If there is a document that Australian football supporters need to keep as a venerated text is certainly the 2003 Report of the Independent Soccer Review Committee, also known as the Crawford Report.
That was the watershed moment when football was seen as an important aspect of culture in Australia. So important in fact that the government provided a circuit breaker to the continuous rounds of ineptness, cronyism and maladministration by Soccer Australia.
We know what happened after that report. The establishment of Football Federation Australia, the A-League, qualification to the World Cup and admission to Asia.
However while the overall result has been positive, there are some aspects that need to be revised. And these come down to how the FFA is managing the sport, especially domestically. The A-League is five years old now. Maybe it’s time to review how things are going and whether anything can be improved and changed.
Interestingly the issues are both sides of the same coin. The FFA has within it very highly qualified sport administrators, but are these familiar with a ‘football culture?’ It seems to me that top FFA administrators may have come into the job with a certain negative perception of how the sport was and they endavoured to steer clear from that as much as possible to turn ‘old soccer into new football’. However by doing that they may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.
Don’t mention the ‘E’ word
As an ‘ethnic’ myself I recognised that there were problems with having a soccer competition where teams were identified with a particular group. Of course fans of South Melbourne, or the Melbourne Knights would protest that they endavoured to become more mainstream. However despite all the efforts the fact that South Melbourne was ‘Greek’ and Melbourne Knights ‘Croatian’ was hard to dispel. From the colours of the team which reflected the national flags of those countries, the ethnic origin of the administration and the fan base itself, it was clear where those teams took their culture from. And I am going to paraphrase Seinfeld and say that ‘there is nothing wrong with that’. However the reason why anyone support a team is varied, and feeling some affinity with it is important. I think that just the perception, whether right or wrong, that one team belonged to a particular group discouraged prospective fans.
So a brand new teams with no cultural baggage were created. Now many supporters of the old teams left behind describe A-League teams as ‘plastic’ and they do have a point. It is true that people that gave their time and effort to maintain the sport through pretty dark times have been completely disregarded by the new guard, and maybe they have a point to feel somewhat aggrieved. But these people love and breathe football. It cannot be disputed that NSL teams produced world class players that provided the backbone of the Socceroos that went to Germany.
Is there any way they can be brought back to the fold? The issue here is they may not want to do anything with the FFA and the A-League, and the FFA may still distrust the ‘old soccer’. But surely after five years maybe some sort of rapprochement could be established. The combination of the knowledge of traditional football people with the business skills and acumen of the FFA would make a powerful combination. New fans are fine. But it those who have been born and bred in the sport that will stay with it thick and thin. And lots of those are ‘ethnic’.
One of the holy dictums of the FFA is that football has to be ‘Family Friendly’, and to be truthful I can understand why that is the case. The sport cannot have healthy attendances if limited only to active supporters, muzzas and nostalgic middle aged men like me. However what the FFA (and clubs in general I think) sees as ‘family friendly’ has to be examined. Word has it that the Melbourne Victory Northern Terrace when negotiating with the Club when the FFA forced reserved ‘seating’ onto the clubs, they asked to have a bay for active families next to the NT. Apparently the club refused categorically (one of the few things they refused outright) someone even stated that “as a father” he didn’t approve of children involved in active support (the fact that the club sells family memberships in areas dedicated to active supporters anyway, is another story). So there is this image that active support scares the kids. I can vouch personally that the only scary thing my then nine year old son ever saw in active areas were police in riot gear.
Somehow the idea that any support that does not somehow conduct itself as those who occur in other codes is not ‘family friendly’ is a phurphy. But this belief shows again that the FFA seems to have a phobia about active support. Of course we don’t want fans throwing chairs at each other. But the FFA seems to see active supporters as a threat, rather than as people who are passionate about the sport, and one of the differences between the other codes, that people may come and experience, including families.
Build it and they will come
The way the FFA set up the A League was commendable. The financial instability of some NSL teams had to be avoided, and teams had to provide some sort of financial plan before they were admitted. However some of the latest decisions by the FFA for expansion has left me puzzled. One is the placing of a team in the Gold Coast, and the other is the second Melbourne Team.
I am no business person, and I know that the FFA has shown business acumen, so who am I to judge. However I wonder why place a team in the Gold Coast, a place with little football tradition. My perception of the Gold Coast is of locals who are into Rugby and retired Victorians who would be into Australian Rules football.
The other is the second Melbourne team. Melbourne Victory I think has already caught most of the football market I think, I don’t know where other fans can come from. I think that the football fans that are not following Melbourne Victory are those mentioned above that are pissed off with the FFA anyway because they feel disenfranchised so I don’t think they will flock to another ‘plastic’ team. The other group are the ‘eurosnobs’ that would not go near the A-league unless it reaches Serie A/Liga/EPL standard, so they are unlikely to come on board.
I am sure the FFA would have done plenty of studies in potential markets etc. But football is not like soap. There are emotional and psycho-social elements involved in following a team. Just because Melbourne is a big market, and the Gold Coast is the sixth most populous city in Australia doesn’t mean that people will flock to matches.
Hopefully things have been done better for Western Sydney, where people are interested in the sport.
So what’s next?
I think it’s time to take stock. The A-League as a new enterprise and some things work and some do not, and that’s to be expected. I think it would be advantageous if a review was taken and see what went right and how to enhance it and what didn’t go well and what has to be done about it. Football is still a fragile flower in Australia. It requires lots of care and attention to ensure it will grow and thrive.