Australia: Old Soccer, New Football

sayonara sammyCorrespondent IDecember 9, 2008

The Australian Government today put nearly $50 million behind an Australian bid to host the 2018 World Cup representing a phoenix-like rebirth after the disorganised and factional mess that was football in Australia during the 1990s and early 2000s. Joe Ennis gives a run-down of how this remarkable transformation came about.
Australia is a land of sports fanatics. The country supports an amount of competitive sporting teams that would be unsustainable in any other comparable country of about 20 million people. And when it comes to football (footy) the country has traditionally been divided into Australian Rules and Rugby League territory with the game known as Soccer derided as a game for "sheilas, wogs and poofters."

Soccer Australia
In the olden days (pre-2004) Australian Football was a mess. Most teams were still aligned to one or other ethnic group, creating racial tension and regular violence at suburban grounds with Soccer Australia, the national governing body, was impotent under the weight of factional infighting and rampant mismanagement. Soccer Australia eventually folded in 2004 and the NSL was scrapped at the end of the season. This lead to the Australian Government commissioning the Crawford Report, looking into why the game was in such a terrible state.
So Australian football had bottomed out. It was a game without a government, without a competition and seemingly without hope. The darkest period, though preceded a fabulous new dawn.

Football Federation Australia (FFA)
Football Federation Australia rose from the ashes of Soccer Australia and the recommendations of the Crawford Report were put in place. The FFA was (and is) lead by prominent businessman Frank Lowy and under his stewardship Australia has moved on from the bad habits cultivated in the NSL and relaunched a national competition, the Hyundai A-League.
The game became fully professional and new clubs were formed in major cities and regional centres. The only remnants from the NSL are Perth Glory and Adelaide United, the latter only competing in the final season of the old competition. The A-league was formed on the principal of one club for each city or regional centre with eight teams—including one from New Zealand—competing in the foundation season.
The FFA then made a successful push for Australia to be admitted to the Asian Football Confederation, paving the way for Australian teams in the AFC Champions League and the Australian national team—still sporting the irritating nickname The Socceroos—to compete in the Asian Cup and AFC world cup qualifiers.

2006 World Cup
With Dutch wonder-coach Guus Hiddink at the helm as manager, Australia qualified for the 2006 world cup in Germany by beating Uruguay—the fifth placed team in South America—in a two-legged playoff. This was the only way a team could qualify for the world cup from the Oceania region.
It was only the second time Australia had qualified for the world cup and the country came down with a serious dose of football fever. The night John Aloisi slotted home that fateful penalty to send Australia to Germany the main intersection in Melbourne's CBD was blocked with thousands of jubilant fans spilling out from the public viewing area in Federation Square.
The Aussies went on to advance to the second round, advancing from a group consisting of Brazil, Japan and Croatia. They eventually were sent home after a dubious penalty decision in the last minute of extra-time in their second-round match against eventual champion Italy.
But it didn't matter; a whole generation of sports fans were smitten with the beautiful game leading to a massive increase in spectators going to the local A-League games and mass enrolments of children and amateur sportsmen in grassroots football.
The Hyundai A-League
The inaugural competition in 2004/05 was won by Sydney FC with former Manchester United striker Dwight Yorke leading the way. The following year crowds increased to such an extent that Melbourne Victory were forced to move from the 18,000 capacity Olympic Park to the larger, 56,000 capacity Telstra Dome. The grand final that year between Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United attracted a crowd of 55,436—a record for an Australian domestic game.
Now into its fourth season, the A-League has gone from strength to strength, although some critics have cited lower crowd numbers this year, most see this as the natural fall off from Australia's 2006 World Cup campaign.
Australian teams are now eligible to compete in the AFC Champions League with Adelaide United making it to the final in only the second campaign by Australian representatives. Quite an achievement considering the salary-cap restrictions imposed on Australian teams. Adelaide are now off in Japan as the second Asian representative at the World Club Championships.
The league is set to expand in 2009 with two new teams entering the league from Queensland while 2010 will see the first test of the one-club per town policy with teams from Western Sydney and a second Melbourne team mooted.
Eventually, the league should be able to support a 16-18 team competition, overcoming the slight monotony that can sink in with an eight team competition. It is a testament to the solvency and potential of the A-League that it is going ahead with expansion plans in today's financial climate where other competitions such as the AFL have postponed the admission of any further teams.
2018 World Cup Bid
On the December 10, 2008, the Australian Government approved a grant of nearly $50 million in support of an Australian world cup bid. With the potential competition including, England, USA and China it is a measure of the development of the game in Australia that the government is willing to support such a venture.
Association football is now the No. 1 code of football by participation in Australia. If the 2018 bid is successful, participation figures would likely receive another significant boost.
So as 2008 draws to a close the World Game is taking hold in this former footballing backwater. The national league is expanding, as is the newly created National Youth League and W-League for women.
Sponsors are flocking to the competitions, participation is up and the government is supporting the lofty ambitions of the FFA. It's an exciting time to be part of the game in Australia as we watch the ugly duckling sprout it's sporting feathers.