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Opinion

Commercial success follows great football, not the other way around

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Roar Rookie
2nd February, 2022
27

Football in this country is at a low ebb right now.

The Matildas crashed out of a tournament that we expected them to win. The Socceroos are probably going to have to take the long road to the Qatar World Cup, and might not even qualify.

Most A-League clubs are undergoing some form of crisis of faith from their fan-base, if they even have one. And just to make things even harder, COVID is dampening all round enthusiasm and engagement with the leagues as well.

All of my now middle-aged mates who are football fans are currently disengaged from domestic football. When we do talk football there is a distinct lack of faith in the ability of our teams to play well and get results. Looking around, the national community television ratings have tanked. Social media is pretty quiet as well, with most forums having lost traffic.

But it’s definitely not the lowest point I’ve experienced in my years. That would be 2004-05, when we didn’t even have a national league for 18 months, and the Socceroos capped Christian Vieri’s forgettable younger brother in a game in Melbourne with more Turkish than Australian fans present. That was bad. But we bounced back from there and the sport hit new heights not long after.

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So, how do we bounce back this time?

The Channel Ten/Paramount+ broadcast deal brought much needed financial certainty when the game was on the verge of bankruptcy. The Silverlake investment of $130 million is capital that the game has been crying out for for generations. These are good things, but only if administrators end up spending the money wisely.

Unfortunately, if I could characterise generations of football administrators at the national level, they always favour short-term thinking over long-term goals. They have the ambition for Australian football to be commercially successful, but are too timid to do the hard work of being successful at the actual game of football first.

FFA CEO James Johnson

(Photo by Brook Mitchell/Getty Images)

If we want to ‘awaken the sleeping giant’, then we must produce much better football at all levels of the professional game.

Our frustrating results come from a combination of mediocre players, managers and coaches. Despite our large football community, we very rarely produce world-class talent. We do have enough raw product for higher performance, but the system that finishes the development of players and coaches is weak. Very weak.

All of us have a pet gripe or three when it comes to this. Mine is that we simply don’t play nearly enough competitive football for the good of our players.

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Our A-Leagues and NPL seasons are way too short by global standards. Brazilian clubs play 50–70 games per year across the state leagues, national league, Brazilian Cup and continental cups. There is so much opportunity for young players to step up and get game time. In fact, in a 70-game season it’s unavoidable!

Our 26-game season is no match for player development. Our players are always undeveloped. How can you expect to win an arm wrestle against someone who spent twice as much time in the gym as you over the previous ten years?

Having tried and failed with all previous attempts to turn football into a dominant Australian sport, the only response left to Football Australia is to finally prioritise technical quality in the design of our football system.

I get that the Dutch-influenced curriculum is a perennial topic, but it’s just a textbook. Do we blame textbooks for poor national academic performance? Or, do we take note that our hypothetical students spend half the time in school as other countries?

I think we now need a football league system that maximises football quality instead of some other political outcome. That means a lot more clubs allowed into the professional tier.

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But I’m not sure that it will happen. The culture of exclusion in Australian football dies hard and could act to prevent the reforms that we desperately need to become better at actually playing the game.

Adam Le Fondre controls the ball during the FFA Cup round of 32 match

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

I read some Australian football history books over the summer break and a painful historical pattern became clear. Rather than creating football systems that are fit for the purpose of maximising the quality of footballers and managers, where the system is open for all to compete, our administrators have always chosen to confine leagues to as few competitors as possible.

That, in turn, triggered generational power struggle after generational power struggle. There has been a distinct lack of leadership that has acted in the game’s long-term interests.

In the first half of the 20th century, the sport was dominated by British-ness. The power struggles were over which entities were allowed into top-flight football. In Sydney, district associations sought to control the top flight for their rep teams (like the NSWRL model) and exclude independent clubs.

After the war, the establishment of the migrant clubs led to some sustained fan interest in the sport but also resistance from the Anglo establishment that wanted to protect its district system, even though the ethnic clubs were playing better football and drawing better crowds.

They were leading the way, but the football system, designed by politics, not for football quality, didn’t reward them. The power struggles between the Anglo-dominated establishment and the migrant clubs, as well as the state federation rivalries, eventually led to the NSL being created as a much-needed circuit breaker towards a higher level of football.

But as we all know, ‘mainstream’ Anglo-Celtic fans felt excluded from the NSL because of the dominance of clubs from a small number of migrant groups.

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Did the A-League solve the problem of exclusion when it was established? Hardly. It was designed to exclude the migrant clubs. Yet again, the nation’s flagship football league was designed and marketed for some of the football community, but nowhere near all of us. Who needs unity of purpose and opportunity? Not us, apparently.

Make no mistake, the roots of football’s problems in this country are self-inflicted. If we had a longer, open national league system we would maximise technical development. We would get better on-field results against national teams and clubs from around the world.

We would have so much more confidence in ourselves that the slings and arrows from other codes and the media would bounce right off us. We wouldn’t need to fret over money because sponsors, broadcasters and investors would be lining up to be involved.

Short-term mitigations for our current predicament are possible (like immediately replacing Graham Arnold and Tony Gustavsson), but they won’t bring sustained success. The same problems will re-arise sooner rather than later.

Football Australia must begin implementing long-term plans for this nation to start playing better football.

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