I first became interested in English soccer when I learnt that Marcuse was playing for
Manchester United. Now here is a new aesthetic dimension, I thought, and an interesting career
move for a philosopher thought dead since 1979. The Elvis Conspiracy pales in comparison with
this. And for all I knew, Althusser had signed with Arsenal, Foucault with Queen's Park Rangers,
and Chomsky with Oldham Athletic. Oldham could do with that sort of talent. But of course I
was wrong: this bloke was just Mark Hughes, no relation, and there's little chance that we will
ever see Deleuze or Guattari at Wembley.
Watching soccer on TV I decided I liked the sound of Sheffield Wednesday, so that's the team I follow. Their club symbol is a stylized owl, very similar to the Victorian Council of Adult Education's logo, and most of the time they play in North Melbourne's colors -- broad blue and white stripes -- which makes it easy for me to recognize them. Sometimes they wear a dashing yellow number with thin double black stripes. I haven't worked out yet why they do this. There's a lot about soccer I don't understand, but it's curiously pleasant to watch, and must surely be the purest form of football.
The purest form of foopball is Australian Rules Football. Despite anything you may read in dictionaries, foopball is the most common and therefore authentic pronunciation of the name of our historic and most honored ball game. Born and bred in Melbourne, I have sometimes been derided for my snooty pronunciation of the word as football, but my loyalty to the game has never been impeached. ("Impeached", you may say, is entirely too big a verb for such a little matter. Not so if you have regard to its origin, which is Latin and means "caught by the foot".)
I have heard it said that rugby is the game played in Heaven, a sentiment I find as theologically dubious as the game is boring. William Webb Ellis, who first picked up the ball and ran with it at Rugby in 1823, has a lot to answer for -- and not least that ultimate travesty of football, the game they play in America. I am not biased about these things. Some of my best friends are rugby followers and Americans. My father played soccer. My own on-ground experience, and it was often literally that, was entirely in Australian Rules and at times profoundly dubious theologically.
Cast your mind back, as best you can, to 1943. Young Bangsund is cornered in the schoolyard at Helen Street Primary by a bunch of good-natured fellow urchins who demand to know who he barracks for. "Barrack? Wotcha mean?" "Foopball! Who'ja barrack for? Which team?" Oh, football team: I hadn't given any thought to supporting a football team. At age four and a bit, going to school was enough to occupy my terrified mind. "Wotsa teams?" I asked. They rattled off the names of the Immortal Twelve, and I liked the sound of the name "Essendon", so I said "Essendon." They beat me then, abused my person, and scorned and contemned me and my ancestors. How was I to know that Collingwood and Fitzroy were the only teams acceptable in Northcote? -- apart from Northcote itself, which played in the Association, but to barrack only for a VFA team was also unacceptable.
Having chosen Essendon, I became a devoted Essendon supporter, and remain so to this day. Some time I should go and see them play, even though they're not the side they were in the great days of Dick Reynolds, Bill Hutchison and John Coleman. But I probably won't. I doubt that I will ever see Sheffield Wednesday play either, except on television. For many years I followed Essendon on the wireless. I have fond memories of Saturday afternoons in the back yard at Northcote, listening to the football. What did people do with their time before there was wireless?
My father and mother met in South Melbourne, and were naturally South Melbourne supporters. I knew about Cazaly before I went to school: "Up there, Cazaly!" is what parents at the time tended to say to their infants instead of "Up you come!" or the like, especially if they were South Melbourne supporters. If my father had not been in New Guinea I might well have become a South Melbourne supporter too, but before the war ended I was at school and an Essendon supporter. My father took me to the cricket at the MCG -- I recall being at a testimonial match for Don Bradman -- and to football matches at the Northcote ground. At that time I think his friend Doug Nicholls was coaching Northcote. Doug had been a star player for Northcote and Fitzroy. Later he was just the caretaker or manager of the Northcote ground, and later still Governor of South Australia. My father and Doug were members of the Northcote Church of Christ, and Doug was a frequent visitor at our place. Doug had gone into the ministry, and founded the Aboriginal Mission in Fitzroy. I taught his daughter Pam in Sunday School. Not long after that I went into the ministry too, and at the theological college in Glen Iris I gained a new perspective on football.
When teams were selected at school, for sport or any kind of games, I was always the last to be chosen. School can be hell for fat kids. I never played football or cricket. I performed creditably when required to run -- that is, I usually came last, or near it, but at least I finished the course -- in athletics meetings and all-in cross-country runs. I don't know why they were called "cross-country" runs: the only country-like thing about our runs through the back streets of Northcote and East Brunswick was the occasional glimpse of Merri Creek. On Wednesday afternoons, compulsory sports time at Northcote High, I played tennis, after a fashion. I fell in with other sporting no-hopers who spent most of their tennis time talking about books and music. One of them was Graeme Murphy, a boy regarded with deep suspicion because he was known to be taking ballet lessons. It wasn't until 1980, when I was editing the second volume of Edward Pask's Ballet in Australia for Oxford, that I discovered I had not been at school with the great dancer and choreographer but another Graeme Murphy entirely. On the other hand, I had a truly famous teacher: one of my form-masters at Northcote High was Kevin "Skeeter" Coghlan, star rover for Hawthorn, one of that club's great "Mosquito Fleet" of the early 1950s.
There weren't enough people at theological college to allow total discrimination against fat students. I was still usually last to be chosen when teams were selected, and not chosen at all when the college was playing against an outside team, but in inter-house competition between the imaginatively named Glens and Irises I found myself with all the sport I could handle. (I was a Glen, luckily. To be last among the Irises would have been too much humiliation.) My tennis didn't improve much: my friend Ken Hank, who was crippled, but otherwise physically fit and very strong, used to enjoy belting me off the court. I found cricket insufferably boring. I can't recall batting. When fielding, I was invariably placed at very-deep way-long-off, which meant that I sat under a tree somewhere near the boundary, reading Thoreau or someone equally tangential to divinity, and when the ball came my way everyone would yell and I would try to stop it going into Gardiner Creek.
The college principal, Lyall Williams, had played for Camberwell and Hawthorn in his day, so football was very much on the college calendar. Among the teams we played was the Melbourne Bible Institute, whose students regarded us as dangerous modernists (an invective of the time as insulting as its opposite, raving fundamentalists) and who were so little committed to football that hardly any of them owned studded boots: most of them played in sandshoes. From time to time the Glens were required to play the Irises at football, and my position was pretty much the same as in cricket, except that we played on a proper ground, the Dawson Reserve in Burke Road. In football, no matter how hard your team tries to keep you out of the way, inevitably the ball will come near you at times. At one such time I found the ball in front of me and everyone behind me, and I dashed after it, and almost had it, when a team-mate behind me said "Leave it!" so I left it, of course -- and Charlie Dow, captain of the Irises, grabbed it and punted it down the ground, and I couldn't believe it. How could Charlie do a thing like that, pretend to be my team-mate, when he was on the other side? I found this very difficult to accept, morally and theologically, and I said as much to my captain -- Phil Andrews, I think it was -- but he didn't seem interested in discussing it at the time.
It was time, I decided, to hang up my boots and return to civilian life.
Philosophical Gas 85, April 1993