Winning with tolerance | Sydney lesbian club shows Australia it is bats for football

For A$18, the Bats market rainbow playing socks for the 'sexiest, coolest and gayest soccer players around.' The Bats’ rainbow playing socks

The Bats’ public presence may not seem surprising in the context of Sydney’s Oxford Street, where the city’s gay district is centered. But more widely, within a nation governed by four-term center-right prime minister John Howard and still held in thrall by the values of “mateship,” the club makes a de facto political statement while remaining, as stated in club policy, avowedly “non-political.” Mateship embodies positive Anglo-Australian qualities such as fidelity and friendship, but can also exclude those who defy the qualities of the Australian “benchmark man”: non-natives, women, gays and … soccer players.

The thread running through the late Australian international Johnny Warren‘s autobiography, Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters (2002), is the lifetime battle against a provincial, white Australia that feared influence from abroad and from its migrant communities of Eastern Europeans, Italians, Greeks, Dutch and Germans. Warren might have fit into the normative group, having grown up in Botany, a solidly middle-class suburban Sydney neighborhood, playing tennis, cricket and golf with his brothers and growing into an accomplished all-around athlete: a pinnacle of Australian identity. “Sport to many Australians is life and the rest a shadow,” writes critic Donald Horne. “To many it is considered a sign of degeneracy not to be interested in it” (see Chris Middendorp, “This Sporting Life,” The Age, 19 Mar 05).

But because Warren chose soccer rather than the prevalent Aussie football codes he took on a “missionary role” of advocating for the sport as a player and broadcaster. He recalls being confronted in the late 1960s by punters outside a Sydney bar, who showered the parading Australian national soccer team with epithets like “f—– poofters” and “Dago [Italian] bastards.” Warren over time began trying to debunk the stereotype, alluded to in the Aussie slang words that form the title of his book, that soccer was soley for women, migrants and gays:

Despite the fact that I played a complete range of sports like most Aussie kids, my nickname at school was “Wog Warren” because I also played soccer. Only sheilas, wogs and poofters played soccer, was the prevailing narrow-minded attitude. It was all a product of the area’s working-class allegiances and roots—of being suspicious of anything new or difficult to understand and instead exalting the image of bronzed Aussie machismo and the physical demands of work and struggle, best epitomised by the brutality of rugby league. Sport was a natural extension of the working week. The league players were society’s heroes. Rugby league neatly defined the way things were. It was an unsubtle game played at the end of a week of unsubtle work. Society and its sport, sharing and reinforcing each other’s values. A man was defined by his work and his play, so of soccer players it would be asked, “Why don’t you play a man’s game?”

Through recent achievements of the Socceroos and launch of a new men’s professional competition, the A-League, the sport may be overcoming these prejudices. Yet women’s soccer, as Warby agrees, still fights for recognition.

At the elite level, the Matildas, despite high standing in the Asian confederation, have lacked a women’s league since 2004. Soccer’s grassroots popularity among girls and women has also failed to improve the situation. National coach Tom Sermanni, former coach of the New York Power of the Women’s United Soccer Association, notes the paradox that netball, basketball, field hockey and water polo support national leagues for women (Michael Cockerill, “Matildas Desperate for a League of Their Own,” Brisbane Times, Apr 7).

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