I believe we, as football people, need to respect ourselves if we want respect from Australia as a whole.
What is it with our sport? Australian football just seems to find ways to do everything possible to undermine its position in the fabric of Australian society.
I have had the pleasure of growing up in a country where sport is treated as a religion and where sportspeople are idolized like demi gods. The major sports of Cricket, Australian Rules, NRL, Tennis and Rugby Union treat their stars in a glorifying way that is synonymous with Australian society.
Take cricket for example, possibly the true national game of this great country. Names like Bradman, Chappell, Benaud, Waugh and now Ponting are revered. Yes, they too have had their controversies but they are respected by the country at large. In Tennis, names like Laver, Court, Goolagong, Cash and Rafter epitomize the true Australian spirit of having a go and succeeding against the odds.
Living in Melbourne I grew up going to Australian Rules games most Saturdays and then going to Olympic Park to watch the soccer every Sunday. My AFL idol was Carlton full forward Alex Jesaulenko or Jezza as he is known to millions of AFL fans. Even 40 years after his spectacular mark in the Grand Final against traditional rivals Collingwood, adults and kids all yell “Jezza” when they take a mark in thetraditional back yard kick around.
Wally Lewis in NRL, David Campese in Union and so on - all our great Australian sports have their heroes.
So I come to our game, football (or soccer as I grew up with for 40 years). We have finally produced a batch of Australian born stars of the game that have played for the Socceroos and in the big leagues of Europe. Harry Kewell would be in most people’s top 3 of all time great Australian footballers. Arguably, he may well be our greatest ever. Kewell is our Bradman, or Campese, or Lewis, or Jezza! Yet we are seeing Kewell’s name being torn apart! Why? So what if there was name calling in the Socceroo camp? That happens in most sporting dressing rooms. But that should stay there, in house, not out in the public domain where everyone is looking at the way we are behaving as a sport.
This is not the Australian way of treating our sporting idols! Whether the powers that be in Australian Football admit it publicly, Australian Football is not yet one of our major sports in Australia. Yes we have made huge in roads over the last 5 years. In fact, going back a decade or so, I really never would have believed that our game would ever grow to where we have now. So credit to all those who have masterminded the games development like Frank Lowy, John O’Neill and Ben Buckley.
Just as important as the masterminds, maybe even more important, are the players that have been part of this incredible last 5 or so years that have given Australian fans idols to cheer on. Harry Kewell, Mark Viduka, Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Vince Grella, Mark Bresciano and many more are the names that Australian fans have been able to cheer at stadiums in Australia and overseas, in places like Darling Harbour and Federation Square. They are also the names that editors of our great media outlets have been happy to headline the back pages of our papers.
So as a fan of Australian sport and proudly of Australian Football, all I ask is that we treat our heroes with respect and then perhaps our beautiful game will sit up there with Cricket, AFL, Tennis, NRL and Union for all Australians to respect and enjoy.