Football’s metamorphosis in Australia at the top level from a community based competition intrinsically linked to grassroots, yet marginalised by the mainstream to a purified and more commercially acceptable product has been a rapid one since the demise of Soccer Australia. The game spent a short period cocooned from the national stage, the chrysalis of the now defunct National Soccer League transforming into what was to emerge as the A-league.
Media coverage, TV ratings, and attendances were areas in which the NSL was waning especially near the end. The toxic relationship between the governing body and clubs had become irreparable so something had to give, and it did in spectacular fashion when the league was shut down indefinitely. Many suffered a momentary lapse of reasoning by thinking it was the death knell for the game in Australia. However, for those who understood that football and sport in general is bigger than any one league, it meant patiently waiting to see what the next chapter would hold.
The next chapter – aka the A-league – has been impressive when considering the aforementioned weaknesses of the NSL. This current season of the A-league has seen attendance and membership records fall. The game is available in more living rooms than ever before and at decent hours too. These are achievements that should bring a smile to many involved in the game while they continue to push on with growing the game and developing a football culture.
One thing which though seems to dog any success is the constant need to compare every achievement with other sporting codes in Australia. The global nature of our game is often trumpeted while at the same time our focus remains localised. It seems that many are not just satisfied to enjoy the wins but there must be some kind of measuring against other non-related leagues, most notably AFL, NRL, and the Big Bash cricket series. The AFL and NRL are arguably the biggest sporting competitions in Australia but they have no direct competition with the A-league because of the scheduling of the seasons.
FFA CEO David Gallop even managed to mention these sports in his tribute to the late Johnny Warren on the 10th anniversary of the Socceroos captain’s passing.
Johnny Warren, Canberra City, and the NSL were so far ahead of their time, it’s amazing to look back. Long before rugby league, union, AFL and cricket invited sleepy Canberra to be a part of their national competitions; “soccer” took the leap of faith.
SBS football reporter Scott McIntyre believes that this obsession by some is distracting the attention away from more important matters that need addressing.
“I find it a little strange that certain parties continually seek to get ‘mainstream validation’ and as the planet’s only global sport football should exist outside of any concerns about local rivals,” said McIntyre.
“It’s far more important to look at, for example, raising the standard of youth coaching to ensure we produce technically proficient players which in turn ensures a viable long-term footballing product.”
Before the first Sydney derby at Parramatta Stadium, Phil Rothfield wrote in the Daily Telegraph;
On Saturday night the Wanderers and Sydney FC sold out Parramatta Stadium a week in advance. It’s something the Parramatta Eels haven’t done since their grand final charge in 2009.
Football powerbroker Lou Sticca believes the Australian sporting landscape has “sufficient room for all sports to hold a position of value and respect” but does imply that perhaps this Napoleonic Complex has come about from the many years of struggle the game has endured to get recognition.
“Rivalry is good and healthy if all things are equal and fair,” Sticca told Football Central.
“Now unfortunately not everything is equal nor fair when it comes to where our football has to come from to fight for a respected position with Australia’s other mainstream sports.
“I for one hate when one sport brags that they will overtake or will be bigger than other competitors.”
Only recently there has been conflict between the FFA and AFL over venue availability should a Melbourne side make the A-league grand final. The spirit of cooperation is undeniably absent between the two codes. It is possible that constant posturing every time something positive happens could be wearing thin on those in other codes that they feel the need to reciprocate with their own muscle flexing.
Adam Peacock of Fox Sports is a self-proclaimed sport junkie who spends his weekends “filling up on football” or any other sport he can. He is sympathetic towards those who feel the need to measure achievements against other codes suggesting that it may be due to provocation. However he prefers to leave the code rivalry to others.
“I can totally understand why some in football are fed up with the carrying on of other codes, especially AFL who are masters of protecting their own ‘brand,’” said Peacock.
“A flare goes off at an A-league game and it’s a case of ‘there go the hooligans again’ which we know is complete load of garbage.
“All that said, I prefer to think along the lines of this analogy – it’s a bit like trying to convince a girl to like you. You can’t force it. Just have to make sure what is in the mirror is ok, and let her fall for that.
“Football just needs to look in the mirror.”
As Scott McIntyre touched on before, the real competition is at the grassroots level. Football needs to focus on improving this area so we are offering young boys and girls an enjoyable and quality experience on their school or local grounds. This is where the future of all sport will be decided in the end.
There is no need to fast track or manufacture growth due to the perceived threat or competition from other sports but to allow a natural growth in a footballing context. The A-league was setup in a way in which demanded the franchises to play in high rent and high capacity stadiums and run on budgets with set minimums. As a result, many teams not only struggled but some no longer exist while other have needed bailing out.
Teams have suffered as the FFA chased the AFL/NRL dragon. Ten seasons in this has not changed much and perhaps this is football’s own doing by trying to walk before it can crawl.
As Lou Sticca told us on the matter, “nature will take its course.”