‘It was the best of times, it was the worst times…it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity’, hailed Dickens when beginning to usher readers through his meticulous composition of the juxtaposing paradigms of London and Paris before and during the French Revolution.
In many respects, Dickens’ gambit can be applied to football.
Across the globe, football fans grapple with and struggle through the lows in the hope that one day they will transcend the depths of incredulity to embark on the belief-filled road to success.
On the surface, South Melbourne Football Club and Melbourne City Football Club appear antithetical to each other.
The former was founded in 1959 with strong support within the Greek community while the latter was formed in 2010, renamed by the Emirati owned City Group in 2014.
South Melbourne are Oceania’s Club of the Century while City will compete in Asia’s iteration of the Champions League this season.
The former were finalists in the last ever season of the National Soccer League (NSL) while the latter are reigning Champions of Australia’s top division of football from which South Melbourne were excluded, the A-League.
A club that could not be prouder of who they are taking on a club said to be undergoing an ‘identity crisis’.
Every sign suggests that these clubs are poles apart, yet in a poetic sense, they are united by collective agony, belief and passion.
And while this literary symbol appears so apt to describe this match of football, the suffering and salvation of South Melbourne Football Club extends far beyond the remit of a classic Charles Dickens novel.
To fully comprehend South Melbourne’s history, one must look back to the NSL and their success in Australia’s former top tier of football. ‘Hellas’ were four-time Champions and one of the most respected clubs in the entire country.
Yet when the NSL crumbled as a result of financial instability and an almost universal desire to move away from ethnic community clubs in favour of inclusive franchises, South Melbourne were left at a crossroads.
Just years after competing against the likes of Manchester United in the Club World Cup, South Melbourne fell into voluntary administration and were left with little to no option but to shun a bid to apply for Victoria’s solitary license in the new A-League.
Since then, a visible chip has emerged on the shoulders of most people linked with the club. South Melbourne have made it their mission to re-emerge on the biggest stage of Australian domestic football.
Most recently, South Melbourne made a bid for one of the two A-League licenses that were eventually handed to Western United and Macarthur FC. Their bid was largely supported by their already stable fanbase and football appropriate Lakeside Stadium.
However, in an added layer of spice set to pervade Friday’s match, it would be remiss to ignore the fact that ‘Hellas’ attempted to buy the license of Victoria’s 2nd team Melbourne Heart for a mooted $7m in 2013.
Less than a year after South Melbourne failed to secure their ticket to the A-League, Heart were wholly acquired for $12m by City Football Group, the Emirati holding company that own the likes of Manchester City in England and New York City in the USA.
The narrative of this clash between former giants of Victoria and current champions of Australia almost writes itself.
For the first time, South Melbourne will meet Melbourne City in the Round of 32 of a competition known as the FFA Cup.
Conceived to bridge the barrier between first division prosperity and the adversity that pervades clubs in the National Premier Leagues (NPL) – the competition in which Hellas compete – the FFA Cup is emblematic of an attempted unification of club football in Australia.
For many, the A-League evokes stern consternation with it being etched in the minds of some as inflexible and intransigent, a closed competition typified by football elitism. This perception inextricably juxtaposed against passion riddled and working class environments makes the FFA Cup a gripping competition, making Friday night’s encounter a salivating proposition for fans across the country.
Put simply, this is the magic of the cup.
For South Melbourne’s players, this clash takes on an added layer of importance as they look to exhibit their talents to the wealth of A-League onlookers who may take a chance on an NPL player following a satisfactory performance.
In the lead-up to this encounter, Kick360 spoke to two of Hellas’ key players in Marco Janković and Marcus Schroen who each highlighted the importance of Friday night’s match both for them as players but also for the club as a whole.
An imposing, athletic and skilled central defender, Janković is the son of former Yugoslav international Milan Janković who won La Liga twice with Real Madrid in the 1980s. Continuing his family’s rich footballing pedigree, Marco is no stranger to the FFA Cup as he previously scored in a victory against Wellington Phoenix while playing for the Bentleigh Greens in 2018.
The 26-year-old hopes that a similar performance could draw attention to his quality and thus ensure he is one step closer to achieving his dream of becoming a professional footballer.
“I would hope that performing really well individually and as a team would not only put myself but all and any of the team on the radar for A-League teams,” Janković expressed.
“Of course playing in the A-League and becoming a professional footballer is a dream of mine that I’m still aspiring for.”
For many footballers like Janković, the absence of a national second division often deprives NPL talents from making the leap to professional football – especially when taking into account the chasm sized gap that still exists between the quality of the NPL and the A-League.
In recent years, the likes of Dylan Wenzel-Halls, Alou Kuol and South Melbourne’s own Matt Millar have exemplified the capacity to succeed in Australia’s top division of domestic football after playing at NPL level.
However, in the majority of cases, talented footballers are left to continue playing in a semi-professional environment where football is often one of many occupations undertaken by the players.
Thus, for clubs the size of South Melbourne, the ultimate goal is to establish a competition under the A-League whereby success would be rewarded with promotion to the country’s top tier of football.
While a national second division still remains a project for the future, South Melbourne’s President Nick Maikousis is firm in his belief that it represents a crucial step for unifying the game across multiple sectors of the community while also minimising apathy in those who have come to admonish the A-League’s monopoly over professional football in Australia.
“The NSD (National Second Division) provides a football platform or framework for South Melbourne Football Club to maximise growth in all key areas with significant increases in revenue, all of which is reinvested into the game,” said Maikousis.
“Our focus is purely on the establishment of the NSD [and] to re-engage a football community that has little interest in the current football format (both NPL & a privatised A-League).”
In the meantime, South Melbourne will turn their attentions towards garnering a large crowd at Lakeside Stadium as the fans look to create a cacophony of noise so that Hellas can overcome the reigning A-League Champions in an upset victory.
The home side will be buoyed by the absences of Socceroos Jamie Maclaren, Andrew Nabbout and Mathew Leckie and will look to capitalise against an ostensibly inexperienced City attacking triumvirate.
Despite their big name omissions, City will still be able to call upon the likes of new Italian signing Manuel Pucciarelli, technical maestro Marco Tilio as well as fellow Olympian and PFA Young Footballer of the Year winner Connor Metcalfe.
According to South Melbourne’s Janković, City’s strengths speak for themselves regardless of who takes to the pitch for the opposition.
“I think that there’s no doubt on how good Melbourne City are and how dominant they have been in the last few seasons so having the opportunity to play against a side like this is hugely motivating to test ourselves against them,” he said.
“I think being a feature game in the FFA Cup Round of 32 is motivation enough and being back on the national stage is something the entire club, playing and coaching group aspire for every year and we know we will give it everything when the moment arrives.”
With more than 5,000 fans set to embark on Lakeside for the clash, South Melbourne will look to play on the front foot and rebound after a disappointing season in Victoria’s NPL competition where the side sat in 9th place after 18 games before a surge in COVID cases cut their season short, despite an encouraging start to the season.
However, for creative and intelligent attacking midfielder Marcus Schroen, the fans are able to give Hellas the lift that they need to compete with their high-budget opposition.
“Playing at home at Lakeside is always amazing when it’s full of our fans. It’s been a long time since we have had that so I can’t wait,” he cheerfully expressed.
“There’s been times where that atmosphere has given us a much needed lift so with a big crowd expected hopefully they can push us on again.”
Schroen is also no stranger to the FFA Cup, given that he took to the field in South Melbourne’s 5-1 home semi-final defeat against then reigning A-League Champions Sydney FC in 2017.
Despite the end result, Schroen describes the performance of the team as “great” on the day in being able to muster a fight against more polished opposition.
Friday night’s match promises to be a different kettle of fish given the established animosity between the sides. For South’s number 10, this sense of hostility merely provides the perfect platform for South Melbourne and Melbourne City to develop into one of Australia’s great football rivalries.
“With Melbourne City it’s an interesting narrative with the small off field history between the clubs in terms of South wanting to be back at the highest level but we haven’t actually played each other before,” said Schroen.
“Maybe with the second division and eventually promotion and relegation it could be the first game of a big rivalry between the clubs.”
Image Source: Beyond the Lens