Monday, September 25, 2006

Book Review: Johnny Warren's Biography

Johnny Warren, Sheila's, Wogs and Poofters: an incomplete biography of Johnny Warren and soccer in Australia (Updated Edition), Random House Australia, 2003.

Firstly, before any attempt at description or interpretation, this book is a great read. If there are any Australian football tragics (or sport tragics) who haven't yet read it, do yourself a favour. Warren is essentially having an extended yarn, and he is entertaining and fun at the same time as very informative and (please don't be put off by this) philosophical.

Warren is very diplomatic to begin with in regard to other Australian sports, indicating that not only was he involved in many sports as a child, notably cricket and Rugby Union, but that his eventual focus on soccer was almost coincidental. By the end of the book however, it is clear that Warren has a distinct judgement that soccer is the greatest football code. This reviewer is in no doubt that Warren is correct about this.

But it is, I admit, Warren's philosophy which most attracts me to the work, and most wants me to commend it to others. In this regard I guess it is the beginning ("Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters: An Introduction") and the end ("Where to Now?") which most endeared me to Warren. No doubt due largely to my ignorance of football history there were sections of the more chronical-type sections of the book, replete with names, teams and games which I will never remember, which I found a little tiresome. Nevertheless, I do not regret my first brush with this history, and the broad familiarity it has given me.

It's worth quoting the opening paragraph in full. Although I'm bloody hopeless at soccer myself (still love playing it), and my background is in history, philosophy and politics, this well expresses the reason I believe in soccer:
Throughout my life, football has come to mean so much to me. It has made me more aware, it has awakened the world citizen inside me and it has alerted me to what the sport is capable of achieving for my own wonderful country, Australia. Football has been the vehicle as well as the window for that awakening. I want the same experience of awakening and awareness for Australia. No other sport reflects life more than football. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why it is so popular around the world. People relate intimately to the ninety minutes of drama that unfolds before them in a football match, because it is so often a metaphor for their own existence. Of course, the game is aesthetically beautiful too, but this is a more subjective thing. In half the games we see, the best team doesn't win, just as the best person doesn't always get the top job or the most deserving person isn't always rewarded. Soccer reflects all those injustices and it is the way people relate to football that brings the emotion into the game. It is the sport of the people of the world. It is physically, socially and financially democratic.

Irony, as in life and football, permeates the book. There are two interconnected yet apparently contradictory through-themes. The first is Australia winning against the odds, especially in away games. There is a real feeling that we have done much better than we could have given the absence of soccer culture in Australia, very variable competence in administration and lack of money. On the other hand there is a second theme of a curse on Australian soccer, apparently, according to Warren, beginning in Mozambique in 1969 in a bazaar story of supernatural subterfuge, where we could perhaps have done much better internationally had it not been for a string of bad luck incidents. Did we do worse than we could have had Lady Luck been on our side, or better than we could have given the forces holding us back? Or both? I for one am happy with the irony. As Warren has suggested in the first place, it merely reflects life as we experience it.

The final chapters are a bit eerie. If Australian soccer, quite openly referred to as a religion by its chief advocates, has an apostle, it's Johnny, and here he speaks to us from the grave in a clear, prophetic sense. He also pulls no punches, especially with regard to the administration of FIFA. Allow me to juxtapose two claims:
Football is indisputably an oligarchy where the real influence behind the game lies with the clout of Europe's big clubs... I fear that the ambitions and desires of the G-14 are antithetical to the community spirit of football.
Warren names names. He names some in criticism and others in recommendation. And then...
Success in football originates more fom parental involvement; mums and dads introducing kids to football and taking them to games.
Along with...
I feel that the role of the lady who worked the canteen at the junior soccer club to raise funds for the kids to play football should never be forgotten.
It is clear where Warren feels the answers lie to Australia's eventual World Cup success. And it's not the Australian Institute of Sport, or not by itself anyway.

It also became clear to me reading these final chapters what Les Murray and Craig Foster were on about when they talked of Warren's vision having largely come to pass. He adamantly insists that Australia must enter the Asian competition and also that the Australian league needs to be revamped. But it's the more grass-roots advice that I think we can never assume has been heeded. It's one of those 'eternal vigilance' things.

Like his belief in fate, there is something very classical about Warren's belief in giving back, lest hubris destroy the soul of what we are on about. He doesn't use the terms hubris or fate - it's my own classical education coming through, but the resonance is loud. Then again, maybe this unconscious (I suspect) attachment to classical philosophical threads is related to Warren's open love affair with Brazil and all things Latin. He applauds the joy that can be found in poverty (with community) and the wisdom and strength in tragedy. Mere speculation, but for this classical soul and lover of the West, there is something there.

To be more specific, he makes a challenge to the elite players themselves - our heroes like Kewell and Schwarzer - to never forget their fan base.

And here I get back to my view of the game through the eyes of my son. After the Australia vs New Zealand game the other week, Jacob and his mates hung around until the Roar players finished their 'warm down', so they could get their heroes to sign their tickets. These kids are the fans and players of the future, and they have since judged the players directly according to whether they walked straight past into the dressing room (Matt McKay, Zhang) or whether they gave a bit of time to the fans. Seo was notably the most enthusiastically - genuinely it seemed - giving, and he is now a clear favourite of the kids. I think this is the sort of detail that Warren was talking about. The game has given everything to these players. Whilst it can't be written into a contract, these players do owe the game a tithe of their success in return. As with the ancients, it's just sacrificing a little of the proceeds of good luck to the gods.

I'm currently reading Les Murray's By the Balls, which I'll probably also review. If anyone wants to recommend to me other good books about football or football personalities, I would be most grateful.

Good night.

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