Soccer (here-to-fore referred to by its internationally recognised and more dignified name – football) has had a strained relationship with the Australian public for some time now and the Socceroos (Footballroos?) display at the current Asian Cup is a good indication of how football is now being perceived at home.
In terms of engagement, football in Australia is pretty well received by Aussie kids. Nearly 15% of boys and girls between the age of 5-14 playing football; second only to swimming (18%) – which lets face it, is not a really a sport just an enjoyable pastime. Next highest in the ABS hall of fame of children’s sports is AFL with 8%.
After the drug/drunken riddled stupor of our young adolescence has subsided, and we have dropped out of all the sports we used to play in the good ‘ol glory days and have come to deal with the fact that we will not be the next Steve Waugh or in football terms Ned Zelic (yes Ned Zelic is the greatest Australian Football player ever – deal with it) we may go watch some sport of own choosing. When this sudden realisation has happened 16% of us will go watch an AFL match. This is followed by horse racing with 11% (another of those non-sports), rugby league with 9% (you thugs!), motor Sport with 8% (non-sport) and then football – 5%. [Disclaimer: Football beats Cricket (4%), but cricket has a supremely higher viewership on television and it’s a safe bet to say that Cricket takes up more column inches than football.]
So what happened to football? Why do we all abandon it as a child and barely pay any attention to it in adulthood.
A brief history of football in Australia
National football in Australia effectively started in 1974 after we made it to the Football World Cup (some how we cobbled together a bunch of state players to form a national team). A group of state clubs joined together and discussed forming a national league. So in 1977 the National Soccer (Football) League (NSL) was formed loosely based on the English league with state clubs being relegated and un-relegated (I assume that’s the opposite of relegation) between each season.
The problem with this model is that it doesn’t work nationally in a country the size of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s. Teams struggled to raise enough money to travel each week and the NSL struggled to be financially viable to compete on a national and world stage.
Another feature of the NSL was that many of the clubs had locked in ethnic backgrounds such as the South Melbourne FC (Greek), Melbourne Knights FC (Croatian), Marconi Stallions FC (Italian), Sydney Olympic FC (Greek), Sydney City FC (Jewish), APIA Leichhardt FC (Italian) just to name a few (of the competition winners!). While in itself ethnicity should be no big deal, for football teams trying to recruit the best players it does restrict the talent pool from which you can select.
As the NSL seasons rolled on many of the ethnic tensions did break out at the grounds. Not so much on the playing field but in the crowds. If the riots in the stands stopped for long enough and a game of football was played it was generally to a dwindling audience. Players with talent saw the competition was going nowhere and started looking for greener pastures overseas.
With dwindling attendance numbers and the NSL losing money something had to be done to save the sport in Australia.
…And Now To The Crawford Report
In 2002 after all the NSL infighting, a league on the verge of bankruptcy, players leaving for European leagues and one ABC Four Corners report, the then forward thinking Howard Government commissioned his own report to be headed up by Not Shane Crawford*. Not Shane Crawford passed down his recommendations in April 2003 and after the usual ‘hell no we’re not going to do that’ the NSL Board resigned en-masse. Frank Lowy headed up the new league now known as the Football Federation Australia (FFA) with the new competition starting in 2004.
After the recommendations of the report were implemented, football in Australia has slowly become a part of everyday Australian sporting culture**. We have made it to the Football World Cup 3 times in a row – 2006, 2010 and 2014 surpassing our previous streak of once in 1974, largely due to our realignment towards Asia. The A-League has become financially viable with new sponsors and larger crowd attendances (now that the pesky riots have been scaled down to one guy with a flare) due to the initial ‘one city one team’ policy of the FFA, allowing the teams to build ethnically diverse supporter base.
So why does this matter?
Football in Australia still has a long way to go, so before you jump of the band-wagon tomorrow morning (as everyone invariably does after we bow out of the World Cup in the first round) just remember this. We rebuilt the league away from a European style that did not suit a country of our size and diversity. We’ve realigned our priorities towards Asia, which will be the centre of the political/cultural and sporting world (just because of sheer numbers) in the not too distant future. And most of all… It’s really fucking fun to play.
*Not Shane Crawford is really David Crawford but David Crawford didn’t win a Hawthorn Premiership.
**As of 2015 the Socceroos world ranking was at its worst at 100. But at risk of making this whole article redundant it’s all FIFA’s formula’s fault. We’ve made 3 World Cups FFS.