How the A-League must build on a solid foundation.
“Football in Australia is at a crossroads.”
God, what an awful cliché that is. It must have been used in so many newspapers, blogs and magazines by now that you’d think football was in the middle of crossroads city. We were at a crossroads when the A-League started. We were at a crossroads when crowds took their first dip. We were at a crossroads when the Knights, Fury, Rovers, and now Gold Coast failed. We’re at a crossroads as we wait for the success or failure of Western Sydney. There are so many apparent crossroads that I wonder if the A-League will ever actually find its way to the open highway.
And yet… it’s somewhat true. Soccer’s identity in this country has undergone a massive rebrand since the days of the NSL; a rebrand that was universally recognised as necessary. As with any large scale reconstruction work, it does take time for the dust to settle; we could not expect the A-League to simply burst out of the blocks and be embraced by existing football clubs, new football fans, the wider footballing community, and the general public. The traction that it has managed to achieve then is a great success, and should be rightly celebrated. The initial work done by John O’Neill and Frank Lowy – although not entirely mistake free - has laid the foundations for a viable competition. The work that has been done since then by Lowy and his new cohorts Ben Buckley and Lyall Gorman – well, that’s open for a bit more debate. Let’s not delve into the small matter of whether the structure of the FFA and A-League meets the recommendations of the Crawford Report, either.
One thing that I’d love to know though is the overarching vision of what association football wants to be in Australia. We know that at present we’re happy with a single tier national league system, with no promotion or relegation, and the FFA does not foresee any further expansion for a few years at least. That’s fair enough. But what I would like to have is a clear indication of where we see ourselves ending up. In the MLS for example, America has a very – well, American way of doing things. It is a franchise-based competition with tight centralised control, no promotion and relegation, all-star games, and a draft system; and that’s fine. It suits the American psyche and it fits with the way they run their other sporting leagues. In Europe, we see a much more traditional model of football – several divisions, promotion and relegation, football academies, and playoffs only as a last-ditch way of going up (or down) the league system. These are two completely different models for administering soccer, and yet both have proven to be a success in their own way.
Where to then for Australia? Well, to be honest we don’t really fit into either model just yet, which means that we either try to forge our own (perhaps with no real idea of what we want, and all the risks that striking out on your own brings) or we have work to do to adjust to one or the other. It’s all well and good to say that it is too early in the A-League’s history to be making these big strides – but then again, surely there should be an idea at the very top of where this league is going? In this respect then, perhaps it is fair to say that we are ‘at the crossroads’ as we work out where we fit in the world of football. Indeed, you could say much the same thing about where we fit into Asia; I wrote some time ago about the need for the FFA to break bread with the AFC and work out which of the many regional bodies we belong to. Are we to be a South East Asian Football Federation team? Or would East Asia, with the powers of China, Japan, and Korea, be a much better home? Again, there are decisions to be made here (and not just by us) which will impact the future direction of the sport not just in this country, but in the region as a whole.
There are other difficulties to be overcome, too – the game stands at the edge of the railway crossing that is the ownership and administration debate (yes, I too can extend overused metaphors). We’ve already seen the fatalities caused by the derailment of the Clive Palmer Ore train, not to mention the near-misses experienced by passengers on the regular Hunter Valley express service. Now that the governing body has at last recognised the issues in this area, rather than try to dismiss them as insignificant teething problems, we have the chance for a joint FFA/club owner working group to try and sort this debate out in a more permanent, civilised way. This harks back to my previous point about needing a vision for the game, and communicating that to stakeholders all the way from Tony Sage and Ben Buckley down to ECU Joondalup’s Under 13s and the Stirling Panthers masters’ reserves team.
Of course, we cannot talk about football being at this proverbial crossroads without mentioning the power balance (or imbalance) between the perceived ‘old’ and ‘new’ clubs and communities. One of my greatest regrets about the A-League is the fact that to begin with we not only passed over the old sides (for reasons both factual and fanciful) but seemed to actively deny that they or the previous top level competition ever existed. Surely this attitude could only create problems and resentment amongst existing passionate football fans? Now, with a Sydney side that arguably does not pull its weight in terms of numbers, and the emergence of a new A-League team in this supposed football ‘heartland’ full of potential supporters, surely one way to entice former fans back to the sport would be to extend an olive branch of some kind?
Before I’m savaged by people saying that NSL clubs should never be brought into the A-League, that’s not what I’m proposing – rather, I would like to see the FFA’s focus shift to the game as a whole, not just the A-League, when it talks about the successes of football in this country. Do they have, for example, a hall of fame which talks about the most successful Australian clubs or teams of all time – not just of the last seven or eight years? Could we not have local cup competitions that involved some big ‘old’ names like South Melbourne and the Knights, taking on teams like Victory and Heart in pre-season fixtures? Is it not possible for the FFA’s website to have some sort of ‘history’ section that documents not just national league titles but football as a whole since it was first demonstrated in the 1880s? (Something I picked up from the excellent One Fantastic Goal by Trevor Thompson and the NSW Migration Heritage website)
The most obvious step to be taken here is the introduction of a rumoured FFA cup, which was supposed to fill the gap that the Mirabella Cup tried to fix (in Victoria at least). Here is an opportunity to reach out to all existing clubs and give them a chance to participate, in some form, in a national competition once more. If they don’t want to be part of it, that’s their choice – but there should be no excluding of them, nor persecution or media assassination of their character, before they’ve had a chance to make that decision for themselves. If the FFA Cup went ahead to only ‘FFA approved clubs’ or ‘demonstrably broad-based clubs’ (read: no horrible ethnic undertones in the club’s name or colours) then football will simply again be creating more division rather than healing old wounds. Once in the competition, if their fans, staff, or players bring the game into disrepute they should be punished – just as Melbourne Victory or Perth Glory’s fans should be punished for doing the same thing. (And just on that, who will the FFA fine for that flare that was let off during an FFA-run finals game in Perth? Normally they’d fine clubs, but funnily enough no flares were spotted at Glory-run games at nib all year…) We should be moving to a system of equal footing, not the current world of ‘us’ and ‘them’. At the end of the day, I see this as needing to happen simply so that we can make the ‘We Are Football’ claim a reality, instead of just marketing spin. If we are football, surely they can be football too? Otherwise, we’ll have lots of different ‘footballs’ operating within Australia, and surely that can’t be good for anyone.
The concept of the Australian Premier Leagues, first broken by a fellow columnist on this very site, could be another way of addressing this problem. On one hand, it could be a simple rebranding of the country’s state leagues – but on another, it could signal the start of much better relations and communication between the national and state footballing bodies. The opportunity to somehow tie the competitions closer together, be it through an FFA cup or an eventual second division below the A-League, allows us to entertain thoughts of a more unified front for the sport in this country. There will of course be problems – personalities and politics have sadly always dogged the game in Australia – but at the same time, we can’t make any progress if the various parties refuse to even participate in talks on the matter. As the Nathan Tinkler saga showed, both sides need to be prepared to make concessions if they really care about the good of the game.
So, as much as we may tire of hearing it, it is probably fair to say that the game is at a crossroads here in Australia, perhaps moreso than at any time in recent history. Sure, the initial jump to the A-League was fraught with unknowns and danger, but the difference is now the league has enough of a platform behind it to start making some of the bigger decisions described above. While the initial hype around ‘new football’ has died down somewhat, we are now entering into perhaps an even more exciting phase for the sport – one in which some of these crossroads may finally be negotiated, with some of them tantalisingly within reach.
Surely now, after a season dogged by controversy and confusion, the game’s leaders must show their vision for the future and begin to make the big calls that can take us towards it. We’ve all heard the statements about wanting a brighter future for football, about unifying the country behind it, and about the people in power being the best fit for the job – the next twelve months should be all about backing that talk up with action. Sure, we’re still at the crossroads – but surely now it’s time to make that turn and accelerate in the correct direction.