Football in Australia operates on a variety of levels, at a professional playing level Australia exports footballers and coaches to most countries in the world. Culturally football in Australia floats between mass marketed campaigns of Tim Cahill to the socially intimidating awkward conversation with the publican – “Sockah? What channel is the sockah usually on?”. At a cultural playing level, i.e. simply amateur players, Australian football is an enigma, it is incredibly multicultural and diverse, however how the game is run in areas of Australia dramatically changes the social aspect of the sport.
Australian football at a professional level is an anomaly amongst many countries, according to 2007 report by the Institute of International Integration Studies, Australia is in the top 10 for exporting players. That is, along with Cote d’Ivoire, Brazil, Argentina and Croatia, we export per percentage the most footballers in the world. It is no accident that SBS refers to it as the “world game”, Australian football is more akin to nations like Brazil – we have a strong domestic league, however it is our exported players where we rely to produce strong national teams.
The highest profile player Australia has at the moment is Mile Jedinak, closely followed by James Holland, Mat Ryan and Rhys Williams. Three of these players played in the A-League, which adds backing to the argument that the A League is a league to create talented players. Live animal exports is a contentious issue running though out most of the states, however it is the live football player exports which we can all reach a unanimous agreement on – grass feed them here, and then send them off for a later profit to the national team.
The A-League at a professional level is becoming increasingly professional, with most players on par with English 2nd to the 3rd tier players. Australia, unlike most countries, benefits from a high living standard and rich migrant history. Therefore Australia can benefit from overseas training and advice, whilst also implementing the most multicultural style of any country. The technical director is dutch, the National team coach was born in Greece and the Captain is of Croatian descent. At a technical level we have adept resources to produce quality players, with the benefit of a range of styles and tactics. This is crucial to our future world cup chances, as many players become unstuck when playing a foreign opponent as they are pigeoned holed into an “English”, “Brazilain” or “dutch” game. No style is perfect and slowly most countries are becoming aware of this, and as such, a pragmatic, multicultural approach will develop future Australian players.
The A-League itself now moves into the new phase, what I like to call “80’s AFL Phase”, in which, the game can either stagnate, or become a juggernaut of crowds rivalling the Bundesliga and illegal player doping. More or less. The introduction of the FFA Cup and a reconnection with ex-NSL clubs will help the re-unification of football. Football fans are roughly split into three categories; A League supporters, sole European supporters and NSL supporters, with for the most part all supporting the socceroos when not playing an asian country. The next ziggurat step on the pyramid scheme that David Gallop is building is connecting to the European supporters. European based supporters or “Eurosnobs” as they are colloquially known as, have staunch reasons to support 11 v 11 guys chasing a ball at 2am on a Sunday morning, rather 7pm on a Friday night. Many are migrants, or more specifically of migrant heritage and have English, Italian etc (grand) parents. Others, grew up on the FIFA franchise, and get most of the knowledge from the EA game, and ask arrogantly (without a hint of sarcasm) “Why would I support a 1 and half star team when I can support a 5 star team?”. However the one foolproof scheme that cuts the Achilles heal of all Euro supporters running away from the A League is that going to a match of ‘their’ team is incredibly expensive.
*Enter David Gallop with a silk tie and designer glasses*.
Bringing teams such as Liverpool, Manchester City, Juventus, Celtic, Fulham and Manchester United to play A League opposition, creates the trojan horse for the euro-supporters to accidentally enter. Since 2005, the A League has slowly recreated the nostalgic football empire that may or may not of existed prior to 1995.
Moving on, football in Australia operates quite differently on a cultural level, it has cracked the ‘mainstream’ in terms of exposure, crowd sizes and and A League based Socceroos. However Australia is a nation of people whom seldom change over night. An example is this from the Sydney Morning Herald in 2005,
Q: “What’s the difference between a football World Cup qualifier and the Academy Awards?
A: One is a group of pretty people putting on extraordinary acting performances in front of a camera in the hope of winning a little gold statue; the other is a film awards ceremony.”
The article by Peter Fitzsimons was tongue-cheek, he later joked about the Wallabies, but the reason the joke exists (he didn’t create the joke) is as consequence of the mentality of Australia at the time. Australians who did not grow up watching Armenian news waiting for the SBS replays are still relatively hostile to A League, and the ignorance is still present.
A quick poll of 10 randoms in my home town of Wagga Wagga, asking the simple question “Which A-League team has the largest support?” found two answers, 9 for the Western Sydney Wanders, 1 for the Melbourne Victory. Western Sydney have the 4th largest support, behind Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC and Brisbane Roar. Yes, this poll is far from scientific, but it gives even a modest indication that Australians love an easily marketable story, sorry “underdogs”. Similar to the 2006 World Cup, the sockah bandwagon is built on headlines, not the football institutions.
The old favourite of supporting the A-League, which until recently was completely on Foxtel, is that the only place you can watch the games is in a pub. Our drinking culture notwithstanding, the publican is a great barometer of Australian attitudes. If you’re lucky to live in a city, most sports pubs will show the A League, however when Foxtel screens are at a premium, it usually has to be requested. I’ve seen golf, AFL & NRL replays and 100+ ranked tennis players playing ATP tournaments whilst waiting for the A League. This is despite the A League having a higher average crowds than both the Super Rugby and NRL. What we can draw from this is that, Australia is embracing football, but it still hasn’t cracked the mainstream. The NRL TV contract was worth a lot more than the A League tv contract, yet crowed attendances would point to them being similar. This is because A League fans are, well, fans. NRL benefits from having ‘casual’ fans that grew on nostalgic hills of Redfern or Newtown, the A League is only now approaching “Oh I don’t mind the Mariners” status. A League fans are more likely to attend games than NRL fans, for reasons yet identified.
The other aspect of football in Australia’s culture is it’s youth participation rates. Football, or more appropriately “soccer” at this level is this, is Australia’s most participated sport. All well and good, let’s go home and argue vehemently at Craig Foster. The problem is that many of the kids play it as an exercise in team work, and later leave sport altogether or join Rugby or AFL. The problem is that there is no direct link between the A League and children sport. It’s a difficult obstacle for the A League to trip, I mean climb over. What needs to happen is that the clubs need to split much like senators in parliament, proportional representation. It can lead to ‘catchment pools’ but that shouldn’t be the aim. The A League needs to inspire children like Cyril Rioli and Brett Morris. The A League clubs need to connect with amateur clubs, to this end, Melbourne Heart, Adelaide and the Central Coast are actively seeking to be apart of their local communities football sphere. Adelaide and Heart held coaching sessions lead by John van’t Schip and Josep Gombau, and both were successful.
Amateur football is desperate for professional advice, and this is an example of achieving a mutual relationship.
The NRL and AFL are leaders in Australian society in general in terms of reconciliation, 10% of AFL players have aboriginal heritage, since the 1980s the Queensland Origin team has had a roster with at least 16% Aboriginal players. However the A League has 5 (according to my research) aboriginal players on their rosters. That comes to about 2.3% of the 9 Australian A League club rosters. However according to the bureau of statistics 10% of aboriginal males player football, while AFL and NRL are both at around 17%. The A League must ask why this doesn’t translate to professional players. Without intentional racial profiling, the aboriginal population do adore sport, and once the A League can tap into a population desperate for equality, Australian football will begin to become Australias’ 2nd largest support.
Australian football, similar to the mining boom, has almost completed it’s construction phase, areas such as youth and aboriginal pathways need to be improved, however for the most part Australian football is ready to enter the mainstream in Australia and the world football proverbial stage. Producing players of high quality is a gradual process, and Australia has created structures to create quality players with more regularity. Football is about to enter mainstream of Australia as the second largest football code, fans need to be patient as the next few years will begin to look like football is plating. Much like mining in Western Australia, the construction phase is reaching an end, football has the structures in place to succeed in Australia.
Words by Patrick Heargreaves.