Not so long ago, football in Australia was riding a wave. The A-League was going from strength to strength, the country was in love with the FFA Cup, expansion had been promised and the Socceroos were brushing aside the cannon-fodder of Asia.
Yes, the owners were still losing money, but the new TV deal would help that (and in any case, they were faceless rich guys who should have been proud to do their patriotic duty for the good of the sport).
All of a sudden the game’s vital signs are looking disturbingly unhealthy. The FFA have lost the dressing room, crowds are falling both at the grounds and on the telly, the VAR is driving us all to distraction and expansion is on the never never.
At least the Socceroos have made the World Cup again, but they don’t have a coach. Trust the FFA (or the FIFA normalisation committee) to appoint someone with a high price tag who can’t speak English, when the obvious (and best) choice is Arnie.
Maybe it’s a sign of football’s growing sophistication and confidence that it should have so many conflicting voices – or maybe it’s just indicative of the game’s inherent dysfunction in Australia?
Why can’t we ever agree and just move forward for the good of the game?
Why do the game’s decision makers always seem to be squabbling over politics and money when they ought to just be getting on with doing what they were put there to do – ensure the sustainability of football?
How hard can it be?
There are something like 1.2 million registered players in the country. Probably another million non-registered players have an active love of the game, and maybe two million ex-players from Australia and abroad are steeped in football culture. Then there are the parents spouses, siblings and children of players and passionate fans. The hard core of football lovers in the country must be about 5 million and with their friends and families the people likely to have some sort of interest must be close to 10 million.
That’s the potential audience for the A-League (and maybe a B-League), the W-League, Matildas and Socceroos. It ought to be FFA’s number one priority to engage these people using the tools at their disposal but all they ever seem to do is fight each other like medieval scholars arguing about angels dancing on pinheads.
Is it time already for a Crawford Report 2.0?
Almost certainly yes. The powers that be have squandered the goodwill and momentum the game was enjoying in the afterglow of the Asian Cup so it’s time to get the wheels back on the rails before the game goes all rugby on us.
The solutions are as follows:
Governance – sack the FFA board and establish a convention for board election which is as broad as it needs to be to get all necessary voices at the table without being sidelined by power blocs. Somehow, the game’s constitution needs to establish the “good of the game” as the key driving principle behind all systems and structures, and people driving agendas which are not demonstrably supportive of the key principle must be removable. People elected to the board must be genuine football people with some form of qualification that goes beyond money and connections. Is it possible to have a fans’ representative on the board? (I’ll do it.)
Expansion – identify two clubs NOW for expansion and give them 18 months notice to get themselves ready. Then two more in a year’s time so that we have a 14 team league by 2020. If there are problems with funding from the TV money then only those who can afford to (temporarily) pay their way are chosen.
B-League – I don’t have an easy answer for this but the FFA must be actively developing a second tier with a view towards viable promotion and relegation. This might need to be introduced differentially (given the existing licences that prevent clubs being relegated before 2035 (or whenever it is) so that only expansion clubs can be relegated until 2035 – or maybe the existing clubs will have to renegotiate their licences to provide for P/L somewhat earlier. We should be aiming for a 16 team league with a 30 match season by 2030. Underneath it would be a B-League with (say) 12 teams also with P/L so that two teams would be promoted from the NPL each year.
VAR – the VAR ought to be used for goal line or goal opportunities in the box only. There should be no opportunity to punish players with cards within the game – this should remain the preserve of the referee and match review committee.
Salary Cap – Bozza keeps talking about the need to abandon the salary cap to enable the league to grow – even though most of the clubs are still losing money. Sorry Bozz but you’re just dead wrong. The salary cap is the only thing stopping us from having a league dominated by two or three teams – meaning everyone else would lose interest. The strength of the league is that anyone can beat anyone on their day, but that would disappear if we did away with the salary cap. It’d be like the Scottish league. Is that what you want Bozz?
Vision – above all, the game needs a Vision (to quote Le Timmy). The people leading football need to tell us what they want for the game: what it will look like and how we’re going to get there. Then maybe everyone could unite behind the vision and do their own bit whether as player, administrator or fan to push the game up where it belongs.
We are a rich country with a strong sporting culture. We ought to be really good at the one true World Game and the idea of a World Cup in Australia ought to be a no-brainer. But football will always struggle in this country until we have a leadership structure we can all buy into.
So here’s my message to whoever wants to take control…
You don’t own the game.
Adrian’s new book The Fighting Man is in the shops right now or available through Booktopia. Adrian also wrote Political Football and Mr Cleansheets.