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A version of this article was originally published in July 2021 — it has been updated to reflect Ange Postecoglou’s appointment as the manager of Tottenham Hotspur.

There is a scene in a documentary about Ange Postecoglou’s life, The Age Of Ange, where Postecoglou takes his parents Dimitris (Jim) and Voula to Melbourne’s Hellenic Museum. The museum had produced an exhibition titled “Through a Child’s Eyes”, which centred on 12 prominent Greek migrants who moved to Australia as children in the 1960s and 70s. One of the people in focus was their footballer son.

As a series of Postecoglou’s childhood photos are projected onto the wall, he wryly asks his elderly mother if she can identify the boy sheepishly grinning across the collage.

The camera cuts to Voula, who glows with an expression of unbridled happiness and pride.

There was something understatedly powerful about the moment, a reckoning with history coming full circle, the fulfilment of the immigrant dream of providing your family with a better life, of offering your children their best chance to reach for the stars.

The documentary was made to celebrate Postecoglou’s life as the manager who won Australia their first-ever Asia Cup in 2015, and it stresses just how radically he, a first-generation immigrant, permanently changed football in that country. Firstly with his record-breaking Brisbane Roar side and then the national team. That modernisation and success was the product of immigration.

But Postecoglou’s achievements did not happen in isolation. The football club South Melbourne Hellas, founded by Greek immigrants, have time and again been the engine of progress during football’s journey in Australia, with their former captain and manager Postecoglou a continuation of their lineage.

They were named Oceania’s club of the century by the International Football Federation of History and Statistics, were renowned as the country’s “glamorous” entertainers, and were once managed by one of football’s greatest ever players in Ferenc Puskas — but now they do not even play in the top-flight A-League. Theirs is a remarkable history.

Postecoglou was born in the Greek capital, Athens, but his family emigrated to Australia by boat in 1970 when he was five. Dimitris had lost his business in the wake of the 1967 fascist coup and they, like generations of other Greeks, looked to Australia for a fresh start.

They settled in Melbourne, following a tradition of Greek emigration to that corner of south east Australia. According to a 2016 government census, Melbourne’s Greek population stands at more than 173,000, making it the largest Greek diaspora of any city outside the motherland and Cyprus.

The first recorded Greek-Australians were pirates, sent to Antipodes (Australia’s British-colonial name) in the early 19th century after sentencing by the British naval courts. Free Greeks began to emigrate there of their own volition soon after, with many moving to Victoria, the state of which Melbourne is capital, around the time of the 1850s gold rush. Greeks continued to emigrate to Australia well into the 20th century, and these early communities established a flourishing diaspora that included restaurants, businesses — and football clubs.

South Melbourne Hellas were founded in 1959, with its origin an amalgamation of three clubs; South Melbourne United, Hellenic and Yarra Park. Hellenic, as implied by the name, were Greek-backed, with the merger the idea of that club’s president Theo Marmaras. There was another figure involved in its founding, however: Georgios Samaras — grandfather of the future Celtic forward of the same name.

Roy Hay is an Australian football historian and author of A History Of Football In Australia: A Game Of Two Halves.

“South Melbourne set themselves to be the Greek club in Melbourne and unite the different groups of Greeks who arrived here,” Hay tells The Athletic. “You have to look below the national level to understand most migrant clubs. To the outsider, they looked to be homogenous, but within there were all sorts of regional, local and even familial divisions.”

A bombardment of xenophobia was directed towards football as the sport of immigrants, while cricket and Australian rules football were the country’s traditional sports. The attempted enclosing of Middle Park, South Melbourne’s ground within the city’s lush Albert Park, was met by an aggressive backlash despite cricket and Aussie Rules having their own enclosed spaces inside Albert Park.

“There has always been an anti-immigrant strain in Australian society,” says Hay, “with each batch of newcomers being the target. Yet it seems the majority of Australians are still descendants of immigrants. To understand this you have to look at what was happening in the wider Australian society when there was a backlash against multiculturalism under the (John) Howard Liberal government (between 1996 and 2007).”

Despite the hostility, South Melbourne thrived. They won promotion to the highest league possible at the time, the Victorian State League First Division, in their first season. To survive and compete in this tougher league, they recruited players from Panathinaikos and Kalamata in Greece — as well as a Scotsman named Tommy Anderson. “Clubs tended to have a mixture of Scots and English in defence and a forward line from the national group in attack,” Hay says. “Though the fans and the leaders off the field were from the recent migrant groups.”

They won four state titles between 1962 and 1966 before changing approach to rely on local youth rather than foreign imports. After a spell of mediocrity, they won the 1972, 1974 and 1976 titles.

These two decades saw hardship and even sterner resilience.

Middle Park’s grandstand was set on fire, its goalposts stolen, and the clubhouse graffitied. But this toxic environment only strengthened the solidarity between those who loved South Melbourne and football, both on the pitch and in the stands. This was their game.

“The migrants suffered,” said Michael Mandalis, who played for the club at this time, speaking to Australian sports journalist Joe Gorman about the adversity for a 2014 article in The Guardian. “They went to factories where they were called w*gs and d*gos; so the weekend when you played for South Melbourne Hellas, they belonged somewhere. I survived to win five premierships with Hellas. But my biggest achievement was to put a smile on the face of the w*gs, to put a smile on the face of those workers.”

Although there were cup competitions that saw teams from Australia’s different states compete against each other, there was no nationwide league until the formation of the National Soccer League (NSL) in 1977.

The early years of the NSL were a struggle for South Melbourne. They had tried to transition to a new generation and had offloaded the spine of the team which facilitated those 1970s title wins, such as Jim Armstrong (another Scotsman), Steve Walker and Englishman Peter Bourne.

Their nadir was in 1979, when they finished bottom of the NSL, and the 1980s — bar a 1984 title win — were relatively barren too, with constant player and manager turnover. From 1984 however, Postecoglou became a prominent member of the side and eventually their captain.

Under Puskas, the manager between 1989 and 1992, they became synonymous with vibrant, almost recklessly attacking football — a philosophy their overlapping left-back Postecoglou would take to heart. Puskas introduced South Melbourne specifically and Australian football generally to a possession-focused 4-3-3, Postecoglou’s favoured formation to this day, but the apprentice would not inherit the master’s attitude towards sports science; Puskas hated fitness drills and loved red meat.

Francis Awaritefe was born in London and played for Wimbledon early in his career. He moved to Australia in 1989 to play for a number of clubs, including South Melbourne.

Although Awaritefe arrived at South Melbourne after Puskas and before Postecoglou was named their manager, he emphasises their reputation as the league’s entertainers: “They wanted to play adventurous, attacking football and were renowned for it as their brand. We saw that when Ferenc Puskas was there. It was like the glamour club, I guess the Manchester United or Celtic in its comparison.”

Puskas did not speak English, but he spoke Greek well after previously managing Panathinaikos and AEK Athens, and Postecoglou was often his translator for the rest of his team as well as his on-field lieutenant. “I’d often pick him up from his house and drive him to the ground,” Postecoglou told Gorman in 2014. “I spent a lot of time chatting about football with him — people talk a lot about me being an attacking coach, and that was where the seed was sown. I loved it. He was so much more open than the previous coaches who were so regimented and structured.”

South Melbourne won the 1990 NSL Cup and 1991 national championship, beating rivals Melbourne Knights on penalties in the final.

Knights, formerly Melbourne Croatia, are the club of Croat-Australians. They are another of the most successful clubs of the NSL era with four titles — a further illustration of how immigration wove the stories of Australian football in the 20th century. Future Celtic, Leeds United and Middlesbrough striker Mark Viduka joined them at five years old and stayed for 15 years before moving to European football with Croatia Zagreb in 1995.

Awaritefe spent three seasons each at Melbourne Knights and South Melbourne. He felt the sense of diasporic community of each club “very strongly”, he tells The Athletic.

“Being British, and coming to Australia I hadn’t encountered that, or anything like that,” he says. “That whole history around immigration, and colonial Australia. The Greeks, the Croatians, the Serbians, the Italians, also the South Americans — a melting pot of immigrants who all coalesced around the one big interest that they all had. Having come from disparate areas around the world, the one thing that brought them altogether in Australia was football.

“Because I was born in London, I would not have recognised the difference between a Croatian or Serbian; or, at South Melbourne, the difference between a Greek and a Macedonian. But all of a sudden, you’re in that culture. It’s fascinating to learn that football was an important means for immigrants here to settle, and to assimilate and grow into life in Australia.

“The football clubs were social clubs, the way that communities came together. It was great learning for me, getting to know different cultures, getting to know different people. The food, their ways and behaviours outside of football. A lot of my friends today are from that background. It was like being part of a big family.”

Essential to this feeling of community was the ground.

Accommodating 18,000 zealous fans, Middle Park sculpted a reputation as having a cauldron-like atmosphere, where each generation of Greek immigrants would cheer their team on amid the scent of souvlaki being sold to punters and the crunch underfoot of discarded, Greek-style roasted pumpkin seeds called pasatempos.

Hay says that “there were very few places where migrants could gather to meet and mingle with fellow migrants in the 1950s and 1960s, so the soccer clubs became a bridge for migrants to cross as they came to terms with the new society in which they found themselves. Some even ran language classes. But for folks like Ange’s dad, it was the place where he could feel at home and meet his friends and others and be understood and welcomed.”

“It was brilliant,” Awaritefe — who Hay describes as “a wonderful example of someone imbibing the Puskas/Postecoglou philosophy” — says. “I remember they used to have a couple of people playing the trumpets, playing Greek ditties. The fans would be singing along to it, it would be really exciting.

“The stands at Middle Park, especially at the big games against Melbourne Croatia, or the Greek derby against Heidelberg United… huge games that attracted a lot of people. The atmospheres were always good. Smallish ground by modern standings, but the fans always packed it out.”

Lean years followed the 1991 championship, including five preliminary final (semi-final) defeats and an NSL-wide movement to funnel the immigrant roots of many of their clubs into the background. Like many immigrant clubs, South Melbourne Hellas had a change of name and branding, becoming South Melbourne Lakers — attracting threats of legal action from NBA franchise Los Angeles Lakers in the process.

Attempts to make these clubs attractive for fans beyond their immigrant origins was criticised as an erasure of their identities.

“There has always been a bit of a tension in the South Melbourne club between those who think the club should be more Greek than it is, and those who think it should embrace a wider community more,” adds Hay.

The Lakers rebranding barely lasted two years before the club became South Melbourne Soccer Club.

Still, the sense of community that was inherent to South Melbourne sustained itself, as Awaritefe highlights: “The culture of the club and the people who ran it. I remember the president, George Vasilopoulos (who was in post from 1989 to 2002), and all these other guys around the club, they were just all really good people, a real community club.

“I was there for three seasons but the mates I made there, obviously Ange, Paul Trimboli, Kevin Muscat, Mike Petersen, there’s a whole load of them. We’ve had this lifelong friendship; even a few years after I left and was with a different club, I still joined them for a trip to Bali!”

Postecoglou’s appointment as manager in 1996 began South Melbourne’s resurgence. They finished third in his first season, and all the while his penchant for assertive, attacking football was beginning to manifest. Awaritefe, who played with Postecoglou in the future manager’s final year before retirement, stresses his gravitas and self-belief and his decency.

“Ange is a brilliant human being,” he says. “My time with him at South Melbourne and even subsequently after, a lot of the boys at that team we were all very close. That was the thing around South Melbourne, it had quite a unique culture, in terms of all the clubs I played for in Australia. Unique in how everyone bonded together, and its philosophy and football as well.”

They won two consecutive championships under Postecoglou in 1997-98 and 1998-99, were crowned Oceania champions in 1999 after defeating Fijian club Nadi 5-1, and represented Oceania at the inaugural FIFA Club World Cup in early 2000.

Nicholas Maikousis is South Melbourne’s current president and has been close with Postecoglou for decades.

He has fond memories of that Club World Cup in Brazil and an awe-inspiring match-up with Alex Ferguson’s treble-winning Manchester United.

“South Melbourne were semi-professional at the time and played against Manchester United in their absolute prime,” he tells The Athletic. “It was a great performance, given the opposition (they lost 2-0, in Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Maracana stadium). A real David and Goliath story. Remember, of course, that Man U had walked away from the FA Cup (that season) to participate.

“In the post-match press conference, I saw a young Ange sit alongside the great Sir Alex, which was a surreal experience. Ange conducted himself with professionalism as he always does, but afterwards he asked me whether we had filmed or taken any pictures. I did not.”

South Melbourne lost their three group games to United, Brazilians Vasco de Gama and Mexican side Necaxa and only scored one goal; but as the only amateur side at the competition they impressively held their own against all three as the first Oceania side to play against teams from Europe and the Americas competitively.

“Throughout his time Ange was committed, dedicated and focused, well-loved by all those around him,” Maikousis says. “He always demonstrated leadership qualities. Team of the Century player and member of our Hall of Fame. Very loyal to his club and the people close to him.

“During Ange’s years, the club was by far the biggest and most successful club in Australia. Culturally, the club and its supporters always demanded success. During Ange’s formative years at South Melbourne, the club was not only expected to win but to win playing beautiful football. That formed part of his DNA.”

The good times could not last, however. The NSL was replaced by the A-League in 2004, and with Melbourne only authorised one licence and with the club in poor shape financially — entering voluntary administration — they did not apply for that licence. They remained semi-professional and returned to playing state-level football.

They remain there today, although in 2009 a reform process began to rebuild South Melbourne into a club modern enough for an A-League licence.

“Politically, it is not going to happen,” says Hay. “The A-League has now split off organisationally from Football Australia and that relationship is still in the evolving stage. If the Australian Professional League can eventually organise promotion and relegation on the basis of on-field performance, there might be an opportunity in the future, but that is some way down the track as the economics don’t support a second division.”

As The Age Of Ange documentary ends, Voula Postecoglou is interviewed.

Voice perked by emotion, she says: “Congratulations to my child who made it here, and I wish him greater success, to reach for the stars.”

Postecoglou had the opportunity to reach for the stars because of his parents, Jim the cabinet-maker and Voula the factory worker, the immigrants who enabled his dream.

It was their conviction, compassion and tirelessness that meant Postecoglou, a first-generation immigrant, could one day mastermind Australia’s greatest footballing achievement in the 2015 Asia Cup win.

But South Melbourne and Middle Park hold a special place with him too, the way only a hub for a tightly-knit community can.

“It went beyond football,” Tottenham’s new manager once said. “That place moulded me as a person.”

(Photos: South Melbourne/Design: Sam Richardson)



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