Ultimate Relegation: Darwin Cubs

It’s long been said that team sports are a modern version of tribal warfare. My nation, region, state, city or neighborhood is superior to yours, but I’m not inclined to kill or subjugate you to prove it. So instead, we shall select champions to represent us, and you shall do the same, and they will engage in ritual athletic combat to see which of us is superior. We believe it will be us.

But tribes are not always forever. Sports teams tend to think of themselves as more or less permanent. Win or lose, no matter how awful disastrous the season, there’s always next year. At the absolute worst, in North America, South Africa and the Asian half of the Pacific Rim, they can be migratory, with teams moving from one city to another. But few fans ever contemplate their club simply ceasing to exist entirely. Even when a soccer club goes bankrupt, as has occasionally happened, clubs are fairly easy to found. It’s not an overly difficult matter for a sufficiently supported club to start anew, however far down their national pyramid they may have to do so, and carry over the history of the old club to kickstart the new.

But it is also possible for a club, once dead, to stay dead. No restoration, no continuations of legacy, no new beginnings, only memories and photos in history books. Once in a while, what I hope to do is take one such club, somewhere on the planet, and chronicle their life, their legacy, and why exactly they suffered the Ultimate Relegation.

——————

Of all the nations of the developed world, perhaps none has more of a reputation for remoteness as Australia. From 1787 until 1868, convicts from the British Isles were sent to Australia, most famously Botany Bay- today part of Sydney- partly as a less-lethal alternative to execution, and partly because the previous location to send convicts, America, had just declared independence and refused to accept any more. With London and present-day Sydney over 10,500 miles apart, the remoteness from England was always going to be a topic as well.

Within Australia, the equation changes. Sydney is not remote; rather, it and Melbourne, both on the southeast coast, serve as Australia’s dual hubs, and the vast majority of the other major towns can also be found along the east and southeast coast, Perth a notable exception. The Outback is famously remote, but then, it might be a little too famous. The mystique of the Outback, and its size, has led to a number of expeditions attempting to cross it, and at its center sits Uluru, a sacred and alluring place that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

More populated, but not nearly as heralded, is the Top End, making up the north central coastal region, and its primary city of Darwin, the 15th-largest in the country. Even a visitor to Darwin may only be using it as a base of operations through which to reach the Outback. Australian sports leagues simply do not include the Northern Territory. They place teams in New Zealand, but not Darwin. There’s talk. There’s often talk. It never results in a team. Darwin must settle for the occasional one-off neutral-site game, if it gets anything at all.

In fact, one might say that Darwin’s closer relationship may not be with the rest of Australia, but rather with Asia. When travelers from Southeast Asia, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Timor-Leste, look to Australia, it is a far easier reach for them to enter the country via Darwin than any other principal city in the country. Darwin has for centuries served as a trading post between the regions, assurance of a town’s prosperity.

Also in that area is Singapore, itself a much more central trading hub and highly successful city-state. It wasn’t always a city-state. After changing hands several times, Singapore ended World War 2 in the hands of the British, joining the regions of Malaya, North Borneo and Sarawak. In the decades following the war, colonial territories the world over sought independence, codified in December 1960 by the United Nations General Assembly via Resolution 1514, titled the “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples”. The Malaysia Agreement was drafted less than a year later, in which the United Kingdom would cede their interests in the area. A referendum in 1962 confirmed that Singapore would join the other regions to form, on September 16, 1963, the newly-independent nation of Malaysia.

But they weren’t joined for long. Singapore and the rest of Malaysia bickered constantly over just about everything, be it economics, ideology, religion or, most damaging, ethnicity. Article 153 of the Constitution of Malaysia mandates taking measures to “safeguard the special position of the Malays”, making affirmative action basic official government policy. It’s under continual debate as to how exactly it came about, but one going theory is that it was an attempt to counter the remaining British influence by mandating that the Malays be built up to meet and surpass them. Others, such as the Chinese population in Singapore, saw themselves as the target, and they quickly mobilized.

On July 21, 1964, a Malay celebration of the birthday of the prophet Mohammad was interrupted by fights between Malays and Chinese bystanders, fights that quickly escalated and spread into riots that would necessitate a curfew that would not be lifted for nearly two weeks. On September 3, the unexplained killing of a 57-year-old Malay caused the Malay population to suspect and retaliate against the Chinese, sparking an additional week of rioting.

It was not merely the streets erupting in conflict, but the halls of power as well. The Singaporean and Malaysian sides each had their own primary party: Singapore had the People’s Action Party (PAP); Malaysia the United Malays National Organization (UMNO). The two had worked together to unite the nation, and had silently agreed to let each other essentially run the show in their own area. That agreement was quickly rent asunder, with both deciding to run candidates on the other’s turf.

The ultimate outcome of this contest, though, was no contest at all. Singapore was dwarfed. In the general election on April 25, three months prior to the riots, the PAP only took one seat out of 104 on offer. The UMNO won 59 outright, and controlled 30 more through coalition. UMNO party leader Tunku Abdul Rahman had this resource in his pocket when he came to the conclusion that, as long as Singapore was part of Malaysia, relations were never going to get any better.

So he moved to kick them out. Thinking it to be the best and perhaps only way to escape further bloodshed, the spring and summer of 1965 were spent lining up the votes for, and informing the affected of, the most unwanted independence day of all time. On August 9, 1965, by a vote of 126-0 (the Singaporeans not in attendance), Singapore was ejected from the remainder of Malaysia by constitutional amendment.

The people of Singapore were given no warning. They found out along with the rest of the world; in fact, they found out after some of the rest of the world, as the soon-to-be-independent Singaporean officials spent the early morning hours wiring clandestine heads-up to whatever foreign governments they could. Feelings of disbelief and shock came before any of the usual jubilation. For PAP leader and newly-minted head of state Lee Yuan Kew- who died this March 23- there was no jubilation at all. Addressing his new nation in tears, he said, “For me it is a moment of anguish because all my life, my whole adult life, I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories.”

Singapore, in Kew’s mind, was in deep trouble. It had very little land. It had no natural resources to use. Unemployment was high, in the 10-12% range, and there were no more jobs to be had in Malaysia, because nobody was a Malaysian citizen anymore. And Indonesia was less than two months away from a bloody military coup that could very well swallow comparatively defenseless Singapore as a side dish. Kew took what he had and worked fast, starting with gaining UN recognition of Singapore on September 21- nine days prior to the Indonesian coup. The city-state underwent a total transformation on the grounds of attracting commerce, the only realistic option they had. Luckily for them, so many ships passed by already that overhauling the port, creating tax incentives to stop by, and investing the proceeds in industrialization, housing and education- and eventually tourism- turned out not to be that difficult a task. By 1990, when Kew stepped down for Goh Chok Tong, Singapore was one of the most buzzworthy cities on the planet.

But they were still tiny. And in the soccer world, a tiny country is a disadvantaged country. The talent pool, being less plentiful, must make itself that much more skilled in order to keep up. A city-state is all but helpless, not having enough of a talent pool to draw from to field any kind of competitive national side, much less a league of any renown. Ever since 1921, Singapore had entered a team into Malaysia’s cup competition, competing against teams representing Malaysia’s various states- an arrangement that remained even after independence (though their stellar performance dropped off some). They had a domestic league, but it was small, weak, and from 1961-74 had not been in operation at all, with clubs existing but not in anything beyond a mass of neighborhood competitions. When a centralized league was reformed in 1975, then-Football Association of Singapore (FAS) deputy chairman Nadesan Ganesan, remarked to the Straits Times, “We have 118 clubs now and very few well-managed ones.”

But by 1988, simply existing didn’t feel like enough anymore. Singapore wanted to take the next step, moving from amateur to semi-pro. They thus created the FAS Premier League as an eight-club startup project.

Being a microstate presents other problems when attempting to put a league together as well. The lack of a decent talent pool is one thing. It’s also quite easy for even minor disparities in club development to magnify and result in league domination. Get the best player in the league, or start creating daylight in the league table, and not only can those top players run rampant for years until such time as they’re lured to greener pastures, the crowds will have little trouble deciding who to come out to see- or more to the point, who not to come and see, because what’s the point- and younger players will have little trouble deciding who to try out for, potentially perpetuating the gulf.

But that’s not all. Never mind the talent. What about just getting enough spare land to house the teams? In some cases, a nation simply decides to deal with it and pool whatever fields they have amongst themselves. The league of Andorra, for instance, has only four fields to put in play, one of which is in Spanish territory. San Marino has eight grounds to use, but holds its games on both Saturdays and Sundays in order to make sure they have enough on a given day. In other cases, a nation may decide to abandon thoughts of a league of its own and throw in with a neighbor, partly to only have to field one team and partly to only have to use one stadium. This is what AS Monaco does competing in France, and this is what Singapore had been doing competing in Malaysia.

By 1994, the FAS Premier League was suffering from the domination problem. Geylang International had run off the first six consecutive titles, and as far as the FAS was concerned, they needed something to engender more fan interest. As a solution, they opted for the third thing a microstate league can do: instead of being the guest in someone else’s league, be the host of someone else’s team. Bring in clubs originating from outside of Singapore. Perhaps even be a southeast Asian super league, drawing teams from all over the region. But who would join such an outfit? Who would be first to take the plunge?

The isolated outposts of Australia, that’s who. Darwin, long ignored, jumped at the chance to be recognized by someone, anyone, creating the Darwin Cubs for the purpose. And they weren’t alone. Going with them was the Perth Kangaroos, representing the lone west-coast city finding a presence in Australian sports that, as of yet, had not found that presence in soccer. Australia’s league at the time, the National Soccer League, had not yet found its way to Western Australia- and never would find its way to Northern Australia- due to the logistical issues of sending all the eastern teams to the opposite coast just to play one team, and constantly sending the western team east. Perth had hoped to gain attention to their respective causes by performing in Singapore. Darwin, knowing a similar bid would probably fail for them, was just happy to be involved.

According to Cubs manager Nick Mitaros, the idea to throw in with Singapore was sparked by a visit to Sarawak, Malaysia, when he noticed an African soccer player in his hotel lobby. “I didn’t even meet the player. But I asked a receptionist what he was doing here and when I heard that he was a Ghanaian professional in the Malaysian League, an idea was born. I had left Darwin that morning already well aware that the Top End is closer to Asia than to Sydney or Melbourne. I thought that if Asian clubs recruited players from as far away as West Africa, why can’t a team from Darwin play up here?

Then-Trade Minister of Australia- and Perth native- Bob McMullan, speaking to the New Straits Times, said of Darwin prior to the start of the season, “This will be the first Australian sporting team to play in an Asian home-and-away competition.” Darwin’s first game was set for March 26, 1994 against Jurong Town, one day before Perth kicked off against Gibraltar Crescent. “And I’m sure they won’t be the last.” The local community was fully behind the Cubs, with Carlton and United Breweries- they of Foster’s- providing sponsorship support to the tune of $180,000 AUD (which today, in US dollars, would probably run around the $400,000 range).

Most of the documentation available concerns Perth’s viewpoint. Joe Gorman of the Guardian tells this story from the perspective of the Kangaroos. RSSSF only has Perth’s results on the season recorded. But much of it can apply to both, as they lived alongside each other, and there’s little harm in simply acknowledging that and proceeding. This became abundantly clear even in 1994 that Perth and Darwin were, in a sense, joined at the hip.

The Cubs, clad in Aboriginal black, white and ochre, beat Jurong Town 4-0; the Kangaroos blanked Gibraltar Crescent 2-0. The next matchday, Perth beat six-time-defending champion Geylang International 4-1. This was a sign of things to come. Perth and Darwin had gathered the best players they could manage to bring to bear, in Perth’s case angering those players’ previous clubs. The FAS, meanwhile, had for some reason decided, in the same season they brought the Aussies in, to take their own top players out. The top Singaporean players had been removed from the league in order to represent Singapore in the Malaysia Cup. Singapore ended up winning that cup, but it came at a terrible price: they had essentially surrendered their league to the Australians, who proceeded to run rampant.

The end-of-season table will show Perth winning 17 out of their 18 games, with the other result, a 1-1 draw against Singapore Armed Forces SA, coming after the title had already been clinched. The league was operating on two points for a win, so Perth scored 35 points out of a possible 36. The Kangaroos scored 75 goals and conceded 8. Two of those eight concessions came to the Darwin Cubs, who won 13 games, drew two, and lost three, for a total of 28 points. In essence, the league title was decided by the Cubs’ two losses to the Kangaroos, a 4-1 loss in Darwin and a 2-1 defeat in Perth.

This did little to bring fans out to games. Far from adding the hoped-for spice, once fans got a good enough idea where things were headed, that their home product was all but helpless against the Australians and that Darwin couldn’t keep up with Perth, they looked for something else to watch.

Some of them, anyway. Others stayed around to bet. Southeast Asia, known today as the world’s nexus of match-fixing in sports, was in ethical shambles at the time, crowned by Malaysia, which one cabinet minister estimated had seen at least 70% of its matches fixed in 1994. The Australians had been warned that they or their opponents might get targeted. If the warnings didn’t get through, Perth’s matchday 3 contest against Tyrwhitt Soccerites would have made things loud and clear. The Tyrwhitt goalkeeper, hailing from Croatia but whose name has gone unrecorded, was booed off the field on suspicions that he had taken a bribe. Some Perth supporters, meanwhile, began yelling at the Kangaroos after they had gone 2-0 up, to stop scoring, as they had wagered on a 2-0 result. (The Kangaroos didn’t heed those calls, scoring a third before time expired.)

After the season, Perth got out. They may have won the league, but financially, they had lost their shirt, and attendance was not nearly what they were hoping for. The Kangaroos were unable to meet payroll in the latter stages of the season due to sponsor pullouts, putting the players in an uncomfortable position: they were winning big, and gaining the attention they were hoping for, but they were doing it for free. For many of them, though, there was light at the end of the tunnel: they had indeed impressed the Australian authorities, who in 1995 granted Perth a franchise in what was then the National Soccer League, to be named the Perth Glory. When they began competition in 1996, most of the team was made up of ex-Kangaroos. They immediately made an impact, just barely missing the playoffs when everyone expected them to only be there to make up the numbers. When the A-League was founded in 2004, most of the league was comprised of newly-created franchises, but a few NSL holdovers were brought on. One of them was the Glory. They’re now the oldest team in the A-League.

Meanwhile in Singapore, the FAS had a problem on their hands. Their dream of a pan-regional super league was clearly only going to be just that: a dream. One of their marquee teams, their defending champion, had just embarrassed their home clubs and then run off to become a mid-table team in Australia. There was only one thing to do: bring back the hometown heroes. A dispute over gate receipts was reason enough to pull out of the Malaysia Cup, not to return until 2012. The Malaysia Cup team, in essence the national team, still needed a team to play for, as it wouldn’t do to have the best players in the country unattached for a year. So they were sent into the FAS Premier League to compete as the Singapore Lions.

RSSSF doesn’t have the blow-by-blow of the 1995 season. What it does say is that the Lions easily won the title. They also went undefeated. It also says that the Darwin Cubs, presumably still competitive, did not stick around to see the Lions lift the trophy. Their own set of financial difficulties had forced them to trundle back to the Top End. And that was the end of it. The FAS would go on to revamp their league, again, into its current form, the S-League. Since its reimagining in 1996, the S-League has consistently seen a portion of its lineup composed of teams either from outside Singapore or filled with players from outside Singapore. Its 2015 edition includes Brunei DPMM; a satellite team of J-league club Albirex Niigata; and Harimau Muda, the U-22 team of Malaysia.

For Darwin, there would be no such thing. Unlike Perth, there would be no greater glory in an Australian league. There would be no A-League, at least until 2007, when the Pre-Season Challenge Cup, used by the league to increase their profile in non-league cities, rolled into town. Darwin watched their more fortunate brethren, Perth Glory, defeat Melbourne Victory 2-1. There was brief talk of support for a bid to join the A-League, but it never amounted to anything. When Australia began a national cup competition, the FFA Cup, in 2014, 631 teams entered, but not a single one from the Northern Territory. This year, they are entered, but with only a 14-team contingent.

The most notable product of the Darwin Cubs was almost certainly a forward by the name of Hamilton Thorp. He hardly made his mark anywhere, with an unsuccessful trial at Portsmouth, a few late-career stints in Scandinavia and three seasons, one of which was productive, at West Adelaide SC showing as the career highlights. But he’s what Darwin has. And as long as there’s no professional soccer in Darwin, he fears he and defenseman John Tambouras– owner of an even more nomadic career taking him from his homeland to Greece, New Zealand, Malaysia, Ireland, Azerbaijan and China- might be all they’ll ever have.

As Thorp told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, “The raw talent in the Northern Territory is there- particularly in the indigenous community- but basically it’s been an untapped resource… If we can’t have an A-League team for a while, there’s no reason we can’t produce players who are good enough to play in the A-League in the meantime. The indigenous kids I’ve seen have amazing talent. You’ve got players from East Timor up there, it’s a real mix of styles. But the coaching has let them down. When I was last up there, I watched a couple of local games, and I’d say the standard was worse than when I was playing junior football 15 years ago. The NT juniors go to the national championships every year and they get belted by five or six goals. The players see how wide the gap is and get disheartened. They drop their heads and a lot go and play Aussie rules, or another sport.”

His suggestion at the time was to send Darwin back to Singapore and try again in the S-League. That has yet to happen. It might not ever happen. The first step back may end up being the FFA Cup. Each province is guaranteed at least one berth in the round of 32, the point at which the A-League enters the competition. If Darwin can’t get into the A-League, what they can at least do is claim the Northern Territory berth and hope to either advance against lower-level competition or get drawn against an A-League club and bury the inevitable under the sight of seeing the hometown heroes play against Australia’s finest. Sooner or later, one of the results is bound to end up encouraging, either on the field or at the gates.

Beating Singapore is one thing. But there’s no opponent like home.

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