A decade on, Johnny Warren told us so

June 23, 2013

Sheilas, Wogs & Poofters: An Incomplete Biography of Johnny Warren & Soccer in Australia
Johnny Warren with Andy Harper & Josh Whittington
Random House Australia, 2002

A late header from lanky striker Josh Kennedy ensured Australia beat Iraq 1-0 in their final qualifier match for the 2014 World Cup, guaranteeing the Socceroos a ticket to Brazil.

Some 80,532 supporters filled a sold-out ANZ Stadium, the largest crowd for the national men's team in soccer (football to most of the world) since the 2005 qualifying match against Uruguay in the same venue.

Despite their team being at bottom of the table, out of contention for 2014, and wracked by disagreements between players and their federation, about 5000 Iraqi fans overflowed the away bays, at times outshining the Australian fans.

A protest group calling for Socceroo fans to chant “peace for Iraq”, in recognition of Australia's role in the devastating war on the Middle East nation gained national media attention, but received no official mention on the night.

The Socceroos third straight qualification for the World Cup is a world of change from a decade earlier, when Johnny Warren's account of the game and his experiences in it ― Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters ― was first released.

Warren was vice-captain of the first Australian team to qualify for the World Cup, in West Germany in 1974. However, it is as much for his media work and advocacy for the game in Australia, during the 30 years of struggles and setbacks that followed, that he is remembered as “Captain Socceroo”.

Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters gives a harrowing account of the mistakes and misfortune that plagued the Socceroos and football in Australia through these long years.

Warren didn't live to see Australia return to Germany and the world stage in 2006. After being diagnosed with lung cancer, Warren passed away on November 6, 2004. In tribute, the SBS broadcast of the 2006 World Cup featured Warren's defiant phrase, “I Told You So”, in the backdrop.

The book features Warren's insider view of Australian football culture from the 1950s to today. Warren's own career features heavily, starting in his home suburb of Botany in Sydney's east, before moving to Canterbury-Marrickville in 1959.

The highlight of Warren's career was his 12 years at St George Budapest, a club formed by Hungarian migrants after World War II. The club was the core of the Socceroos in 1974, with Warren one of 10 St George players named in the squad.

His success at St George provides a fascinating look at the formative years of modern football in Australia. As a player, captain, coach and media figure, Warren constantly struggled to broaden the appeal of the game beyond the migrant clubs and dislodge common prejudices against the game.

These prejudices are referenced in the title ― “Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters”. Warren explained the references to sexism, racism and homophobia: “If it does offend in 21st century Australia then you can imagine what it was like fifty years ago. 'Sheilas', 'wogs' and 'poofters' were considered the second-class citizens of the day, and if you played soccer you were considered one of them.”

Warren said such prejudices were responsible for sporting discrimination into the 21st century, with mainstream media and institutions far more willing to promote other football codes.

It is an attitude epitomised by the racist comments of Kevin Sheedy, coach of the AFL's Greater Western Sydney Giants. Sheedy tried to explain the poor following for the AFL expansion club on May 12 by complaining that, unlike the A-League's successful first-year team, the Western Sydney Wanderers, the Giants didn't have “the immigration department” acting as “a recruiting officer”.

Unfortunately, sections of the tabloid media and shock jocks also persist in promoting an unjust image of out-of-control "soccer" fans committed to violence and hatred.

But the widespread outrage at Sheedy's comments reflects a weakening in some of the prejudices. So too does the fact that 80,000 people braved pouring rain at Olympic Park to see the Socceroos.

The last season of the A-League, Australia's top level of football, drew record levels of attendance and television ratings.

There are issues with the prose of Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters, but the book remains a great read for the honest insider stories of the game's difficult history in Australia.

As fans of the world game look forward to Brazil 2014, Warren's book deserves to be re-read. Chapter 16, for instance, deals with Warren's experiences in Latin America and the footballing relationship between Australia and Brazil.

In light of the huge protests that erupted in Brazil, sparked by the government's attacks on the poor ahead of the next year's Cup, the analysis of Brazil's football culture helps towards understanding the contradictions of corporatised sport.

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