Does The A League Have A Soul?

By JJ Leahy

Team sports, whether you play them or watch them, are all about tribalism – Country against Country, State against State, City Against City, District against District, Town Against Town, Suburb against Suburb, Village against Village, School against School, Club against Club, Us against Them.

The Football Federation of Australia attempted to redefine the tribal landscape of the game at a national level with the creation of the A League. It was an attempt to remove the ethnic identity of teams in the former national league that had associations with the blood drenched histories of countries far away.

After a promising start, the A League does not seemed to have progressed with any real momentum. The reasons appear many and varied. It is hard to get private ownership and financing in a small market like Australia. There have been some ill-considered expansions like North Queensland.

However, the real obstacles are quality and tribalism.

Anyone watching AFL or Rugby League in Australia are seeing the best teams and the best players in those codes. The Super Rugby competition features teams with players from the three countries New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia that are consistently ranked in the top three nations. The English Premier League and other top European competitions are broadcast and covered extensively in the media. The standard of the A League is well off the pace.

It takes time for a club to develop an identity and the sort of following that puts bodies on seats and wins hearts and minds.  This is the core of the A League’s problem. Youthful Australian players leave for the academies of major overseas teams before they even reach the A League. If they get there and show their potential, they are soon gone. Second or third rate players from other counties occupy many places on the playing list. They play a season or two until they get a better offer elsewhere, succumb to their chronic injuries, or are recognised as duds and dispatched. Australian players who once had genuine ability, but can no longer perform at the elite level return to top up the superannuation on tired legs and fading skills.

The other football codes have the players the supporters love and loathe. The ones who appear on the scene as fresh faced youths, who develop into the champions taking their team to glory, who provide the hard edged experience that a long time in the game brings, and retire with the good wishes of those who have been privileged to see the entire career played out – 200, 250, 300 plus gamers.

The A League does not have this, and probably never will.

It does not have a soul.


  1. Martin Reeves says

    JJ – you make some valid points, but I wouldn’t say the A-League is soul-less. There were 40,000 at Etihad on Saturday night for Melbourne v Sydney. It was a great atmosphere, a great game to watch (albeit goal-less), and there was a good mix of old and young players on display. This is the balance A-League clubs need to find.

    Melbourne play Adelaide this weekend and Heart the following week. Both games will have big crowds and the football should be very entertaining.

    You should get along and enjoy the atmosphere.

  2. On first glance it’s a fair assessment. JJ makes some good points in support of the ultimate goal of denouncing the round ball game in Australia as soul-less… but rivalry is born out of history and history is created over time. The longer that the A-League runs in this country (particularly if Australia continues to qualify for the world cup…or if Australia hosts the World Cup) a larger part of the market share it will secure.

    JJ what you may not appreciate is how worryingly well the round ball game is winning hearts and minds in this country. The reason, in my humble opinion is as follows.

    At the inception of the A-League the administrators of the game made a number of key decisions about how to combat code rivalry in this country. In simple terms they chose to take the high road, don’t be drawn into a fight, and importantly don’t go head to head with the AFL, Rugby League or Rugby Union seasons.

    Predictably the media in this country with a vested interest in the success of AFL, Rugby League and Rugby Union rolled up to the back alley after school for a right proper stink only to find their opponent had not shown up. He, instead of fighting a battle he could not win, had headed off to football training to work out how his code, would in the first instance survive and ultimately win the ‘war’.

    In the absence of an opponent who wanted fight to the death right then and there, AFL, Rugby League, Rugby Union and a dismissive media claimed victory and settled into a policy of containment when it came to the A-League. Containment requires vigilance, always ensuring that any skirmishes that occurred between the codes along the way (see Suncorp Stadium schedule clashes Broncos v Roar) were soundly won.

    It only takes a quick look around Lang Park at a Roar game to see whole teams of kids (with parents in step), cheering on their hero’s. When it boils down to it the A-League has already won the battle of survival and this is due to a large focus on a family culture and offcourse that old chestnut a focus on ‘Grassroots Football’. That would be the very same family culture that has been abandoned by rival codes through a loss of focus at an administrative level or been lost by the reckless behaviour of its hero’s.

    I’m not saying I disagree with what I know to be the author’s intent that given the choice as a nation (the Leahy household) should be directing our young athletes towards AFL, Rugby Union or League over the round ball game. The problem is we aren’t able to make that decision. That decision is ultimately made by parents who are increasingly worried about wrapping their young up in cotton wool. In households around Australia the same or similar can be heard… ‘I don’t want the boys playing AFL/Rugby/League, it’s too dangerous why can’t they play soccer, it’s safer’. It will be the slow almost imperceptible leak that sinks this ship, not the iceberg.

    The war of the football codes in this day and age is fought with media and advertising which in turn shapes the thoughts of parents in this country just as much as their young impressionable children. The question is will the administrators of AFL, Rugby Union and Rugby League in this country notice the leak before the ship is listing.

    If you did nothing more than watch/listen to clips of Gus Gould’s commentary at State of Origin from 2005-2011 you would start to see the Darryl Eastlake (I still remember fondly watching the wide world of sports on Sunday) like escalation in his voice as Gus becomes a parody of himself, the desperation is tangible. It is the desperation of the NRL which feels forced to create a circus around the best sporting contest in Australia, which requires no fan fare and in fact any attempt to capture or add to its emotion in words does nothing but belittle it.

    How many times have you heard Stirlo, Fatty, Gus etc. talking about how good the State of Origin or NRL ‘brand’ is. What they are really saying is ‘sponsors are quietly moving away from our game because we are in/or have been through the GFC (depending on what your broker is telling you) and they are starting to question if back pages full of players shi##ing in hotel hallways is a value for money return on their dollars. Make no mistake my friends the dash for cash is now deadly serious.

    The real threat to AFL, League and Union in this country will start to be felt in 10-15 yrs time when those kids who are kicking the ball around at half time will be choosing to dedicate themselves to the round ball rather than the alternative. The quality/talent pool in the other codes will be weakened; we won’t beat NZ or SA nearly as often. Just ask Cricket Australia, to the public it doesn’t seem like as much fun when we’re not winning, and who will know either way because it won’t be on TV.

    The ‘soul-less’ A-League is quietly finding a soul while the AFL and NRL are losing theirs.

    ….and dad, stop riling me up i’m trying to work.

    P Leahy

  3. Patrick, very Freudian.

  4. The success of the AFL is due to the history of the clubs and therefore multiple generations of supporters. I love footy, but I LOVE watching Geelong play footy. I love Jimmy Bartel, but if he was to move to GWS, I wouldn’t turn on the TV to watch him alone.
    The same history underpins the success of the NRL. Management and vision certainly hasn’t.
    The A-League needs to ensure its clubs will remain for at least 25 years. It’s already shown with the NQ Fury that it can’t guarantee that. What will happen if the current trend of losses sustained by the A-League clubs means they have to fold? Will the Victory fans simply support another club?
    This is the greatest challenge for soccer in this country. Basketball was going to be the next major sport about 10-15 years ago. The same figures about juniors playing the sport kept getting rolled out. It has the most junior participants in the country. It probably still may, but it’s league almost folded and is now limping along.
    I wish soccer every success but the claims of eventual greatness over the likes of the AFL and NRL are devoid of fact and very tiresome.

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