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The history of soccer in Australia

Soccer came to Australia with the first waves of British colonists hitting the country’s vast shores, although it’s yet to grow into the roaring popularity the sport has in it’s home country. Rugby league and cricket are the darlings of Australian national sport, carrying passionate followings, but Australian soccer is coming into its own renaissance. Since the team’s recent successes at the World Cup, more Australians are showing interest in the great game of soccer.

Despite its growing following, not many Australians know much about the fascinating history of soccer in Australia. From the grassroots colonial history to the squabbles of formalisation and the first great achievements on the world stage, this article will walk the curious through the evolution that made Australian soccer what it is today.

Early beginnings: 19th century

British presence in Australia began in 1788, initially as a penal colony governed by naval soldiers. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that an influx of free settlers began to shape the Australian cities we know today.

The British brought many aspects of culture to the Australian shores, amid a roiling pot of sailors, ranchers and hopeful citizens looking to make a new life on the untouched coasts. Familiar pastimes crossed the breadth of the world, and one of those that they brought with them was a national favorite – soccer.

Starting as a casual street sport with eleven-a-side matches initiated by figures such as Dalmahoy Campbell and Francis Stephen, the first official soccer club wasn’t established until 1859. The Melbourne Football Club, which is the oldest surviving football club, brought together players across the city under the first official script of rules in the new colony, which bore strong similarities to the Cambridge University rules written in 1845 or those for John Hope’s Edinburgh club in 1824 – not that those rules much resembled those that are internationally recognized today.

Even the offside rule only became popularized in New South Wales due to rugby influences, and Victoria brought the free kick into play somewhere between 1860 and 1880. The influx of migrants with their own ideas about the sport certainly didn’t help matters – although it was these later migrants in the 1880s with their knowledge of the Football Association that sparked a more grounded set of rules.

For much of the 1800s, no doubt, football was the realm of skilled workers seeking a sport in leisure time, the game thriving on casual Saturday afternoon matches and the small crowds of spectators seeking their own diversions that came with them. Many football clubs from this time are now defunct, with the oldest surviving team being the Balgownie Rangers, formed in 1883 in Wollongong. The first intercolonial matches didn’t take place until 1883, with the first playoff between New South Wales and Victoria, setting off an annual undertaking that soon blossomed into the leagues we know today.

Formalization and expansion: 20th century

The early 20th century kicked off the first touring leagues with a Western Australian team travelling the eastern states in 1909. From there, Australia saw rapid progress toward the establishment of national and state soccer associations, beginning in 1911 with the very first, named the Football Federation Australia.

Unfortunately, with World War One looming on the horizon, the game’s burgeoning popularity as a spectator sport took a blow. It wasn’t until 1922 that the sport recovered enough for Australia to gather a national team to participate in international competition.

This period brought a number of challenges. Australia is a huge landmass, and teams faced dire challenges making the treks across the country for national leagues, due to a lack of infrastructure. Funding was short, and many clubs struggled with limited resources. The matter of a unified code was far from settled, seeing even further intercessions from various international standards now the country had reached the worldwide stage.

Despite these struggles, nothing could hold back the Australian passion for football, and before long, the country saw its first professional teams.

Rise of professionalism: late 20th century

The very first professional league in Australia formed in 1977, when teams across the nation came together to form the National Soccer League. Much of this was just signing off on changes and improvements that had already brought about rampant success on the international stage, with 1974 bringing Australia’s first qualification for the FIFA World Cup.

The late 20th century heralded increased popularity and commercialization of the sport. Televised matches attracted large audiences and corporate sponsorships started popping up around the country. The increases in funding allowed Australian players to finally go professional with their sport and dedicate more and more time to training rather than being restricted to free time after work.

However, Australian soccer still remained a detached sport with a strong sense of local identity. Many teams were groups of migrants from countries across the globe, and those strong identities alienated casual viewers. The biggest struggles of those years were trying to rid this sense of exclusivity from the sport.

One of most famous figures in late 20th-century soccer was Paul Okon, captain of the national team that went to the FIFA World Cup. Chairman David Hill made a strong attempt to further integrate the national leagues, calling on teams to shed their migrant roots and take on new names and emblems to create a more inclusive community.

Modern era: 21st century

A new era for Australian soccer bloomed with the introduction of the A-League in 2004. A series of governmental interventions re-ignited and formalized the professional sporting league into what we see today. After being absent for close on 32 years, Australia returned to the FIFA World Cup in 2006, which helped complete the launch of the sport into the national mainstream consciousness.

This was the start of the explosion of soccer in Australia. The national team qualified for world cup after world cup, putting on performances that inspired the heart of the nation. Independent grassroots programs sprung up in cities across the country, with youth development programs receiving a wealth of funding to foster talents nationwide.

Australians are now fully immersed in the world of soccer, with match-going a favored pastime and discussions rampant in all public spheres. And one of the preferred ways for Australians to interact with matchday is through sports betting.

Betting in Australian soccer

Despite a long history of betting on horse racing since the first British colonies hit the shores, sports betting only became legalised in Australia in 1983. Originally, a government-owned agency took all the bets – soccer being primary among them – but it wasn’t until non-governmental agencies started popping up in 1993 that soccer betting really took off in Australia. Placing bets at the bookies became a staple part of enjoying the national sport. Most betting took place ahead of time, before the fans gathered elsewhere to watch the match, and mostly focused around binary results like wins or losses.

The first sports betting agencies appeared in 1996, and from there, sports betting underwent a real renaissance. Online betting introduced an unprecedented flexibility in placing bets, and from 2002, could be done from home while watching matches on TV.

Development of mobile betting apps in the later 2010s increased flexibility even further and Australians could enjoy complete immersion in their game, enjoying the thrill of betting while surrounded by other fans at the match or in the bar, reacting to play as it happened. Now, millions of dollars are wagered on domestic and international games each year.

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