FP studies the virtuous life of Johnny Warren: the godfather of Australian soccer, sporting equality and the closest thing to a patron saint the country has had.
If St. Brendan ‘the Bold’ of Clonfert, the patron saint of navigators, was known for his quests for the “Isle of the Blessed”, then the late Johnny Warren was someone who staved off the high waves of racial and social prejudice to find the blessed Isle in Australia. St. Brendan had epiphanies and stars to guide him, St. Warren had football.
The book titled “Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters : An Incomplete Biography of Johnny Warren and soccer in Australia” was written by him alongside Andy Harper and Josh Whittington (released in 2002 and published by Random House Australia). The book chronicles the game’s hardships and success and achievement in a country where it different code of football ruled the masses; all through eyes of the man who went on to become affectionately known as the “godfather of football in Australia”.
The story of football or ‘soccer’ as it is also known in the land of Oz has a tumultuous backdrop unlike anywhere else. While the rest of the world instantly embraced the beautiful game, in Australia the hug was a half-hearted one.
Football was already being played in Australia since the late 19th century, much like everywhere else in the world thanks to British in-vitro colonization. However, it was only during the 1950s that the game was beginning to see some significant growth in the country following the post-World War II European migrants.
It was these migrants that played a key role in developing the game with clubs being formed throughout the country to represent the respective communities. The genesis of the National Team would come from these communities, once Australia was admitted as a member of FIFA.
Sadly, because of this connection, football had to deal with toxic racism from the mainstream public as it was perceived as a foreign game and wasn’t “manly” enough in the Australian psyche. Football, thusly, was given the term “wogball” (wog is the Aussie derogatory slang for European migrants).
However, for a young Anglo-Saxon who grew up in a rugby league town called Botany, it was “World’s Game” as he would like to call it that became his idea of love and salvation for his country, and his life’s obsession.
When he was 6 years old, his dad took him to watch the Yugoslav side Hadjuk Split that featured the legendary Yugoslavian, Vladimir Baera (widely considered as one of the best goalkeepers in his era) against Australia at the Sydney Showground in 1949 – it turned to be a life-changing experience for the young Johnny.
His love for the game cemented when he met a young boy by the name of John Watkiss whose family just moved into Australia from Wolverhampton, England. Warren would spend time with the Watkiss, listening to great tales about Stanley Matthews and other storied English names from that era. Also, John Watkiss, was an avid collector of Charles Buchan Football Monthly magazine, which for Johnny was his personal bible.
Johnny, growing up in the cultural melting pot that was Australia, understood the importance of football for these migrant communities and saw how passionate they were. He instantly struck a chord with them. Football to these migrants wasn’t just a game but it was also escapism from the harsh realities in their adopted country. It was perhaps at this stage that Johnny made it a personal mission to see that the game will one-day reign supreme in Australia whether in his capacity as a player, team captain, coach or pundit.
There is a chapter on his football career, beginning with the Canterbury club in 1959 also known as the Canterbury Babes due to their policy of giving young players the opportunity to play in the senior side. At one point, the average age of the first team was only eighteen. He would play for them until the club’s demise in 1962.
He would later go on to play for St.George that was based in the district of the same name in Sydney. The club was also fondly known as St. George Budapest – it was established in 1950 following the arrival of Hungarian migrants after World War II. The club would play a pivotal role for the national team in the years to come as many as 10 players would star for the Socceroos. Many notable names in Australian soccer would come from this club including Johnny’s best friend and football pundit, the late Les Murray.
Johnny would play for them until his retirement as a player/manager. On his last game for the club, he would score the winning goal in the NSW Grand Final against Sydney Hakoah. He would immediately substitute himself after that goal, a perfect way for him to bid farewell to a football career that spans for almost 15 years.
While his club career was glittering in which he has won four New South Wales state league titles, it was his chapter with the Socceroos that I felt was more interesting. Especially during those treacherous World Cup qualifiers from the 1960’s and 1970s. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine what the Australians had to go through back then; when Oceania, Asia, and Africa had to compete for just one allocated place in the World Cup.
In one part of this journey, Warren gave an indication as to that being the major stumbling block that has shrouded Australia’s World Cup qualifying campaigns for 32 years based on a chain of events starting in Mozambique: after playing three back-to-back matches against Rhodesia in Mozambique, a witch-doctor reportedly placed a curse on the Australian national team for failing to pay ‘a spiritual monetary offering’ on their visit. Australia travelled from southern Africa to Israel for the next stage of an obstacle-course-like qualification campaign. They lost 1-0. Returning home to only manage a 1-1 result in Sydney, which ended the World Cup dream. These events were later immortalized by a comedian by the name of John Safran, in a television show called “Reverse the Curse”, which attempted to get rid of the witch-doctor-shaped shadow looming over the national consciousness just before the Socceroos’ World Cup qualifier against Uruguay in 2005.
The pinnacle of his football career was being a part of that Australian side that made history by qualifying for Germany 1974. One can only imagine how thrilled he was for Australia to play on the biggest stage, but his World Cup adventure didn’t turn out the way he would have wanted to.
Johnny suffered a career-threatening knee injury in 1971 which kept out of the game for almost year. During this time, he also lost the National Team captaincy to Englishman Peter Wilson. He made a miraculous comeback and established himself as part of the squad that would travel to Germany. However, his World Cup adventure ended in the first match against East Germany as he was injured after receiving a tackle on his right foot. That eventually kept him out of the remaining two games including his dream match up the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Sepp Maier, Gerd Muller, Paul Breitner, Wolfgang Overath and other West Germany’s stars.
It was during the post-World Cup years that Johnny’s mission took on a life of its own. The experience he had gathered from his travels with the Socceroos gave him knowledge as to how football can connect Australia with the wider world and itself.
Johnny has been involved in every historic development that relates to football in Australia until his retirement. He would work alongside with St.George president Alex Pongrass and Hokoah’s president Frank Lowy. Warren would make phone calls to all the club’s representative in order to gather for a meeting, that would lay the cornerstone to a proper nationwide football league rather state-based competition. This effort was instrumental in establishing the National Soccer League in 1977 which at the time was something of a revolution in the country.
He was also responsible for arranging to bring the star-studded New York Cosmos for a friendly against the Socceroos in 1979, where a crowd of 80,000 people gatecrashed (without incident) into the 40,000 seaters Sydney Showgrounds to watch Franz Beckenbauer and company.
He later went on to work in the media as a commentator and pundit for Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), one of Australia’s biggest broadcaster via his relationship with his former teammate and lifelong friend Les Murray. This relationship that he had with SBS played a vital role in building football’s profile. He was also the host of the famous television show called Captain Socceroo. His on-screen persona and his enthusiasm for the game was infectious.
Johnny understood that for the game to survive, it needed to have a strong grassroots programme which would produce the stars of tomorrow. He even took up coaching and would conduct various soccer camps for children throughout the country.One notable name to benefit from this camp was future Socceroo star and team captain, Paul Okon.
One chapter I thoroughly enjoyed was when he made a trip to Brazil with his nephew. It was in this chapter that I felt deeply connected to Johnny because of the love we share for South American football and in this case, Brazil.
Johnny was awestruck by the football culture in a country where the game meant everything to its people. This was beginning of his love affair with the country that gave the world Pele and samba, in which eventually he was made an honorary citizen.
His mission in promoting football wasn’t always smooth sailing. With every small setback and unavoidable incident, Johnny fought back against the powers that be and did all he could to protect the game from those who wish to disrespect it. his battle only made him work even harder and he would do whatever it takes to preserve football’s integrity. At times, he would find himself at odds and go against the football establishment from within, including with players and coaches.
One prime example is his disapproval of appointing former England manager Terry Venables for the Socceroos hot-seat in 1997. Johnny claimed that Venables was caught up with his legal issues back in Britain and lack of knowledge when it comes to football in Asia would be regressive for Australian football. He was vocal on Venables commitment especially when he opted to send his assistant to scout Iran.
Even the Aussie wonder-boy Harry Kewell was the receiving end from Johnny after hearing that the former Leeds United and Liverpool star demanded payment for promotional or media appearance back in Australia. In Johnny’s view, this wasn’t the right way for players to give back to the game. Whilst he fully respected the players’ right to earn money, he also encouraged them not to forget their roots.
Johnny knew well that for football to be given the recognition it truly deserves, the Socceroos had to play on the biggest stage once again, something that hasn’t happened since his team qualified for Germany 1974. It was always his lifelong dream, one which almost came true during the 1998 World Cup qualifying campaign.
In the second leg at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia looked certain to book their ticket to France when they were leading 2-0 against Iran with 15 minutes left to play. But two quick goals from Team Melli’s Karim Bagheri and Khodadad Azizi meant that they failed to qualify on the away goals rule.
A distraught Johnny was seen weeping on live television during the post-match commentary as he knew just how much this qualification meant for the people who have been involved in football for all their lives. The struggle didn’t end there.
Several months after this book was released in 2002, Johnny was dealt with the news that he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away due to respiratory complications in November 2004.
Near the anniversary of his death, almost as a homage, the Socceroos finally broke their hoodoo when they made it to the World Cup after beating Uruguay on penalties in Sydney. November 16th, 2005 was the day Australia became a footballing nation in earnest. During the celebration that followed John Aloisi’s winning penalty-kick, football pundit and commentator by name of Craig Foster was heard going mental on-air and shouting the name “Johnny Warren” out of fond remembrance.
It’s unfortunate that Johnny isn’t alive to see his lifelong work bear fruits but I’m sure he will be up above saying “I told you so”; with a smile and a wink, and a phrase he became associated with thanks to his undying belief of what football and team-work can achieve.
I would strongly recommend this book, as not only will you learn about the development of football Down Under but also will appreciate the legacy of a man who given so much for football in his country, all the while embodying the selfless spirit of the ever-affable, indomitable Australian. St. Johnny Warren was the godfather of Australian soccer, sporting equality and the closest thing to a patron saint the country has had.
St. Johnny Warren was the godfather of Australian soccer, sporting equality and the closest thing to a patron saint the country has had.