Friday, August 10, 2012


Some A League Thoughts

When it comes to countries nutty about sport, few are nuttier than the Australians. Australia; where a horse race can bring the county to a standstill; where men in tight, very tight shorts chase an odd shaped ball are often cheered on by 70,000 nutty spectators; where two types of rugby are popular and they excel in both.

Traditionally the different codes of football have had their own powerbase. The Australian Football League grew up in Melbourne, for a long period of time it was known as the Vitoria Football League or VFL even after it made its first tentative moves away from its traditional base and across the country.

The AFL ladder can still bear an uncanny resemblance to a Melbourne map. Clubs like Collingwood, Essendon, Carlton and St Kilda have a very definite supporter base that has built up over many decades of success or mid table oblivion.

While some Melbourne based teams have fallen by the wayside, the code has flourished elsewhere with cities across the country represented in the national league.

AFL, not having to answer to a tiresome world governing body, has developed its own way, it has taken the franchise system made popular in the USA, Sydney Swans started life as a Melbourne team, added the draft system o allow struggling clubs an equal opportunity of getting the best players while keeping the traditional rivalries and laddish culture that epitomizes sport in many European countries.

To those not familiar the game may look like a mixture of basketball, ballet and rugby but for its aficionados, who pass their club down to the next generation there is no rival to the footy.
Unfortunately football in Australia, the round ball sort enjoyed by just about every country in the world, has yet to have a similar impact domestically. For sure players like Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill have raised the profile of the game internationally but back home it remains a very poor cousin to AFL and the rugby codes.

It’s not hard to see why. Rather than adopting the AFL model of applying US business sense to the European notion of identifying with your local team, they have fully embraced the American model. So when the league was started clubs set up shop round the country based on licenses issued by the FA.

Teams were given names like Sydney or Brisbane Roar. Bland, US franchise style names that bore more resemblance to a video store or a fast food outlet selling fried chicken.

As a football fan I would find it very difficult to get excited about a team called Perth Glory or Melbourne Heat. Essonden and Carlton in AFL, Heat and Victory in the A League?

Ironically there was already in place a number of teams which boasted  grassroots support. Teams like St George, Marconi and APIA Leichhardt in Sydney, South Melboure Hellas, Preston Makedonia and Heidleburg Alexandra in Melbourne were recognizable in the local community as local football clubs but they were never really embraced by their local communities.

A Large crowd watches Heidleberg Alexander and Preston Makedonia
As the names suggest, there was a strong ethnic bias implicit within the football clubs. When Sydney Croatia met Melbourne Croatia the game was billed as the Croatian derby in the local media!

Unfortunately the ethnic qualifier on the club name discouraged a wider fan base and those clubs that did try to break the mould were usually doomed to failure as the Aussie sporting public failed to respond to a game they derisorily called ‘wog ball’.

Melita Eagles, from Sydney’s Maltese community, changed their name to Parramata Eagles in an attempt to gain wider recognition. Sydney City, once the most powerful club in the country moved on from their Jewish origins but struggled to attract fans

The ethic based National Soccer League was never a long term proposition. Everyone knew it and everyone knew that clubs needed to appeal to the whole community and not just one sector of it. But while everyone knew this, no one wanted to be the first to blink.

When a new football federation was set up they all but ignored the older, more established clubs. They wanted Australian football, buoyed by World Cup qualification and the success of exports overseas, to start from scratch. Out went the old with their history and traditions and in came the new following a template imposed from on high.

The new teams are struggling. Beyond Melbourne Victory, crowds are small. Local businessmen have pretty much shunned the game; A League champions Brisbane Roar were bought out by an Indonesian group who are involved in several Indonesian clubs as well as a second division Belgian team.

One club owner, so disgusted with the way the game is run, has threatened to set up a runaway league; another link with the island country to the north!

Perhaps it is time for the A League to welcome the original clubs back into the fold? Outright identification with a particular ethnic group has no place in sport but there is nothing wrong in celebrating your roots. Europe and South America are littered with clubs whose name, kit or crest links back to non indigenous founding fathers.

There surely can be no shame in having a team called South Melbourne, shorn of the Hellas suffix, wearing blue and white and featuring a Greek flag as part of their badge. But at the same time the clubs must be out there in their community telling people they belong to them and not just a certain sector.

By bringing in teams like South Melbourne or Adelaide City, the A League could go a long way towards dispelling the notion that their product is as exciting and genuine as a league full of fried chicken franchises with similar products, uniforms and history.

The league are hoping that the addition of a second team in Sydney, representing the populous western suburbs, can provide a kick start to the moribund game but doubts remain. All the while they ignore the crucial link a football club has with its community the game will continue to struggle in the shadow of the other codes that dominate the sports in the country.

This discussion of the old clubs is merely nostalgia for an imaginary past. Australia has moved on. It isn't the country of immigrants retreating from society in clubs that remind them of homelands long gone. It is an inclusive society with clubs to match. It has an element of Americana about it, consumerist tendencies are natural in a young wealthy country and as a consequence, clubs that reflect that. No Australian kid, and I would include second generation Australians, could care less about those old clubs and they're the ones the league must target to proper.

There are 10 professional clubs:
Which last year averaged

Melbourne Victory 20250
Brisbane Roar 13387
Sydney 12350
Newcastle Jets 12117
Central Coast 9628
Melbourne Heart 9552
Adelaide United 9341
Wellington Phoenix 9004
Perth Glory 8309

Not bad by world standards and in a country where the league is very much number 3. I mustn't forget that the AFL averages 32,000 and Rugby 15,000. There is also Union, Cricket, Basketball etc.

South Melbourne would be lucky to get 500.

Do you mean Heart - that's a much more evocative name!

Parramatta (2 t's) has its own team now, Western Sydney Wanderers. They drew 14,000 to their first game at Parramatta Stadium.

What sort of crowd do the Eagles pull in?
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