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Regional benefits of footy diversity

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COMMENTS

15 June 2010 12:08

The World Cup is the extended moment when football becomes the crucible and the metaphor for international relations.

No consolation in that thought for the Socceroos as they tend the wounded after the German blitzkrieg. The Australians can now live the truth of the neat observation in The Times editorial: 'In football, it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you place the blame.'

In Australia's case, it's also a matter of which code of football you want to use for the international relations analogy. Our diverse approach to footy reflects the range of regions Australia borders. As a nation that has four major football codes, Australia also claims access and membership rights in as many different regions. The only nation to have a continent to itself, Australia looks out on several regions where it wants to belong. Australia's promiscuous regionalism is reflected in its sports.

Cricket is our Indian Ocean sport – the game that dominates relations with India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, and Sri Lanka, and is a key sport (along with rugby) with South Africa.

In Asia, we play soccer. Soccer shows the malleable nature of Australia's regions. We used to be in Oceania when qualifying for the World Cup. We moved to Asia for World Cup purposes and our domestic teams now play in the Asian Champions League. For Australia's Asian engagement, the soccer shift into Asia is an important melding of geo-politics, geo-economics and what really animates many Australians — sport. Anthony Bubalo's Football Diplomacy paper nets that issue wonderfully.

Australia and the US have an alliance separated by the Pacific, a common language and the lack of any common sporting obsession. The only mainstream sport Australia shares with the US is tennis, and that doesn't offer any war-like metaphors useful to Australia's central military relationship. The Economist explains why Australia and the US can't really talk sport to each other:

The minute divisions of labour in America's sports, for example, and the structural role of advertising breaks, suggest its ingrained capitalism; the glitzy parochialism conveys the American tendency to splendid isolation.

In the South Pacific, we play rugby. Rugby Union matters, but for popular culture, the regional impact has been in Rugby League. The big change in the makeup of Australia's professional Rugby League teams in this generation has been the extraordinary surge in recruiting from the South Pacific. In the National Rugby League, nearly one third of players come from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Maori or Cook Island heritages. Roy Masters calls it a 'huge influx' driven by 'coaches keener to recruit Polynesian-type body shapes to combat the brutal collisions of the code'.

If the people of Queensland and New South Wales now have a grasp of Polynesian pronunciation, they've learnt it from the Islanders playing Rugby League. Call it the Fuifui Moimoi effect – the name of a man-mountain from Tonga who crashes through tackles for the Parramatta Eels. No one would ever dare say phooey to Fuifui.

League has given Australia a living window into its Island neighbours. And now League is giving Australia a Nicky Winmar moment. The football jumper has been lifted to show the hurt beneath, as Timana Tahu walks away from representative footy in protest at the words and attitudes of one of the former stars of the game. As usual, Patrick Smith's sports column said a lot about what is happening in Australia, well beyond the playing arena:

It is a walkout that so starkly expresses the hurt and disgust that accompanies racism. Even just two words. "Black c...." Never have two words in rugby league said so much.

In the past, football has forced Australians to think about their relationship with aborigines. Now, it is also about how Australia relates to Pacific Islanders. For Canberra, South Pacific policy is usually about aid, diplomacy and leadership. Footy brings it back to what really matters – people.

Photo by Flickr user PacoAlcantara, used under a Creative Commons license.

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