When Port Kembla FC run out next weekend to take on Callala Brumbies in Australia’s FFA Cup, they’ll be hoping this is the start of a run to match Blyth Spartans’ recent FA Cup exploits or even Hereford United’s campaign in the 1970s.

Last season saw the inaugural Westfield FFA Cup. At its launch in February 2014, the CEO of the Australian Football Federation (FFA) David Gallop said: “We all grew up with the romance of the English FA Cup and well remember the history of upsets. I’m sure the FFA Cup will bring the same fascination to fans across Australia.”

Judging by the success of the Cup’s first season, this will quickly become an Aussie institution. Adelaide United won the final in December, beating Perth Glory by a single goal.

There were no major upsets in last year’s competition, but Sans Souci FC, a club playing in a regional league like Port Kembla, came through five rounds before succumbing to a senior Sydney-based club.

We’re now at the preliminary round stages for the 2015 Cup. It’s rather like those early rounds of the FA Cup in August when the minnows from the minor leagues set out under the radar of the media, who only really pay attention when the non-league clubs join the big boys around October or November.

Like at this stage of the FA Cup, it’s all happening in late summer in Australia, with the semi-professional and amateur leagues just starting to kick off in March.

Of course the main Australian football showcase, the A-League, is a summer competition, just nearing its climax now, and the FFA Cup Final (in December) is really a mid-season match, assuming it’s always going to be A-Leaguers who make the final…

In the cutthroat competition for TV rights and viewers, there was no room for big game soccer in the winter in Australia. There’s simply too much interest in the other ‘codes’ (a bizarre Australian word used by everyone to distinguish between different types of ‘football’): Rugby League; Rugby Union; and the country’s national game, Australian Rules (now known as AFL, at least for the pro side of the game).

So professional soccer became a summer sport, and it’s only recently that the word ‘football’ has started to be commonly used in Australia for what we in the UK have always known as ‘footie’.

But the State leagues, and the more regional competitions have stuck to football as a winter sport. So my arrival in Australia in January coincided with a frenetic pre-season period for amateur and semi-professional football over here.

I’d been involved with football in the North East of England before emigrating, helping Richmond Town FC in the Wearside League with their media and online activity and I was keen to get involved at a similar level near my new home in New South Wales.

Football South Coast is a bit like a regional FA for the area of New South Wales that stretches through an area called the Illawarra from Helensburgh in the north to Kiama in the south.

About 30 main clubs are organised under the Football South Coast ambit, from the South Coast Wolves, who play out of Wollongong and are on the verge of top level A-League status, down to the Illawarra Premier League (IPL) and the District League, with countless smaller community clubs (more like the UK’s Sunday league teams) below that.

I plan to watch as many of these teams as possible in my first season in Australia to get a feel for the club culture and the atmosphere across the different grounds.

But I wanted to pick one team to focus on for the FFA Cup and for this piece in The Football Pink. So, why Port Kembla FC?

Well, there were four main reasons I chose them:

  • They kept the name of their home base town in their team name and kept it simple. Australia is the country of sporting team nicknames, where the name of the town they represent can disappear altogether (Rugby results here can be bewildering for a newcomer when you see the Rabbitohs beat the Roosters and Broncos drew with Bulldogs, but you have absolutely no clue to where the teams come from, so no idea whether to laugh or cry). As a Hull City fan back home, I know very well how some people in the game want to see the UK follow suit…
  • Port Kembla’s opponents in the Cup this weekend are named, for some reason, after a type of wild Australian horse; though I was pleased to see that the team which won the league Port Kembla play in are called simply Bulli FC (Bulli being a town up the coast from Port Kembla).
  • The main reason I wanted to watch Port Kembla, though, was the story behind how the team first formed in the mid 1960s.

Basically, Port Kembla FC grew out of the Italian immigrant community in the area and was formed when two coffee shop teams decided their best players were good enough to play at a competitive level.

I met Albano Cazzolli last week. He played for the team back in those early days and still goes to every home game as a spectator and helper. The story he told says a lot about how Australian football has reached the level it has today.

Albano came to Australia from his home near Lake Garda as a teenager in 1962. He quickly got work at the local steel works in Port Kembla (remarkably still open today, by the way). But like in any good Italian community, the focal point for social life after work was the coffee shop, and his local was the Marina Coffee Lounge in nearby Warrawong.

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They had a rivalry with a neighbouring coffee shop, the Italo Coffee Lounge in Port Kembla itself, and a weekly match between the coffee shop customers decided who paid for dinner every Saturday night.

It was the owner of the Marina Coffee Lounge, one Rocco Annecchini, who suggested forming a club and taking things to the next level. And by 1966, after inheriting the balls, nets, flags and ground markers from another team that was folding, Port Kembla Soccer Club was up and running, with entry into the Illawarra League.

In the 1980s, the local council gave them the right to develop a new ground, which is still their home venue today. Although the club had by then expanded on the pitch to include players from across various communities, the people that kept the club running were very much still the Italians.

Albano speaks fondly of his friends Frank Marinelli and Bruno Recinelli who personally drove the trucks full of coal wash from the local pits to form the slopes around the pitch for spectators, and the base for the playing area (which they tell me even today, drains so well that Port Kembla can play even on days when most other fixtures are postponed). And he’ll reel off another list of mates who kept the club going with their time, their money and their ingenuity: Emilio, Marco, Francisco, Gianni ‘and don’t forget to mention Angelo Carusi’, sadly now deceased, he tells me.

Port Kembla stepped up a level when former Luton Town and Cardiff City striker Adrian Alston agreed to take over the 1st team (he was an Aussie by the way, who played for the national side even though born in Preston, Lancashire). That’s when Port Kembla’s success story really took off, and success is the third reason the team drew my attention…

  • They’ve won the Illawarra Premier League more often than any other team and in their club blurb there’s a claim to have won more silverware over the years than Manchester United. They won virtually everything they competed for in 2013 and while 2014 may have added nothing to the trophy cabinet, this is clearly a team that expects to win on a Saturday afternoon, and that makes for an exciting team to follow.
  • Port Kembla didn’t enter the FFA Cup in 2014. So it’s the first time they’ve taken part. And only five other clubs from their league were in the draw this time around. But one of their biggest rivals in the IPL, Dapto Dandaloo, had a good run last season and only lost on penalties to one of the top teams in NSW, which just goes to show how far a team at this level can go in a competition like this.

Over 600 teams signed up to take part in the FFA Cup this season (not far off the 730+ clubs that enter the FA Cup), which at these early stages is organised at State level. Tow Law Town to Totnes might be a long journey in UK terms, but that’s nothing compared to the distances in Australia, where even games against teams from the same State can mean a journey of 1275kms, twice as far as a North-South match in England.

So in a big state like New South Wales, they even divide the matches into smaller regions until the latter stages of the state rounds to save the likes of Port Kembla paying out exorbitant amounts on travel, not to mention time.

Port Kembla got the home draw for this weekend, so it’s Callala who have to make the 90km ride up the coast for the game. Win this tie, and Port Kembla already know their opponents in the next round (a team from the southern suburbs of Sydney); and after that things start to get serious, with the entry of some of the top teams in NSW state football.

Australian football fever reached extraordinary heights this summer when the national team, the Socceroos, won the Asian Cup, beating South Korea in a thrilling final shown live on national television.

Word has it that player registrations – from kiddies up to senior level – increased 45% this year on the back of that win, so interest in football and being part of a new Australian sports story is hitting levels never seen here before.

The BBC website virtually ignored the Asian Cup, preferring to focus its football pages on the African Cup of Nations, which was running at the same time. I guess there are more African than Asian players in the Premier League, though the Socceroos captain Mile Jedinak also captains Crystal Palace, Tim Cahill was a star player in the Premier League for Everton in the past, and there’s been a crop of former Socceroos around for some years now (Viduka, Kewell, Schwarzer). And in proof that the Premier League doesn’t have all the talent, Australia’s first goal scorer in that Asian Cup final, Massimo Luongo, plays for unfashionable Swindon Town in League One.

There’s a real risk now that Aussie football is coming up on the blind side and may catch England out at World Cup finals in Russia or Qatar. England have never played Australia in a competitive tournament, and with temperatures in Qatar even in November often topping 30C, it’s the Aussies who’ll be used to playing in those conditions. And they have beaten us in most other sports we invented…

Qatar might seem a long way away for the Port Kembla team that starts its cup run on Saturday (though don’t forget Mile Jedinak began his career playing at one of Port Kembla’s rivals, so you never know).

But there’s little argument that it was the various European communities in Australia that formed the basis for where Australian football is today. Groups of immigrants from Italy, Germany, Greece, Yugoslavia – as well as the Brits of course – set up teams that lay the foundations back in the 1960s, and those young players are often still around today, like Albano Cazzolli.

What happened to the coffee shops, you may ask? Well many credit the Italian love of coffee with leading to Australia’s new wave of excellent coffee shops today. But sadly, most of the old Italian espresso bars have now closed down. Albano’s old local now lies under a modern shopping mall. And his kids don’t even like espresso!

But Albano tells me there is still one Italian coffee roaster who follows Port Kembla. He brings in a big bag of his coffee beans for the club each home game and stays around for a chat over coffee after the match. So the coffee link to football lives on, just.

And I’ll drink to that, especially if Port Kembla overcome the Callala Brumbies next weekend.