Soccer: A-League gets early pass mark

By Stephen George

In 2003, Australian football was struggling to make an impact on the national sporting stage.  In April, the Independent Soccer Review Committee chaired by Mr David Crawford concluded “that the current structure of soccer in Australia is ineffective, does not work and needs changing”.

The output on the field was viewed by world football followers as substandard.

As a result, the Australian Soccer Association and its National Soccer League ceased to exist and the association’s successor, Football Federation of Australia made one of the most challenging and controversial decisions relating to the future of football in Australia.

A brand new product was to be introduced for season 2005.

Arguably, the greatest change would be the removal of the cultural names associated with some of the biggest and most successful football clubs in the NSL’s history; Marconi, South Melbourne Hellas, Melbourne Knights and Sydney Olympic would not form part of the new national league.

“2005 will be one of the most crucial in the history of football in Australia and we will start it off with this symbolic move,” the newly appointed head of the board, Frank Lowy, said at the time.

Initially, an eight team competition would replace the old 13 team NSL competition. The plan was to expand. However, first and foremost the new League needed to acquire a solid grounding in the national sports market.

“Through extensive consultation … we have … been able to articulate what the new football brand will stand for … Its core attributes of inclusiveness, family, expressiveness, youth, style and fun will be prominent in the way that football is presented going forward,” Lowy said.

To assist in achieving its goals, FFA embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign and established a television deal with Fox Sports resulting in each game being televised live throughout Australia – something not achieved before. As a result of this television deal, Australian football is now shown in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Hong Kong.

Suddenly, domestic Australian football was getting international exposure.

“For Australia to remain truly competitive on the world stage we must find ways to take the excellent but limited resources available across the country and, through innovation and collaboration, maximise the efficiency and effectiveness in attracting and developing the finest possible Australian players and teams of the future,” said Lowy.

At individual club level, marquee players formed part of the new licenses. It was agreed that marquee player’s salaries would not form part of the club’s salary cap. This, combined with the desire of each franchise to establish a strong, competitive league, enabled clubs to seek out the best available talent from overseas. Again, something that wasn’t prevalent in past NSL days.

It’s reasonable to suggest that not all signings have been a success but at the same time, they have drawn ‘old’ supporters back to the world game as well as piqued the interest of new followers.

In the first few years, players such as Dwight Yorke and Juninho for Sydney FC and Romario for Adelaide United FC may only have been around for contracts extending from six weeks to one year but they increased interest in the revamped competition.

One of the new expansion clubs for the 2009/2010 season, the North Queensland Fury, signed arguably the highest-profile player to date, Robbie Fowler. The man the Scousers of Liverpool nicknamed God came to the A-League amid a deal of hype as a few existing clubs jockeyed for his signature.

Fowler’s signing may just reinforce the belief among many followers that Australian football is gathering momentum internationally and is a viable alternative for professional footballers from around the world.

“… Having him playing for North Queensland Fury FC will change the way people think about the A-League, ” Fury chairman Don Matheson said at the time.

In addition to international players, Australians who had played or were playing overseas returned or indicated a desire to return to Australia to complete their playing days.

Kevin Muscat went to Melbourne Victory, Craig Moore went to captain Brisbane Roar and Steve Corica and 2006 World Cup qualifying hero John Aloisi went to Sydney FC.

Another significant boost for Australian football is that current Socceroo Jason Culina has returned home to captain a new franchise, Gold Coast United. This decision came at the height of Jason’s career in both Europe and internationally; it is therefore seen by many as a significant coup.

In addition, there are strong rumours that recently retired international and English Premier League player, Mark Viduka will return home to finish his playing career with the second Melbourne franchise in 2010.

This, together with the addition of rumoured players such as Mark Schwarzer and Lucas Neillm would be a further fillip for a league still in relative infancy.

Apart from the individual players, the clubs have established intense rivalries in just four years.

Whilst the Melbourne/Sydney rivalry extends beyond sport, the A-League, like the NRL and AFL before it has further enhanced the competition between Australia’s two biggest cities.

Further, clear ‘battle lines’ have also been drawn between the Central Coast and Newcastle along with Melbourne and Adelaide. With the addition of two new Queensland franchises for the current season, intrastate rivalries are sure to be established between Brisbane Roar, Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury.

Given the interest that has been generated during the first four years of the A-League, supporters can look forward with confidence to the expansion of the League in the coming seasons.

“We can’t have cold feet on expansion,” Lowy has said. “We just can’t. I mean, look at how many teams Japan has, Korea has. They all have a lot more.

“There are a number of reasons we need to expand … We have a good competition, but we need to build it for quality, quantity, and crowds. These things will happen.

“We need a second division for promotion and relegation. That is the lifeblood of football everywhere. We will have to have it eventually… It’s not urgent, but it’s necessary.”

During its first four years there is no doubt the quality of football has improved. This was highlighted by the fact that Adelaide United FC was very competitive in 2008/2009 in the Asian Football Confederation’s Champions League.

To compete and be successful against well-established Asian football sides demonstrates that Australian football is now stronger than ever before.

Finally, attendances have increased. In four years the average has increased from slightly fewer than 11,000 in 2005/2006 to just over 12,100 in 2008/2009.

Provided the quality of football and footballer continues to improve, Australian football should move forward in a positive manner.

Off field, the world game has grown dramatically as well.

Following the creation of Football Federation Australia, significant changes were required administratively.

In 2006, FFA recruited Ben Buckley to its board. What made this appointment significant was that FFA was able to attract one of the AFL’s most powerful men away from Australia’s national and most popular sport to take up its Chief Executive Officer post.

With Ben Buckley’s past in marketing with Nike as well as broadcasting and strategic operations within the AFL, his appointment from an administrative perspective is another positive move for Australian football.

On and off the field, the A-League is in a strong position after only four years and with expansion plans in place, the move away from the old NSL and the issues that appeared destined to be the downfall of the world game in Australia, appear to be distant memories.

With the success so far of the new national league since 2005 and its push into Asia, supporters and reporters alike shouldn’t have any hesitation in providing the A-League with a pass mark.

Should the current rate of improvement continue and European established home grown players return, one would think the national league should continue to enhance its reputation and be competitive with comparative leagues around the world.

Oh, yes, and then there’s a little competition called the World Cup that we could use to our advantage to further enhance said reputation.

That’s a story for another day…

About Stephen George

I am an avid sports fan who admires anyone who can play or participate in sport at pretty much any level. My favourite sports are AFL, soccer, Major League Baseball, Rugby League and NFL. I have recently finished my Diploma in Sports Journalism and I am interested in improving my skills by contributing to the Footy Almanac

Comments

  1. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rocket says:

    Steve,

    You need to use Find & Replace – Find ‘football’ & Replace with ‘soccer!
    It certainly isn’t “Australian football”.
    The likes of the Melbourne Football Club & the Geelong Football Club have been around much longer than nearly all of the EPL clubs.

    No disagreement with your piece, but I object to soccer trying to expropriate the term, football, in Australia. In all the countries like the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, etc where there are multiple codes operating the respective code of football is called by the name of the code, for example, rugby union, rugby league.
    If soccer people don’t want to call it as such, then maybe the term, “Association Football” should be used, which, of course, is where the term soccer derived.

    The FIFA World Club Cup is currently being staged here in Abu Dhabi. Looking forward to going to see some games, particularly the final in which Barcelona is expected to feature.

  2. Sheikh, MFC and GFC have been around longer than ALL of the EPL clubs.

  3. Martin Reeves says:

    Stephen, I agree that the FFA and the HAL appear to be ticking all the boxes and tracking along nicely after four completed seasons.

    Though the trend in attendance rates has increased from season 1 to season 4, there seems to be a slight dip in this trend in season 5.

    Apparently a similar thing happened with the J-League – after some early popularity, the crowds fell away and didn’t return for a number of years. With a strengthened, tiered competition, the J-League is now the strongest in Asia and the chosen league for most of the Japanese national team.

    I would expect a spike in interest and increased attendances at A-League matches following the 2010 WC, but the HAL can’t rely solely on WC involvement for sustainability. Will be interesting to see how they address the crowd issue and how stronlgy the FFA pursue a tiered competition in Australia. The J-League is obviously a good model for the FFA to follow, but I’m not sure it fits within the Australian sporting landscape?

    I’ll also be interested to note how New Zealand’s 2010 WC involvement will impact on Wellington’s popularity in the A-League – providing they are still a part of the competition in season 6.

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