One of the glaring issues of the Socceroos’ 2-0 loss to Japan last week is one that has barely rated a mention, even though it sums up the predicament football currently finds itself in.
In March 2016, David Gallop – then head of Football Federation Australia – signed a long-term sponsorship deal with Destination NSW that essentially locked in Sydney as the city of choice for major Socceroos fixtures.
That particular deal expired last year, but at the time Gallop said the FFA “unashamedly had to get a commercial return” on Socceroos and Matildas games.
So, it was no surprise to see NSW Government branding on the marketing collateral around Thursday’s fixture, even if FIFA’s own commercial deals took precedence inside the ground.
Just like it was no surprise to see Stadium Australia half-empty on the night.
Played just three nights after an NRL fixture on a pitch that chopped up noticeably in the rain, Football Australia sold a little over 41,000 tickets in a city that had essentially seen the same do-or-die fixture four times before.
If you missed Homebush hosting those drama-charged wins over Uruguay, Iraq, Syria or Honduras in previous campaigns, then this was certainly the fixture for you.
And Football Australia placing a premium on major international fixtures is fair enough for an organisation that needs to raise funds somehow.
The problem is when those commercial considerations trump every other facet of the game.
But that’s the situation football in Australia finds itself in.
Maybe that’s why Football Australia chief executive James Johnson was so angry with Graham Arnold for his COVID breach before the game, lobbing a $25,000 fine at the Socceroos coach barely three days before Australia’s most important World Cup qualifier in years.
And Arnold will become the scapegoat for Australia’s failure to land one of the group’s two automatic qualification places, even though his ongoing tenure smacks of the same commercial constraints.
It’s hard to see how Arnie survives beyond next week’s trip to Saudi Arabia, even if he deserves credit for taking on the job in the first place.
His preparations were undeniably hampered by Australia’s long list of absentees, yet his selections of Connor Metcalfe and Gianni Stensness in midfield confounded many and were never adequately explained.
It led to former Socceroos Mark Milligan, Archie Thompson and Luke Wilkshire teeing off on the post-game panel, with the trio even questioning the attitude of certain squad members.
Jamie Maclaren was one such player whose commitment was questioned, with the Melbourne City striker firing back on social media before jetting off for his wedding – which has been postponed repeatedly due to COVID.
And the issue of Melbourne City players being made available became another battleground in the build-up to the match.
Maclaren, Curtis Good and Mat Leckie all featured in the 1-0 win over Macarthur on Saturday night, with City’s talismanic striker Maclaren scoring the winner after getting barely six minutes off the bench in Homebush.
Leckie wasn’t risked by Arnold given that he’s on four yellow cards, but it was City’s refusal to release central defender Good that exposed yet another ugly fissure in the game.
Despite their struggles to entice fans through the gates at AAMI Park, the Abu Dhabi-backed Melbourne City are one of the most influential clubs in the A-League Men competition.
And given that Good was allegedly not on the original list of 50 potential Socceroos players considered, they’ll argue they were well within their rights to refuse his call-up.
Yet doing so was detrimental to Australian football and against the spirit of the game.
It could all have been avoided if the A-Leagues simply instituted an international break.
But they won’t.
Why? For commercial reasons.
And so a result that needed to be produced on the pitch was hindered by a bunch of commercial decisions made off it.
Then we’ll sit here and wonder why Japan are streets ahead of us, without acknowledging their own enviable commercial base was built upon focusing on what happens on the pitch.