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The A-League's divisive nature is harming football in Australia

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30th April, 2019
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In 2015, I drew upon some tenuous family links in Yorkshire to organise a short stay.

Just a few short months later, I arrived on their doorstep and became a resident of the city of Leeds for the next three years.

As a lifelong rugby league fan, I was delighted to see how passionate the city is about the code, but it pales in comparison to the adoration Leeds has for their football team: the mighty Leeds United.

What was also eye-opening was the equal devotion with which the fans support the two teams.

I am almost certain you could ask an overwhelming majority of Leeds sports fans who they support and they will look at you with all the seriousness of a hostage negotiator and answer: “Leeds United and Leeds Rhinos”.

It helps that the two codes are played in different seasons, but despite the fact that there are other teams representing the local area such as Yorkshire County Cricket Club and Carnegie Rugby, these two teams have captured the heart of the city.

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When circumstances took me across the Pennines and I moved to Liverpool, the football stakes went to a whole other level.

In Liverpool, the first question you are asked is whether you’re red or blue, so I very quickly had to shift from an interested onlooker to a vested party, purely because if you were not up to date on the latest Everton or Liverpool happenings, there was nothing to talk about at work on a Monday morning.

So it was by pure circumstance and a fear of being left behind that I became a football fan.

Armed with this newfound interest and enthusiasm for the round-ball game, on one of my first trips back from the UK, I decided to head to my first A-League game.

In what I thought was a nod to city-wide solidarity, I wore my NSW Blues shirt, which proved disastrous as the Sydney FC fans treated me with utter contempt.

Sydney FC fans

(Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I was prepared for some good-natured ribbing and some back and forth banter, but what I was met with was abuse, vitriol and even threats to my safety, even though I was supporting Sydney FC.

It wasn’t exactly the welcome I was expecting from Sydney football fans, but I did my best Taylor Swift impersonation and tried to shake it off. I put the negative experience down to my own foolishness and carried on.

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Although they weren’t particularly welcoming, the crowd was loud, parochial and passionate, and the standard of football was entertaining, although not quite up to the same standard as I had experienced in Liverpool.

Overall, the experience was satisfactory.

That game was almost three years ago.

Now, when I can find the A-League on TV, I’m met with near silence emanating from my screen and speakers.

The general consensus among football fans is that while it’s not time to press the panic button, there is concern for the code, particularly in the Harbour City where there are several challenges.

The Western Sydney Wanderers have been homeless for the last couple of seasons while Bankwest Stadium was being built and Sydney FC are effectively homeless right now.

Crowds are in decline and TV ratings across the whole A-League are also shrinking.

The reality is that when you put the majority of your games behind a paywall, you go head-to-head with the EPL and, unfortunately, there is no comparison.

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Moving some games to suburban grounds has been a smart move for Sydney FC and the Wanderers.

The new Bankwest Stadium will hopefully bring back the hoards of fans who refuse to head to ANZ to watch football at a cavernous venue originally designed for athletics.

Football is in a unique position to thrive in this country for two reasons.

One is that an astronomical amount of juniors play the game and the other is that it truly is the world game backed by a rich governing body in FIFA.

This suggests that football should be close to Australia’s premier professional code.

Yet, far greater minds than mine have long struggled to turn these factors into support for the professional game here in Australia.

My experience tells me that football’s most immediate problem is that the sport is unable to achieve clear air.

The A-League is always fighting with other sports for attention.

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When the competition commenced in 2004, it had state cricket and the international fixtures over summer to contend with.

Now, the summer market is crowded with Big Bash, AFLW and even a revived NBL.

By the time the summer codes end, a lot of fans turn their attention towards the egg-chasing codes.

All this competition makes football virtually invisible.

A-League crowd

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

To an outsider, it feels like the A-League is consistently at war with the other codes, whether it’s threatening someone for wearing the wrong shirt at a game or the Wanderers covering up a statue of an international player at the former Pirtek Stadium just because he was from another code.

That might have been okay when the A-League was at the peak of its powers, but that’s not the current state of the game.

Now, it sends a message to some interested fans that you are either entirely devoted or not really wanted.

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Gaffes, like calling it soccer or misunderstanding the offside rule, are not easily forgiven.

There seems to be no desire to engage the curious fan flirting with football or to live in harmony with the other codes.

The A-League season is coming to a crescendo with the finals beginning this weekend, yet interest in the code seems at an all-time low, with many arguing an almost eight-month season is too long for a league with only ten teams.

Bizarrely, the FFA’s answer to this is to expand with two new franchises: Western United out of Melbourne and Macarthur South West out of Sydney.

The jury is out on whether two new clubs will fix the woes of the A-League, especially as one club does not yet have a stadium and the other risks cannibalising the Wanderers’ fan base.

As someone who has been converted in the past by the passionate unifying nature of football, the professional game in this country can and needs to do far better.