In the words of the late Les Murray, football is the world game, and if statistics are anything to go by, it should be Australia’s game.
There are more people playing football in Australia than any other sport. The game should be booming on every level here. Football people, however, have forever resented how mainstream Australia and particularly the media have neglected it.
They are right to an extent. Until the Socceroos started making World Cups, most Australians didn’t care about the game, and consequently the media focused on the other major codes, such as AFL and NRL.
However, football in Australia must accept some of the blame, mostly for its exclusivity element. Ange Postecoglou might know a thing or two about it now he isn’t going to Russia.
It is human nature for those who are passionate about football and who have kept the game alive to want an element of control. However, these wonderful servants to the game need to start letting go to allow fresh blood to come in and grow the game – perhaps even those on the ‘outside’.
The power struggle between the FFA and the A-League owners is but one example.
If we look at the old NSL, each club had an ethnic element, and as much as many of those clubs publicly stated that fans from all backgrounds were welcome, it was very clear there was a level of exclusivity there. Most Melbourne Knights fans were Croatian, Marconi fans were generally Italian, South Melbourne fans were predominately Greek and so on.
Growing up a Sydney Olympic fan, a few times I’d get the odd – though light-hearted – comment about me not being Greek, which didn’t worry me one bit but which showed the mentality of some fans.
There was absolutely nothing wrong with acknowledging the ethnic background of these clubs – after all, it was an important part of their history and that of Australian football – but this was a classic example of the exclusiveness of the game here.
Part of this was driven by inherent racism faced by Europeans when they first arrived in Australia. Have a read of Sheilas, Wogs and Poofters by Johnny Warren to gain an understanding of this.
However, this is not a reason for clubs at high levels to have ethnic-based exclusion, and although many will deny it, there is no doubt this happened. Thankfully the game and clubs had to evolve and hence the old NSL was scrapped for the new inclusive A-League in 2005.
If we look at the NPL level, slowly but surely the old NSL clubs have welcomed fans from all backgrounds, but you can’t help but feel the ethnic element is still there. Personally I don’t have a problem with this – after all, I love the tradition of football clubs, which is what ignites passion – but the reality is that many still feel that ethnic divisions among those clubs are an issue, which is why the NPL here has not really demonstrated itself as a realistic option for a genuine second-tier competition.
These clubs will get the best players from all types of backgrounds, but when it comes to the people in charge, they predominately come from the ethnic background of each particular club. This is not necessarily wrong, but the question must be asked: are they the best people for the job? They are the ones making important decisions.
If we look at lower levels of football in Australia, even the suburban or regional leagues, there are plenty of examples of committees who refuse to think outside the box and who are reluctant to let others get involved. It is human nature for people to go on power trips and think they know everything, but this will alienate new people and stop new ideas. The irony is that these committee members then whinge that no-one else wants to help and use that to justify the fact they are in charge of everything.
How about making people feel welcome rather than ostracised? The FFA is a classic example of this: the A-League owners, who are forking out millions and losing money in the process, should definitely have a bigger say in what happens. After all, it is their money and they have a right to have a say what happens with it. If they don’t, we will lose these owners, who are investors of the game, and we will have financially struggling clubs. This would take football backwards.
If we look at the A-League, some of the decisions made in recent times have been absolutely bewildering. Why on earth were North Queensland and Gold Coast brought in before Western Sydney, apart from the exclusive rights Sydney FC had to the region? Why is Wellington Phoenix, an A-League basket case, being allowed to stay in the league and Southern Sydney, with their huge Chinese investment, being stopped or suppressed?
Southern Expansion have plans to build a privately-funded football stadium as well as bring in rich foreign investment, yet they have not been given a clear indication of how welcome they are. They had plans to bring in a W-League team already this season but were firmly rejected when everything was ready to go.
The FFA will blame governance issues, but in is it possible that they saw foreign investors as a threat? The game could suffer as we don’t want these Chinese investors to lose interest and take their money elsewhere. The game here needs it.
Speaking of the W-League, women’s sport is hot right now, so why has there been minimal talk of expansion? The FFA will brag about the new pay deal and the new TV deal, but in reality there should be far more done.
The W-League has existed for ten years and only this year has it really attracted any TV interest. Why isn’t every game being covered? The FFA should be willing to accept any deal to cover W-League games. Why aren’t W-League games played before and/or after A-League games? There would be bigger crowds, TV cameras are already there, and it would lead to more support for the women.
Women in football have always been neglected in the past. There was very much an old boys mentality that existed and still does, to an extent. Football people will argue this exists in the AFL and NRL and in society in general – and they would be right – but let’s look at our own house.
This mentality is a huge reason why the Matildas and the W-League have always been neglected. In recent times football is thankfully evolving, and the Matildas are gaining a huge fan base as the new generation of football fans come through.
The W-League is attracting world-class players. However, we can only realise its full potential if we get rid of the old-school mentality that still exists in football from grassroots to the top level.
All in all, football people in Australia can blame everyone else for their failures, but perhaps it’s time for them to look at themselves. Football cannot afford to be exclusive anymore – there is far too much at stake.