Could the A-League’s future hinge on the new season?

In a country of several competing football codes, Australia’s growing appetite for ‘soccer’ could be hindered by off-the-field problems, as guest writer Gary Andrews explains.

As the Australian Hyundai A -League kicks off its new season this week, the competition is as bullish as you’d expect a fast-growing sport to be. But behind the scenes, there are a number of key issues that soccer bosses at the Football Federation Australia (FFA) need to address to ensure the long-term health of the game Down Under.

To suggest football in Australia is in crisis seems absurd. This is a country that recent won the Asian Cup on home soil in thrilling fashion, securing a Ballon D’Or long list nomination for QPR midfielder Massimo Luongo in the process. On the club side, Western Sydney Wanderers won the Asian Champions League in their first season after being formed, and tickets for the sold-out A-League grand final between big guns Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC were being snapped up for hundreds of dollars by desperate fans. Surely this isn’t a competition anywhere near crisis levels? [Continues]

Melbourne Cricket Ground

Soccer lies behind other codes of football and cricket in a competition Australian sports market

And yet, away from the successes, a number of worrying themes recur. Outside of the top sides, the off-season has been dominated by finances rather than football. First, the FFA finally ran out of patience with the financially stricken Newcastle Jets and took control of the club from mining magnet Nathan Tinkler. Then in September another FFA takeover was narrowly avoided at three times champions Brisbane Roar after Indonesian owners the Bakrie Group averted a winding up order at the eleventh hour. Despite a successful opening day win against Western Sydney Wanderers, the Roar’s off-pitch woes are far from over.

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To have one club under the control of the authorities is unfortunate. Two would have looked like carelessness. While the A-League still hasn’t lost a franchise since Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United collapsed in 2012, in a 10-club league any disparity between the top and bottom will be keenly felt, while it gets harder to market a league when 20% of your teams are financial basket cases.

When you add in the tepid state of former champions – and the A-League’s smallest club – the Central Coast Mariners, questions over the future of Wellington Phoenix, whose licence expires at the end of this season, and the talent drain from Perth Glory after they were have found to have breached the salary cap, it means the main drama is to be found off the field of play. [Continues]

Del Piero scores for Sydney FC

Alessandro Del Piero scores for Sydney FC

In tandem, the league has lost many of its brightest stars and is yet to replace them. Seasoned internationals and marquee names have been a feature of the A-League; David Villa, Alessandro Del Piero, Shinji Ono, Damien Duff and Emile Heskey have all stopped by the A-League. This season, marquee signings have tended to be European journeymen.

At the same time, young stars in the making such as Bernie Ibini, Tom Rogic, Tomi Juric and Terry Antonis have departed for Europe – a positive for the Socceroos but less so for Australia’s domestic competition. Stars built and retained by the A-League are currently few and far between with Melbourne Victory’s Besart Berisha and Archie Thompson probably the current leading lights.

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So yes, while you have record attendances and major honours for the national team, there is also financial crises, a small handful of dominant teams (and probably just Melbourne Victory as the dominant team) and a lack of marketable names.

Former Socceroo Mark Bosnich put it succinctly when he pointed out there was a lot riding on this season. With Aussie rules, rugby league and cricket also competing for attention and the Wallabies looking a good bet for the Rugby World Cup, Australian soccer needs to create more buzz for on the pitch reasons if it’s to stay as the golden child of sport Down Under.

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