Watching Adelaide United host the Brisbane Roar on Sunday, it struck me how lovely Coopers Stadium looks.
A proper football stadium, with seats pushed up to the pitch margins, an azure sky dazzled overhead, and a snooker table pitch sat lusciously below.
The stands are clad in Adelaide United colours, the architecture allows a pleasant breeze to wander through the rows, with crowning flags and neighbouring trees flipping and swaying cheerfully.
The beers flow ice-cold into cups, and bead with a healthy sweat in the sun, quenching all those with a thirst, even if Coopers’ politics sit defiantly somewhere in the middle of the previous century.
An image of Australian football emerges, a paradise in the minds of those whose romance of the sport isn’t intrinsically tied-up in the frigid sleet, rubbing hands and breath vapour more commonly seen in the game’s mother country.
As an image, however, is how this scene is best enjoyed. Because what you can’t see on the television screens is that, in Adelaide during that game, it was 34 degrees Celsius, forcing the inclusion of a first-half drinks break, and making sitting anywhere on the sunny side of the stadium an almost masochistic exercise.
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When matches kick off at 5pm in the warm months, the eastern stand stares directly into the sun as it makes its lazy descent past the horizon. Having – as Adelaide residents have so often this summer – endured a blazing day, the prospect of baking in the final few hours of sunlight can’t be all that enticing.
This has been a dismal season for Adelaide, and so the fact that their average attendance is down by about 4000 from their double-winning campaign last term is not a huge surprise. But it isn’t helped by afternoon kick-offs in oppressive heat either.
On February 10, a touch over 6000 people watched Adelaide lose 5-0 to Perth, in a match that was postponed by an hour due to the temperature. It was 40 degrees that day, the third over-40 scorcher in a row. On January 29, at 4:30 pm, 8313 watched Adelaide draw 2-2 with the Phoenix, on a day that acted as a grand crescendo, 39 degrees, the top note of a torturous series of six days where the heat steadily rose from the low 20s to the high 30s.
The two home games before that draw with Wellington had both cracked just over 10,000 punters, against the glamour pair of Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory. For both of those games, on a Thursday and a Saturday respectively, the heat peaked at 37 and 40 degrees.
As soon as Reds fans realised that their team was not going to repeat the glories of last season – about four rounds into the campaign – they responded by staying away, not that that’s really a good reason not to support your team. But the fact that heat records tumbled throughout most of the eastern and southern states this season has also wilted the enthusiasm.
This is not something, if all good climate science is to be believed – which it should be – that will become less common in the future; the world is getting hotter, and weather is becoming more erratic. So what’s stopping the A-League from becoming a winter league?
Well, firstly, the issue of stadium availability rears its head. This point in the season – as rugby league and union teams all roll up, clicking their tongues expectantly, then tearing up the pitches and leaving – makes all of the A-League keenly aware of how difficult it is for football to co-exist with the the other codes in their seasons. There aren’t enough suitable venues to avoid scheduling clashes.
A summer season also puts the A-League slightly more in sync with the European leagues, although how useful that is is debatable, when it puts us out of whack with the Chinese, Japanese and Korean leagues. Of the current 23-man Socceroos squad, 13 play in Europe, the rest play in Asia, the Middle East or Australia.
Extreme heat is a danger to players and spectators, and we’ve seen clubs make complaints about sweltering conditions multiple times this season. Warm evening matches are pleasant in Melbourne or Wellington but they can be an active repellent in Brisbane or Adelaide.
This entire discussion huffs and puffs beneath – unlike the weekend’s match – a cloud of pointlessness. The switch to a summer season was made with firm intentions, and the venue availability issue alone makes it extremely unlikely a switch back to Winter will occur.
The fact that Adelaide have to attract crowds for more than two-thirds of the season in spite of temperatures that compel people to venture outside only with the intention of purchasing an air conditioner, is a niche problem. Still, projecting forward into the long-term, rising heat and extreme weather will only become more common.
As it happened, the ending of the match against Brisbane was one of the more astonishing this season. The match played into the 100th minute, and Sergio Cirio scored a penalty against makeshift goalkeeper Thomas Kristensen, after Michael Theo was awarded a straight red card for throwing an elbow in the final minute of added time.
Cirio’s penalty won the match for the Reds, and the 7197 people that had attended were given a raucous finale.
Summer soccer can appear so comfortable from a distance, or when the thermometer reading is mild. But when attendance issues prevail around the league generally, and the sun beats down mercilessly, football and summer can seem such strange bedfellows.