This morning, the Central Coast Mariners finally arrive in Sydney after a whirlwind midweek trip to Hiroshima. Tomorrow, they play for their season. For anyone who has experienced the wonder of jet lag, it’s hard not to feel for them.
Not only are they heartbroken after a late goal ended their AFC Champions League campaign on Wednesday night, they’re knackered. Drained. According to owner Mike Charlesworth, it took them two flights and a total of 16 hours to get home.
And in just 24 hours, they have to front up against an in-form, confident Western Sydney Wanderers side for a spot in the A-League grand final. Ouch.
Mind you, the Wanderers had continental commitments themselves. But they were at home and have an extra day on the Coasties, which means the past week has been a lot less stressful.
“What they’ve done devalues the A-League in many ways and that is such a shame,” Charlesworth said. “I just think it’s so disappointing that we’ve been left in this situation. We’re clearly at a distinct disadvantage for the semi-final.”
He has a point – and his argument is backed up by science. Outspoken Dutch coach Raymond Verheijen is calling on football associations and competitions to introduce mandatory rest periods of at least three days between matches after conducting his own research into the matter.
“The results are clear,” says Verheijen. “On the basis of this evidence, I don’t see how the game’s authorities can continue to ask teams to play twice in three days. It is simply not fair play.”
Of course, that three-day break doesn’t always happen, as Central Coast can attest. But factor in the long-haul travel across Asia’s wide expanses and it only intensifies the reasons why longer gaps between fixtures are needed.
The PFA this week criticised the FFA for not pushing hard enough against the game’s broadcast paymasters to comply with Verheijen’s recommendations.
A-League head Damien de Bohun said it was impossible to move the Mariners-Wanderers game to Sunday, but in reality, it wasn’t. FFA just didn’t want to.
Parramatta Stadium will be free on Sunday. But FFA prefers having the two semi-finals played on separate days, because it equates to better ratings. And since Suncorp Stadium isn’t free on Saturday to host the other game, Central Coast’s fate was unfortunately sealed.
Looking at the FFA’s track record, this sort of outcome shouldn’t come as a surprise. The governing body has a history of shirking any option that could result to a dent to the game’s bottom line or make Fox Sports even remotely unhappy. The cost, on occasion, is integrity.
To use another recent example, the final round of the A-League season should mean every game kicks off at the exact same time, as is standard everywhere else in the world.
Instead the starts are staggered, giving the lucky teams who are drawn to play later on the weekend a distinct advantage.
Why? “Because we’re in a competitive environment, we need to continue to play games in timeslots where we get maximum exposure,” FFA chief David Gallop said when the debate enjoyed its annual airing last month.
Again, TV cash wins out over substance. Just like it did with the structure of the top six. That more than half the competition can make the finals is silly enough. But on Sunday, if runaway premiers Brisbane Roar lose, their season is over. One loss, that’s it. No double chance.
Why? Because it’s easier to win eyeballs with a “sudden death” finals series, even if Australia’s long-held concept of finals fairness is the sacrificial lamb.
We accept these compromises because that’s the way it has to be for now. The A-League is nearly 10 years old, but it’s not yet ingrained in the country’s sporting psyche quite enough to be able to just forget about the metrics of the code wars and plough on. In the meantime, all the little alterations add up.
The FFA is too often guilty of taking its eye off what is truly important – the essence of sport, and the obligation to provide an even playing field. That’s stuff you can’t buy.
What the Mariners have gone through this week, no other team should have to endure ever again. The game shouldn’t accept it.
Sometimes you’ve just got to take the hit.
If it means you have to cop a beating in the ratings one week and schedule two matches for the same day, then that’s what has to happen. It’s much better than selling out.