Mark Godfrey

The eternal adolescence of Australian Football

Mark Godfrey
The eternal adolescence of Australian Football

BY LUCAS GILLARD

I was a late convert to the sport sometimes described as “The World Game” in Australia. I had grown up with Aussie Rules (AFL), dreaming of teams and colours and players that have little significance outside of Australia. I was a mid-teen by the time I caught onto an appeal for this other type of ball-on-foot sport. There had been kids playing it around me in my youth – kids who usually had more interesting school lunches than I did – but those kids usually liked Aussie Rules too so we had a common ground. I was also a mad cricket fan, so I was never far from a sports page or world of sports style TV program – but soccer was rarely featured in the mass media. On the whole it was a sport played by migrants, intended for migrants and something that might never really take off.

But like me, things started to change for football in the 90s in Australia. Around the time the English Premier League was evolving into a global phenomenon, football in Australia was also experiencing some weird and exciting new feelings. Our national team, the erstwhile named Socceroos, pushed Argentina in qualifying for USA ’94, and our youth teams were becoming really competitive. Suddenly players like Ned Zelic and Paul Okon were being snapped up by top leagues (Zelic won the Bundesliga with Borussia Dortmund in 1995). We cruelly knocked ourselves out of France ’98 against Iran by giving up late away goals. But that team featured teenage sensation Harry Kewell and was coached by Terry Venables in an act perceived as cosmic endorsement. All of this allowed us to believe we might soon be good enough.

Like me, we weren’t mature yet in the late 90s, but we had high hopes of one day graduating, settling down, and becoming a functional and well-adjusted member of the football community. Sure, we would never be as popular as our sibling football codes – but we didn’t need to be, as unlike, say, AFL, we could jet off for gap years and tap into a global network.

Two decades since that Iran match and Australian football hasn’t grown up. We are trapped in a continuous state of adolescence. Film critic AO Scott described the death of adulthood in American culture as “to be an American adult has always been to be a symbolic figure in someone else’s coming-of-age story … We can now avoid this fate”, and this is indeed symbolic of football in Australia. We have not slipped seamlessly into comfortable middle class results. Instead, we point to the massive popularity of Aussie Rules and say “let’s be different to that”, or even successful football governance and development structures overseas and try to do things “our way”.

The industrial complex around Australian football – from the FFA (the governing body) to the media to league structure – is caught in an existential loop about what it wants to be when it grows up. And now, finally and embarrassingly, FIFA is knocking on our bedroom doors wanting to know what we’re up to.

For recently, in an act usually reserved for nations closely observed by Transparency International, FIFA has intervened in Australian football to fix endemic problems with the governance of the sport, implementing a congress review working group who has recently provided their report to FFA (the incumbent custodians of the sport Football Federation Australia) proposing a root and branch overhaul of the governance of the sport.

The origins of this problem are in the roots of the complex landscape of ball sports in Australia. Football had an extended infancy as the runt of some large and popular football code siblings, but was able to find support from distant “foreign” uncles and aunties who fled post-war Europe to nourish the game. After the gains of the 90s, the first whiskers of adolescence emerged in the early 2000s when we developed a precocious streak. Harry Kewell was terrorising defenders at Elland Road; we had a number of regulars in good clubs in top leagues and it seemed inevitable that a World Cup spot would be attained. And in 2005 when the Socceroos knocked out an establishment nation (Uruguay) to qualify for Germany ’06, it was something akin to finally claiming the wicket of our dads in backyard cricket. The period after 2006 was meant to be our “coming out”; the time when our talent conveyer belt produced a stream of Harry Kewells, a time when our national team regularly beat second tier nations and occasionally top ones, and when our new professional league – the A-League – would draw in crowds for more than just the spectacle of a 40-year-old Romario.

Needless to say, this graduation to adulthood hasn’t happened. Our net total of Harry Kewells still stands at 1, and the Socceroos, despite qualifying for each World Cup since ’06, have slowly eroded in talent and competitiveness as the 2006 generation retired. A small (yet mighty) statistical anomaly of the successful 2015 Asian Cup campaign aside – we have increasingly struggled through World Cup qualifying and were an upright away from losing our 2016 spot to Syria.

The challenge facing football in Australia is almost universal to confused teens. What are we? Are we liked? And if so, why don’t (enough) people go to A-League games?

Jean Paul Sartre, a self-proclaimed tifo man, would have enjoyed offering an absinthe-soaked hanky to a young Australia football and explaining the notion of “existential angst”. The FFA and the football media in Australia seem trapped in a debate around what football should be and what their responsibility is to that, and not working on developing a realistically competitive product that enables the growth of the sport.

Football’s identity crisis is deeply coded with its underdog status. In terms of professional-level participation, media cycles and fanatical supporter involvement, football was beaten to the punch in Australia when it was still in its proto-form. Largely this was by rugby and Aussie Rules or “Aerial Ping-Pong” (depending on your home state). Aussie Rules is a surprisingly old football code that was cooked up in 1858 in Melbourne by a graduate of England’s Rugby School; legendary colonial cricketer Tom Wills. His exposure to multiple ball-handling-with-some-element-of-kicking sports lead to him, with a few pub mates, inventing a set of rules that allowed him to exploit his personal football strength which was punting the ball. By the time the Football League was established in England, Melbourne had grown exponentially on the back of a gold rush, and Aussie Rules had ridden that wave to the bank. It was already being passionately played and supported in club competitions across the southern colonies. And while English seamen were kicking round balls around in Brazil and Argentina, oval ones where worshipped by kids in Melbourne, Perth and Adelaide. There was no air left for round ones.

Round balls caught their break in post-war migration from Europe. Italians, Hungarians, Greeks, Czechs, Jews, Balkans (and some Brits) made Australia home in waves and formed social clubs where football was the preferred spectacle and (sometimes) an outlet for historical ethnic aggression. While these clubs maintained popularity with their discrete communities throughout the 60s and 70s, the first national league was established in the late 70s which started to expose a core problem with the sport in Australia which still largely pervades. Top flight teams (as in the A-League) struggle to draw large supporter bases and are competing for hearts, minds and column inches with other football codes who themselves are signing billion dollar TV rights deals.

The switch to a “summer league” helped cut-through with a football mad community, but the A-League still struggles to pull a crowd.  Total membership of A-League clubs was a record 117,000 in the 2017 season. For contrast, the “Richmond Tigers” of the AFL – a team based in Melbourne where there are already 8 other top-flight teams – broke 100,000 paid-up members alone in the 2018 season.

A great paradox in Australian football is that while the top-flight league is relatively weak in popularity, the Socceroos are a roaring success – a consequence of the fantastic qualification run and success in Germany ‘06 that lead to a round of 16 spot. 2.13 million Australians watched eventual winners France narrowly (and cruelly) beat the Socceroos in Russia ‘18 at the unusually fan friendly timeslot of 8pm on a Saturday night (AEST). The truly remarkable follow-up ratings of 2.06 million for the Socceroos match against Denmark underline the affection the sporting community have for the Socceroos. At a less fan-friendly timeslot of 10pm on a work night (Thursday evening), nearly as many fans tuned in to watch Australia dominate key parts of that game but only get a point from, predictably, a Mile Jedinak penalty. 

The other critical counterpoint to this is the massive participation rate football enjoys in Australia. 1.1 million Australians (around 5% of the population) play the sport, and over 600,000 (or 19%) of boys and girls between the ages of 5-14 play organised football. The 1.1million figure itself is higher than the total participation of Aussie Rules and the two Rugby codes combined.

So while there is fondness in the community for playing and consuming the global football product, this is not flowing down into support for local teams. The inability of the A-League (and the level below that, the NPL) to draw sufficient numbers of fans with eyeballs and wallets means that there is little money to invest in youth and coaching. This creates a perverse “trickle up” economic effect that forces junior players to subsidise the costs of running senior teams. The scale of this varies by team and state, but families may be asked to pay as much as $2000-$4000 for their child’s junior registration.

This problem is intensified by peculiar FFA rules that either ban or heavily cap outward transfer fees for A-League and NPL players. Here NPL clubs can receive a “Training Compensation” which is capped at $10,000, and can demand a transfer fee “but only up to a maximum amount of 50% of the total salary owing to the Player for the remaining term of that Player’s current contract” (clause 10.6(b)). As these contracts are meagre by international standards, that means the fee is always going to be lower than what the player might be objectively worth in the international market. Each year a handful of NPL level players get picked up by European leagues – such as 20-year-old George Timotheau who joined FC Schalke 04 in the summer – and a larger number are picked up by A-League teams. Capping transfer fees may not discourage youth development in clubs, but it certainly doesn’t incentivise it. It also doesn’t encourage clubs to treat their young players as investments to put time, coaching and development plans into as a legitimate source of club revenue: revenue that could be used to reduce junior fees or subsidise more coaching badges.

These regulations may have made sense to someone, somewhere, writing in a diary about ideal football systems, but they seem to be poorly considered when clubs are struggling to generate revenue. It seems an odd rejection of international systems in a juvenile “we know better” kind of way.

Indeed the lack of money at club level also increases the vacuum for quality coaching. Australia offers their equivalent of the UEFA “A” and “B” licences, but also offers a lower intensity “C” licence as a safety net for those working in the sport. Sadly, the minimum requirement for an NPL senior gig is only a B licence, and most of the staff requires only a “C” licence. If you will indulge another “done to death” comparison with the Icelandic system, many children in the tiny island nation are playing for coaches with B licences. Most juniors at an NPL club would have minimal contact with their senior coach, let alone a direct line to regular hands-on coaching from them. The comparison with Iceland throws a dark shadow on the state of on-field development. Estimates suggest that around 0.2% of the Icelandic population have a UEFA A or B licence. In Australia nearly half of that (per-capita figure) have any coaching accreditation, and most of these hold the C licence that doesn’t exist in Europe. A largely ineffectual “Whole of Football plan” which was released by the FFA in 2015, seeks to grow the number of registered coaches by three times the current figure of 24,000. Growing this figure to 100,000 in an industry with razor thin margins propped up by working parents seems as realistic as writing “I HEART FOOTBALL” multiple times in a scented diary.

The final defect in the Harry Kewell factory is the lack of a professional second division below the A-League. The NPL is effectively a conference set up, made up of semi-professionals and amateurs with semi-professional facilities. This means that emerging players in Australia usually shoot for the A-League – where there is big pressure on clubs to win and draw crowds. Route 1 for A-League clubs has historically been signing fading stars from abroad. Keisuke Honda recently joined this list, which admittedly does include crowd favourites Alessandro Del Piero, Emile Heskey, Robbie Fowler and, yes, regrettably a 40+ Romario. Stacking teams with aging stars and known Socceroos who are escaping failure or banality in Europe leaves few spaces available for youth. A second division with some pay check and accredited coaches could become a talent farm for young Australian players. It may be worth pointing out here that the Icelandic top flight – the Urvalsdeild karla – has 12 teams for a population of 330,000 whereas the A-League has 10 teams for 24 million (one of which is in New Zealand!)

A second division – and A-League expansion more broadly –is notionally on the FFA’s radar, but there have been no official movements outside of a guarantee to expand the A-League to 12 teams in 2019. But lifting the number of accredited coaches to 100,000 without an articulable vision for sustainable club football is a pipedream. 

Despite all of this, the lack of funding and narrowing of youth pathways are not the core reasons for FIFA’s recent intervention. Football’s “little brother” complex has left it easily drawn to father-figures, evangelists and Svengalis. Terry Venables and Guus Hiddink have both been rockstar appointments to the National team – even though both were allowed to keep their day jobs at club level at the same time (“Aussie Guus” was still manager of PSV). And before Roman Abramovich made football oligarchs sexy, Australia was toying with its own. Frank Lowy, a shopping centre magnate, was an early patron of the fledgling sport as chairman of the Sydney club Hakoah FC and its profitable social club. Lowy oversaw the re-badging of the club into Sydney City to join the original incarnation of the national league, the NSL. Then something odd happened. As the cost associated with running a “national” Sydney City outgrew its revenue, Lowy’s board passed a motion to withdraw from the NSL in 1987. It seems impossible to imagine a top flight European league team volunteer to drop down a couple of divisions to preserve the bottom-line of the club bar and merchandise shop, but that’s effectively what happened. In 1988 Lowy challenged for the top job at the ASF (as the FFA was then known) but lost, and then resigned from Sydney City. He wasn’t involved in football again until he was begged to take over the FFA in 2003 in an act that seems in hindsight to be one of self-harm.

Lowy’s time in charge has been riddled with accusations of cronyism – including the appointment of his son Steven as his replacement in 2015 – and the blemishes of a series of failed reforms in the game. He led (and spent $45 million of tax payer dollars) a hugely optimistic 2022 World Cup bid which generated 1 vote and sought from day one to close ranks around his custody and legacy. It is the closed nature of FFA governance that forced FIFA’s intervention. Australia’s congress holds 10 seats: one of the smallest in the world and most are Lowy loyalists. The lack of real reform in the game in Australia, leading in part to the stagnation in the performance of the Socceroos, the flat-lining of support for the A-League and the choking of youth pathways is very much the product of a congress that rewards sycophants and punishes critical analysis.

It is worth noting that after being usurped by the now ratified congress review recommendations, Steven Lowy has resigned but not without the tepid warning: “I hope for the best but clearly I fear for the worst”. It was the final act of a man who had lost touch with other voices in the sport, and hearing only the narrator’s voice from the audiobook of his father’s autobiography.

The final stanza to the tortured teenage poetry of Australian football is the historic role of the media in how the sport is covered. Around the time the NSL (the first incarnation of a National League) was established, so too was the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS), a network of radio and TV services in foreign languages to support and embrace the increasingly diverse Australian community. Naturally, where the commercial channels were investing in Australian Rules, Rugby League and Cricket, SBS and football were drawn to each other like Henry and Bergkamp. In the pre-internet age SBS had a near monopoly on TV football coverage and, effectively, grew together over their formative years. Influential former Socceroo captain and long-time SBS pundit Johnny Warren talks in his biography about SBS “evangelising” for the sport in Australia. In its formative days, SBS was like our mummy-blogs for how to feel when we lost qualifiers to New Zealand, or how excited to be when our youth teams out performed in tournaments.

Now, SBS commentators – and many elements of the Australian football media – have become dog whistles for our existential crises, producing hours and hours of content about a Socceroos tactical blueprint and extoling the virtues of an antipodean “total football”. While the intent is admirable, the commentary seems to always be behind the curve of football innovation – or, more accurately, lacks the recognition that international football is itself behind the curve of football innovation. In essence, the football media in Australia has become the sort of weekend dad that puts an unfeeling arm around the shoulders of a spotty son to point at Manchester City and say “be more like that, boy”. All this to a child with the ability of Burnley. And after our high quality, well organised and rather (statistically) unlucky 1-1 draw against Denmark in Russia ’18 (we made 13 chances to their 10, and 8 in the box to their 7), the response by many high profile media personnel was to criticise our lack of pressing (which would have thrown out our shape) and to complain about the non-appearance of 38-year-old Tim Cahill (who had played a handful of club minutes for Millwall in 2018). Disappointment after a World Cup exit is natural, but for a nation ranked as remotely as Australia – with a team of Premier Leaguers Aaron Mooy and Mat Ryan, and then a lot of Championship and Swiss, Turkish and Scottish League players – the mature reaction should have been realism with a dash of pride.

It’s realism that seems the final insight missing to bring Australia into a glorious graduation to adulthood. Since Australian football entered its horrible teens, this writer has well and truly had realism aggressively beaten into him. And now like many underwhelmed parents, I may be projecting a little too many “hard lessons” on this sport. But honestly, we don’t need expensive toys to play with in the A-League (think Usain Bolt). We don’t need to hope another Harry Kewell emerges out of a pod. We don’t need to pretend our clubs are popular and for them to survive off gate receipts. We don’t need to be bludgeoned by hyperbole about tactical identity when we can’t develop a talented striker, and when we’ve just seen French pragmatism combine with talent and effort to hold up a World Cup.

Surely the mature solution is to give your audience what they want: a better Socceroos that can actually go deeper in tournaments. And the equation for this couldn’t be simpler: more Harry Kewells! Produce better players, and more of them. The specifics might be complicated, but at the moment we fail at the fundamentals. Coach players better by coaching coaches better. Remove all resistance to young players continuing participation. Create pathways for juniors to play at the best level they can. Give local leagues a bigger voice in the congress. Reward and encourage local clubs for investing in youth development. Choose the Denmark factory league model and reject the current MLS-lite one (because, ultimately, fans don’t have to go far to find the EPL on a pub TV screen). Be tactically versatile enough to compete grimly and get a result against France, while blowing away Syria. Give fans a product that makes sense within a global system and not something schemed up by torchlight under a duvet.

It’s the basics you learn harshly and suddenly as an adult. Find a job, pay your rent, and pay your bills. Be responsible. Grow out of the existential angst of adolescence and just put your pants on and get outside. The job you get and the life you build might not be thrilling, but at least there’s football on the weekends to keep you entertained.

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