In 1995 when David Hill came to power, did he understand how the world of soccer worked? Did he understand Victorian football culture? Are there messages for the future? Do the old guard regret the structures of the NSL? These were some of the many questions I asked of a leading member of the old guard of Australian football, from the perspective of the entry of Perth Glory in 1995 rather than the old battle of NSW v Victoria.

By making Western Australia the centre of the conversation it alters the thought process. Football in the west is rarely thought about, especially in terms of how it helped transform the NSL. By challenging the traditional view that Perth is outside the field of influence, we begin to shape the story that Australian football is influenced by all states - not just the two biggest. 

At Heidelberg’s famous ‘Lamb Night’ I spoke with John Dimtsis a man who, after John Constantine resigned, was interim Chairman of Soccer Australia and last year was inducted into the Victorian Football Hall of Fame. My questions were framed around the contributions of Soccer Australia during his time in charge. I began by asking him had he thought about running the governing body differently to the vote and state-based systems?

“No it worked, we understood the game at a grass roots level. When we were in power the Socceroos were ranked in the top 25 in the world. Where are they now?”

Dimtsis proclaimed that it was his era that agreed to the entry of Perth Glory into the NSL. But the deals done over a few drinks and a meal, as they were then, were never a practical way for a Perth side to enter the NSL, firstly because of logistics, but also because of the power structure that was in place at the time. There would be no hope of Perth Glory if the system hadn’t changed.

The old NSL clubs were about community and friendship, which would stifle progress on a Perth-based NSL team. Reports would sit idly on desks with no firm commitments, and with continuing debate on the cost of airfares and the commercial sustainability.

However, maintaining the status quo was not an option. The administrator of the Western Australian league, Roger Lefort, had a deal with Arena Investments concerning the Perth Kangaroos, a team that had taken part in a Singapore-based competition. While the Perth Kangaroos were successful on-the-field (they won the competition), they suffered from lack of marketing, poor crowds and lack of revenue and were disbanded after their first year, at the end of 1994. 

Those involved in the NSL continued to ignore what was happening ‘out west’. The delays and frustrations felt by Arena Investments led to the momentum for change that brought David Hill to power in April 1995, as non-aligned votes in the old Soccer Australia voting structure opted to support change via Hill’s election. 

I have no ‘rose tinted’ glasses about clubs such as Melbourne Knights or Heidelberg, but they have a place in our nation’s football story, and I do not like the way the game has tried to ‘ethnically cleanse’ some of these clubs out of the game. Labelling a club as ‘ethnic’ doesn’t explain the complexity of the stories that exist. 

As I enjoyed the dim sums that were included in the mezedes (or antipasto) on Lamb Night we spoke further about how clubs such as Heidelberg were misconstrued starting with the Hill era. They didn’t live in the same world. The world game had served to bring business and commercial success for men who otherwise may have been shut out from the old boy networks that occupied Anglo-Australia. The love of Carlton Footy Club for Dimtsis, for example, would not have brought him the social networks and power that he garnered as he made his way through football ranks.  

We had a chat about the comment Hill made to me that Sydney and Melbourne had ‘a greater monocultural structure’ than Perth. I pointed out that including dim sum in the mezedes shows that Heidelberg doesn’t scream Greece, it screams Australia. 

“There are two questions I am often asked,” Dimtsis says. 

“‘Do I feel more Greek or Australian?’ I say I love meat pie and souvlaki. The other question is: ‘Do I support Greece or Australia in soccer?’ I support Australia over anyone and I support Greece over anyone, other than Australia.”

Dimtsis arrived in Australia at the age of 8 in 1949 and like many young migrants in Melbourne played Aussie Rules football. Football was not played at his school. Dimtsis says it wasn’t for another ten years that the world game had increased in popularity in his region of Melbourne, as more Greek migrants arrived.

Such was his adoption of the new land and its culture that Dimtsis says he had to teach himself to speak Greek.

Dimtsis started as Treasurer at his club, then joined the Board of the Victorian Soccer Federation followed by the Australian Soccer Federation. This was a pathway for power that would not have been available for men who had no connections. Another is Vince Carlino, the President of Perth Italia who worked day and night for football, and was influential in bringing a national team to Perth. Dimtsis explained he brought women’s football into FIFA, worked as a mediator for issues popping up across Australia and that the NSL had a passion an atmosphere that he was proud of.

John Dimtsis presenting the 1991 Dockerty Cup to captain of South Melbourne, Ange Postecoglou.

Dimtsis believes it was his era of administration that should take most credit for the admission of Perth Glory. However, my view is that they needed it pushed-through because by someone like Hill, as Western Australian football had none of the political clout worked through over generations of loyalty. The type of loyalty which maintains lifelong friends as Dimtsis proudly explained.

Perth Glory was created through the politics of old football, but to get into the competition it needed someone to challenge the ties and bonds that would stifle innovation. That was David Hill.

Will there be appreciation of the past contributions of men working at Soccer Australia? There was a deep level of scepticism in the room. Dimtsis, a political nemesis of Frank Lowy, does not believe he will ever be thanked or acknowledged for his contribution to the game, or be invited to a match. He says he is permanently ostracised from contributing to ideas that help grow the game. 

The political divisions remain in our football community. Will there ever be a priority within FFA for this to change?

Dimtsis supports promotion/relegation, but also a finals series and a grand final.

“In Australia, its part of our culture. In Greece, it is not,” he says.

Football in Australia is part of our national psyche. It is not on the periphery of culture. 

Hopefully, a few more dim sums are tossed with the mezedes as stories and values are expressed, rather than hidden and restricted by a nation that was told to forget its football past in 2005.

We may disagree on the how-and-why of football history, but at least the conversation is starting. 

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Read more about Heidelberg’s history here.

Categories: People | Local

heidelberg united, nsl, culinary delights at football matches

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