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Embarrassment about Australian football pitches only tells half the story

Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou has seen the transformation of football in Australia. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Roar Guru
5th June, 2016
13

Following Australia’s 1-0 win against Greece at Sydney’s ANZ stadium, coach Ange Postecoglou again criticised the standard of pitches serving as Australian venues for international competition.

While noting “we keep talking about being the sporting nation and sporting capital of the world,” he stressed the need to “understand our game needs a good surface.”

I am also disappointed. For those of us viewing overseas football matches on television, most field surfaces outside Australia do indeed look like carpet with their lush green colour, often made more impressive by attractive chequered patterns.

But wait a minute. Australian football leaders choose to use Australia’s large stadiums that are also utilised by other codes, stadiums that would probably not exist if public funding had not been allocated on the basis that they prove cost effective through widespread use.
In other words, given that football is less popular than AFL and rugby league, football would have less capacity to attract international teams without adequate world class stadiums that attract the necessary crowds.

The simple truth is that Australian governments, perhaps already overly committed through their funding of stadium in these difficult budgetary times, are hardly in a position to fund stadiums that allow sparse use to ensure immaculate playing fields.

While we do need to ensure our playing fields are in the best possible order, an aspect our world-class curators may already consider, the simple reality is that Australia is unique given the various football codes that play at our major sporting venues.

Most large world class stadiums throughout the world, including those used by the major football leagues of Germany, England, Spain and Italy, rarely host more than one match per week.

For example, typical of all large British stadiums (all codes), Arsenal played just 27 matches at London’s 60,000 seat Emirates stadium between August 2015 and May 2016 (2.7 matches per month).

In contrast, the major stadiums of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane often host more than one football match (all codes) per week. For example, Sydney’s ANZ stadium, scene of the recent controversy, hosted eight matches in just two months since 7 April 2016, including three games between May 15 and June 1. Similarly, Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium, which will host the second international between Australia and Greece tomorrow, has been the venue of 22 AFL matches since March 26 2016, an average of two per week.

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If key players of any Australian football code are not happy with the situation, they need to promote alternative ideas.

It may be that artificial fields are the answer, although it remains to be seen whether non-grass fields prove suitable for the much more physical codes of Australian rules and rugbies league and union.

They can even propose to build their own stadiums, as the French rugby union has with its plans to move its base from the Stade de France due to rent pressures and playing surfaces concerns. The new 82,000-seat stadium, featuring a retractable roof and slide-out pitch, will be built on a former horse racing track 25 kilometres south of Paris at an estimated cost of €600 million.

But each sport has important financial considerations to consider. We are not Brazil, South Africa, or China, countries that use political will and public resources simply to attract major events, despite many of their stadiums hardly proving financially viable in the longer term.

Stadiums are expensive. As of 2015, it was estimated that the cost of stadiums with over 40,000 seats was $7,000 – $14,000 per seat, with lower capacity venues costing around $5,000 – $9,000.

We are very fortunate we have so many world class stadiums. For example, whereas Greece has three stadiums with a 30,000+ seating capacity for its population of around 11 million, Australia has 13 to service 24 million people.

And with the A-League averaging less than 13,000 people per match during the 2015-16 season, it may be difficult for football alone to attract public funding for any stadium that supports just one code.

So Ange, given that the various football codes need to share the major stadiums, it would be wiser to offer ideas about how we can improve the situation rather than mock our claim of being a great sporting nation just because of field imperfections.

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Our curators have one of the toughest jobs in the world given the extensive use of our major stadiums which were only built with public funding on the basis of them being adequately utilised over time, as indeed should be the Australian way when public funding is concerned.

Without the prospect of artificial fields, it may well be that beautiful Australian football fields can only be guaranteed in the spring and summer when warmer weather conditions favour speedy and lush turf recovery.