With another grassroots football season almost upon us, participation rates in Australian football for female and male players continue to increase. Not only are the numbers growing in the traditional winter season but so many now enrol in summer football competitions from under 6’s through to football’s elder statesmen and women of more senior years. With so many playing “Association Football” you would expect the game’s popularity to translate into expanding the profile and awareness of the game at elite club (A League & W League) and national level. Sadly, this is not the case and in more than fifty years of following Australian football, I dont believe that I have witnessed such a lack of interest or so much apathy towards our game from the general public.
Obviously, the impact of Covid 19 has affected the effective functioning and fluidity of the A League and W League and postponement of the men’s World Cup qualifiers has created a drop off in interest in the national team but even pre pandemic, the attention and interest of the Australian population in our football was diminishing. The reasons for this are many, not the least being the harmful and often embarassing invasion of the Video Assistant Referee (“VAR”) on the game. Remarkably, this has only drawn an indifferent response from Football Australia – “nothing to see here?”
Thriving elite competitions would help boost the game’s image and visibility but despite some commentators assertions that we are seeing a better standard of football this season, I am not convinced. Long after Hyundai drove off into the sunset, the A League still has no naming sponsor, attendances continue to decline and TV ratings are struggling. Clearly, the A League, our elite male competition cannot curently be the knight in shining armour that would rebuild interest in Australian football.
In 2005 with the formation of the A League, traditional clubs such as South Melbourne Hellas, Marconi, Melbourne Knights (formerly Croatia) and Apia Leichhardt were cut adrift from the top tier competition with no opportunity to prove their worth on the playing pitch. Not only was there a disconnect with the senior players who were denied the opportunity to compete, but critically junior players and their parents in these clubs and their surrounding associations, were deprived of the chance to support their senior team in the premier men’s football league in the country.
How many grassroots players and their families have lost interest in supporting their local team and football in general, because the team cannot be a part of the elite national competition? Promotion and relegation between all tiers of our football must be incorporated as soon as is practical or the A League will disappear like the former National Soccer League (“NSL”) onto the Australian football scrapheap.
Over the years, “marquee” / overseas guest players have lifted crowds and recognition of Australian football. Our game needs quality star players but with current Covid 19 travel restrictions and the dire financial position of many A League clubs, it is doubtful that we will see any foreign superstars gracing our football pitches for some time to come. The benefit of guest players has been questionable at times but many such as Takis Loukanidis, George Best, Kevin Keegan and in the A League’s short history, Dwight Yorke, Shinji Ono and Alessandro Del Piero have sparked the local game and made more Australians aware that we too play the “World Game”.
Particularly post World War ll, Australian football managed to retain a profile with visits from overseas clubs. The 1960’s especially, saw English clubs Everton, Chelsea and then reigning Division 1 champions Manchester United tour as well as AS Roma and a Scottish international team that included Sir Alex Ferguson in its’ playing ranks. Brazil’s Santos arrived in 1972 with an ageing Pele and in 1979, few will forget the match between Australia and “Kaiser” Franz Beckenbauer’s New York Cosmos at an overflowing Sydney Showground. Although the touring teams often outplayed their local opponents, the games were always competitive, well attended and media attention and exposure were guaranteed.
In recent years we have been visited by English Premier League giants, Chelsea, Manchester United, Tottenham and Liverpool but these visits now coincide with the Australian off season, where the rusty, under prepared local A League opposition is usually cannon fodder for the tourists. The matches draw big crowds but the football has become secondary to merchandising and the promotion of these wealthy overseas football clubs. The crowds at these fixtures include many “Eurosnobs”, fervent fans of the touring team but generally not interested in supporting the local game consistently.
I consider that the foremost reason for the drop off in interest in Australian football is that we very rarely get to see our male international players in Australia. The retirement of Socceroos stalwarts Tim Cahill and Mile Jedinak in the last couple of years has not helped but the Australian national team has lost it’s identity. Even during the pandemic, Australian sports fans have been able to watch the best we have to offer, whether it be cricketers, rugby or tennis players but not our footballers. Of course, Covid 19 has made it virtually impossible for our overseas players to return but even pre Covid, we rarely got to watch our international stars. Understandably, scores of Australian players seek the perceived glamour and recognition of playing in Europe but before local players were lured overseas by dubious promises and petrodollars, it was possible to travel to Wentworth Park in Sydney, or Olympic Park in Melbourne and watch the best Australian players turn out for their club teams. Peter Wilson, Adrian Alston, Jimmy Mackay, Billy Vojtek, Johnny Warren and the rest were on show every week and even non football fans could be tempted to catch a bus to a modest suburban Hurstville Oval in Sydney in 1971 to watch a St. George team littered with Socceroos.
The country’s international stars were real, visible and on show every week – not Scotsmen who had never set foot in Australia and were playing on the other side of the world. Today, the neutral onlooker would not know Martin Boyle or Harry Souttar from a boiled haggis. In contrast, 1974 World Cup squad member Ray Richards, who played all his senior club football locally, would have been familiar to all Australian sports fans, if not for his drooping moustache and London accent then for his incredibly long throw in ability.
Most of our current international players are out of sight and as a result, out of mind. Australia no longer plays “friendly” international fixtures or if they do, they will be played at Craven Cottage, Fulham’s home ground in London. Try tapping your Opal card to get to Craven Cottage ! Local fans deserve the chance to see the Socceroos and the Matildas compete regularly against other national teams. Australia had memorable friendly international victories over Greece in 1969 and Uruguay in 1974 both at the Sydney Cricket Ground. These results lifted the profile of Australian football and many non believers started to show an interest in what Australian football could achieve.
Improving neighbouring Asian nations such as Thailand and Vietnam would provide stern opposition for the Socceroos as well as the Asian powerhouses, Japan, South Korea, and Iran. Aside from World Cup or Asian Cup qualifying matches, we don’t play these countries. Why don’t we invite New Zealand here to play a full international? Rugby union and rugby league can manage it and although I understand that many players may not be released from overseas clubs, why not reward the best local players with caps and make the overseas incumbents fight for their positions?
I acknowledge that Covid 19 has made international fixtures almost impossible but internationals in Australia outside of cup matches, have been non existent for many years not just for the last twelve months. The national governing body, Football Australia needs to show some initiative and put the Socceroos and Matildas, (even under strength if necessary) on local display consistently and make Aaron Mooy, Mat Ryan and maybe even Harry Souttar, household names. This will help lift the profile of Australian football and get office workers again talking about our football over their morning coffee.
Awareness of Australian football has also dropped off as broadcast operators promote a number of rival sports that do attract higher ratings and crowds. It has always been difficult to obtain media coverage of Australian football and over the last twelve months, a reluctant Foxtel has signalled that its’ affection lies with other sports. Print and digital media editors have picked up on the game’s deteriorating profile and are loath to promote and support what appears to be a sinking ship.
Australian football will never die. It is to be hoped that our hosting of the 2023 Women’s World Cup will give the game a desperately needed injection of interest and remind the population that we can have a viable local competition and also competitive international teams, both female and male. The huge groundswell of those playing the game will always prop up our football but the challenge is to convert all those trundling around our local pitches every weekend, into diehard supporters of the game at every level.
David Jack ©2021