Some years ago I wrote a memoir of the Uruguay game in November 2005 – the night the Sleeping Giant awoke. So how’s the giant doing now?
When describing the night of 161105, I said towards the end:
“We’ve all seen it a thousand times as Johnny rips his shirt off and goes careering around the stadium, pursued by his ecstatic team mates and surrounded by wildly celebrating Australians pouring their love like petrol onto the flames of joy.
It was an awesome, magical, life-changing experience beyond the passion of saints. And you really had to be there.”
The emotion of that night and the months afterwards – the triumph and despair of Germany in 2006 – the creation of the A-League and the first years of its success – our entry into Asia with its regular and challenging football.
It really felt like the Giant had woken. It was still taking baby steps, sure, but we knew it would grow and start stamping about like it owned the place.
Certainly the other codes were worried. When Australia announced its (ill-fated) intention to bid for the 2022 World Cup, my publisher at the time was invited to a secret meeting of AFL thought leaders. They thought he was an AFL tragic because he’d published a couple of AFL books (as well as the delightful Mr Cleansheets), so didn’t know they had invited a football cat among the Aussie Rules pigeons.
The night was led by two very senior figures in the AFL game – both of them household names – and their message to the true believers was allegedly this: We must do everything we possibly can to stop Australia winning this bid. Everything! Because if sokkah gets the World Cup then our game is dead.
We all know how the AFL went out of its way to ruin our bid, not that we ever really had a chance in that dark FIFA forest. I sincerely doubt also that AFL would have died had we won, but there’s no doubt football would be a lot stronger. More kids would have chosen football (not that we can properly cope with all the kids we have now), and just imagine how the media interest would be ratcheting up across the front and back pages if we were now entering the final phases of preparation for Australia 22.
So how is the Giant doing in 2020?
I think we’ve taken some backward steps since 161105, but there are still reasons to be optimistic. Participation numbers continue to dwarf the other three codes combined – that’s our ace in the hole.
TV ratings and total attendances are down but that’s not just the fault of the product – we are in the middle of an epochal change in the way people consume content, and there has never been so much choice in how people can be entertained. It’s not just football battling for attention, but ultimately it’s the media (more than anything else) that pays for the product so, we’d better make sure the product is as good as it can be.
Personally, I think the quality of A-League football has never been higher. If you look at some of the basics like first touch, speed of ball movement, team shape and strategy, the emergence of good young Australian attacking players – every team has got players I enjoy watching. Expansion is starting to happen but promotion/relegation are what we truly need to take the game to a major new level. That’s going to take a while.
We’ve become a little complacent about the Socceroos. After 32 years in the wilderness, we now make the World Cup and Asian Cup every time, and won the Asian Cup in 2015. We expect success.
That’s fine, except that I shudder to think of the damage to the brand if we fail to make those tournaments. Every team in Asia is improving and where there used to be three or four difficult teams to face in qualification, there are now at least a dozen.
Mind you, the quality of players available for the Socceroos is definitely rising. After a few iffy years post the Golden Generation we’re seeing more Australians in good leagues – and there are a few good ’uns in the A-League also.
The challenge for the coach is to monitor form and progress of so many players across so many leagues, and bring them all together often enough to get used to each other. To that end, it is encouraging to hear the players talk about Arnie’s outstanding logistical and planning skills. That’s probably more important than football knowledge these days. (Well, as important…)
In the end, you’d have to say the Sleeping Giant is still asleep. He’s like an old friend who turned up late, got pissed and slept on the lounge. It’s time to get up and go to work but he’s ignoring our loud voices and hiding his face from the light.
Wake up Sleeping Giant! You’ve got responsibilities!
Do I have to come in there and drag you out of bed?
Adrian's books can be purchased at any good bookstore or through ebook alchemy. He will have a new novel out shortly.