Football & Australian Identity

Reflecting Australia’s obsession with sport, the National Portrait Gallery has many diverse portraits of Australian sportspeople. Let’s take a closer look at some of the great football legends from our collection and their stories that have shaped our national identity.

George Gregan (1999 (printed 2001)) by Peter Brew-BevanNational Portrait Gallery


Australia is unusual in the world in that we have four football codes; Rugby Union, Rugby League, Soccer and the most popular of all sports in Australia, Australian Rules Football (AFL). The most attended of all our sports; AFL was first played in Melbourne in 1858, it is a contact game for 18 players-a-side created for Australian conditions and on modified cricket ovals.  It could be argued that Australian sporting culture is defined by the lifetime loyalty and the passionate support local AFL teams command.

Similarly, the Rugby League State of Origin games between Queensland and NSW are the stuff of legend; they divide and enthral the nation. No surprise then that individual Union, League and AFL players are promoted into Halls of Fame or join the hallowed bands of  ‘Immortals’ and ‘Invincibles’.

These portraits record not just the likeness of exceptional athletes but glimpses of the lives behind the sporting field.

Mal' Meninga, Rugby League (1991 (printed 2017)) by Heide SmithNational Portrait Gallery

This portrait records Mal Meninga relaxing in the Canberra Raiders’ change room.

Of South Sea Island heritage, Meninga was born in Bundaberg, Queensland and followed his father’s passion for Rugby League.

Meninga became the first and only player to play in four Kangaroo Tours and captained two of them.

In 1990, Meninga was voted the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year and was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame in 1994.

Meninga has also made a significant impact as a coach; he led Queensland to win the State of Origin series eight times in a row and the Kangaroos to win the 2017 World Cup.

Leader, advocate, mentor, role model, in 2018 Meninga was selected as the 13th NRL Immortal.

Harry Kewell (2011) by Julian KingmaNational Portrait Gallery

Harry Kewell was just sixteen when he tried out for English club Leeds United; he became one of Australia’s most successful soccer exports.

Kewell’s strike rate and attacking abilities attracted highly lucrative bids for his services at Barcelona, Chelsea, AC Milan and Manchester United and Liverpool, the club he had supported as a boy.

Kewell played 56 games for the Socceroos from the time he was seventeen, he was also part of the Socceroos squad that in November 2005 defeated Uruguay in a penalty shoot-out for a place in the 2006 World Cup Finals.

Interestingly, in Julian Kingma’s portrait of the Kewell, the soccer net is the only sporting reference in the image.

Harry Kewell: In the dining room of his home in Hale, Cheshire (2006) by Robin SellickNational Portrait Gallery

In contrast, in this photograph by Robin Sellick, Kewell is shown in the dining room of his home.

In 2012 a poll of fans, players and experts voted Harry Kewell Australia’s greatest ever footballer.

He retired from professional soccer in March 2014.

Mark Loane (2016) by Joachim FroeseNational Portrait Gallery

Joachim Froese’s portrait of Mark Loane is a portrait of a surgeon in the locker room.

The context is not lost on the former Rugby Union legend who studied medicine throughout his legendary Rugby Union career.

Loane retired in 1982 aged twenty-eight to focus his energy on his chosen specialisation, ophthalmology.

Loane played 89 games for Queensland and 28 Tests for the Wallabies.

He was noted for his characteristic and devastating barging runs which could win the game.

Loane was awarded the Australian Sports Medal for his contribution to the development of rugby in Queensland and in 2007, he was honoured in the third tranche of inductees into the Australian Rugby Union Hall of Fame.

In 2011, Loane was named as Member of the Order of Australia for service to medicine in the field of ophthalmology, particularly to the indigenous communities of northern Queensland, and as a contributor to the development of sustainable health services.

Hear him discuss his sporting and professional career.

Ken Catchpole (2014) by Gary GrealyNational Portrait Gallery

Ken Catchpole, one of the greatest players ever, began his club rugby career soon after school with Randwick in 1958.

The following year he made his debut for New South Wales in a match against the British Lions.

Aged just twenty-one, in 1961, he became one of the few players to make their Test debut as captain, leading the Wallabies side to three victories over Fiji at home and then on a tour of South Africa.

Catchpole was lauded for his quick and supremely accurate passing.

Having played a total of 27 Tests with the Wallabies (13 as captain), Catchpole suffered a career-ending leg injury in a match against the All Blacks in 1968.

In addition to many other honours, in 2013 Catchpole and his former teammate, John Thornett, were among the six Australians honoured by the International Rugby Board with inclusion in its Hall of Fame.

Gary Grealy’s portrait deliberately concentrates light and focus onto Catchpole’s face, as the photographer explained, 'illuminating a life'.

Robert Di Pierdomenico "Dipper" (1986) by Rennie EllisOriginal Source: Courtesy of Rennie Ellis Photographic Archive

This triumphant image records the Australian Rules football player Robert Di Pierdomenico, also known as 'Dipper', celebrating Hawthorn’s grand final win of 1986.

Dipper notched up 240 games for the Hawthorn Football Club during a sixteen-year career.

This portrait is from a series the photographer Rennie Ellis made of Australian Rules grand finals through the 1970s and 1980s.

A wingman known as much for his toughness as his handlebar moustache, Di Pierdomenico was a key ingredient of the Hawks’ remarkable domination of the competition during the 1980s.

He played for much of the 1989 grand final against Geelong with broken ribs and a punctured lung.

The joint winner of the 1986 Brownlow Medal, Di Pierdomenico retired in 1991 having kicked 130 goals, played in 24 finals and been selected for the All Australian side three times.

He was inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame in 2007.

Mark Ella (2015) by Nikki TooleNational Portrait Gallery

Singled out by his peers both internationally and at home as one of the greatest players ever seen or played alongside, Mark Ella was named amongst the first four Invincibles of Australian rugby Union and amongst the eleven inaugural ‘legends’ of the International Rugby Board Hall of Fame in 2013.

Nikki Toole’s portrait captures the presence and dignity of her subject.

Born into a family of twelve children in La Perouse, Sydney, Mark and his brothers began playing Rugby at Matraville High School.

All three had successful Rugby careers. Mark made his Test debut as part of the Bledisloe Cup-winning side in New Zealand in 1980.

In all, Ella played 26 Tests for Australia, captaining the side in ten. His approach to playing the five-eighth position was unique and highly effective.

In 1982 he was voted Young Australian of the Year. He then surprised the rugby world by retiring at only 25 years of age.

Ella is the executive producer of NITV Sport at SBS Australia, is chair of the NSW and ACT Indigenous Cricket Advisory Committee and writes a regular column for the Australian newspaper.

Credits: Story

This exhibit was written by:
- Annette Twyman, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Adair, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Sally Dawson, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Kirstin Gunether, Learning Facilitator, National Portrait Gallery
- Emily Casey, Program Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery
- Johanna McMahon, Art History intern, Australian National University.

This exhibit was edited and produced by Alana Sivell, Digital Learning Coordinator, National Portrait Gallery.

We would like to acknowledge the generous support from all artists and organisations for letting us include these works.

Thank you to Robin Sellick for enabling us to investigate Australia's sporting culture through the inclusion of his photographic portraits.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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