What football clubs can tell us about Melbourne Greeks

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Written by Emmanuel Heretakis

One day I asked myself, what do community football clubs tell us about the Greeks in Melbourne?

Melbourne hosts at least 25 Greek football clubs across the city and a map of these clubs also shows a huge community. But as well as revealing the two main clusters of Greeks in the city, the clubs and their stories actually tell us a lot more about Melbourne Hellenism.

The High Street Cluster

The High Street cluster incorporates seven Greek clubs in the Northern Suburbs. This includes some of the oldest Greek clubs of Melbourne (Northcote 1960 and Heidelberg 1958) and reflects the area’s history as an early Greek community hub. Interestingly we can see that over time the footprint of these clubs has moved North, in line with Melbourne’s growth, and also in line with the Greek Community’s movement to the outer suburbs. This is not just evidenced by Heidelberg’s relocation from Clifton Hill, but also the establishment of Keon Park in the 80s, and the subsequent establishment of Mill Park in the 90s. This reflects a strong and supportive local Greek community, one further evidenced by the presence of a School (St John’s), monastery (Northcote), countless restaurants and active social clubs.

The Oakleigh Cluster

Admittedly I am not as familiar with these clubs but I am still able to pick out a few key insights. Firstly, none of the clubs in this area have been able to rise to the national ranks, undoubtedly as a result of their later emergence. The clubs in this area mostly emerged in the 70s and 80s, not the 50s or 60s as was the case in other parts of Melbourne. This is in line with the Greek community’s later settlement in this area. However since then, the Greek community here has flourished and continues to do so. The area has been able to support eight clubs, including three recent NPL representatives, and the newest Greek community club Chisholm United (which was formed as an offshoot of Oakleigh Cannons in 2014). The Southern suburbs boast a strong and supportive Greek community which includes a school (Oakleigh Grammar) and the thriving commercial hub around Eaton Mall.

Western Outliers

There is a small cluster of four clubs in the Western Suburbs. However despite earlier formation dates (60s and 70s) none have emerged as dominant forces in Victorian football. I think this is because of a few unique challenges:

  1. Larger non-Greek clubs have dominated the competition for players. This includes the Croatian clubs (St Albans, Melbourne Knights) and Maltese clubs (Green Gully, St George).
  2. There is no Greek community hub in the area that can provide significant funds for support (unlike the Oakleigh and High Street hubs).
  3. The Greek community here has not grown significantly, as evidenced by the last new club here being established in 1979.

Western suburbs Greek clubs currently occupy the 4th or 5th tiers of the Victorian football pyramid. This reflects an established community but not necessarily a thriving one. The western suburbs does have a few Greek churches (Keillor, St Albans, Yarraville) and community groups (Cypriots, Pontians).

Out East

The migration of the Greeks from small houses in the inner suburbs, to mansions in Doncaster and Templestowe is a common anecdote in community conversations. It turns out there is an element of truth to this, both in terms of people and football clubs. Only Malvern City and East Kew reside here, whilst a former club (the East Richmond Jaguars) appears to have met its demise due to the emigration of Greeks from the area. As 2nd and 3rd generation Greeks moved further East though, they have shown a greater ability to assimilate to existing social structures, including football clubs.

A number of existing clubs have seen huge support from immigrating Greeks (as evidenced by squad lists and committee representation). Greek ‘occupied’ clubs include the merged Box Hill United as well as Nunawading and Doncaster Rovers to a lesser extent. Although I wouldn’t say the latter represent Greek community clubs as we understand them, they do show how the Greek community has learnt to integrate with the broader Melbourne community.

Regional identities

Interestingly a few clubs present specific Greek regional identities. For example Northcote has a strong Messinian flavour (reflecting it’s large local Messinian population) and Heidelberg has significant influence from the Greek Macedonian community (reflected in its nickname, ‘Alexander’). Other examples include Bentleigh United Cobras (a merger of the local Lemnian Community Club), Box Hill (a merger of the local Pythagoras Community Club), and the former South Wantirna (backed by the local Cretan Community Club).

Generally though, specific regional identities are tough to maintain even on a social club basis, let alone a football club basis. Just as we have seen clubs broaden their regional identities to something more accessible, we are seeing a similar trend in the consolidation of region specific social clubs throughout the Melbourne Greek community. There are cases though where regional identities remain quite strong.

The Cypriot community has backed a number of clubs including Mill Park up north and Bentleigh Greens down south. There has even been a recent partnership between Darebin United and the nearby Cypriot Community Club. Of particular note though is Brunswick City which has a distinctly Laconian identity.

The local Laconian population is in fact so large, that the local council of Meri-Bek actually has a sister city partnership with Sparta. One may be surprised that there is only one Greek club in Brunswick considering the large Greek population of the area however, it should be noted that the surrounding suburbs suffer from limited park space. Many of the parks available host footy grounds, and the remaining soccer pitches were claimed by other communities, including the Italian community which formed Brunswick Juventus. Unfortunately for the Italian community though, Brunswick did not prove to be a permanent home for Juventus, which is unlike the story of…

The big one

South Melbourne is the largest and most central Greek community club. It’s old age and location reflects early Greek settlement in the area. Such was the size of South Melbourne, that it resulted in an offshoot club (Port Melbourne). There may not be many Greeks left in the area, but unlike the Greek clubs of the inner Eastern suburbs, South Melbourne fandom has thrived, and on a national stage no less. This is in large part to its long history and central location which continues to play an important role in the community.

The importance of South Melbourne cannot be overstated. Its central location plays an important role for football (in an area lacking grounds) and for the Greek community. South Melbourne games allowed Greek from across the city to congregate and contribute to a single massive club much greater success than the sum of its parts. Although this may have suffocated the Western and Inner-Eastern clubs of more support, without South Melbourne, the Greeks community would not have enjoyed the same National and International success.

Contrast this with the Italian community, which is similarly sized and distributed across Melbourne. Brunswick Juventus once played the role of the community’s central football focus, but an inability to find a suitable home ground meant the club was unable to galvanise its community. This contributed greatly to the club’s demise in the 90s. The power vacuum that was left resulted power struggles within the Italian Football community. Clubs were merged, relocated, liquidated and left the community without the success that one would expected of it.

In this way, South Melbourne reveals the most important characteristic any community – the ability to present a united front. The Greeks in Melbourne have been able to create an outsized influence by uniting not just in football but across many fronts. Greek media gives them a larger voice, their major community festival (Antipodes) gives them a political platform, and their major community club (South Melbourne) allows Greeks from across the city to have enjoyed national and international football success.

There is a lot to learn about the Greek community through its football clubs. They reveal where the community is, what the community is made of as well as a number of trends and lessons learned along the way.

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