We Need to Talk About the A-League

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Sam Kerr by Jamie Smed https://flic.kr/p/2dEjCRA

We all heard of Samantha Kerr but I suspect not many of us football fans may have heard of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who stated the famous epigram: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” which translate to “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. If there is one statement characterising what has happened with the FFA in the last few weeks that would pretty much encapsulate it.

Fans that started following football after the advent to the A-League, or after Australia finally started to qualify for the World Cup may be bewildered by what Richard Hinds describes as the ‘Byzantine politics and questionable decision making’ of the FFA.  Some older fans just nod and mumble ‘we know…we know” as we remember the days of Labozzetta and Knopp in the old Soccer Australia.

Football in Australia is in a unique position.  Everyone can see that it is THE global sport but it is not the most popular here.  This creates its own tensions.  There has been a spate of reports about how to deal with this problem child and unleash its potential.

My opinion is that this unique position is what has been hampering its progress for some time.  So if I was going to produce the ‘Tresoldi inquiry into Australian Association Football’ what it would contain?

Institute a reconciliation process

Two very interesting books have come out recently about the history of Association Football in Australia. One was ‘The game that never happened’ by Ian Syson, which detail the struggles soccer had to go through to establish itself as a code in the country against others such as Rugby and Australian Rules.  The other one  was Joe Gorman’s ‘The death and live of Australian Soccer which has a section that deals with the tensions that were created when an influx of migrants came to Australia and in many cases revived soccer but also replaced the predominantly anglo/celtic culture that existed before.

I believe that these tensions, that hark back decades haven’t been resolved, and that football will not progress smoothly until they are.

There are different groups who are discussing how football is located in the Australian sport environment.

Different groups have manoeuvred themselves over the years to grasp control of the sport disregarding others.  The question is, can Australian soccer row the boat together in the same direction?

When I was supporting Carlton SC in the NSL I noticed that there was a hostile attitude from some fans of clubs that originated from NESB  backgrounds.  They saw a club like Carlton as a Trojan horse from the ‘anti-ethnic’ people in Soccer Australia to push their agenda and rejoiced when Carlton disappeared.

In an open system, we need to resolve these scars.  They should not be dismissed, because years of excluding teams which have been created by people who live and breathe football just because they didn’t fit a mainstream ‘Australian’ ideal is hurtful.  But at the same time having this unresolved issue could be toxic in a future open competition.  All football supporters, whether they support a team which was formed with the creation of the A-League, or one built up form the 50’s by European migrants, need to respect each others’ teams and acknowledge their right to play and exist in a new football structure. While the FFA has to openly declare that any lingering ‘old soccer new football’ dictum has to be abandoned and stamped out forever.

Use the ‘Bluestone Lane’ model, not try to be Starbucks

In 2010 ex-AFL footballer Nick Stone moved to New York to work for ANZ.  He noticed that there were no ‘Melbourne style’ cafes.  Cafes that offered the type of coffee we are used in Australia.  He saw a gap in the cafes market. He started ‘Bluestone Lane’ where instead of percolated coffee they served things like piccolo lattes to skinny flat whites together with things like avocado smash – mashed with a touch of feta, and topped with an optional poached egg.

The venture started with one small café in Manhattan in 2013 became a success opening more cafes in New York but also across the USA.

What we see here is that Bluestone Lane has captured a niche that while not as big as the Starbuck at every corner in every USA city is unique, and has been successful.

That could be a model for the A-League.  We don’t need to be the Starbucks of the football codes like the AFL.  We can be the Bluestone Lane, smaller, but successful and offering a product that no one else can offer.  Trying to match the big boys will always be a losing battle in Australia.  Football needs to create its own market space where others would find it difficult to occupy. So how can we do that?

Revisit the PFA’s “5 Pillars” Strategy

Football in Australia has unique advantages that should be utilised.  Back in the dark days of 2002, the PFA put forward a proposal for a new competition called the “Australian Premier League’.  That was made redundant by the advent of the A-League, but there is stuff in there that is relevant today.  One is the ‘5 pillars strategy’ which involves:

  • Quality
  • Atmosphere
  • Community
  • Local brands
  • Visibility

I’ll leave whether the A-League has reached a level of quality to those who are more experts in football than me.  You can only do so much in a very competitive world football environment.  On the issues of atmosphere, community, local brands and visibility are how football in Australia can strategically use its advantages.  While the advent of the A-League has somewhat superceded some of the arguments put forward in the PFA document, some still hold true.  The issue of boutique stadium is currently being raised when it is noticed how much more atmosphere is created when Sydney plays in a venue like Leichhardt Oval.

“It’s promotion and relegation, Jim, but not as we know it”

The big chestnut of Australian football has been the prospect of promotion and relegation in the A-League.

I was unconvinced that it could work in Australia.  But reading arguments for it changed my mind.  The argument that football is after all a pyramid and all the football family should be connected echoes my beliefs in equality and non-discrimination.  But also I came to the conclusion that the only way Australia can reproduce the types of environments which are present in football nations, where kids are introduced to football early is through community teams, and the way these players can achieve is if smaller teams are connected to the top tier.  After all many players from the ‘golden generation’ came from so-called ‘ethnic teams’. That was probably because the culture they grew up in was totally football, like in the country their heritage came from.

However, I do believe that the European model of straight up and down promotion and relegation may not be the most appropriate for Australia for a number of reasons.

The most important one is that we would have to shift from a closed model to an open one, and this needs to be done carefully and gradually.  In many leagues in Europe the promotion and relegation system was established when teams were more or less on a level playing field.  In Australia we have A-League teams which are fully professional and have lots of resources and NPL teams which are semi-professional and don’t have anything like the means of the top tier. That is why there needs to be a process where a promotion and relegation system is more equal.

Advocates of promotion and relegation often mention ‘global standard’ but this standard seems to be achieved by different methods across the world.

The Argentinian model

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One example that Australia could look at is Argentina.  They have a system called Promedios based on the performance over a number of seasons.  Clubs can avoid relegation by having a high coefficient which is calculated by dividing the points achieved in the last four seasons by the number of matches played in the same period.  Teams with the lowest points coefficient at the end of the season are relegated.

Adopting a modified system based on this would be as a way of introducing promotion and relegation in Australia that would initially protect the A-League teams from immediate relegation while still giving the lower teams a shot at it.

Another option, which would be a bit radical is to adopt an ‘Apertura and Clausura’ system.

The A-Aleague and a second division (which would also be subjected to straight promotion and relegation to a lower league) would play each other home and away. At the end the top six teams would play in a final round to eventually reach a grand final.  The bottom six (or whatever) teams would play in playoff rounds with the top 4 teams of the NPL, replacing the current NPL final series.  At the end the top six teams will remain in the A-League and the bottom 4 will remain or be relegated to an NPL.

Going forward

These are some ideas. I am sure there will be better and more experienced heads that can devise a promotion and relegation system that suits the geographical expanse of Australia, the delicate transition from a closed to an open system and having a pyramid that is stable and not prone to topple over.  But as stated before I think we have arrived at a juncture where the benefits an open system in football in Australia will outweigh the risks.

To paraphrase JFK “We choose to have promotion and relegation in Australia not because it is easy, but because it is hard…..because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”

2 Comments

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2 responses to “We Need to Talk About the A-League

  1. I am not sure if you could include this group anywhere, but there is a subset that consists of ‘nativist’s (nicer name for a white nationalist or even racist I suppose) who are totally against wog teams. These nativist’s can range from A-League regular’s to ‘theatregoers’. I know of two of them.

  2. Need to update my Venn diagrams Savvas!

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