It wasn’t so long ago, only 2012 in fact, that football fans were pulling their hair out about the length of the A-League off-season.
Almost six month between the end of Gold Coast’s final calamitous season and the arrival of Alessandro del Piero and the Western Sydney Wanderers, you could sense how anxious everyone was to get back into the swing of watching football.
Indeed, until the Wanderers and del Piero came along and created an almighty buzz ahead of season eight, A-League off-seasons were often defined by how many arguments broke out on Twitter out of sheer boredom and frustration.
Yes, of course there were diversions such the European Championships in 2012, or visits by the likes of Blackburn, AEK, Everton, Boca Juniors and Celtic in the few years before that, but they were generally isolated between massive bouts of nothing.
For a football nation growing thirstier by the season and euphoric after the success of A-League season 2012-13, there was a growing need for more.
In 2013 this started to change. While it was Holger Osieck still in charge and producing drab football, in June the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup in Brazil, with Josh Kennedy, aka Jesus, doing his best Christ the Redeemer impersonation.
The next month things really stepped up a notch when Manchester United and Liverpool FC spent a week in Sydney and Melbourne respectively, taking on the A-League All-Stars and Melbourne Victory in front of packed crowds at the Olympic Stadium and the MCG.
It wasn’t just the matches that were exciting, but the buzz that went with their week-long stays ahead of the games. The entire fortnight was a party, and as I wrote at the time, borrowing a line from David Gallop, football was becoming the cool kid at school.
The most recent off-season was the shortest yet.
Apart from the season’s end encroaching into May, it was Juventus’ turn to front up for the All-Stars game and while they didn’t spend an entire week and didn’t create quite the buzz of Manchester United or Liverpool leading up to the match, this was an outstanding contest in which Josep Gombau’s A-League boys matched it, until the genius of Paul Pogba broke the game up.
This came after a thrilling World Cup in June which featured an exciting, new-look Socceroos squad under Ange Postecoglou and some swashbuckling football from the likes of eventual champions Germany.
Throw in the inaugural FFA Cup, which created a huge buzz across suburban grounds (at least until they were deemed to be not up to standard) and took fans right into the A-League season proper, and there’s now little reason for fans to be anxious for action. It’s everywhere.
After the highly successful Asian Cup over the past month, and the Socceroos not only winning the trophy but getting Australians to fall in love with them again, the FFA appears to be ploughing ahead with its strategies.
Only this week we’ve seen the relaunch of its MiniRoos initiative to encourage more kids to play. Yesterday they announced that the upcoming Round 16 of the A-League would be the Play Football round, opening up registration for the upcoming season and hoping the Asian Cup will “supercharge” participation.
Gallop wasn’t shy in selling the message: “Our game is safe, simple and skilful for boys and girls. It’s also inclusive, accessible and multicultural – that’s why you’ll find football is a part of the daily life of more Australian households than any other mass participation sport.
“We have 1.96 million participants which makes football by far the most popular team sport in Australia.”
When the A-League season finishes the Socceroos will begin their 2018 World Cup qualifiers. Excitingly they appear set to go to places like Newcastle, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth, not before time. The Matildas will also go to Canada for the women’s World Cup.
In July we’ll see visits from five big-gun club sides across our four biggest states in the middle of the AFL and NRL seasons.
With Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma featuring in the International Champions Cup on July 18, 21 and 24, and Liverpool FC making a second trip in three years to take on Brisbane Roar on July 17 and Adelaide United on July 20, it’s set be be a mammoth fortnight of football in the media, with much of it attracting new viewers on free-to-air TV.
Throw in the yet-to-be-confirmed All Stars game against Arsenal and it’s a mega off-season. By then, of course, the FFA Cup will be back for version two. Then Tony Vidmar takes his Joeys to the Under 17s World Cup in Chile, before the A-League starts again.
Next year the Euros come around again. In 2017 the Socceroos will be at the Confederations Cup in Russia, then hopefully at the World Cup a year later.
It’s full steam ahead in what Gallop describes as the execution phase; heady times indeed.
But they are also times when we should reflect and ensure that the significant funds flowing in, be it from ticket sales or registrations, are invested wisely back into the development of the game and not just lining pockets.
While these big ticket matches certainly don’t come cheap, they fit the strategic ambitions of FFA by filling stadia and dominating the newspapers, TV and online media in the middle of the AFL and NRL seasons.
But if the governing body is to also fulfil important future initiatives, such as developing football infrastructure across clubs and associations, making the elite junior pathway more affordable and making coaching education more readily available, then it’s paramount that a good percentage of the funds filter back where they’re needed.
While it’s great to see the game snowball from year to year, and continue to attract respect and new followers, there is still so much that needs to be addressed from the structure of the A-League right down, so ensuring the finances get to areas that need it remains crucial.
Beyond that, the hope is that headquarter strategy isn’t only guided by the big ticket but by what’s right for the future of the game. Building clubs up below the A-League level so we can explore a second division and promotion and relegation is just one example.
Fostering an amicable relationship with Asia, as we’ve heard this week, isn’t something we’ve always done well. For example, not mandating one Asian player among the five foreigners was a miss this week, although it’s great to see clubs like the Wanderers, Melbourne City and Newcastle Jets take matters into their own hands.
Elsewhere there’s the funding of the Pararoos. Continuing to address the quality of playing, coaching and officiating. Connecting the top of the pyramid with the rest. The list goes on.
While it’s great to celebrate the outstanding success of the Asia Cup, the calendar filling up with big games, and more kids being attracted to the game, the FFA mustn’t lose sight of the importance of continuing to invest in football’s future, and this investment ought to remain under the spotlight.