Where’s Wally?

Australia has always been known as a sporting nation. Big events such as the Olympics, grand finals, World Cups, and annual races are known to stop the nation. As a result our newspapers have healthy sections dedicated to this pastime in its various forms. When the coverage crosses over from straightforward reporting to opinion pieces it never fails to create discussion in the office or online.

The Australian’s sports editor, Wally Mason, recently offered up a thought piece on soccer. Mason’s piece was written with the premise that diving was hurting the popularity of the sport in Australia. A not too unreasonable position to take as there is a narrative in some sections of Australian sporting fandom that soccer is riddled with this particular brand of gamesmanship more than any other sport. It is never that simple though.

Mason is an infrequent contributor to the soccer think tank although he has intermittently written on the sport over the years. His personal position on the sport could be anything but according to Ray Gatt, he is a Tottenham fan. Everyone seems to have a team, it’s a bit like the “I have a black friend” for someone who said or is about to say something bigoted. However, he is seen by many soccer fans as an outsider and for this reason his view on diving has been met with varying degrees of suspicion and outrage.

The motive of Mason on writing such a piece is open to speculation but it did follow a recent happening in an Aleague fixture. On the weekend, Brisbane Roar’s defender Jade North hammed up the contact from what appeared to be a hand to his face from Melbourne City’s Bruno Fornaroli. No doubt Mason watched or at the very least heard of this and felt compelled to write a response. Where was Wally going with his offering?

In his piece, he rightly condemned diving but this is something that the wider soccer supporting community already do. Diving is not in the slightest a contentious issue in soccer because there is precious little support for the action. Perpetrators of blatant acts of diving are called out by commentators, opposition players and coaches, the crowd, and fans watching at home swiftly and harshly. Social media and match wrap ups do not show any mercy to players caught cheating.

The referees also have the power to punish players who are caught simulating to gain advantage by issuing a yellow card. Sometimes the incidents are missed by the officials such as the North incident. The rules are in place though to deal with the act of diving and widespread disapproval is almost assured thanks to replays. Diving is not something that is glossed over by anyone.

There is a narrative in Australia that diving is confined to soccer. A little research can put this inaccurate position to bed. They may go by other names but “staging” and “playing” for free kicks is common in most competitive contact sports and is what in soccer is labelled “diving”. Throughout rugby and Australian Rules history one can find articles and footage highlighting instances of staging and feigning injuries to gain an advantage. In some cases it has even been glorified in end of season reviews as one of the lighter moments in games. Despite the historical evidence, there is an unwillingness by many to accept the idea that cheating in this manner is in any way a trait of true blue Aussie athletes.

It’s similar to hooliganism. The same actions could happen at a soccer match and at a rugby league match but in the reports, the sport will illicit different terminology that plays to stereotypes. In rugby league the simple term “crowd trouble” may be used but in soccer they will choose to use “hooliganism”. We see this in the reporting of terrorism as well where the ethnicity of the act is the determining factor of whether the “T” word is applied or not. It is deliberate choice used to grab attention and get those all important metrics up.

Soccer is an imperfect sport with many issues that need to be addressed. In truth, a self-aware soccer fan could dissect the sport and offer up more pertinent issues adversely affecting the game than any “outsider” or “anti-soccer” protagonist could. Lazy journalism leads to an endless offering of the same articles and this constant barrage of clumsy and ill-thought out critiques of the sport leads to frustrated reactions from a soccer public starved of intelligent and thoughtful coverage from the mainstream media.

If it’s not diving it’s lack of goals, or flares, or ethnic ties. These go-to-issues are rehashed time and time again by journalists who for the most part have very little to do with the game. It is a natural human reaction to protect and defend what you love from outside attacks, real or perceived. Mason’s article attracted the attention that it was after and predictability most were scathing in their response.

The surprising aspect to emerge from this was the circling of the wagons by “football” journalists, including veterans Ray Gatt, Michael Lynch and aspiring journo Vince Rugari. They spent a good portion of the day defending Mason and talking down detractors with Rugari labelling fans “precious”. Mason is Gatt’s boss so it isn’t that shocking to see him defend the person who cuts his cheques but it was dissappoonting to see such a disconnect between the soccer public and soccer media who you would like to see remain impartial at the very least. Mason’s position at The Australian does make it prudent for the ambitious journo to do a little defending.

It is undeniable that soccer in Australia continues to grow, especially in terms of participation at junior levels for boys and girls so the future of the game looks in good shape. Maybe Wally’s generation is lost to the game and any attempt to remedy that would be futile? There is nothing to gain from courting those who are so easily turned away from the sport.

Mason’s “concern” for the sport might be genuine but it is more likely that it was another click bait article the likes of which never fails to deliver. Diving or no diving, the presence of many other factors has seen soccer rise to be the number one sport in the world and this doesn’t look like changing any time soon. Australia still has a vocal minority still holding on to a nostalgic ideal from a bygone era but the overwhelming majority are embracing the beautiful and at times not so beautiful game.

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