The Oceanic nation has a long history in the sport and many people who love to play it. Yet it seems more than happy to kick that history in the teeth and shove those people into the sidelines if it means keeping out all the dangerous elements that come with it…
I have written many times about the issues that plague Australian football. Both at the newspaper that I worked for during a short time period and in my own separate blog, this is a topic that I have analyzed extensively because I have a passion for the sport and to see it reduced to such a state while it has so much potential here in Australia really pains me.
There’s a rumor going on these last few years that “Aussies don’t go to football games”, but that’s not the case. It’s the other way around actually. It’s not that the people don’t want to go to the games. It’s the sport that isn’t being provided to the people! Aussies love football! They are a nation that enjoy a big event and if the weather’s good enough, they are move than willing to head out and actively support their club. The only proof you need of that is the full capacity stadiums at the A-League final or any single one of the AFL games.
Australia is a nation that was built and is sustained by many different cultures: some from Europe, some from Latin America, some from Africa. So, for all those people, football is a common language, a method of communication. Even till today, one of the first things people might ask one another is which team they support.
Back when they first migrated to Australia, many of those newcomers needed a form of entertainment, so a short time after they created their own settlements, they went on to establish small football clubs where they could gather and kick around the ball every now and again. Eventually, they would meet up with other teams that were based on a different ethnic background and play friendly matches.
However the number of those teams grew so large that it was enough to fill an entire league, or even two! And so it was decided that they would indeed go on to create what came to be known as the National Soccer League (NSL), the first ever professional football competition in Australia. Some of the teams to emerge from that competition, such as South Melbourne, Sydney Olympic and the Marconi Stallions were among the most successful in the entire Asian region, while others, like Melbourne Croatia, became the base from which many great players would kick-off their careers (Marc Viduka, Josip Simunic, etc).
But along with those clubs came their highly passionate supporter base. Since some — if not most — of these clubs had a South-East European background, with a focus on the Balkan region in which tensions between nations are always high, it’s reasonable to see why it didn’t really take much for a small spark to become a raging fire in the stands during the games.
If a Serbian team would play a Croatian team or a Greek team were up against a North Macedonian side, then a strong police force was required at those games. Especially at high capacity venues such as the Albert Park or the Knights Stadium.
This became an ongoing issue for the Australian Police Force, who after several discussions with the Football Federation of Australia and a number of financially-able people from within the business world, decided to go straight at the root of the problem and put an abrupt end to the NSL. What came in its place was a Frankenstein’s monster that seemed destined to fail from the start: the A-League.
The A-League is a competition in the format of all successful sport tournaments in Australia, such as the AFL or the Rugby League, comprised of entirely new teams and a few clubs that have no ethnic background — with the exception perhaps of the Brisbane Roar, who are Dutch, so they can do no wrong. It was built on the success of the Socceroos, the Australian national men’s team, who had made it to the round of 16 at the World Cup of 2006 in Germany, in order to capitalize on the sport’s popularity and make the NSL a distant memory.
But the brains behind this inspiration who attempted to feed football to the masses forgot a few very important things:
- Football is based on its history and no one is going to connect to a team that stands for nothing. You cannot create a team from scratch, give them a random name like “Southwest Unity” and expect them to sell 5,000 season tickets. People need something they can feel a connection with, be it national, religious or even family reasons. There also need to be rivalries with other teams and yes, that may at times lead to the occasional troubles in the stands. Fans need to have a level of freedom to express themselves.
- There are no more high-level Australian players. With the reduction of the number of teams playing at high level from a staggering 42 that played in the NSL to a disappointing 11 (and now 12) that were given access to the highly exclusive A-League, there was no longer any way to promote local talent. As if that wasn’t enough, the former NSL teams have been driven to poverty and are no longer able to financially support their players, which in turn means that they’re forced to abandon football and look elsewhere for a living. All this in Australia, mind you.
- Teams have no exclusive grounds. In order for a fan to feel some sort of connection to a team, it needs to have its own home turf, its own stadium, a place where the opponent will go and feel the pressure. No A-League team has that — or at least very few do — and most of them are forced to dance around the AFL’s schedules, jumping from pitch to pitch and isolated in small, “vintage” venues as they’re characteristically called by those who still try to do their best to promote the sport while at the same time making sure that it doesn’t raise its head up too high above the ground.
While this all is going on and the Australian national team has been decimated, leaving the over 2 million people actively participating in football on a daily basis and the parents who pay unbelievably high fees with nowhere to go, there’s a toxic culture that surrounds the field of football.
Constant conversations about a “national second division” have been going on for over a decade now, as a way of hanging the bait over the head of the former NSL clubs. At the same time there is a team of journalists who are in league with one another to sugarcoat all that goes on within the A-League.
Meanwhile, the A-League heads were recently able to successfully break themselves away from the Football Federation of Australia, thus becoming a separate entity in charge of its own business. No one else has any say in regards to how the highest level of Australian football is going to be run from here on out, apart from twelve corporate owners who attempt to emulate the success of the AFL.
What they fail to understand however is that they shouldn’t be looking at the success of their fellow Australian sports, but rather what the other football leagues around the world, and more specifically in Europe are doing in order to get an example. And many times here in Australia there’s a lot of focus on the Premier League, so why don’t we choose to be a bit more like them?
The Premier League doesn’t have senseless finals (honestly, it’s hard to make sense of them!) nor do they kick teams out of their own league. In England, they sat down and they dealt with their hooligan issue. Although it meant that clubs suffered a huge financial loss for a few seasons, with their teams being knocked out of all European tournaments, they didn’t give up until they put things in their place.
Why is it so illogical for Australia to do the same? Reconnect ALL clubs, keep dangerous elements outside the stands and help young players that want to play the sport reach the highest level, not just in the nation, but the entire world. That way they’ll help promote the country not just as football players, but as ambassadors of Australia since today being a popular icon is also about the image you put out there. There’s no greater example of this than Arsenal goalkeeper Mat Ryan.
The sport needs this. The country needs this. Someone has to come in and put a stop to this senseless waste of potential that has been going on for years now. We can do so much good! It’s as if we have a pile of gold in our hands and we’re saying “it’s okay, I’ll make do with what’s in my bank account…” It’s madness!
Australian football needs to breathe. Australian football needs to return to its roots. Australian football needs to reconnect with its youth. Australian football needs to become known to the world once again. And it needs to happen NOW!
No more wasting time…