The announcement last week that the winner of the A-League grand final will no longer be awarded an Asian Champions League spot should draw fresh debate of about the relevance of these finals matches in the Australian footballing landscape.
Football Australia CEO James Johnson has spoken previously about growing the profile of both the National Premier Leagues and the FFA Cup, and there exists an opportunity to align all competitions properly via awarding FFA Cup spots to A-League clubs according to A-League ladder position – that is, by taking the playoff format being implemented for the 2021 FFA Cup to its full and logical conclusion.
A-League season format
The A-League should consist of 16 teams playing a full home-and-away fixture from October to March, with all games during the summer months played at night.
The A-League finals series should be retired, with the A-League champions being crowned via a first past the post system.
Instead of an A-League finals series, the FFA Cup Round of 32 should commence two weeks after the end of the A-League regular season. The top four teams in the A-League progress directly through to the FFA Cup Round of 32. The bottom four teams in the A-League do not qualify at all.
Teams finishing fifth to 12th will play for four additional Round of 32 FFA Cup spots allocated to A-League teams, with home-ground advantage in these games being awarded to the highest-placed teams.
This means that all teams in the A-League would be rewarded or punished regarding FFA Cup participation commensurate to their finishing position in the A-League.
|A-League table||FFA Cup qualification|
|Places 1 to 4||Automatic qualification|
|Places 5 to 8||Playoff match (home)|
|Places 9 to 12||Playoff match (away)|
|Places 13 to 16||Do not qualify|
It’s not quite promotion and relegation of course, but your team’s finishing position on the league ladder would take on fresh meaning.
A-League playoff matches
Teams that finish in the top four in the A-League would get a week off to rest players after a gruelling season, with four all-A-League playoff matches featuring on the first weekend after the regular season. Therefore eight of the spots in the FFA Cup Round of 32 would be reserved for A-League teams, one for the NPL champion and then a further 23 spots for NPL (or below) teams winning through via preliminary round play.
Administrators could schedule and televise up to 27 knockout finals matches on that first weekend as well as a few midweek before or after consisting of four all-A-League affairs and 23 all-NPL matchups. Double-headers could even be scheduled with a festival of football-type atmosphere created whereby teams from all over the country fight it out for Round of 32 FFA Cup spots.
|Qualification method||FFA Cup spots|
|A-League top four||4|
|NPL national champion||1|
|FFA Cup preliminary rounds||23|
FFA Cup Round of 32 onwards
As is currently the case, the FFA Cup would commence with the Round of 32, with all teams having qualified by either finishing in the top four on the A-League table, winning an all-A-League playoff match, being crowned NPL national champions or winning four or more knockout matches in the preliminary rounds.
From this point you would have 16 Round of 32 matches, eight Round of 16 matches, four quarter-final matches, four semi-final matches – two legs per tie – and a final for a total of 33 matches over five matchdays.
Add another 27 matches being played during the playoff rounds or Round of 64, and you get a whole bunch more content to show to fans compared to the current three-week, five-game A-League finals series.
|Matchday 1||Matchday 2||Matchday 3||Matchday 4||Matchday 5||Matchday 6||Total matches|
|Round||Playoff round/Round of 64||Round of 32||Round of 16||Quarter-finals||Semi-finals||Final|
|Notes||Four AL vs AL, 23 NPL vs NPL||Open draw||Open draw||Open draw||Played over two legs||Hosted by team highest on A-League table|
All cup ties should be drawn at random, with home-ground advantage being awarded to NPL teams in A-League vs NPL match-ups and based on A-League table position in A-League vs A-League match-ups. Any games featuring an A-League team should be played on the weekend, with any all-NPL match-ups played midweek.
Renaming the FFA Cup
The renaming of this tournament is of course already in the works, but I would like something simple, such as the Australia Cup, to signify its inclusivity and unique format among all Australian sporting competitions.
The winner of the Australia Cup would be awarded an Asian Champions League spot, which means that this competition signifies the bringing together of all levels of the Australian footballing pyramid to determine a team to represent Australia on the international stage. All teams across the country are of course welcome to contend, and from the Round of 32 onwards it is a mere five games to be crowned champions.
Having the Australia Cup function as the de facto finals series means that fresh significance can be given to winning the A-League as first past the post winner but without ditching finals in the calendar altogether. You could also see increased interest in the NPL national championship as this trophy becomes a genuine pathway into Australia Cup and beyond to Asia.
Fans would get a significantly more fleshed-out finals series featuring 33 or even 60 games instead of just five and featuring teams from all over the country.
The Australia Cup would be a truly national winner-takes-all competition.