The A-League, Australian football and meaning


by Roy Hay


Though small-sided predominantly kicking games of football played for money or other prizes have been around in Australia since before some members of the Melbourne cricket club drew up a set of rules in 1859, there is still an impression today that the world game is somehow foreign to this country and will never be accepted like the local codes. John Harms is a living national treasure and when he writes about what sports and particularly Australian football means to him the depth of his sincerity is patent. But he is not as engaged and does not derive as much of his understanding of himself from soccer and from that he deduces the idea that soccer has a massive challenge to make itself meaningful to more people in Australia if it is to succeed in overtaking football in the struggle for allegiance and finance. He thinks that soccer is too blatantly projecting itself as a money-making enterprise rather than a great game. Quite rightly, he is appalled at the cost of playing the game at junior level. So he is reassuring himself that footy and league will continue to dominate because the hearts and minds of ‘most ordinary folk’ lie there, assisted by a hip pocket nerve. It is a subtle and popular argument, to judge by the responses in the Almanac, but I wonder if it is not a trifle chauvinistic and old-fashioned.


The first and most obvious point to make is that the pattern of football and sports following/spectating/watching has changed significantly in recent years. Melbourne’s population is heading for five million, if it has not gone over that already. Attendances at footy in its heartland have not kept pace and total numbers and averages per game have been falling over the last decade, while the A-League is going up in both. Melbourne Victory has over 23 000 members and Melbourne City over 10 000, the latter before the Tim Cahill effect kicks in. The social composition of the memberships of both soccer clubs mirrors those of the big footy clubs like Collingwood and Hawthorn. Indeed, there is a growing overlap of membership and people who go to soccer are more likely to go to football than the general population and vice versa. The same is true in the case of rugby league. Soccer people are also more likely to attend cultural events than the average Australian. Female attendance at soccer is also rising and soccer crowds are much less male dominated than they used to be a decade or two ago. So, insidiously and slowly the convergence is occurring and, if true, that suggests that sports attendance is not a zero sum game but one in which cooperation might be more beneficial all round than the cut-throat competition favoured by some in the leadership of the various bodies.


Looking slightly further afield, strong claims are being made that Western Sydney Wanderers have done more to bring together the various communities in the area than anything else in a generation. Michael Visontay’s Welcome to Wanderland: Western Sydney Wanderers and the Pride of the West has some very strong claims for the influence of the new club, but taken together with the rebadging of the University of Western Sydney as Western Sydney University there is no doubt that there is a new sense of pride and identity developing in areas whose divisions often seemed to hold back their progress. ‘The message is loud and clear: the club will rise and fall, the team will have great seasons and lean, the staff and players will come and go but the Wanderers family is here to stay. The self-esteem they have liberated is permanent …’. For Melbourne folks the focus today would be on the Bulldogs, but if Geelong cannot get its act together, why not look at a soccer club to unite the tribes on the other side of the Westgate?


Cooperation in the sharing of venues is one of the issues that should be addressed more regularly by the codes. Etihad Stadium is a poor venue for soccer, both for spectators and for players. The former, even with the lower-tier seats moved forward, are a long way from the action, while the players seem to find their reference points difficult to judge even when there are advertising hoardings just beyond the touchlines. The rectangular codes need a 50 000-capacity ground within walking distance of the CBD. That requires rugby league and union to generate enough interest in winter for second teams to fill the stadium each week, and Melbourne City and Victory to have a longer summer season as a result of the expansion of the A-League to at least 12 teams nationally. We’ve seen the effect of bigger venues in the turn out for the first Sydney derby of the season in the A-League with over 60 000 in the bigger of the two Homebush stadia that will be used by Western Sydney Wanderers this season. In line with the point made above, a modern stadium ought to be a cultural centre as well and it would be a good idea if it housed a dedicated museum and research centre for the football codes. The National Football Museum in central Manchester, England, is now a huge money-spinner for the city, even though entry to the venue is free. In Victoria, the existing National Sports Museum and the Melbourne Cricket Club Library at the MCG are highly constrained for lack of space at the moment.


John Harms is spot on that the future of the sporting codes, especially the A-League, lies with the next generation. They have grown up with the game. Boys and girls play in huge numbers, but there is only a tiny demand and hence opportunity for elite players in the current soccer structure. Ten clubs with say 25 contracted players means that only 250 places are available in the current A-League and since up to five of those can be imports that reduces the places to 200. There may be almost as many Australian players plying their trade overseas. David Davies’s most recent list has 190 names. But that is a derisorily small number for a country of 23 million. So Football Federation Australia, as it embarks on a round of negotiations over a new media contract, needs to set much more expansive goals than it has done recently. Talking to the CEO of the Professional Footballers Association, John Didulica, over the weekend, we agreed that consolidation means death. Ange Postecoglou, the national coach, also agrees and insists we must be looking at the next horizon and his vision is much wider than that for the current national team, but embraces raising standards and involvement throughout Asia.


We are missing huge opportunities in Asia and are still regarded with justified suspicion by the Asian Football Confederation. Recently Australia’s Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, presented the President of China Xi Jinping with a footy jumper rather than a soccer one at the G20 meeting, despite the fact that the latter is a soccer aficionada and has embarked on a drive to produce a competitive national team and eventually host a World Cup. As a country we need to invest heavily in promoting matches against Asian clubs and attracting good Asian players to the A-League if we are to help overcome the suspicion that we are solely in Asia for what we can get out of it. Phil Mosely’s chapter ‘Playing ball with Asia’, in Bill Murray and Roy Hay, The World Game Downunder makes clear how self-interested we have been over the years in our relationships with our northern neighbours. It is not a new issue since the emergence of FFA, but it is now much more pressing. On the other hand, the Asian Cup was a huge success in Australia and for relations within the Asian countries that took part and their fans. We need to invest in matches against Asian clubs in season and out of season, here and overseas, so that matches in our region gain parity of esteem with those against European opposition.


So the world game must start behaving like the world game in Australia, not trying to emulate the local codes but seeking to demonstrate an entirely different meaning—internationalist, open-minded and above all inclusive and inspirational. That way John Harms’ challenge can be met. After all, the game has led the way so often in the past, so it should set its sights on creating its own meanings in the future.


Read about Roy’s book Games Goals Glory


John Harms on The A-League and the place of meaning in sport


Join Roy Hay for lunch this Friday 7 April to discuss all things football and footy and sports history. All welcome. DETAILS HERE.

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  1. Great comments Roy. The attachment of meaningfulness to Association Football in Australia is a vexed issue as the teams that do have generational traditions are mostly also connected to a particular cultural group that can be an issue when wanting to attract a broad level of support.

    The challenge for the A-league is whether both the ‘new’ teams such as in the A-League (Perth Glory excepted) and the traditional teams like South Melbourne etc. which do have that long generational emotional connection can somehow be both be present in the top competition.

  2. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great piece, Roy and some welcome objectivity to the issue. I’ve always found it somewhat amusing that an English game could be seen as ‘foreign’ in an English colony.

    I really believe that the next generation will be much more fluid with their loyalties and enjoy multiple codes without having the need to defend one over the other. At this stage there is still an ‘old school’ soccer cohort that begrudges new fans of the game just as there is an old school footy demographic that is still soccerphobic. Once these groups begin to relent a little more (they have compared to a decade ago) conversations about meaning and belonging will no longer be as divisive and the language will not be as pejorative in terms of isolating one or the other. Cheers

  3. I agree with Phil. The next generation will be much more fluid in their loyalties.

    And having seen it first hand, I have an additional theory on just why this will be so:
    I have three sons who constantly play FIFA on the PlayStation. As such, their knowledge of clubs, footballers and football is vast. The effect of this cannot be underestimated, despite the EPL selling their Australian broadcast rights to Optus.

  4. Clear-eyed sense, Roy.
    I guess if any game is good enough, it will build a following.

    Soccer played well is entertaining.
    Just like footy played well is entertaining.
    As is basketball.
    And hockey.

    I wonder if there is a difference in long-term end-points between the scenario of a small league of established clubs that grows larger in reach or in size, versus a large corporate entity establishing/ forcing itself into/ onto a culture.
    I wonder what you think would be the best approach for soccer in Australia to become established at the club level.

  5. Thank you all for the feedback. I think John can sleep easy, since I don’t expect the round ball code to dislodge the domestic game for a long time, if ever. But you must retain the goal, the aspiration and the determination if you want to stand still and even more so if you want to improve.

    The issue of the game at club level is an intriguing and complex one. What is the glue that holds clubs together over generations? Its easy enough for one cycle when a group of enthusiasts come together, but retaining that dynamism in the long term depends on the structures put in place and the recruitment of the right people as the founding group moves on. I helped launch a history of the Castlemaine club some time ago and they had a brilliant blend of ages and groups involved so that their continuity seemed assured. They were and are a social club and a football club and have men’s and women’s teams. They were also trying to ensure that they would be seen as the club for the local region, not just the town itself. they had people who have an international reputation for their work in coaching and teaching, and lots of hard-working country folk who pitched in, even when they did not have a strong background in the game. Whether that is easy to replicate in bigger urban settings or in the context of new groups of migrants to this country is a question. Some of FFA’s current policies and practice remain problematic though understandable. Reducing the cost of playing the game at junior level, while increasing the incomes of those who invest in coaching qualifications and training are two key issues, while the blanket ban on ethnic names has consequences if you are a member of a new migrant group seeking to use football (soccer) as a means of entry into Australian society as many have done in the past.
    Must stop turning this reply to comments into another article, but thanks again for your interest.

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