Olympic hosts long reverential to rugby league

Teams, tales and tips – a guide to the local game

Preparing to stage the Olympics in 2032, the Queensland capital of Brisbane has already hosted a Commonwealth Games, and co-hosted two Rugby World Cups, five Rugby League World Cups, a Cricket World Cup and an Olympic soccer tournament.

Now it’s the turn of the Women’s World Cup – Brisbanites certainly aren’t afraid of a challenge.

The workhorse of the 2023 tournament, Lang Park, due to stage eight games including the third-place play-off, is just west of the city centre in the district of Milton. Suncorp Stadium to A-League team Brisbane Roar who moved back here from distant Redcliffe in 2022.

While more than 30 soccer internationals have also taken place here – the OFC Nations Cup of 1998, the AFC Asian Cup of 2015, World Cup qualifiers against Japan, Qatar and Iraq, a 0-1 defeat to England in 1983 – this century-old stadium has long been given over the game to which Brisbane is in thrall to: rugby league.

Welcome to Brisbane/Mitchell Whiley

Six statues surround Lang Park, five depicting legends of the game played by teams of 13, one a likeness of Brisbane-born John Eales, twice winner of the World Cup for the different rugby code. Arguably the most prominent soccer players to appear in Brisbane did so for the 2000 Olympics, when revered cricket ground The Gabba, out in Woolloongabba, did the hosting honours. 

A stoppage time goal by Ronaldinho couldn’t stop Samuel Eto’o’s Cameroon from beating Brazil in the quarter-final there, then going on to lift the trophy. Arsenal right-back Lauren faced later Liverpool star Milan Baroš in a Cameroon v Czech Republic group game.

Lang Park, though associated with major rugby tournaments in recent years, dates almost as far back as The Gabba. Touring soccer sides through the 1900s still preferred the prestige of playing at Queensland’s cricketing mecca – the showcase stage for the 2032 Olympic Games despite a current capacity of 36,000 – than Lang Park, opened in 1914, the de facto home of rugby league since the 1930s.

Welcome to Brisbane/Mitchell Whiley

The redevelopment of Lang Park in the 1990s changed all that, its transformation to a rectangular stadium seeing a string of Socceroos’ games played here in the latter half of the decade.

Nevertheless, the city’s first representatives in Australia’s National Soccer League instigated in 1977, Brisbane City and Brisbane Lions, played at modest local grounds before folding. Brisbane United were looking at a similar fate until they rebranded to Brisbane Strikers in 1993 and moved into Lang Park two years later.

Two years afterwards, 40,000 spectators, a then record crowd for an NSL Grand Final, watched as Australian legend Frank Farina crowned an illustrious playing career with one of two goals against Sydney United.

Welcome to Brisbane/Mitchell Whiley

The national governing body, Soccer Australia, never shy about making unpopular decisions, then bizarrely ruled the Brisbane side – and, therefore, Queensland – out of the NSL in 2000.

Though rescinded after public, and parliamentary, pressure, the move proved a body blow, and Brisbane Strikers never really recovered. Worse, when it came to choosing a Brisbane team for the new A-League in 2005, Brisbane Lions got the nod.

Strikers joined the Brisbane Premier League, then Queensland State League, then National Premier Leagues Queensland. The rise to state level had come with the death of former co-owner Dr Clem Jones, Brisbane’s longest-serving city mayor, whose will bestowed A$500,000 a year to the club over the course of ten years. When this arrangement expired, the Strikers saw a player exodus and a team packed with youngsters endure relegation in 2021.

Home is still Perry Park south of Enoggera Creek, a sports ground since the 1920s, where Australia beat Tahiti 2-0 in a qualifying game for the 1994 World Cup. Capacity is 5,000.

Welcome to Brisbane/Mitchell Whiley

The same venue hosted Brisbane Lions in the late 1970s. Formed as Hollandia-Inala by Dutch immigrants in 1957, based in the farming country of Richlands, south-west Brisbane, the Lions competed in the NSL from its inauguration in 1977, winning the NSL Cup in 1981. The Lions then became Queensland Roar for the initial A-League in 2005.

Their orange colours reflecting their Dutch heritage, the club welcomed back Frank Farina as coach in 2006 and attracted a then record crowd of 36,000 to Lang Park for the semi-finals of the Finals Series. Memories of 1997 came flooding back as The Roar beat Sydney FC 2-0.

Defeat to Newcastle Jets then spoiled the fairytale ending for Farina, and when the club did achieve a string of A-League titles, between 2011-14, it was as Brisbane Roar. The first came under Farina’s replacement, later Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou, whose first major success was achieved here in Brisbane. Each of Roar’s three Grand Final wins raised the bar on attendance records for a football game at Lang Park, touching a near-capacity 51,153 by 2014.

Welcome to Brisbane/Mitchell Whiley

Momentum dipped after The Roar moved out to suburban Redcliffe in 2020, moving back to Lang Park, long referred to by its sponsored name of Suncorp Stadium, in 2022.

With crowds in the low thousands, Brisbane Roar are considering their options in terms of a more permanent home. Brisbane Roar Women’s side also relocated back to the city in 2022-23, setting up at the revamped Ballymore Stadium, its new McLean Stand part of an ongoing redevelopment that will bring capacity to 15,000. The ground is also the home of Australia women’s rugby union team, the Wallaroos.

With The Gabba out of commission for four years from 2025 due to a A$1 billion overhaul for the Olympics, expanding it to 50,000 capacity, Ballymore would be an option for Roar’s men’s team too but for poor transport links to this northern suburb.

For the Women’s World Cup, the Brisbane Fan Festival is at South Bank Parklands on Riverside Green, close to the South Bank ferry terminal, across the Brisbane River from the city centre.

Getting Around

Arriving in town, local transport and timings

Brisbane Airport is 15km (nine miles) north-east of the city, connected every 15-30mins by Airtrain from platform 1 to Brisbane Central station. A single ticket is A$20.90, reduced to A$17.77 if booked online, which also currently entails the return journey being thrown in for free. Journey time is 20mins.

A taxi into town should cost around A$50 – Black & White Cabs (+61 133 222) can look back on a century of service.

Brisbane Central is on the northern edge of the city centre. The network of Translink buses runs on a top-up go card (online or from retailers, refundable A$10). Tap in when you board, tap out when you alight. A single journey in zone 1 is A$3.55 peak time (Mon-Fri 6am-8.30am, 3.30pm-7pm). All other times are off-peak, A$2.84. 

Paper tickets (zone 1 single A$5.10) are also available, pre-paid from machines at stops and stations. Most of central Brisbane is zone 1 including Lang Park. Brisbane Airport is zone 2 but special fares apply.

On match days for the Women’s World Cup, ticket holders may travel for free on public transport.

A special shuttle bus service to the stadium runs from Ann Street (stop 7) opposite Central Station and from Ann Street (stop 12) at City Hall.

Where to Drink

The best pubs and bars for soccer fans

A great place to start any drinking tour of Brisbane, waterfront Felons doubles up as bierhalle and music venue, with big screens set up indoor and out for major sporting occasions. Barrel-aged beers are the speciality here – hence the name, Barrel Hall – along with weeknight cinema (yes, it’s that big). Choose a spot in the light, leafy interior or overlooking the fairylights of Story Bridge.

Round the waterfront by the Riverside ferry terminal, the Pig ‘N’ Whistle is one of a local mini-chain of six similar venues, including the West End, Brunswick Street and King George Square. This one touts itself as being Brisbane’s Home of Football, a fair boast given the plethora of big screens and heavy schedule of TV games. At weekends, 3am closing times keep the party swinging, while steaks, Brit pub grub and house burgers keep diners satisfied. UK draught options (Theakston Old Peculiar, Bulmers cider) also fly the flag.

Just behind at Riverside, the Fat Angel follows the American sports bar model, so frozen margaritas and cocktail jugs are the order of the day, with burger and wings deals during the week. Screens a-plenty, of course, whatever your tipple or comestible.

In similar vein, nearby Winghaus on Edward Street covers most of its considerable wall space with live sports action, and fills bellies with its namesake wings and classichaus burgers. Hofbräu, Löwenbräu and Peroni number among the tap lagers.

Across the street, earlier in 2023, the closure of the revered Victory Hotel, which had been pouring pints for over 160 years, inspired a minute’s silence among Brisbane’s drinking community. While its future remains uncertain, many are praying for a reopening.

Of the city’s Irish pubs, on Albert Street in the heart of Brisbane CBD Gilhooleys will soon celebrate 30 years of serving big breakfasts, pouring pints and showing sport. Irish Murphy’s sits near the waterfront on George Street, on the site of the city’s oldest hotel, where a century and a half later, live music keeps the place happening seven nights a week.

AUS NZ 2023