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A fine effort in a game of fine margins, but where to now?

An early-morning casual observer of the thousands walking away from the fan site at Darling Harbour in Sydney following the World Cup game between Australia and Argentina would have wondered who won. While people were not boisterously celebrating, there was an air of contentment, happiness even, at a job well done. On the free public transport, comments flowed about ‘pride’ and ‘we came close’ and players such as Souttar and Leckie and Behich are now known to millions more people than just a few weeks ago.

What struck me about the crowd was that a minority wore Australian football jerseys. Although up at 5am to watch the game, these were not die-hards. They were converts, enjoying the thrill of Australian success that few expected, least of all the people who know the team well.

Yes, the fans will be back for the Women’s Football World Cup in 2023, where Australia has a much better chance of winning than the men will ever have. Probably Australia and the US are the only two football nations in the world where players in the women’s team are better known than the men’s. The challenge is not filling the stadiums for the international games in 2023. The greatest difficulty is to convert fans to regular attendees of the A-League.

Arnold's modest resources

I'm biased and I’ll lay my tickets on the table. I love watching the A-League. I am a Foundation Member of Sydney FC and rarely miss a home game. I have travelled to three World Cups following the Socceroos, in Germany, South Africa and Brazil. I have played football for six decades, and only a few weeks ago, participated in the Pan Pacific Masters. I watched every qualifying game for WC2022, where we missed out on automatic inclusion due to poor performances that led to the playoff game against Peru. Enter Sydney FC’s goalkeeper, the ‘grey-Wiggle’ Andrew Redmayne, whose antics we have watched for years, to pull the team out of the fire as the final qualifier for Qatar.

With all this background knowledge, and especially after the shellacking from France in the first game of men versus boys, I expected the worst. In a team made up mainly of journeymen and youngsters, only one plays in the top five leagues in the world in England, Italy, Spain, France and Germany, and even Awer Mabil rarely starts for his Cadiz club. Our best two players, Martin Boyle and Adjin Hrustic, were injured, and vital defender Harry Souttar had played only a few minutes in the last 12 months for his club Stoke City, currently 17th in England’s second-tier Championship. Players coming from the A-League, St Mirren, Hearts, Dundee and a string of lower division teams were not wanted by the big clubs of Europe. Up-front we were led by Mitch Duke from the Japanese second division, and midfield was driven by Jackson Irvine from division two in Germany. One of our few high-profile stars, Tommy Rogic, was unavailable. When coach Graham Arnold offered places in Qatar to Sydney-born Cristian Volpato and Perth-raised Alessandro Circati, they both refused, leaving their options open to play for Italy, who did not even qualify.

But Arnold believed, and made the team bigger than the sum of the parts. The generation of 2022 is etched into football history as the first to win two games at a World Cup, eclipsing the record of the legendary 2006 team that featured a plethora of top-league players. Memorable goals in each of four games and two clean sheets make up the best-ever Australian performance and football brought this multi-cultural nation together.

There is no bigger global stage

No other sport can compete with football for a genuine global world cup. There are more member countries of FIFA (209) than there are of the United Nations (193). To reach the final 16 of a Football World Cup is an outstanding achievement, which nations such as Germany, Belgium and Italy where there are no genuine competitor sports all failed to advance in 2022.

As the biggest stage in sport, a single moment can define a player’s career. It’s unfair that a professional footballer can toil away for a decade in lower leagues, with maybe a season or two in the sun, and nothing will define a career more than a few seconds at a World Cup.

Even at a top level, David Seaman played 75 times for England and 325 games for Arsenal, including the league-winning 1991 team that conceded only 18 goals in 38 games, an amazing record. Yet most England fans remember him for one mistake against Brazil’s Ronaldinho at the 2002 World Cup. Zinedine Zidane was an extraordinary player but a single incident when he was sent off for headbutting Italy’s Materazzi in the 2006 final lives long in the memory. Diego Maradonna enjoyed many achievements but the 'Hand of God' goal in 1986 is the most famous.

For Australia, John Aloisi’s qualifying penalty goal against Uruguay in 2005 to break the drought of missing the World Cup finals for 31 years is the biggest moment in Australian football. And now, the World Cup goals by Craig Goodwin, Mitch Duke and Matthew Leckie will forever be the high points of their careers.

But it's a game of fine margins. If Aziz Behich’s dazzling run past four Argentinian defenders had not been blocked at the last gasp by Lisandro Martinez, it would have gone down as one of the great goals in World Cup history, etched forever into Australian folklore. Behich will think of that moment every day for the rest of his life, yet a year from now, recent converts will not remember his name, and probably forget the incident. Same with the final strike of the game, the shot by Garang Kuol, just saved by the goalkeeper. He is only 18 with wonderful potential ahead, but it would have been the goal of his career. Hit a post, a fingertip from a keeper, an unfair referee decision. Margins measured in millimetres define World Cup delight or distress.

(And yes, I'm choosing here to ignore the disgraceful corruption at FIFA and the lack of human rights in Qatar which are more important issues).  

Why are Australians thrilled by the exit at R16?

When the Australian cricket team was eliminated from the recent T20 semi-finals, it was considered a failure. Imagine if the Australian rugby league team had lost the so-called world cup final to Samoa. Another failure. Same with teams from sports such as field hockey and union. The rugby league world cup included 16 nations, but the Lebanese team came from Sydney’s western suburbs, and nobody seriously thinks Greece, the Cook Islands and Ireland field a decent team. There are only 12 full ICC members playing test cricket. While rugby union offers a better global exposure, it's football first and daylight second. 

The reason we celebrate Australia’s achievement in 2022 is due to expectations. After struggling to qualify against Asian teams, most people thought Australia could not progress through the group stage. Australia entered the event ranked 38th in the world, into a group containing France (4th), Denmark (10th) and Tunisia (30th). Winning two games is a welcome and unexpected achievement. As Mo Gawdat says in his book, Solve for Happiness:

“Happiness is equal to or greater than the perception of the events in your life minus the expectations.”

He says that happiness depends on whether you are satisfied by an outcome, and with most expectations so low, the 2022 results are a joy. It is the fans of teams such as Germany, Belgium and Spain who are miserable because their expectations were high. In fact, a Brazilian, French or English supporter would be upset if their team is eliminated in the quarter finals despite advancing further than Australia.    

Consider the estimated value of the teams that progressed versus those eliminated, and it emphasises how Graham Arnold pulled the best from his modest resources.

The impact on the A-League

So now we have the obvious calls that the A-League must capitalise on the country’s new-found love of football, in the same way the great team of 2006 should have been a springboard for the game.

We have been here before. In 1997 when Northern Spirit played its first home game in front of nearly 19,000 fans at a packed North Sydney Oval, it felt like a new beginning. Each Friday night of that season, local office workers would enjoy a beer or two in a pub after work then wander up the hill to watch Spirit in a great atmosphere with fireworks and music. Players included Graham Arnold, Robbie Slater, Mark Rudan and Mark Milligan, and Arnold became player-coach in the second year. It truly looked like football had arrived, but each subsequent season saw decline. By 2004, the entire professional league had imploded.

And along came the A-League, which is now 18 years old, and there was much promise in the early years, driven by the high profile of Dwight Yorke. Yet far from thriving and growing each season, recent years have seen disheartening declines in crowds, sponsors, media coverage and television audiences. It is often difficult to find the results as newspapers fill the sports pages with trivia on AFL and rugby league players.

The decline is a mystery when the local professional product is good and games are highly competitive. While most fans of the game tune into the major overseas leagues on pay TV, nothing beats the whole-of-game perspective of live football. Attending a game allows the fan to watch the movement of individual players and the team formation far better than relying on the cameraman to pick up the nuances of the game.

It baffles me how few of the people who love playing football attend games in person. Football is the highest participation team sport in Australia, with estimates of up to two million Australians participating, yet a good weekend for the A-League is 100,000 fans across all games.

For the popularity of Sydney FC, the closure of Allianz Stadium for its rebuild and the pandemic restrictions on games were twin disasters. For the four years of construction, the team was forced to play at other grounds, mostly Kogarah Oval in the south, which alienated the supporter base in the north and east. In the first year of the Alessandro Del Piero signing in 2012/2013, Sydney’s average crowds reached a record of 18,944. In 2021/22, it was a miserable 5,045. It was the same around the country, with a few thousand turning up to watch the new teams, Macarthur and Western United. Heaven knows why they were accepted into the competition when they can muster such a tiny fan base. Here is football at the highest standard in Australia and the crowds are dismally small.

Go to any junior level football game in Australia such as the top under-15 teams and the level of talent is staggering. It looks like it would rival the best in the world, and it’s been that way for a long time. What happens to all those kids when they turn 18? A few make it into the ranks of the A-League, a few go overseas, but most seem to drift away.

The challenge is to bring the massive enthusiasm of the last few weeks into the local competition. There were eight A-league players in the Socceroos squad, including goal scorers Leckie and Goodwin, and they will return to playing immediately. On Saturday, four of the squad with feature at the new Allianz Stadium. Their fierce competitiveness and considerable skill in Qatar should demonstrate that these players and dozens like them are well worth watching live. It’s not the English Premier League and not even the second tier Championship, but it’s not far off the next level.

 

The returning Socceroos are issuing challenges for the A-League to capitalise on the World Cup success. Aziz Behich said:

“What we have done right now, it should be a no-brainer. We’ve accomplished something with this group that no other Socceroos team has ... Us as players, on our side, we’ve done our part. Those people know who they are, but this should be a massive stepping stone for football in Australia to go forward. I can’t see why it shouldn’t. I’m hoping we’ve inspired the next generation to coming through that’s it’s possible to match the best in the world, even being Australian.

Obviously it puts the A-League on the map, we had a fair few boys from the A-League, this is the perfect moment for Australian football to step forward and make sure the sport gets more recognised back home.”

The need to capitalise

It sounds like waving a magic wand if there is no strategy behind it. The Socceroos brand is clearly enhanced, the public adores the success, but how many parents and young kids will go to the next game at Campbelltown Stadium and watch Macarthur play Wellington? A crowd of 5,000 would be a great result. Sure, the next home game for the Socceroos in late March 2023 will attract an admiring crowd, and the 2023 Women’s World Cup will be amazing, but what of the A-League a year from now?

Thousands of kids will be inspired by the two World Cups, and a family pass to watch Sydney FC is only $65. But football authorities need to channel some of the US$13 million paid to Australia for its Qatar adventure into lowering the cost of playing junior football, which can run into thousands of dollars a year for the better players. Many youngsters drop out because their parents cannot afford it. Football needs to make the pathways into the game and retention a top priority, not just bask in top-level glory once every four years. 

Following the World Cup, where many stars have played their last major tournament, the January transfer window may open opportunities to attract marquee signings. While these players are no longer at the top of their game, the Del Piero and Yorke experiences show the right names can bring in the crowds. Despite the jokes about 'All-Night Dwight', he worked hard on the football field.  

The facilities at the rebuilt Allianz Stadium are excellent, as would be expected at a cost of nearly one billion dollars. Western Sydney Wanderers is more competitive and crowds are improving. Melbourne Victory played well last year and supporters are coming back. Wellington is playing in New Zealand again. While not in the same league as the 60,000 who turned up for a local derby in 2016, an encouraging 33,000 watched the first Sydney derby at the new stadium. But teams in Perth, Brisbane, Newcastle and Central Coast face falling crowds and a disappointing lack of local enthusiasm.

Yes, let’s seize the moment as crowds return in numbers. Yes, we love the Socceroos and the drama of the World Cup every four years (or every two years including the women), but unlike league and AFL, most of our stars do not play here. Mind you, that’s the same in South America and fans go wild for River Plate and Boca Juniors despite never seeing Messi play for a local club. Where Australian football has a unique problem is the competition from four other sports, especially league and AFL, and this is not going away anytime.

 

Graham Hand is Editor-At-large for Firstlinks. 

 

15 Comments
EB
December 13, 2022

It was fantastic that this team did what they did – at best I was hoping for a draw against Tunisia, and I only thought we were a 30% chance for a draw against Denmark, which was the aim to progress (although that theory was blown out of the water when Tunisia took the lead and beat France), so to then beat Denmark as well, was unbelievable.

That 2006 team though….best ever…. and so many of them playing in the Premier League and Aloisi in La Liga.

George Hamor
December 11, 2022

Hi Graham
Like you I am/was a Sydney FC and Man U supporter for 40 + years as well as St George in RL.
Unfortunately my enthusiasm waned when the joy of watching games played by these teams evaporated as a result of financial pressures on clubs and their ability to hang on to fan favourites such as Nincovic etc.
Man U revolves around the success of Alex Ferguson and the Class of 92.
Sydney FC thrived under Graham Arnold and of course St George has been floundering following the departure of Wayne Bennett.
The term loyalty belongs in the dustbin of history and fans like you are unfortunately in the minority.
How football can thrive again is a mystery unless big money is spent to lure top class players to come here for at least 3 seasons

George Hamor

Peter
December 07, 2022

Thanks for such a well written, thoughtful article Graham. Given the modest resources and expectations it should be considered one of the great achievements in Australian sporting history.

I am a true all sports tragic. I went to one of those Northern Spirit games at North Sydney Oval in the 90s and marvelled at the speed and skill compared with on TV. But I have never been back to an A League game. I could tell you more about the English Premier League than the A League. So part of the challenge is to engage people like myself. Your final sentence goes to the heart of the problem. It is difficult for the A League to break the media stronghold of the other sports, and then stories about Ronaldo etc fill most of whatever space/time is allocated to soccer. I want the A league to succeed, so putting my hand up to get more involved going forward and embrace it for what it is - not what it isn't!

Graham Hand
December 07, 2022

Hi Peter, great to hear you will go to some A-League games. Adopt a club, learn about the players and hang in there until it starts to mean something to you, and you will have as much joy from watching live football as most fans in Europe and South America. OK, the skill level is not like watching Real Madrid or Liverpool, but that does mean you cannot care passionately about the result.

Wolfgang Reinhard
December 07, 2022

Graham
You are a fabulous writer and I love your enthusiasm for the sport.
I am in Japan right now and me as a German being constantly reminded of the 2:1 victory by .the Samurai Blue.
Japans progression as a football nation in a very short period is an inspiration and example how to develop football.
Hopefully we follow suit.

Graham Hand
December 07, 2022

Thanks, Wolfgang. Germany is going through a transition, and their time in the sun will come again. Yes, great to see Japan's progress, it will make the rivalry between Aus and Japan even more intense in future.

Sean
December 07, 2022

Even though I live overseas, I too love watching the A-League. I don't care about the quality of play isn't near the EPL, I love watching my team and most junior players are recruited locally, a good number of them make it into an A-League squad and if some move on to other A-League teams or overseas then I keenly watch their careers along with supporting my team.

Graham Hand
December 07, 2022

Hi Sean, great to hear from someone living overseas and enjoying the A-L on the TV. In Australia, a yearly subscription to Paramount+ which has the A-L rights is only $75, giving access to all games. I watch the highlights of every match.

Jimmy
December 07, 2022

All you have to do is look at the live sites to figure out why people don't show up to the A-League…

Everyone at the live sites had pride in what the team represented. What do shiny new A-League clubs created by marketing teams represent? They don't have roots in local communities, they don't have connections to grassroots or the rest of the football pyramid, they don't have any distinctive values which makes them unique from other clubs. Why would you spend your time and money on a club that feels hollow?

Everyone at the live sites had so much to lose. We knew that each goal Australia conceded was a step closer to getting knocked out – which would mean another 4 year wait to get another chance. What do you lose if your team comes last in the A-League? Nothing. Football thrives when the stakes are high but in the A-League, there are no stakes. Why would you watch a competition that's been emotionally sanitised?

The solution is promotion/relegation and the addition of clubs with history that represent smaller communities. Unfortunately because of the size of our country and football not being the top spectator sport, this is very difficult to achieve.

Graham Hand
December 07, 2022

Hi Jimmy, I agree that many A-League clubs have not done enough to engage with local communities, and they now realise that was a mistake. But following Sydney FC (or another A-L team) does not in any way 'feel hollow'. It is not 'created by marketing teams'. It's as much my team and the team of thousands of people like me as most people following any club in any other country or sport. I sulk when they lose, I thrill when they score, I treasure championships, cups and premierships. It's ridiculous to say there is nothing at stake simply because there is no relegation system (at the moment). This year, the rivalry between WSW, MC and MV in particular will be full on. You obviously do not follow a team when you call the competition 'emotionally sanitised'. That's complete BS.

Mart
December 07, 2022

"It baffles me how few of the people who love playing football attend games in person. Football is the highest participation team sport in Australia".... Graham - you said it ! Unfortunately that's it in a nutshell. The bottom line is football (sorry, soccer) as it exists now has no tradition in Australia since the A league is a made up competition with made up teams that have no history. Thus unless the 'product' is excellent / superior or unless there is a marquee player on the pitch folk want to see (e.g. Pirlo) there's not the interest. It's the same with Super League Rugby - made up franchises and competition. Both A League and Super Rugby have bursts of success in terms of crowds but it's never sustainable.. The same is happening with English rugby (private owned franchises and a couple now have gone bankrupt). Contrast this with the passion / support of, say, Melbourne Hellas / South Melbourne a few decades back (and, yes, I fully accept there are more than a few issues with 'ethnic' club models). Both football (soccer) and rugby here have chopped and changed so much there is no tradition or continuity. Contrast that with the rusted on support (family generations) and long 'one club' traditions in AFL and Rugby League. My suggestion - on the back of sustained overachievement by the Socceroos, excellent existing infrastructure, knowledge of how to run global tournaments (Rugby world cups, Olympics etc), and the fact that everyone wants to visit Australia we have to go all out for winning the right to host a soccer world cup as soon as possible. And then stick with our current domestic structure and really market the brown stuff out of it up to, through, and beyond that world cup. It's the only realistic chance I think we have of cementing and growing the game in Australia .....

Graham Hand
December 07, 2022

Hi Mart, thanks for your comments but after 18 years of following Sydney FC, week in and week out, I disagree there is no tradition. I have also followed Manchester United for 60 years (I was born near Manchester so I have an excuse) and for many years, I have been more passionate, worried and care more for SFC than for United. SFC is my team, I go to watch them, I know the players intimately. It's got nothing to do with who owns the club. I own the gear and the signed souvenirs. My devotion to the team matches the vast majority of Parramatta, Souths, Waratahs, Richmond, Swans ... you name it ... fans. There is no 'rusted on' contrast as you claim. My support is as rusted on as if I was born into a family of fans, through thick and thin.

Mart
December 08, 2022

Graham - fantastic to hear and I in no way meant to downplay fans such as yourself that are quite clearly passionate. That's fabulous. But .... where to from here ? How do the Sydney FCs of the world build on supporters like you and grow the base double ? Three fold ? My fear is that the A League will suffer in the same way as, say, Super League in rugby union where quite a few clubs had a whizz bang start in terms of supporter numbers but have no plateaued or, worse, supporter interest has declined. Hence my suggestions to how to rust on / grow but I'm sure folk like you have other (better !) ideas. The audience is there - for example, 4 of the women's world cup games in 2023 in Melbourne are basically sold out. So how do we attract a sizeable chunk of these folks regularly to the A League (men and women games) ? On the back of amazing performances by the men and women national teams now's the time !

Stephen
December 07, 2022

Excellent article Graham. As a football tragic myself for over 50 years, I read as many football articles I can lay my hands on (or click my mouse on these days), and your analysis rivals those of any professional football writer.

I pretty much agree with everything you say. I can only hope that this World Cup is finally the trigger for raising football's visibility and acceptance to those of the other games played in this country.

Graham Hand
December 07, 2022

Thanks for the kind comments, Stephen. In fact, going back 20 years or more, I wrote for the Northern Spirit matchday magazine, a page called 'From The Terrace' as a fan's perspective on the game and the team. It's extraordinary to recall that as the team was passed from owner to owner like a counterfeit note, they still produced a programme for each match. It's something that no A-League team has ever done, and of course, it's all online now.

 

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