Future is bright if the focus is right, says Francis Leach
As the Hyundai A-League gets set to go for another season, there’s no doubt it’s a machine in need of a tune up.
When it rolled out of the show room in 2005 it sparkled and turned heads. It was, for a couple of summers, the best thing on wheels.
Who could forget the 50,000 strong crowd at Etihad for the Melbourne Victory vs Sydney FC game? This wasn’t even a final. Yet it seemed that in the space of 12 months, football had gone from the basement to the penthouse in record time.
Of course, like all torrid affairs, the passion fades quickly enough for some. After the initial euphoria of those early seasons, what was left was a lot of hard work to consolidate the gains the game had made and build a sustainable model that would be the foundation of the game domestically for the next 25 years.
Instead, we got an ill fated World Cup bid (which is the subject of tonight’s “Four Corners” program on ABC 1). With an administration charged with the responsibility of securing the bid, as well as running the game domestically, it was no surprise that the lure of the greatest prize of all took precedence.
At a time when the A-League should have been the FFA’s number one priority, to capitalize on its early success, it was left to stagnate with the promise that a win in Zurich when the votes were counted would be a super highway to success for the local game.
In the end the miracle became a mugging, and the fallout from the ill fated World Cup bid continues to exact a price from the sport.
Whilst all this was happening, FFA embarked on a haphazard expansion program that has seen one club come and go in record time in North Queensland, and another seemingly marooned on the Gold Coast with about as many supporters as Julia Gillard.
Average crowds for A-League fixtures hit the wall last year as well. For the four previous seasons, Melbourne Victory, the competitions biggest club, boasted an average attendance of around 20,000 a home game. In 2010-11, this slumped to just over 15,000. Even the exuberance and brilliance of Ange Postecoglou’s title winning Brisbane Roar could only increase its average turn up to just over 9,000 a home game.
If they weren’t turning up to see the Roar in action, when would they come?
Despite this, there is reason to believe the A-League can thrive.
The return of Socceroos stars Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton will add undoubted star power to a league that has been short of it since Dwight Yorke came and went with a flash of that cheeky grin. Whilst their best football might be passing them by, their ability to cut through as recognised names to the casual fan gives the game a chance of winning the battle of hearts and minds.
National coach Holger Osieck’s support for players in the local competition will hopefully mean our best and brightest youngsters stay and play in the A-League a little longer before taking a contract overseas. The A-League will never rival Europe’s biggest leagues, but it can become a boutique model of its own, a place that showcases the best available under-23 talent, as well as some quality veterans.
And then there are the fans.
The “We Are Football” ad campaign rather brazenly claims “We are all equal. We all have our part to play”. The A-League’s long standing fan base would scoff at this call to unity from FFA HQ. Many feel the games administrators eye them suspiciously and see them as a problem rather than asset. And beyond the ranks of the Blue and White Brigade, the Cove and the Squadron, to name just a small section of the active support, there lies the task of convincing the football agnostics kicking a football with their kids in parks and yards all over Australia that this A-League is for them as well.
Win that battle and there will be no stopping the A-League on the road to success.