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The false nationalism of Anzac Day and football

  • 24 April 2009

Former Essendon coach Kevin Sheedy had a dream: All over Australia, on 25 April, Aussie patriots rising from their beds in the fading night and streaming into dawn services, to stand and pay their respects to the fallen. The same patriots flooding to the march, and after that 'continu[ing] the pilgrimage' into football stadiums across the nation and standing witness as Australia's youth battled it out over footballs and swore at the umpires.

The matches were to be a celebration of the Australian character on that 'most Australian of days': Anzac Day.

In a country as hungry for a founding mythology as Australia, it doesn't take long to establish traditions. The annual Anzac Day football match between Collingwood and Essendon began in 1995. By 1997 it was already 'traditional'.

Fourteen years on, the symbolism and hype surrounding the match has accumulated to the point that 'The Anzac Day Clash' has reached near-sacred heights, with every possible chance taken to exploit the links between football, war, and the Australian national identity.

Asking what it means to have football played on Anzac Day is almost as risky as wondering why the Digger has become the most powerful expression of Australian identity.

The privileging of both football and the Digger as positive statements of what it means to be Australian involves an incredible amount of forgetting on a day supposedly set aside for remembrance.

There's nothing new in worrying that the kind of Australian identity glorified by Anzac Day is restrictive. Over the last century, various groups and individuals have questioned what it means to have reified the 'Anzac Tradition' to the point that discussion of the complex trauma and evils of war is neglected.

In the 1980s, when women marched during the Anzac Day parades asking that Australia remember that war involves rape and violence against women, then Victorian President of the RSL Bruce Ruxton commented to The Age newspaper that 'if one looked at [the women marching], I wonder how rape would be possible'.

In this century, feminists no longer march in the streets, concern over the role of Anzac Day seems to have subsided, and commercialisation along with a demand for nationalist meaning has only increased the public's appetite for all things Anzac.

Reading the Sports pages after an Anzac Day match shows just how obliging the symbolism of sport and war is. A 2001 description of a Collingwood Anzac Day loss runs as