of football in this country.

Warren was one of the main advocates for the sport in Australia and the title of his book is a clear highlight of how big these issues were for the sport.

According to SBS, he and legendary football presenter Les Murray were crucial figures in pushing football into the mainstream.

Another perhaps most poignant point on football’s lack of acceptance in comparison to other sports in Australia, is the more partisan fandom that can sometimes lead to distasteful incidents marring the beautiful game.

Most notably, the Melbourne Derby in December 2022 saw hundreds of Melbourne Victory supporters storm the field and attack Melbourne City goalkeeper Tom Glover.

While that was rightfully called out and criticised by all corners of the media, this further added fuel to the fire in seemingly supporting the stereotype of football supporters being ‘hooligans’, providing unfair confirmation bias that further adds to the agenda that exists against football fans.

When comparing how football fans are covered and treated it’s a stark difference.

In the most recent Melbourne Derby, a young fan was violently escorted out of the stadium by multiple police officers, while the fan was not restricting police actions in any forceful way.

This was described by as ‘fiery scenes’ at the derby.

By comparison, in a Collingwood versus Port Adelaide match at the MCG, an extremely violent and vicious brawl breaks out between supporters yet one security guard was present and didn’t intervene in an incident the Herald Sun described the as a ‘scuffle’.

The clear and unfiltered bias towards football from the mainstream media is a long-standing issue which has restricted the sport’s ability to grow in Australia.