The feeling that football in Australia is a sleeping giant is one that lingers in the minds of many fans.
It’s why the huge momentum created by the Matildas and the FIFA Women’s World Cup has been felt so deeply, and why this year’s A-Leagues are so highly anticipated.
That anticipation is for the football, of course, but in Australian football, that also comes with the off-field stuff. Will there be controversy? Will fans turn up at all? Is this another false dawn?
This season, it’s so far, so good.
The unofficial season starter, the men’s Australia Cup Final, took place two weeks ago and showcased all that is good about the domestic game with a back-and-forth, turbulent game that saw Sydney FC defeat Brisbane Roar 3-1.
This weekend gone, the A-League Women’s kicked off the league season with a record single-round attendance for the competition, topping the previous mark within the first two games and breaking the single game attendance record with 11,471 at the Sydney derby.
The men get going this weekend coming, and for two of the competitions most successful and celebrated players, Jamie Maclaren and Rhyan Grant, the weight of expectation is something they embrace.
They have 51 Socceroos caps and over 400 games of A-League experience between them, but, speaking to The Roar, neither could remember a time like this in Australian football – and insisted that it was incumbent on the players to put on a show that kept those who will be watching post-World Cup engaged with the game.
“We have to go out there and entertain,” said Grant.
“if we don’t play well, the fans won’t come back. We know there’s an onus on us, but as we saw with the way the fans and media got around the Matildas, it only takes a little bit of that to keep it going.
“Us as players can put on a good performances and get them coming back. What the Matildas did and the way that everyone got around them, it’s groundbreaking stuff.
“Hopefully we can continue that groundswell around the game and get even more people to games because there’s so much quality in both the women’s and the men’s.”
Maclaren emphasised how important it was to create the positive feedback loop between fans and players that sets football apart in Australian sport.
“What fans need to understand is that if they don’t come to the games, how can the product improve?,” said the Melbourne City striker.
“We saw it with the Matildas and every game of the Women’s World Cup – when the stadiums are full, the quality of football lifts and the atmosphere rises. Before you know it, you’ve got a cracking game.
“They coincide with each other. Performances on the pitch and entertaining football with the crowd. The crowd makes the players play better.
“Having played in front of big crowds and having played in front of small crowds, I know the crowd plays a massive part.
“We want the numbers to be big, both men and women, and it’s down to us. I’ve been in the A-League long enough to know that there are people out there. They come to games and we need to entertain.”
Grant is an A-League lifer, part of the first generation to watch the league as a supporter and then play in it, spending his entire career with Sydney FC.
He was quick to point out the strengths of the competition, and it’s ability to stand on its own two feet without the need to reference other leagues around the world.
“The A-League is all I know,” he said.
“I was always a fan before I played in and I’d go to games with my friends. I remember the journey with friends on the train to the old SFS to watch Sydney FC.
“You look at the players who have left our shores of late in both men and women do bigger and better things, but there’s a lot of quality in the league and young players coming through.
“If people give it a good go and tune in, they’ll be entertained and pleasantly surprised by how good it is.
“Everyone compares it to the Premier League but that’s not realistic, that’s the top of the top, so to do that is silly, but getting out and enjoying the local game and being part of something that’s on the up is awesome.”
Maclaren, who has played in Germany and Scotland as well as Australia, backed up his former Socceroos teammate.
“We always hear fans compare us to the Premier League, but I don’t understand why we need to compare,” he said.
“We’re Australia, we’re our own country, we do well at World Cups both men and women and the football is entertaining.
“But if there’s nobody in the crowd, what’s there to entertain? We need eyes on the pitches, eyes on the TV at home on their couches because it gives players a lift.
“We need to turn this country into a football-loving country – it’s all good doing it for one World Cup, but you need to continue it. That’s something that us players need to drive.
“This country loves sport and this sport that we play, football, is the biggest in the world. We see AFL Grand Finals sell out 100,000 people, and I don’t see a reason why our national team couldn’t do that and why the A-League couldn’t get better crowds.”