Our cup runneth dry
No less than 15 years ago, the national footballing authority of Australia, then called Soccer Australia, ran a cup competition parallel to the National Soccer League – the NSL Cup – albeit to less fanfare than perhaps they may have liked.
The final iteration of the cup was won by one-season wonders and now defunct Collingwood Warriors SC – a joint venture between Australian Football League powerhouses Collingwood Football Club and former national league entity Heidelberg United – in a 1-0 win over competition favourites Marconi Fairfield in front of a meek 2,327 fans at Lakeside Stadium.
The goal that day was scored, perhaps fittingly, by one of the best players of the decade; free-kick maestro Con Boutsianis, whose career took him from the east coast of Australia with clubs such as South Melbourne and Heidelberg, to Kingz FC in New Zealand, and the Perth Glory.
But back to the point at hand – what they had was a cup competition.
Sure, not as fancy as many would have liked, and it really only included the top flight teams in Australia, but what they had was a separate entity that gave teams such as Collingwood Warriors, who finished the league dead last in 1996/1997, another chance for glory.
Simply put, everyone loves cup football – the sheer exhilaration of knowing that your team is 90 minutes away from either packing its bags and leaving the competition, or progressing on in the hunt for silverware, is unmatchable by anything other than the current finals system.
In Europe, national cup competitions such as the English FA Cup, the Italian Copa Italia and the Spanish Copa Del Rey draw in as many, and on occasion, more fans than a league match for the home crowd. Television and Radio coverage is beamed not just around the country but into other markets such as Asia and the US, not to mention back here in Australia where the market, in particular for the FA Cup, is huge with local betting syndicates. There’s also the legend of the ‘giant-killer’ in these competitions, that being a team from a lowly position or division beating premier teams much like in the biblical tale of David and Goliath.
Since 1997, though, we’ve had no ‘direct knockout’ form of competition in Australia for football, and fans have been starved of this action. What we did have was a round-robin competition followed by knockout rounds that ran pre-season during the first four years of the A-League. The cup’s format itself was changed over the years, and was more used as a marketing tool towards regional Australia than a full blooded cup competition. Melbourne Victory was the last team to win the competition (on penalties against the Wellington Phoenix), and despite it being the first final televised in the history of the competition, it still only drew a meagre crowd of 9,208 at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium.
The FFA announced the following season that the pre-season cup would be scratched and that the 10 A-League Clubs at the time could book their own friendlies and competitions in the pre-season. The FFA did however go on to say that it was intending to move forward with plans for an FA-Cup style competition with teams from all levels of Australian Football – from amateur clubs, right up to professional A-League teams.
Just two years later, the Football Federation of Victoria (FFV) put forward the proposition to both Melbourne clubs, Heart and Victory, to take part in their annual knockout competition – the Mirabella Cup. The proposal would have seen Heart and Victory join 6 other teams in the quarter finals stage, much like in the FA Cup system in the UK where higher teams are put into the draw at a later date to give lower teams a chance. Despite initial national body approval, the FFA came out and revoked the right of both teams to play in the competition, on the grounds that it would undermine any future competition that the governing body had in lieu.
“Since the initial discussions about Victory and Heart participating in the Mirabella Cup, the landscape has changed significantly”, Melbourne newspaper The Age reported from a source inside the FFA. “Having one state and two A-League clubs pre-empt a truly national cup competition is liable to erode the work that has been done and diminish that essential ingredient.”
The decision to come out and veto this move against Melbourne’s two A-League clubs was a disappointment to many, including those involved in grassroots football, who saw the two clubs inclusion as a potential revenue option through ticket sales and merchandise should they have reached the quarter-final stage.
So what is taking the FFA so long? A few factors do differ now from the socio-economic standpoint we had in the National Soccer League all those years ago. For one, we now have a truly national competition in the Hyundai A-League, encompassing teams from all over the nation. This also includes a team from across the ditch in New Zealand, the Wellington Phoenix, who have come into their own during their 5 year existence, and are a mainstay in the Hyundai A-League despite the Asian Football Confederation’s disdain for them.
This raises problems for those teams of which may qualify from the lower echelons of football, in locales not just on the other side the ditch, but on the other side of Australia, also. Say for example, a second tier team in Perth, let’s take Rockingham City for example, qualify for a match with Wellington, but however it’s an away game for them due to the draw. Funding for the club is generally brought about by local supporter help and many volunteers on match days. So how would they afford to fly 15 players, as well as staff, to Wellington and back on their meagre budget.
There are two solutions to this, but both come at cost to either a cup/league sponsor or the home team itself:
- The governing body appoints a sponsor, such as QANTAS or Virgin, to organise flights for that team, or;
- The home team (Wellington) concedes home ground advantage in the efforts of making the competition more financial.
Option 1 is the more possible option, however the big issue is just how often this would happen. For arguments sake, say there are 8 or 9 rounds in the cup, and the draw is developed to at least see local fixtures until the round of 16. Even then, that is a possible 15 games of which a second tier side could have to play away. Option 2 is simply unfair on the home fans, where a team has actually earned a home berth, an advantage by some means to the team itself also.
One of the other options floating around, and has apparently been spoken of by some people attached to A-League clubs, is that local teams play off to meet the higher local A-League teams in a later round robin phase. Whilst this is a more fiscally-sound option, it could lead to very similar ties over the years, and doesn’t make for much variety – something that the European cups offer, and even the franchise based MLS offers in its version of the cup – the MLS Cup.
Of course, the proposal of a national cup also will be judged on the back of previous encounters of teams both league-wise and cup-wise. Sadly, one of the issues that has plagued the game and has been gorged on by the mainstream media has been the issue of fan rioting and revolt between teams of rival ethnicities, and on occasion even teams with the same ethnicity. Most believe that ethnicity was something that the FFA tried to remove from the game back when it formed the A-League, but really it stems back to the early 90’s, when Soccer Australia attempted to remove country names such as Italia, Croatia and Hellas from team names, and rebrand them into more marketable entities. Despite a rebrand in the shell of the club, the fact remained that the ethnic bases were still there and the rivalries continued.
Whilst not getting into the specifics of these rivalries, the mainstream media outlets of Australia, many of which whom saw the sport as a second string game (Channel 7 held the rights for multiple years and rarely showcased the game), preyed on clashes between these rival groups and spun it into negative media.
Obviously, the FFA must be concerned about the bad press that was garnered in the past. But surely the passion of these clubs can only serve as a strong building block to bridge the gap between the currently separate first and second tier. Many people who supported teams that were in the NSL prior to the formation of the A-League feel alienated and unhappy that they can’t see their team playing top-flight football.
Having a national cup could be either a poisoned chalice or the holy grail. It will be up to the FFA to decide whether the murky waters of the past can be cleansed and merged with the clearer waters of what the FFA dubs ‘New Football’. But it’s been a year since we’ve heard anything substantial out of FFA about an FFA Cup, and with rumours abound that it was supposed to start at the end of this season, only time will tell.
The ball’s in your court, FFA.
Kristian Dwyer and Ultimate A-League would like to dedicate this article to a young man and close friend, who recently lost his battle with lung cancer. Gone but never forgotten, kicks some goals up there in the clouds.
RIP Cody Paul Woolhouse 1991-2012.