A-League flavour could rejuvenate the Socceroos brand
Archie Thompson celebrates the winning goal with Tim Cahill during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifier match between Iraq and Australia in Doha, Qatar. (AP Photo/Osama Faisal)
At last Wednesday’s FFA Fans Forum in Western Sydney there was plenty of discussion about the Socceroos. To put it simply, not all of the feedback was positive.
Apparently, the sentiment at the Melbourne forum was the same. For football fans in this country, the growing frustration with the national team has become louder as 2006 fades into memory.
As I wrote last week, the Socceroos became instant darlings of Australian sport when they reached the World Cup in Germany. They quickly became a ‘brand’ upon which the game as a whole benefited.
But, as was suggested at the Fans Forum, the Socceroos now play second fiddle in the hearts and minds of the thousands of A-League fans around the country. Increasingly, football fans are prioritising the interests and their affection of their local A-League club over the national team.
And while it’s commonplace for football fans around the world to support their local side ahead of their national side, it’s certainly an unusual phenomenon in such a young league. Still, it’s also a healthy development. In the long term, a strongly supported national league can only be good for the Socceroos.
There are many reasons put forward for fans’ disenchantment with the national side. We are in the middle of a tough World Cup qualifying campaign through Asia, which has meant a shortage of high-profile fixtures. There is also a suggestion that the Socceroos don’t do enough to connect with the fans.
But the main objection seems to be about the way the national team plays. Our poor showing in South Africa under the dour Dutchman Pim Verbeek frustrated fans of all persuasions.
Remember Craig Foster’s “it’s not about Verbeek” outburst after the hiding to Germany? Vintage stuff.
Unfortunately, after a promising start to his tenure, Holger Osiek has become an increasingly conservative manager. Australians don’t expect tiki-taka, but they do expect their national team to attack, no matter the opposition.
As one fan commented last Wednesday night, “I don’t care if we lose four-nil, but we’ve got to have a crack.”
Les Murray made a similar point in his 2006 autobiography By The Balls “Australians hate to lose, and more than that, they hate to lose by not having a go.”
But while Guus Hiddink understood and encouraged this mentality, it seems Verbeek and Osiek are more willing to stack their defence and play on the counter.
It was always going to be a tall order for whoever replaced Hiddink. The Dutchman raised our expectations for the Socceroos to unprecedented levels. There was bound to be a come-down after that dizzying high.
The FFA deserve some criticism for not heeding Hiddink’s parting advice. He warned that regeneration was essential as our senior players were on our last legs. Seven years later, that job is still only half-finished, and it’s starting to show.
Still, stylistic objections aside, our Socceroo heroes are increasingly being replaced by our A-League stars.
As Craig Foster put it, “the A-League has actually taken over the Socceroos as the main point of reference as fans increasingly develop intense emotional ties to their club.”
In this regard, connecting the A-League more closely to the Socceroos may be the best way forward.
The trouble is, the national side is still largely made up of overseas players, with only a sprinkling of home-based hopefuls thrown in.
It’s great to see A-League alumni like Robbie Kruse, Alex Brosque and Matt McKay cement their spots in the starting eleven. It may be the future of the Socceroos brand as we move forward.
Previously, we idolised our overseas stars to the detriment of Australian-based players.
The club versus country debate was about getting the big boys in the European leagues to play all the international fixtures, both as a selling point for the game and because they were the best players available.
Michael Lynch at The Age suggests that Australia’s emerging players haven’t reached the heights of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’, leading to a “lack of excitement” among fans.
While it is certainly true that our young players have yet to establish themselves in the big leagues of Europe, is this really such a problem?
As parochialism increasingly becomes a part of the culture of the A-League, you would imagine that having Melbourne Heart’s Eli Babalj leading the line, or the Victory’s Mark Milligan pulling the strings in the Socceroos midfield would be a popular move.
Dedicated football fans watch these players week in week out. We engage with them in the stands and track their development with a keen interest.
The problem with this, however, is twofold. Firstly, European coaches have been reluctant to include A-League players. But when an A-League coach steps into the top job – be it Tony Popovic, Graham Arnold or Ange Postecoglou – you would expect this attitude to change.
Secondly, financial and career opportunities will mean that our best young talent will continue to head abroad. Still, if we were to prioritise A-League players for selection, it may prove a timely incentive for a few of those players to stay home.
If the likes of Mark Milligan, Eli Babalj, Trent Sainsbury and Aaron Mooy can break into the national team from their local club, they may not feel the need to chase big money moves to Asia, the Middle East and perhaps even Europe.
Imagine a Socceroos squad, coached by an Australian and filled with young A-League players and recent graduates. It would synchronise the domestic and the international game, and it would be a national team that fans could truly connect with.
Joe Gorman is a football journalist with a particular interest in sports history. After completing his thesis on football in Australia, Joe started with The Roar in October 2012. He tweets from @JoeGorman_89.
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