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The ‘chip’ on Australian football’s shoulder

Phrase – A chip on the shoulder. Definition – spoiling for a fight, anger due to a perception of unfair treatment, holding a grudge or grievance.


A selection of phrases used in definitions of one of the most widely used phrases in the English language. In much the same way as short man’s syndrome, those acquiring the so called ‘chip’ can’t take criticism and feel the need to constantly prove themselves against the outside world.


As is the case with Australian football and many of its most passionate supporters.


Leading a rather tragic sporting life, I had occasion recently to relive the 2005 penalty shootout with Uruguay where John Aloisi and Mark Schwarzer sent the Socceroos to their first World Cup in thirty two years.


Very few would argue about its significance in the history of Australian sport. It was a red letter day after the tragedy of previous campaigns.


Listening to the audio, I picked up on something that astounded me. During the shootout, ex-Socceroo Craig Foster said the following.


“This is as big as it gets in Australian sport. I’m sorry, but it is.”


I’d never noticed it before and wondered why. To whom was he apologising? And for what reason?


Let’s paint the picture. The migrant game, the wog game, the ethnic game, the game of cowardice and simulation, was on the brink of achieving a dream.


A packed stadium, intense media interest, public support and the prospect of meaningful international exposure and success had all come to a head.


The conversion by Aloisi is now part of football legend, yet why was a staunch football person apologising for pointing out the significance of the moment.


Was there some potential offence to Australian sensibilities? It read colloquially as, “yeah, yeah I know it’s only football Australia, I know you all love AFL, league and union more, but this is actually bigger. I’m sorry for hurting your feelings, but it is.”


As if there ever was need to apologise.


Yet the chip makes it so. I think I have one too. I’ve always sided with the battler, the forlorn and the disenfranchised. As I have written before, I grew up in a multicultural melting pot and watched the local migrant boys play like Gods in the local park. I felt isolated and marginalised from the game.


Ironically, as I joined them, we were to experience the same emotions as one.

As the local competition rose, fell, collapsed and rose again, footballs endless pursuit to ‘prove’ itself to the Australian public, became something of an obsession. That pursuit, is the source of the chip.


The problem for the game, is that proving people wrong isn’t the most effective way forward. Once it’s done, where to next?


Having proven to his high school coach that he should have been selected in the basketball team for which he was overlooked, Michael Jordan would have walked away from the game if that was his sole motivation.


His subsequent career embodies the purer motivations of an athlete; to get better and sap every ounce of talent from their body and mind.


There are many tales of people being told they couldn’t do something. Tom Jones was told his voice wouldn’t hold out, Australian golfer Craig Parry was told he was too short and round to make it internationally and tennis great Mark Woodforde pushed and prodded his way to fame with a pokey yet determined game.


All three proved their worth yet didn’t stop there. They stood for more than just acceptance and justification. They wanted excellence and blocked out the naysayers in the search of it.


Football needs to adopt the same approach in Australia.


Internationally there is no discussion of worth, with the game seen as the pre-eminent code in at least 60 countries, however locally, echoes of the past still linger in the minds of those who watched the game battle through some tough times and grey-beard attitudes.


Perhaps the FFA could set up a ‘chip amnesty’ program where we can all turn up to Head Office and safely return our years of baggage and pain.


We could all get a little certificate that categorically states we are free from the bondage of being a football supporter in Australia and no longer feel the need to defend, apologise or justify our game to anyone.


I’m sure I am not the only one who still gets their back up when a mate mocks a poor A-League crowd, an act of simulation or ridicules the concept of the ‘world game’.


What it will take for all of us to grin and smirk at the silliness of the comments, without retorting with inadequacies of other codes, is unbeknownst to me?


Each time this little dance is repeated, writers like me are accused of launching the dreaded code war. With a rugby league background and a passion for AFL, I am bemused by this allegation.


The ‘chip’ doesn’t translate into the starting of a war, it’s just at times Australian football fans didn’t feel as though they were even invited onto the battlefield.


Now we are, and we need to let it go.


Years ago I can remember watching a panel discussion on The Midday Show with Ray Martin. The four major codes were represented. I can’t recall all the participants but I think Peter Fitzsimons represented union, maybe the late Lou Richards spoke for AFL and a league aficionado was also there.


Les Murray sat on the far right of the panel and there wasn’t a chip in sight. He sat in silence as the AFL and league reps tore shreds off each other, mocking the intellect of NRL players, the time spent off the field in the AFL and the respective toughness of the codes.


The union voice chimed in with a bit of cool common sense and intelligence, typically union, and all the while Murray sat, silent. Finally the host threw to Murray, realising that football had been ignored in the discussion.


Murray eloquently and precisely presented the wonders of the game in a few short, crisp sentences without vitriol or aggression. It was stunning and met with muted applause and then silence.


Within seconds the Victorian and New South Wales rivals were at it again, Murray was once again silent and the farce continued.


There was no need to apologise or prove anything. Murray loved his game, its global appeal and its domestic competition as well. No need to make excuses or use dollars or statistics to achieve leverage in the argument.


When the Socceroos bring back the form shown in the recent clash with Chile and move successfully through the last few matches of qualifying for Russia 2018, we need to tell everyone how big it is.


Not to justify our existence or prove a point, just because it is. Maybe then, our shoulders will be clear.

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