Paul Wade says football will never be Number One in Australia, but David Gallop says it will.

The former Socceroos captain believes AFL and Rugby League will always dominate the Australian sporting consciousness through their financial strength and media control, yet the current CEO of the FFA believes we are on a journey to make football Number One. (He probably feels like he has to say that.)

But what exactly is Number One? How is it measured? What gives anyone the right to claim it?

In terms of money in the bank, TV audience and numbers attending matches, AFL is way ahead of the pack. Does that make them Number One?

Not in my house.

Football has more registered participants than the other three codes combined. More people actually play football than play all the other codes put together. That puts football way ahead of the pack in participation terms, so does that make us Number One?

It’s a truly pointless argument to my mind because trying to compare or rank the codes is like trying to compare chocolate with beer. They’re both good, just not at the same time.

I also believe it’s counterproductive to claim, as many football fans and administrators have done over the years, that “football will be number one in this country”. It sounds like the tinny boast of an angry bantam who’s had a few too many and now wants anyone who laughs at him to step outside. It exposes the game to ridicule and polarises those who might otherwise have developed an interest in the game.

Because the reality is, most sports fans are interested in numerous sports and multiple football codes. I (obviously) adore football, but I also like cricket, swimming and athletics during the Olympics, surfing and surf life saving events, golf, snooker…a few others I’ve probably forgotten. But I also enjoy Rugby League, I’ll watch Rugby when the Wallabies are playing and I can even watch gridiron for ten minutes or so (that’s all you get in a three hour game).

The point is, most fans of other codes are potentially interested in football, they’re just not going to call it Number One. But implicit in the claim “football will be Number One” is the idea that football wants fans to switch allegiance from one code and give it to football. If you try to make them choose then they will stubbornly stay with the code they grew up with, but if you simply provide a quality entertainment then they can enjoy it without feeling like they’re somehow betraying their first love. Wanting people to “switch codes” is like wanting people to change their sexuality.

It was very strange reading about Paul Wade’s comments at the South Melbourne A-League application launch, at which Roberto Carlos was the guest of honour and putative inaugural coach. It revealed (for me) a cultural cringe I thought football had lost – as though the angry bantam had grown up and realised he didn’t need to go on getting bashed in front of his bird in the car park to prove his manhood.

Apparently not.

I only hope Roberto Carlos was unable to understand Wade’s English because it would have been a dispiriting thing to hear – a former captain of the Australian National Team saying that football would never be Number One.

All I can ask is: for you Paul Wade, why isn’t football already Number One?

It is for me, and always has been.


Adrian’s latest book Political Football: Lawrie McKinna’s Dangerous Truth is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Mr Cleansheets.