Offside: My Life on Australia’s Politically Tribal Football Terraces
I was only seven years old when I was indoctrinated into my first political tribe.
The year was 1991, and the Socialist Federation of Yugoslavia was on the brink of a civil war that would devastate its Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian population and leave 140,000 people dead.
My parents hailed from the then Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, but left the country in 1970 in pursuit of a better life in Australia. Surprisingly, the Republic of Macedonia managed to declare its independence from Yugoslavia in September of 1991 without being pulled into yet another bloody balkan war.
But the country would not slip seamlessly into independence. Protestations erupted out of its southern neighbour, Greece, around the name ‘Macedonia’ - something Greece claimed infringed upon its own history and territorial sovereignty. The country introduced a debilitating trade embargo on its landlocked northern neighbour, and stoked the flames of nationalism amongst both Macedonians and Greeks in Australia.
The Early Years
I recall receiving my first football jersey as a young kid back in 1989 when I was just six. It bore red and black stripes, mimicking the kit of both Macedonia’s top football club, FK Vardar, and Preston Makedonia - a club based in Melbourne’s northern suburbs that represented Australia’s Macedonian community and competed in the National Soccer League (NSL) from 1980 through to 1993.
At home, I’d observe my parents ironically sipping Turkish coffee from cups emblazoned with the likeness of Goce Delcev - a Macedonian revolutionary who led a short-lived uprising against the occupying Ottoman Turk forces in 1903. When they wanted something a little harder, it was imported mastika or home-brew rakia, a strong fruit brandy popular in the balkans and often produced from plums, grapes or apricots.
In the summer months, we would attend Macedonian community picnics, which had become a calendar staple ever since the earliest Macedonian migrants moved down under in the 1950s (below).
Traditional folk music reverberated throughout the parklands (along with the sounds of early 90s hip hop and hard rock), barbeques filled the air with the smell of burning charcoal and well-done beef chevaps, whilst red and yellow merchandise bearing the contested Vergina Sun - made famous by the Macedonian armies of Philip II and Alexander the Great - were sold by the truckload. Wherever there was open space, you could bet that a football (soccer ball) was being kicked around.
In 1992, Greece began to apply political pressure to the Republic of Macedonia, to have it change its name - something that would go unresolved for 26 years - and repeatedly block the latter’s entry into the European Union (the countries entered into a bilateral agreement which gave Macedonia the intermediate, and unfortunate name of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM, in 1995).
In response to Greece’s provocations in 1992, the Australian-Macedonian community organized protest rallies across the country. I vividly recall attending such a march in Melbourne. My family and I disembarked a train at Parliament Station, amidst a sea of red, the pounding of traditional ‘village drums’ and chants of “Ma-ke-do-ni-a”. More than 40,000 people made their way to Parliament House to demand that Australia recognize Macedonia by its constitutional name - something the United States would officially do in 1994, followed thereafter by over 137 other nation states.
Sidenote: Australia would not budge on this topic until an agreement was forged between Greece and the Republic of Macedonia in 2018, which officially changed the latter’s constitutional name to the Republic of North Macedonia. Australia’s reluctance to follow America’s lead was no doubt influenced by the significant Greek population and lobby in Australia.
That same year, I attended my cousin’s 21st birthday in the western suburbs of Melbourne. He just so happened to be a devout Preston Makedonia supporter, and between beats from the likes of Public Enemy and NWA (nobody in attendance was Black), he led a chorus of “fuck off Greece” with the throngs of family and friends present loudly into the night. As an impressionable young kid who just wanted to be liked and fit in, I dutifully lent my voice to this loud chorus.
On this nationalistic backdrop, the following Monday morning I’d be readying myself to go to school. I was just in Grade 2. School only served to further fan the flames. I went to a public school in the multicultural suburb of Sunshine, in Melbourne’s working-class west. The hostilities of the political world, and the mutual indoctrination of kids from different ethnic backgrounds, would see centuries-old conflicts play out in the battlefield of the schoolyard.
Croatians and Serbians were at loggerheads. As were Turks and Greeks. And of course, Greeks and Macedonians.
“Macedonia is Greek”, my Greek schoolmates would declare, having themselves attended counter-protests in the city, and having themselves been kitted out with the blue and white jerseys of rival NSL club, South Melbourne Hellas. It was a microcosm of unfortunate realities that the Balkans had endured and of the political climate at the time.
How Our Tribes Divide and Blind Us
As NYU Stern School of Business psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, to both liberals and conservatives, members of the other party are not just wrong; they are righteously wrong—morally suspect and even dangerous. And it was no different when it came to 8-year-old Greek and Macedonian Australian kids. We could not and refused to entertain or engage with the other side’s stories or beliefs. We hated each other.
“The nearly instantaneous perceptions we all have about other people and the things they do feel like self-evident truths, making us righteously certain that those who see things differently are wrong”, adds Haidt.
Like most things, tribalism in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, tribes do and have offered us countless benefits that have supported collaboration and driven humanity forward. As bestselling author, Yuval Noah Harari put it, nationalism - an example of tribes at scale - forced us to identify and care for not only our immediate family and friends, but the millions of people who share our national identity, and work towards the common good.
Tribes are essentially social groups of people who come together around a shared mission or belief system, that if it works well, will benefit the whole and the sum of its parts in some way. Whether it was hominid tribes learning how to delegate tasks so that they could forage more efficiently, a group of millennials working on the next big tech idea, or LA Lakers fans buying season tickets to support their team, tribes help us to survive and thrive. But as Haidt warned us, this can come at the expense of understanding the other and resenting them, a feeling said Lakers fans know well when it comes to their cross-continental rival, the Boston Celtics.
Sporting rivalries are one thing, but when you throw socioeconomic class wars, ethnic tensions, and nationalistic ideology into the mix, sports clubs become a symbol through which tribes live vicariously and compete through. And this is something that is well documented amongst the hardcore ‘ultra’ hooligan groups in countries such as Poland, Brazil and Italy.
Harari says that despite its benefits, nationalism will ultimately lead us to conflict, and in an interview with The New Yorker, he shared his own story of childhood indoctrination, which mirrored my own in many respects. He confessed that as a young child, he was “a kind of stereotypical right-wing nationalist... Israel as a nation is the most important thing in the world. And, obviously, we are right about everything. And the whole world doesn’t understand us and hates us. So we have to be strong and defend ourselves... You know—the usual stuff.”
The Benefit and Appeal of Tribes
As human beings, we have fundamental needs. As Abraham Maslow put it, these needs extend to the physiological, safety needs, love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization.
If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably satisfied the lower rungs of the hierarchy, thanks to relative economic prosperity and social safety nets that we enjoy in the west. But climbing up the hierarchy is less straight-forward, as we move from quantitative and externally measurable factors, to the internally subjective feelings of love, belonging, self-esteem and the realization of our potential.
We can obtain these things by becoming interesting, ‘good’, and valuable people, and attract love into our lives. We can obtain these things by developing our skill sets, applying ourselves on worthwhile missions, and deriving esteem and self actualization from our achievements.
But doing so isn’t easy. Whether it’s raising a family successfully, or building a profitable business, hard work is required. Success in any domain is attributable to myriad factors, such as talent, demeanour, persistence, mindset, character, IQ, EQ, assertiveness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, strengths-alignment, and of course… luck. It’s a combination of nature and nurture.
And as human beings, much of our happiness is based on social comparison. It’s not how much we make, or how successful we are in isolation that matters, but how much we make or how successful we are in relation to other people that most impacts our emotional wellbeing and sense of self worth - especially if we lack reflection and self-awareness. If we find ourselves falling behind in comparison to others, it can trigger stress, anxiety and depression.
In lieu of having to climb the perilous mountain in pursuit of love and esteem, joining a tribe can provide us with surrogate love and self-worth. Tribes can offer us a fast-track to perceived moral righteousness without having to do much, or any, of the work. All we need to do is signal to the tribe that we are like them, and avoid signalling otherwise, and we are in.
This is why you might find young disenfranchised youths, struggling to derive a sense of self-worth from school or family, gravitating towards nefarious groups and activities such as organized gangs, far-left and far-right movements, and cults.
It also explains why most schoolyard bullies tend to be the kids who are struggling with some aspect of their school or personal lives. A meta-analysis of over 1,500 studies found that bullies are not socially competent, struggle academically, possess negative thoughts about themselves, have trouble resolving conflict with others, and come from a family environment characterized by conflict and poor parental monitoring. By taking it out on their classmates, they temporarily elevate their own sense of self worth. Anybody watching the immensely popular Cobra Kai television series might draw parallels between this and Johnny Lawrence (below) taking out his poor family life on the new kid, Daniel LaRusso.
Likewise, when we join a political tribe, we elevate not just our own sense of self worth, but also derive a sense of identity, love and belonging.
The Roseto Effect also makes a case for the considerable health benefits of tribes. A 50-year comparison study of mortality rates between the homogeneous Italian-American community of Roseto, Pennsylvania and the rest of the population. Despite questionable eating habits, and being employed at slate quarries where dust-borne illnesses were common, the tight-knit, family oriented community enjoyed statistically significantly lower rates of heart attacks and mortality.
Interestingly, the gradual ‘Americanization’ of the town and the degradation of these tight social bonds saw the mortality rate and instant of heart attacks increase in subsequent years.
Kale Brock, a filmmaker, visited the blue-zones of Ikaria in Greece, Okinawa in Japan, and Loma Linda in California, where people live longer and happier lives than the rest of us. In the resulting The Longevity Film, Brock argues that community appeared to be one of the four key pillars to their longevity - the others being movement, nutrition and attitude.
My Time on the Terraces
My brief childhood dalliance with nationalist politics was put on ice for a good ten years or so as I found a sense of belonging in first, basketball, and later, heavy metal music. The rite of passage from childhood into teendom in 1996 was marked with growing my hair long, picking up a guitar, and forming a bond with other teenagers who enjoyed the musical stylings of Iron Maiden, Pantera and Slayer.
But the underlying nationalistic bonfire had not been extinguished entirely. In fact, it would take just a spark to light it up and get a wildfire going.
That spark came five years later in 2001 when the Republic of Macedonia was embroiled in a civil war with ethnic Albanian insurgents from northwest Macedonia and from Kosovo. My two tribal worlds came together when I wrote a song about the conflict for my fledgling teenage thrash metal band.
This conflict, and the recent emergence of the internet resulted in my spending many hours online researching the conflict, Macedonian history - or various interpretations thereof - and finding like minded youths to engage with. And this is where I found myself going full circle and joining the online forum of the Preston Makedonia faithful - the club whose colors I had been adorned with as a six-year-old. Shortly thereafter, I got my drivers license and could now make the trip to Melbourne’s northern suburbs every other week to watch Preston play, as well as fraternise with my newfound friends. Up until that point, I had gone to the odd game whenever my dad saw fit to head down, but I was mostly removed from the club’s activities.
Preston Makedonia were now formally the Preston Lions, and they had been demoted to the Victorian Premier League, both a result of a growing push by the national and state football federations to de-ethnicize its domestic competitions. But that didn’t stop crowds from chanting “Ma-ke-do-ni-a” or waving red and yellow Vergina Star flags at games.
It was indeed a perfect storm of events that catalysed my foray into the world of football and political tribalism. And that storm would soon become a cyclone as Preston embarked upon a fairytale run in its 2002 season, scraping into the Playoffs on the final day of the regular season after going undefeated in its last seven games. It went on to defeat its three much more fancied opponents in the Playoffs (two of which represented local Greek communities) to arrive at the championship game.
Held somewhat ironically at Lakeside Stadium - home to South Melbourne Hellas - Preston would go on to win a tensely fought contest with a golden goal in extra time. Several thousand fans immediately swamped the pitch (something that had also featured in the club’s three previous Playoff wins), as the Australian Macedonian community united in the face of growing nationalism due to its recent civil war.
I had found a tribe, and a community. And through the success of the football club, I had also found a fast-track to success by association. But it wasn’t until months later, when South Melbourne FC (formerly Hellas), still a national league side, was set to play Preston in an off-season charity tournament, that things were cranked to eleven.
It was to be the first time that Preston and South Melbourne faced off in almost a decade, and while the game might’ve meant little to South Melbourne at the time, it meant everything to Preston - a David and Goliath battle against the old nemesis at a time when nationalistic tendencies were brewing hot.
On this occasion, David’s slingshot misfired, and by half-time Preston had fallen behind 5-0 thanks to two late penalty decisions. It was these penalty decisions that promptly led to Preston fans invading the pitch, and subsequently attacking South Melbourne supporters. The game was called off, the tournament would never be played again, and Preston made the headlines in all of the national newspapers and media outlets. As an 18-year-old, I reveled in this. We were on the news. It represented breaking the rules. It represented power. It gave me a sense of identity and strength. And it colored the next six years of my life.
From the outside looking in, you might say I became a ‘top boy’ - English vernacular for being a leader of a club’s ‘hooligan’ element, but to call us hooligans would be a stretch, and I would say offensive to the legitimately violent and sometimes politically engaged hooligans of England, Eastern Europe and South America. Apart from the very rare scrap, it was mostly posturing, drinking heavily, lighting flares, singing songs, posting online, and making banners in support of our team. Although we did at one point wield enough political influence to have the club’s entire management team replaced...but that’s another story.
After the aforementioned game, South Melbourne’s President at the time, Peter Mitrakas, vowed that his club would never play Preston again, but his wish wasn’t granted. A subsequent shake up of the national competition and the launch of the nationalist-free A-League competition in 2005, saw South Melbourne too demoted to the Victorian Premier League. And so it was, on April 18 2005, that these two clubs met once more.
Almost 10,000 people - with a healthy contingent from both sides - descended upon Lakeside Stadium. The fans were segregated into blue and red ends the stadium. It was a night game. Mounted Police circled the perimeter of the stands. Missiles - by way of flares and rocks - were launched from one set of fans to the other, across barricades that Police had erected.
A bastardized red and yellow version of the Greek flag was brandished by the Preston contingent, which enraged the South Melbourne fans, forcing them to break down a fence and charge across the pitch at Preston’s fans (below). In response, Preston’s supporters made weapons out of the stadium’s wooden seats, and took to the pitch in retaliation, sending the South supporters back to the relative safety of their own terrace, before Police stepped in to de-escalate the situation.
When all was said and done, Preston were the fortunate beneficiaries of a last minute deflected shot at goal, which bounced over the line, giving Preston a 1-0 win and giving its supporters one of the sweetest moments of their lives.
Even now, as I write this more than 15 years after the fact, with a renewed political outlook and despite not having been to a Preston game in years, I can’t help but smile thinking back to that moment. And that is because so much of my identity was wrapped up in this football club that its success was, by extension, my success - and it was an order of magnitude sweeter when it came against a club who I had been conditioned to despise from the age of seven.
Six years into this journey, in 2007, I was 23 and had embarked upon a Masters of Accounting degree, but an ugly off-field incident in 2007 - on the eve of Preston winning yet another championship - threatened to compromise my subsequent employment prospects. It threatened to compromise what my parents had worked their fingers to the bone and endured countless hardships for since arriving in the country more than 30 years prior. It was my wake up call. I reconsidered my values, distanced myself from the tribalism I had been so invested in, and reoriented myself in an entirely different direction.
Strong Opinions, Weakly Held
Since then, I have gone on to derive love and belonging, self-esteem and a sense of self-actualization through my work, my personal relationships, and challenging physical and mental pursuits. I went on to work at top-tier management consulting and investment banking firms, before pursuing entrepreneurship and building several modestly successful ventures.
Entrepreneurship taught me to hone my skills across a range of areas, including consumer psychology, but above all it taught me that we’re wrong about most of our ideas most of the time. It’s not until we get out of the building and test our ideas with actual prospective customers that we gain a more true view of reality, but rarely ever an absolutely true one.
Entrepreneurship showed me that the world is fundamentally complex and gray and rarely black and white. It showed me that by keeping a ‘strong opinions, weakly held’ mindset, we open ourselves to course-correcting based on new evidence, improving our decision-making and being less inclined to double down on incorrect beliefs and make bad bets.
I went on to host a 400-episode strong podcast all about multi-disciplinary thinking, where, despite my not so unconscious biases, I platformed a handful of Greek intellectuals who I felt had something important to say, such as Andreas Antonopoulos and Evangelos Simoudis (I also platformed a number of Macedonian entrepreneurs). I wrote several books in which I also didn’t refrain from paying homage to some heroes of Greek classicism such as Homer, Socrates, and Plato.
Doing so helped me earn my spot atop Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in lieu of the benefits of the tribe I had grown distant from. It was an exponentially more difficult pursuit than merely aligning myself with a a tribe, but it also gave me exponentially more growth, as I set out to write my own hero’s journey. As Naval Ravikant and others have said before me, ‘play stupid games, win stupid prizes’.
Some might derive a fleeting and empty sense of esteem from racking up likes and followers on Instagram for example, but unless you’re a top influencer, it’s unlikely to put food on the table, put your kids through school, or give you a sustained source of self-esteem and fulfillment. For that, you need to seek pursuits of substance. Taking the path of least effort rarely, if ever, gets us to the summit.
Today, the way I live my life is almost irreconcilable to that of my 23-year-old self. Part of that has to do with father time and the natural evolution of one’s character as we make our way through life. And part of that has to do with decisions made.
Despite all of this, the feeling of community and belonging that I derived from my time on the football terraces was one of, if not the strongest, bonds I’ve ever felt. It forged friendships that saw me attend countless engagements, weddings and Christenings in the years since. The feeling of community was even stronger than what I felt building a successful business from the ground up with a handful of other wide-eyed believers and doers in the face of insurmountable odds.
Perhaps this is why most people never step out of the indoctrinated political tribes of their youth - they don’t have other outlets from which to derive love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization from. Some might be fortunate enough to derive this from raising a family, and this mellows many people out. For others, marrying the wrong person or having an unhappy home life can send them in the other direction, spiraling deeper into the world of their tribes which become an outlet and an escape from reality.
This might also be why many adults who are ultimately disenfranchised with the way of the world or their lot in life, find new political tribes to align themselves with well into their twenties, thirties and forties.
And today, in a world where apps like Twitter are engineered to attack our dopamine receptors, and keep us glued to the outrage of the day, feeding us more of what hardens our belief systems, and less of what doesn’t, people find themselves stuck in toxic echo chambers. It has never been easier to seek out and align oneself with a tribe at the expense of shining a light on why our lives aren’t perfect, and what we can do to cultivate better lives.
Would I take it back? I wouldn’t characterize my time on the terraces as negative or positive. It had elements of both. But as indicated earlier, it’s when you take things to the extreme - in any pursuit - that problems arise. As a human being, I am prone to regret the paths not taken rather than the paths taken and rationalize what I’ve done because it makes me who I am today. As such, I regret nothing, but I am grateful that I have managed to move on from the rigid ideology I was brought up on.
In this age of political polarization, my story should serve as a reminder that it is easy to get indoctrinated into a tribe for reasons that have little to do with the underlying cause, and that if we identify too closely with our political tribes, then we risk not seeing or hearing the other side(s). Not only that, but it can prevent us from investing our energy wisely and truly reaching our potential.
Categorizing things into neatly demarcated black and white buckets might help us to make sense of the world and make navigating it easier, but it does so at the expense of nuance and truth.
Jonathan Haidt concludes that we need both liberals and conservatives in competition to reach a livable middle ground. Otherwise, we risk forever living in a society where we are throwing , at best, proverbial flares and rocks at each other, and at worst, falling into civil war.
And as former Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang noted on Twitter recently, “if 68 million people do something [vote for Donald Trump], it’s vital that we understand it”.
In summary / TLDR:
- We can be indoctrinated into tribes at a young age without even knowing or questioning it
- We might associate with a tribe not because of the underlying belief or cause, but because it gives us a sense of belonging and esteem
- Tribes can be beneficial and detrimental to both us and our society
- Almost anything taken too far causes problems
- Identifying too closely with our tribe’s belief system can render us unable to hear and entertain opposing views, and to ultimately write-off other tribes as dangerous
- Tribal membership offers us a fast track to moral righteousness, belonging and esteem, sans the hard work required to obtain a sense of self worth from challenging pursuits
- Subjectively negative tribes also offer us love, belonging and esteem
- By breaking down the barriers that lead to polarization between tribes, we can work together, and move towards mutually beneficial outcomes, rather than stand still or regress
- Nationalism is an example of breaking down barriers between families and small communities to help the nation state succeed, but it it is also representative of new barriers between nation-state tribes
- The world is not black and white, but complex, gray and nuanced
- We derive considerable health benefits from belonging to a close knit tribe or community