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Gradually distinguished from other codes of football in Melbourne in the mid-19th century, several British-football teams were playing regularly in winter in Melbourne by 1883, when the first intercolonial games took place between Victoria and New South Wales.

Sustained by immigration, the game grew in the 1880s, just before World War I, in the 1920s and above all from the 1950s to the 1970s. A participant rather than a spectator sport in the 19th century, soccer revived after a hiatus during the 1890s depression. In 1909 the doyen of Victorian soccer, Harry Dockerty, presented the cup that was competed for until the 1990s. In addition to this knock-out competition, the Victorian League was reorganised and won by Carlton United in 1909-10. Williamstown, Yarraville and Melbourne Thistle were champions before competition was abandoned in 1916 because of World War I.

Soccer matches resumed in 1919, with 12 teams in the first division. New clubs were formed, including Coburg (1918), Box Hill (1922), Brighton (1924), Heidelberg (1925), South Yarra (1928) and Hakoah (1927). The code had a damaging split in the 1920s and was just on the point of recovery when the depression hit. By 1936 there were eight teams in the Victorian first division and nine in the second division. There was also a third division, two reserve divisions, a junior competition and a schools competition for the Dunkling Cup. Crowds picked up in the latter part of the 1930s and 1940s, with visiting teams from China and India attracting significant attendances.

Postwar immigration transformed soccer into a popular spectator sport. The Victorian Amateur Soccer Football Association presided over this explosion until 1962, when, after a struggle within the code, it was succeeded by the Victorian Soccer Federation, which runs the game today. From the 1960s to the 1990s the game was dominated by teams supported by immigrants, particularly those from Southern and Eastern Europe, including Juventus (Italians), South Melbourne (Greeks) and George Cross (Maltese). Melbourne also provided two of the pillars of the National Soccer League in the 1990s - the Melbourne Knights (Croatians) and South Melbourne (Greeks) - each of which won back-to-back premierships.

Melbourne hosted the Olympic Games soccer tournament in 1956, culminating in the final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, when Russia beat Yugoslavia by one goal to nil in front of 100 000 people. In 1997, 85 000 turned out to watch Australia's narrow failure to qualify for the World Cup, when it could only draw with Iran. Attempts to link soccer and Australian Rules Football with teams bearing the names Collingwood and Carlton have been unsuccessful, though Carlton reached the Grand Final in its first season in 1997-98. Melbourne hosted Olympic soccer again in 2000, and 93 000 attended the opening match between Australia and Italy. Women's soccer, indoor soccer and junior soccer have all grown significantly in recent years. The Victorian Institute of Sport soccer program has been highly successful, with a high proportion of its graduates representing Australia at youth and senior levels.

Roy Hay