By nature I am a very upbeat, positive person – the eternal optimist – so it goes against the grain for me to state that Australia will never win the World Cup. It is possible that FFA boss David Gallop could be right in predicting that eventually our brand of football will become the national game, but to win a World Cup is beyond all imagination.
I say this because Australia does not have a football culture, a pre requisite for winning the premier international football tournament. We have thousands of very talented boys and girls who love their football for 5 or 6 months a year but for most that’s where it stops. I know there are organised Futsal and 5 A Side competitions in the off season but participation rates are a fraction of those in the winter season. With a great climate and so many alternative pastimes (not least FIFA 2015), young Australian footballers have other distractions. As such they are not normally found honing their soccer skills in the warmer months. Until large numbers of kids voluntarily go down to the local park every afternoon to play with their friends, this country won’t produce truly great players.
Football in Europe and South America engulfs the lives of millions of people. Many people in South American nations have long endured great poverty and the only relief for most was, and still is a football. In fact many kids did not even have a football but like Pele, made do with a grapefruit or a sock stuffed with newspapers and tied with string. Football became ingrained in the lives of South Americans and it was from their impoverished environment that many wonderful South American footballers emerged. Today the poorer nations, notably in Africa, are producing exceptional footballers. Like Pele, the first and greatest ever African footballer Eusebio, learned to play with an improvised football – newspapers wrapped up into a ball. Life expectations in poor African communities are very minimal but football can provide a means for young Africans to achieve status and financial security. Football is now the primary sporting recreation of most African nations and has become part of African culture. It is quite possible that the World Cup winner could be an African nation in the not too distant future.
Though my family was not poor, I was the product of a “football culture.” As a boy in England, my life revolved around football. My grandfather captained England and is acknowledged as one of that country’s all time greats. My father was a football writer for 35 years and naturally I fell in love with the game very early in life. I grew up watching the best players in the U.K. and occasionally those of other nations and I tried to imitate them whenever I could find time. I would play in the driving rain and the snow and it was this devotion that consumed me. I was always in trouble because of football, whether coming home from school late with another pair of shoes destroyed, arriving after dark from playing at the local park or covered in mud from pretending I was a goalkeeper. I was obsessed by football to such an extent that we used to play football in the guard’s compartment of the train on the way to school. I loved football and though my career may not have panned out as it could have, living in a football environment was a major factor in my football development.
I have lived in Australia for 47 years and although we have produced some very good players, to be fair there have been very few exceptional ones. Our Australian kids are coached from the age of 5 & 6 but no amount of coaching is going to produce a Pele, Messi, Maradonna or Best. We have numerous private coaching academies and district representative coaching organisations around the country. You can write your coaching curricula and playing systems until the letters and numbers fade on your keyboard but no amount of textbook coaching is going to enable young Aussie players to embrace the spirit of the game, so important for producing outstanding players. If Australian parents were unable to take their children to training and games, would their offspring be prepared to travel regularly on public transport to play their football? I don’t believe that they would but I am sure that their counterparts in Africa and South America would find a way to get to their football match. It comes back to having a real love of the game, being part of a football culture. Unless the neighbours to the right of you and to the left of you are football fanatics and the bus driver asks you for the Sydney FC result, the football vibe will never become part of this nation’s DNA.
Can we create a football culture? Not the least of our obstacles is our geographical isolation. This and financial limitations, makes it extremely difficult to attract the best European and South American stars at the peak of their careers. Players who could inspire our young players, and prove real drawcards for the footballing public. Australia can provide short term financial gain for a few select marquee players, Alessandro Del Piero immediately comes to mind but with all due respect, the Del Piero who wore the Sydney FC shirt, was well past his peak. If he was to have come here 15 years earlier, his impact on Australian football would have been immense.
The established media is another barrier to developing a football culture or mindset. Though Rugby League registrations are at an embarrassingly low level and Rugby Union is not growing at youth level, the sporting media is still reluctant to give football enough coverage to make Australians more conscious of the round ball game. Though the game in this country has come a long way since the days of being viewed solely as a game played by immigrants, our brand of football still needs to be accepted by the wider community to become a dominant force in the Australian sporting environment.The Hyundai A League is currently at a level that will satisfy diehard Aussie football fans but not the unconverted. There has always been a core group of supporters for Australian club soccer but the A League needs a decided lift in the ability of the players and the consequent improvement in the standard of play to be able to poach fans from other football codes. Once this happens we are on our way to having a football culture. The popularity of soccer in Australia could then eclipse that of the other football codes, save AFL in Melbourne. This may in turn lay the seeds to create a football culture in Australia and a possible World Cup win. In the meantime, I will not be ordering my “Australia – World Cup Winners” tee shirt just yet.