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Why Australian football must stop trying to conquer the past

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Roar Guru
4th March, 2019

Each successive ownership group believes in their cause so much that they’ve gone out of their way to destroy the previous leadership group. Maybe this is basic human nature on display.

Many voices today call for a full pyramid from grassroots to the top division of professional football in Australia. For them anything else is a betrayal of football ethos.

I wholeheartedly agree with a second division and promotion and relegation, and the driving of these objectives is the key to moving forward.

Where my opinion differs is on football’s history in Australia, its fundamental make-up, and its market size.

First, some context. Australian football at senior level pre-World War II was essentially based on regional associations which in turn represented local district park clubs. Australian immigration at this time was dominated by countries from the UK. It was the English and English-speaking people who ran the district associations.

After World War II Australia enjoyed huge immigration from Europe in general, not just Great Britain. As SBS have brilliantly shown, the new migrants played football and enjoyed it – nay, loved it. They wanted to share their knowledge and understanding of the beautiful game.


The old guard, for want of a better term, controlling the regional associations ran their competitions poorly. The new boys on the block wanted to change things.

The new boys – led in many ways by Frank Lowy – challenged the old guard and wanted change. The old boys told new boys to go away and leave them to run things. The end result in 1955 was a new competition with effectively franchise teams run by businesspeople in the main, whose teams often shared an identity with their home country.

There was much bitterness between the two groups, but the end result was that the old guard was washed away, replaced by new non-district teams, which dominated the competition. In time the old body was replaced by a new body.

Move forward to the mid-1970s and the National Soccer League was started with the strongest of the business-owned franchise teams. This model finally fell over too, replaced by the newest franchise model, which is the A-League. The old Soccer Australia also went belly-up and was replaced by Football Federation Australia, which, as was the case in the two previous takeovers, attempted to destroy any memory of the old ways.

Melbourne City fans

Melbourne City fans. (Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Every major competition of any code was created by districts and regions. The football market in Australia has always had a player base. The player base is centred around local park teams, which join a regional association, and the regional association belongs to a state federation.

If we want to grow the game, we need to connect to the player base. The connection to the player base is via the regional associations.

It is way too late to develop Australian professional football along the lines of regional associations because we’ve had franchise-based systems since 1955. They will not go away.


The trick is to take the best of Europe and combine it with the best of the new world. We need to look in part to Major League Soccer in the United States.

The MLS have similar issues with the media, and other codes are largely limited to their home country – though, admitedly, the United States and Australia have different histories, with the US covering local sport to an extent we don’t see in Australia.

I said we need a second division and promotion and relegation, which is the European model, but given we don’t have enough regional associations with revenue and expertise to run teams, we will need to have teams in a franchise-based model, which is where the MLS comes in. We need somewhere between 32 and 36 teams over two divisions. We need these funded and we need them to connect to regional associations.

My solution is to create a 28-team competition, growing to 36 in time, maybe more, across two divisions.

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The MLS has shown the importance of being in both new and large media markets. Thereby Tasmania and Canberra should have a place.

Another vexing issue is the blueprint issued by the A-League clubs whereby they are trying to totally bypass FFA. This has been the response of every group that has taken control of football at the professional level since 1955 – to kill off the previous body by starving it of funds.

Forget David Gallop and the issues you have with him and forget the Lowe family; Australia needs a strong and fully functioning FFA. The Asian Football Confederation has the rights to most Socceroos matches, a major source of FFA revenue. Even with better cost-cutting and with the best management the FFA would struggle to operate without it. This is so in many countries in the world.

The professional game does not exist in a bubble. Successful national teams will increase their revenue. The professional game needs to contribute some funds towards the shortfall in FFA revenue that will come about and is largely out of its control.

This model is close to how the J-League grew and continues to grow. None of this is cast in stone forever, but for the next ten years this is the way forward.