It’s more than a Grand Final

The decision by the Australian Professional Leagues (APL) to sell the grand final hosting rights of the A-League Men, A-League Women and E-League to Destination NSW thus playing the grand finals in Sydney for the next three years caused an absolute shit storm among football fans. But the outrage is not only because of the location of a grand final. It goes deep in the issues that Australian Association Football has faced for decades.

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“If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re really just camping out.”

Once the dictum that “If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re really just camping out.” was erroneously attributed to Paul Keating. But for many A League fans (especially those not from Sydney) it seems this might have been said by the APL when it decided to assign the next three A-Leagues grand finals to Sydney.

The reaction was overwhelmingly negative, in some cases visceral. Reading twitter some who are not into Australian soccer, but in other codes/sport were surprised by the reaction. The issue here is that assigning the grand final to Sydney is not the only issue. It is yet another demonstration of the divergence of the A League and its fans.

Building affinity to an entity

When the A-League was created from the ashes of the NSL, most teams were created brand new. Melbourne Victory, Sydney FC were teams which had no links. The A League was created, and soccer fans were asked, if they supported the code, to come and support them.

Unlike NSL teams, these brand new entities had no emotional connections apart from being connected to the city where potential fans lived or grew up. But fans did arrive and started supporting these new teams. These fans affiliated with them as representing their city, but the emotional connection was also created by the establishment of organised supporters group. Chanting, choreography, flags and banners and marching and travelling together created that bond that could transcend just supporting a team and this took effort and a lot of emotional involvement among fans. And why? Because the underlying common factor was that these fans wanted to create the type of support seen around the world. Through supporting their A-League team they wanted to create and share the same excitement seen in cities like Rome or Buenos Aires.

The curse of not being a ‘football nation’

It always appear to me that at the root of most of the problems that face Australian soccer originate from one thing: That Association Football is not the main code and has to compete with the behemoths of the AFL and NRL.

Active fans have been constantly under attack over the years because of a mainstream sporting and police culture that repeatedly fails to understand that supporting an Association Football team is not the same as a cheer squad in the AFL or whatever they have in the NRL. It’s loud, unified and yes intimidating because it has to be. This doesn’t mean that the young people who do this at the ground are going to tip into a riot. Active fans are often featured in promotions, but when the media got stuck into fans for often just misdemeanors and said why the soccer fans are like AFL/NRL ones, those who control football, either at national or club level instead of defending the fans scuttled scared and muttered ‘it will not happen again’ and impose even more restrictions on the fans where now the atmosphere – which was hailed as one of the big differences in sport experience on Australia – is a shade of what it used to be. But more importantly many fans felt a sense of betrayal. After all they were who invested a huge emotional capital in establishing an emotional attachment to what is ultimately an artificial creation, they chanted, jumped, created banners and travelled interstate and this how they got treated.

The other curse of not being the main code and competing against bigger and codes that attracts more attention is that those running the A-League feel that somehow hey need to follow what they do. Having ‘more behaved’ crowds is an example, but the other is what has happened with this grand final fiasco. Other codes have their Grand Final in one city, so why not the A-League? But also the desire by football management to ‘match’ the AFL and NRL or even surpassing them. It’s a futile exercise. Maybe with James Johnson as an exception (so far) it is surprising how soccer senior administration think that copying the other two main codes is the key to success, when in fact is the uniqueness of football that is its greatest selling asset.

As the failure of being defended by the football organisations when unjustly attacked in the media, this Grand Final decision out of the blue is yet another demonstration they don’t really count. They can be used at props to make videos look good, but they are used as another marketing tool. No wonder there are plans of walkouts or boycotts. It’s the only weapon active fans have. So the head honchos want the atmosphere to sell their ‘product’? Well let’s see how you go without the fans.

Is this serious?

Despite all the travails, crowds going up and down and recently COVID, the A-League has survived, but some fear this may be the last straw. Even senior journalist are fearing the future of the competition

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As I have explained before fans invested a lot of emotional capital in following team which was created relatively recently. This is where traditional teams like South Melbourne or Sydney United who were part of the NSL and now play in the states’ based NPL have an advantage, as they have had the time to create those strong connection that go through generations, and also (something that was seen as a minus when the A-League was formed) they have been created through a community (whether Italian, Greek or Croatian) that creates strong bonds.

Samantha Lewis wrote an article asking whether this is the A-League “European Super League” moment.

It will all depend on how strong those bonds A-League fans have established with their teams are. In Europe – as with those traditional teams in Australia that I mentioned above – fans also have associated attachments of generations and long traditions that most A-League teams don’t have. It remain to be seen if the bonds attaching A-League teams to their fans are strong enough to withstand this latest betrayal.

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