Monday, January 12, 2009

Taking stock of Australian football's modern history

Australian football is definitely in for a big year in 2009: before the year is over we will see the culmination of the current hotly-contested A-League season; a string of crucial international matches that will determine the Socceroos' entry to the 2010 World Cup, a new pair of Australian clubs taking on the challenge of the Asian Champions League, the start of a new expanded A-League competition featuring two new challengers in North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United, and no doubt plenty of emotion, controversy, speculation, joy, and all the other things that make football so great.

We should stop for a moment, though, and take stock of the progress that football has made in Australia in little more than half a decade. Australian football has been on a steep upward trajectory since 2003, when the Crawford Report into the sport's governance was published. The recommendations of this paper led to a complete overhaul of the structure of the sport: Soccer Australia was succeeded by a new entity, the Australian Soccer Association, which in January 2005 became Football Federation Australia.

The Rebirth of Domestic Football

The A-League was launched in mid-2005 to great hype and fanfare: this was the 'new football' that was to replace the 'old soccer' of the NSL. The NSL, although home to a number of community-based clubs with long, proud histories and the breeding ground for a lot of great players, suffered from a chronic lack of 'mainstream' interest and a lack of professionalism. Moreover, the NSL fought an ongoing battle against perceptions that it was riven with corruption, ethnic nationalism, violence, and hooliganism (these perceptions were in some cases well founded, but it certainly wasn't the battleground that it's sometimes made out to be).

In one fell swoop, the FFA relegated South Melbourne, Marconi, Melbourne Knights et al to the bumpy suburban pitches of the state leagues, replacing them with shiny new family-friendly franchises boasting crisp colour schemes and snappy names concocted by sharp-suited marketing men in boardrooms. Whether or not you think this is a good thing, it certainly made an impact: the new league got off to a flyer. Big crowds of football fans and curious folks wondering what the fuss was all about witnessed a great first season, lit up by the abilities of the superstar Dwight Yorke and the fantastic skills of young Australians like Carle and Carney. A rampant Adelaide took out the league, but Sydney's class shone through in the grand final.

"Aloisi, for a spot in the World Cup..."

There's one date that will go down forever as the day Australian football came of age (if you will pardon the cliche): November 16, 2005. In front of 80,000 at the Olympic stadium in Sydney, Australia beat Uruguay in a penalty shootout to qualify for its first world cup since 1974. I don't think anyone who witnessed it will ever forget the emotion of the evening: Bresciano's first half goal, Schwarzer's massive penalty saves and Aloisi's historic kick (and the subsequent shirtless run up the sidelines, accompanied by Craig Foster's hysterical commentary - 'JOHNNY WARREN!!!! JOHNNY WARREN!!!!!). I got so excited I broke a lamp shade. There was such an incredible outpouring of emotion around the country - that night, more than any other, cemented football in the Australian psyche.

And then on to the tournament itself. After the buildup there was always the threat that the Socceroos would have a disappointing time of it at Germany '06. We all know how it unfolded, but let's indulge our nostalgia once more. There was the stirring comeback in the 3-1 win against Japan, with Cahill scoring our nation's first (and second) World Cup goal. Next was a respectable 2-0 loss to Brazil; then (to my mind) the pinnacle of the tournament - the momentous game against Croatia that saw Moore's penalty, Kalac's goalkeeping howler, Kewell's equaliser, red cards (including Graham Poll's bizarre and belated send off of Josip Simunic on a third yellow), and of course the final whistle, which amongst the chaos on the pitch signified that Australia had made it out of the group phase. The next match proved to be the Socceroos' last of the tournament - after holding the eventual winners (admittedly down to ten men) for most of the match Neill conceded an injury-time penalty, and the rest was history.

After Germany: the New World Order

Less than two months after the Socceroos' qualification for the Cup, Australian football passed another vitally important milestone. On January 1, 2006, Australia officially became a member of the Asian Football Confederation. This has enormous implications: at a national level Australia now competes against other powerful AFC countries for a berth in future world cups, rather than in a series of hugely uneven qualifiers against tiny Oceanian island nations culminating in one big playoff against the likes of Iran or Uruguay. We can play in the Asian Cup, and there's a very good chance that we will host one in the not-too-distant future.

The move to Asia is also a massive step forward for Australian domestic football, in that A-League clubs now compete in the Asian Champions League against the best clubs from powerful Asian nations like Japan, China, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. So far Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide have played and acquitted themselves well in the ACL, with Adelaide's fantastic winning streak seeing them into the final of the most recent competition. This year it will be Newcastle and Central Coast representing Australia on Asia's biggest stage.

A-League - Onward and Upward

Australian football was given a huge boost by the Socceroos' World Cup campaign, and this new wave of confidence in the game was reflected in big crowds and growing interest in the A-League in its second and third seasons. Melbourne dominated the league in 2006-07, playing excellent football in front of record crowds at their new home in the Telstra Dome. Their Premiership was backed up by a Grand Final win, in which a rampant Victory lived up to their name with a 6-0 demolition of the outclassed and overwhelmed Reds in front of 50,000 fans.

The 2007-08 season was a much more close-run affair, with the eventual Premiers Central Coast fighting tooth and nail until the end of the season for their title. They came up against Newcastle in the Championship match, and the Novocastrians took home the toilet seat after scoring the only goal of the game.

Crowds were well up across the board in 2007-08, but they have come back to earth a little this season. Signs are good coming into the business end of proceedings, though, with most clubs' attendences picking up again, which looks good for the future. The quality on the pitch this season has been of a pretty good standard; teams have been getting better at recruiting foreign players and identifying youth talent, and there's been some great football played.

Philip Micallef wrote a great little article, entitled 'How we're winning the battle for respect', on The World Game site recently. In it, he recaps some of the major achievements of Australian football during 2008, including among other things the expansion of the A-League, the inception of the National Youth League and the W-League, and the success of the Socceroos and Adelaide United.

As Micallef identifies, though, the greatest progress that football in Australia has made is in its ongoing quest for mainstream acceptance and respect. The profile of football has never been better; here in Adelaide it seems that the image of the game has really turned a corner. United are just as legitimate a topic for water-cooler conversations as are the Crows or the Australian cricket team - it seems to me that support for the game is here to stay. Fans have been 'rusted on', as it were - no longer do people come to games as a curious novelty, but instead because they are genuine supporters of the club.

The Crawford Report was published a mere six years ago, but the changes that the game has gone through since then are extraordinary. It's been a great ride, but it's far from over yet. One of the best things about being a football fan in Australia is that we have no idea what's around the corner. But keep it coming.

Long live the revolution!


john said...

Glad to here someone on 'the world game' is cheering instead of jeering.

Game of the season tomorrow Bill. Either Adelaide wrap up the league and a 2010 ACL spot or Roar make their run for the ACL.

All in 41 degrees.

I admit I was very disappoint in Adelaide this time last year - particularly Bruce Dijte and Travis Dodd with some off the ball violence to successfully get Tiatto fired up and sent off. And up in smoke goes the Roar's first place finish. And we end up with Newcastle representing us...

Bill said...

Hey John,
Yes it's going to be a massive game tonight - huge consequences for the league either way. Thankfully the weather is a bit cooler today compared to what it was yesterday... and shouldn't be too bad come kickoff.

You won't have to worry about Tiatto getting sent off this time around, either! I think this game will be won or lost depending on how well both sides' fullbacks deal with the opposition wingers.