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The Australian National Soccer League (NSL) kicked off in 1977 and by 1998 the league had gone through a 21-year roller coaster of football highs and lows.
The league itself had been a success in finally establishing a national football competition that raised the profile of the sport.
Football was also attracting interest from business, sponsors and major benefactors. Participation rates amongst junior players was steadily climbing to seriously start rivalling the other major sporting codes for the first time.
But apart from major league matches, such as playoff games, grand finals and championship deciders, the crowds over the length of the journey had not risen to the levels that gave it any sustained profitability.
Over the twenty one years various changes were introduced to the NSL including creating two separate conferences, introducing a play-off series and switching to a summer league, but the financial breakthrough was still not achieved.
During the nineties there was also a growing opinion from sponsors and benefactors and the new board of Soccer Australia, that the NSL would not become a mainstream competition because of the overt ethnic flavour of many of the clubs and the league itself.
Some of the NSL clubs were seen as introverted, self concerned with their own ethnicity and not welcoming to the general follower of Australian sports.
Ethnic flags and logos were banned and clubs were even asked to change their name to be more like American baseball or football clubs and forget their countries of origin.
The NSL’s cause was also being seriously wounded by a wolf pack of local newspapers who savaged the game at every opportunity with back page headlines and stories of “Ethnic Soccer Hooligan Violence”. So much so that mothers started to fear for their children’s safety if they went anywhere near a football match.
Football fans themselves started to wonder if these “sports reporters” had even attended the same NSL game, so dramatic were the newspaper reports of serious trouble.
So around that time we saw the gradual reformation of the NSL into a homogenised and sanitised non-ethnic NSL, with only fair dinkum Australian football clubs.
The NSL Club attendance roll started to look like this: South Melbourne Lakers, Carlton Blues, Football Kingz, Adelaide City Zebras, Sydney United Pumas, Marconi Stallions, Wollongong Wolves, Melbourne Knights, Perth Glory, UTS Olympic, Gippsland Falcons, Brisbane Strikers, Newcastle Breakers, Canberra Cosmos, Collingwood Warriors, Northern Spirit, Parramatta Power and the West Adelaide Sharks.
Another major change around this time was that clubs like Canberra Cosmos and Perth Glory moved to being full time professional football clubs with full time employees and professional players, as opposed to a lot of NSL clubs and players who were only semi-professional or even amateur in some ways, up to that time.
The 1997-98 season saw the South Melbourne Lakers top the league table with big spending newcomers Carlton Blues runners up at their first attempt. Carlton and South Melbourne met in the grand final at a packed Olympic Park in an all Melbourne NSL decider.
Ange Postecoglou’s side won their third NSL title 2-1 and first as a manager for Ange. The Carlton Blues team contained a young Marc Bresciano and Simon Colosimo.
Northern Spirit joined the league in 1998-99 and were an immediate hit with the fans of northern Sydney playing to packed stands and a record average attendance in their first season.
Sydney City Pumas topped the league table that year ahead of the South Melbourne Lakers, but newcomers Perth Glory and Northern Spirit made the top five and the NSL playoffs.
Perth Glory also attracted big crowds with 28,000 attending their Semi Final win over Marconi. However, Glory lost in the preliminary final to Sydney City. South Melbourne picked up their fourth NSL title with the Lakers 3-2 win in a great grand final at Olympic Park in front of a big crowd.
Wollongong Wolves won their first NSL title in 1999-2000 beating a gallant Perth Glory. The match was hailed as the greatest ever NSL grand final after a 3-3 finish in regular time and a penalty shootout win only after eighteen penalty kicks were taken. It was also a memorable game for the record NSL crowd of 43,242 in attendance.
Wollongong repeated their title victory in 2000-01, their second NSL crown in a row. This time beating South Melbourne at Parramatta Stadium in front of relatively disappointing crowd of 13,400 fans, given the Perth Glory semi final was watched by 31,710.
The Sydney Olympic Sharks surprised everyone in 2001-02 winning their second NSL title by beating runaway league leaders Perth Glory one nil in front of 42,735 fans.
Glory finally won the NSL title they richly deserved in 2002-03 extracting their revenge on the Olympic sharks in from of 38,211 fans. Jamie Harnwell and Damien Mori put two goals past Clint Bolton to win two nil.
Glory repeated that effort in 2003-04 beating Parramatta Power 1-0 on the 4/4/2004 in front of 9,700 football fans. That was it, the last game of the NSL and the end of the competition.
So why did the NSL fail?
1. Apart from the high profile games, the NSL and its clubs were never able to attract the large enough fan base to the games to produce enough return on their investment. Large investors, benefactors and sponsors finally ran out of patience and ended their involvement to cut their losses.
2. High profile Australian players started to leave the NSL in larger numbers, due the ever growing overseas football markets and to take up more enticing offers from overseas leagues. Up to 200 of Australia’s best footballers had left the NSL to go overseas to seek their football fortune.
3. Soccer Australia was judged to have been poor administrators of the NSL. The lack of direction and leadership at times did not help the competition, particularly in its declining years.
4. There were a number of controversies and indecisions and finally when Soccer Australia decided to abandon the ethnic flavour of the NSL, it tended to alienate some of the larger and more traditional ethnic clubs, who started pulling in opposite directions.
5. The Australian press were not totally supportive of the NSL and probably sold more papers when they ran negative stories about the NSL, particularly the ethnic soccer violence angle.
6. There was not a proper process to assess the clubs’ financial and structural viability when they applied to join the NSL and so there was a high turnover of NSL clubs.
7. Australia is a very complex and very competitive sporting market with limited fan bases and financial returns. The other competitions were well entrenched and financially more stable.
8. The Australasian competition with teams from Perth to New Zealand had very large operating and travel expenses and required large ticket and merchandising sales to remain profitable in the long run.
The National Soccer League (NSL) kicked off in 1977 with so much promise, thirty four years ago this month. Despite all its misgivings, problems and financial woes it ran for twenty eight years, creating a historical and lasting legacy for the many football fans of this country.
How will you remeber the NSL?