Andrew Dettre, one of Australia’s greatest football journalists, passed away on Monday. He was 91 years old.
Dettre fled his native Hungary following World War II and arrived in Australia on 13 December 1949. After a stint in a migrant camp in Bathurst he began his career as a journalist, writing for a number of publications including the Daily Telegraph in Sydney, World Soccer in London, L’Equipe in Paris, and Soccer Action in Melbourne.
But he was best known for his contributions to Soccer World, a weekly national newspaper which was published in Sydney. Established by Hungarian immigrants in 1958, Soccer World — also known as “the green paper” — promised to “act as a link between Australians and New Australians in bringing them together on the field of sport”.
Dettre took over as editor in 1963 and, alongside his colleague Lou Gautier, used it to explore the various challenges that faced the game in the postwar period. His writing formed the first draft of the most decisive period of Australia’s football history.
Despite learning English as a second language, he wrote beautifully, with intensity, passion and verve, each article forming a piece of his own biography. He was an inspiration to many other journalists including the late Les Murray, who was a devoted reader of Soccer World.
“The Dettre/Gautier pairing was a brilliant partnership,” Murray later remembered. “Though both were immigrants, each was a master of the English language and could have taught a thing or two to native Australians about English usage and grammar.”
What made Dettre special was his ability to see the big picture, not just for the sport itself but also for its role in Australian society. He celebrated the contribution of immigrants to the game, and defended them when they came under attack.
Dettre was, first and foremost, an internationalist. Under his editorship, Soccer World published match reports, results, tables, and features from overseas leagues as well as local competitions.
He used his position at the newspaper to travel widely and bring the world back home to his readers. He sought out and interviewed great thinkers, such as the German coach Dettmar Cramer, and befriended people such as Japanese legend Shunichiro Okano.
He was the first Australian to make contact with Frank Arok, one of the Socceroos’ best-loved coaches, and played a pivotal role in bringing him to Australia from the former Yugoslavia in the 1960s.
Despite Dettre’s affection for European football, he also recognised the potential for football in Asia. In 1965, for example, as Australia embarked on its first ever World Cup qualification campaign with a tour of Asia, Dettre hoped that it would “create an atmosphere of friendship and goodwill” and “open a new era in sporting relations between Australia and her neighbours.”
In 1971, he helped organise St George-Budapest’s pioneering tour of Asia, and in 1972 he traveled to several Asian nations on a fact-finding mission for the Australian Soccer Federation.
“When I came back,” he later remembered, “I wrote a report saying every effort should be made to become part of Asia, because they will not come to you begging you to join, but with the right approach, they will let you in.” Finally, in 2006, Australia was accepted into the AFC.
Away from journalism, Dettre also worked as press secretary and special advisor to the Minister for Tourism and Recreation in the Whitlam Labor Government. In 1975, he contributed to a feasibility study into the creation of an Australian institute of sport. The AIS was eventually opened in 1981.
Following the demise of the Whitlam Government, Dettre returned to football journalism and reported on the first decade of the National Soccer League. At a time when ethnic clubs were dominant, he was able to articulate the game’s complex place in the Australian identity better than anyone.
“Migrants are perfectly entitled to form whatever association or union they want, be that a church choir, welfare agency, scout group or soccer team,” he once wrote. “The trouble lies elsewhere; Australians (born here) are perfectly entitled to ignore these. And they do.”
In an attempt to push soccer into public consciousness, Dettre made several recommendations that now seem prophetic, most notably his suggestion for the season to switch from winter to summer. In 1989, a decade after he began lobbying for it, the NSL finally introduced summer soccer, which remains a key element of the A-League today.
A gifted wordsmith with a sharp sense of humour, Dettre sometimes used fiction and poetry to illustrate his points, and was never afraid to document the frustration that comes with following football in Australia.
“Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt,” he once wrote. “And in our soccer, everything is familiar. Everybody knows everybody else; the actions, utterings, views and mistakes of one and all are remembered, coloured, exaggerated and, like the parables of the New Testament, passed from father to son, with an extra hue added here and there.
“This sad tribal compound in which soccer exists accommodates genuine zealots, verified madmen, innocent idealists, mercenary opportunists, egomaniacs, loud-mouth dilettantes, pro and anti-ethnics, a few conmen and a fairly large number of amazed bystanders.”
Following the demise of Soccer World, in 1982, and Melbourne’s Soccer Action, in 1987, Dettre stopped working as a football journalist. He was never credited enough for his ideas, for his vision, and for his commitment. To the end, however, he truly loved Australian football.
“I never thought about how posterity would view me or my work,” said Dettre in May, after he was inducted into the FFA Hall of Fame. “I did what I did for football, for my desire to improve the place of football in the Australian sporting landscape, not for personal gain or awards.”
RIP Andrew Dettre — Australian football’s greatest intellectual.
- Joe Gorman is an independent journalist and author of The Death and Life of Australian Soccer.