Anthony Ferguson follows up on his Wogball article and looks at the changes over the 10 years since that was written.
On a personal level, I no longer play the game, my knees having succumbed to thirty odd years of abuse on the various sandpits and mudholes of Western Australia and Canberra. I never realized how much I would miss playing until I had to stop. I haven't yet succumbed to the urge to coach kids or amateur/social sides. However, being a somewhat single minded individual I did take up the whistle for a few years, passed my qualifications and became a referee. What an eye opener. I now appreciate what total prick I was as a player. I also learned a couple of very valuable lessons. Firstly, as an official it doesn't matter how good you are at your job, fifty percent of the people in attendance are going to disagree with you anyway. Secondly, everything evens itself out over the course of your career. That wrongly disallowed goal of yours will eventually be cancelled out by a dodgy penalty in your favour when you know damn well you took a dive. Swings and roundabouts they call it. Every player, supporter and official should keep this in mind.
However, none of this is relevant. I'm just another journeyman playing my part in the great game. What I'm interested in is looking at how much the game has progressed in the ensuing decade since 1998, and where it might go in the next one.
Looking back on what I wrote a decade ago, it occurs to me I must have been living in lala land when I claimed “Soccer has become an established, respectable and marketable sport… a serious and profitable business entity” (in 1998). Do me a favour! Little did I realize in the naivety of my mid-thirties that the National Soccer League was about to enter its death throes, and it transpired, not a moment too soon.
Though at the time I was about to experience a wonderful upturn in my personal spectator fortunes – moving from Canberra and the poor, doomed, woeful Cosmos back to Perth and the then all conquering mighty Glory – the NSL was a faction riddled sad excuse for a national competition, propped up by one or two clubs who on the surface appeared to be professionally run and profitable, but in reality were leaking money like sieves.
In hindsight, following my return to Perth in January 2000, little did I realize the Glory would slowly and inexorably morph into the Canberra Cosmos in turns of on field lack of success and off field foot-in-mouth disease, but that's another story.
The demise of the NSL and the advent of Football Federation Australia and the Frank Lowy inspired A-League, on the back of the Socceroos' magnificent qualification and subsequent triumphant campaign at the 2006 World Cup Finals has seen the game take enormous strides over the past ten years. So much so that while it is premature to suggest that the country has finally completely accepted the game as a significant force on the Australian sporting calendar, there is no doubt that the foundations have been laid, that we are on our way, and the only way is up. Perhaps the most succinct example of this new found confidence is the very reclamation and almost Australia wide acceptance of the real name of the game. Football has awoken.
While we must never lose sight of our history of struggle, and always remember the pioneers who kept the flame flickering through all the dark years, I think we can afford to pause for breath and appreciate how far we have come in such a short time.
The Socceroos are now an established marketing force in the country and fast becoming a regional powerhouse across Asia. While it is true that our national team has arguably been a competitive international force since the mid-1980s, it was largely the psychological breakthrough of the 2006 World Cup qualification that brought them to their current standing. I think the events of Germany 2006 made many non-believers in this country realize that the football World Cup is a REAL World Cup, not a cheap knock off where half of the competitors are just there to make up the numbers.
International football is really competitive, as we have subsequently discovered from our long overdue move into the Asian Confederation. How vital that move was to the lifeblood of our game as well. I believe we will witness a huge improvement in the playing stocks of many national teams across the Asian region over the next decade, and this was certainly evidenced during the 2007 Asian Cup. The advent of our move into Asia means that our national team now has two significant competitions to compete in over the traditional four yearly cycle of international competition. More meaningful games and no more empty international calendar years, this can only make us stronger.
On that note how gratifying it is to watch the Socceroos go head to head with such strong opponents in what is only the First Round Group of the 2010 World Cup Qualifiers. Our qualification for the tournament will go right down the wire and we will have to work hard and play exceptionally well over 12-15 matches to get there. This is so much better than a stroll through the comparatively weak Oceania region with two potential big matches every four years.
While I admire the FFA's bold attempt to bid to host the 2018 World Cup Finals, I think it may be a bit premature. We need to get our nationwide infrastructure in place before we can truly compete with the likes of England, the United States and China, for example. Looking around the nation I cannot see enough quality stadia currently in place to warrant hosting the World Cup. On the other hand we certainly have the finances and the capacity to make it happen. Perhaps a more realistic short term aim would be to bid for the World Club Championships and the Asian Cup. Two tournaments I am confident we could easily host immediately.
On the international front, we should look towards either qualifying or seriously contending to qualify for every World Cup Finals series from this point on. It will certainly not be easy and we will not always achieve it. But it must be a set goal. Similarly we should look to win every Asian Cup series and always be serious contenders.
In international terms, we would do well to study the success of the United States, another frontier society and former British colony where the world game has had a long running battle to establish itself in the face of some at times hostile opposition. Yet the Americans have qualified for the past five World Cup finals in a row, notwithstanding the one they hosted.
It is also gratifying to see the enormous progress made by our women's national side as well, in particular the way they captured the nation's attention with their efforts in the most recent World Cup. While our Olympic and junior national sides have, much like the Socceroos, been very competitive since the mid-1980s.
As for our club football, well I think it is fair to say that the gap between the A-League and its predecessor is a gaping chasm. Even though it is a little more difficult see it from my isolated position in Perth, with its generally myopic AFL-centric outlook on life and our former Glory being possibly the worst team in the competition. Nevertheless I am confident that Western Australia will wake up and catch up with the real world eventually.
The A-League appears to have been set up in a financially viable manner, and I am confident that the FFA has a sensible plan in place to ensure its continual growth in the marketplace. I trust they have studied closely other successful models like Japan's J-League in particular, and while I feel that two new teams should have been allowed in for next season, I will trust the FFA's judgment on the issue.
What we should be looking for ten years down the track is a 16-18 team A-League Premier Division, and the prospect if not the reality of the creation of a second tier league below it. Eventually, a promotion and relegation system will be vital to the lifeblood of the game. The Asian Confederation will be looking to us to help grow the quality of the game in the region.
I am confident that over the next decade we will witness a much greater recognition of Australian football in the wider business community, and of the fantastic opportunities afforded by Asian Club completion and the Asian Champions League in particular. The Australian business community will eventually start to appreciate the fantastic football related economic possibilities right on our doorstep.
To that end I hope we will witness a much greater effort to market their capabilities among all of our A-League clubs, both within Australia and right across Asia into several rapidly expanding markets. At the same time I hope to see a much broader global sporting perspective and less of the traditional resistance and bias from our mainstream media. It's time for some of these people to take a reality check. While there will always be room for all major football codes in Australia, and the AFL and ARL have their social and historical place in the pantheon, some of the haters out there need to learn their place in the scheme of things when they knock world football. Not only are you not on the same ball park, you're not even in the same universe.
What I anticipate, hope and expect to witness over the next ten years is an increasingly competitive, professional and profitable A-League, with a solid hold on the Australian sporting psyche. I don't believe we should focus too much on being the number one sport in the country, in the long term success and stability will be our benchmark. I would also expect the league to have at least 16 teams in the top tier, with the prospect of a 2nd Division on the immediate horizon.
I also expect us to have hosted or be preparing to host the Asian Cup, the World Club Championships and at least one of the Women's or underage World Cup competitions. I also expect our infrastructure in terms of proper football stadiums across the entire country to have progressed greatly. I anticipate that an Australian club side will have won at least one Asian Champions League title and that the Socceroos will have won the Asian Cup. I also expect the Socceroos to have qualified for at least one more World Cup.
I believe the game in the Asian region will go from strength to strength. Along with the traditional powerhouses of the region (Japan, South Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Australia), I expect new powers to arrive or rediscover former glories, such as Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, North Korea, UAE, New Zealand, India, China and Uzkekistan. China and India should be massive regional football powers by weight of their population and economy, though India will only succeed if they stop wasting so much of their finances and energy on cricket.
We have progressed from the days of relying solely on SBS television to market our football. Today thanks to the impact of technology we can appreciate that tens of thousands of Australian football clubs and associations have a presence on the Internet. The advent of a generic football magazine like Australian 442 is another important step on the road to establishing a firm presence in the Australian sporting milieu. In this regard it is gratifying to see that the magazine has recently incorporated a lengthy section on State football across the country.
There are still some problems to be addressed. I think the FFA will have to seriously consider reverting the A-League season to a winter competition in line with much of the globe to make us more competitive in Asian and world club football.
I also believe Foxtel must lose its exclusive rights to the Socceroos and the A-League. Seriously, this must be the only country in the world where you cannot watch your national team or national league on free to air television. Not even a highlights package. We have to stop cutting off half our market and shooting ourselves in the foot.
Other than that, we just have to keep doing the right things and breaking down those traditional walls of resistance in this crazy post-colonial society we call Australia. The future looks a hell of a lot brighter than it did back in 1998 and while there will obviously be occasional setbacks and we can never be complacent, I think for the first time in Australian football history we can truly believe that we have finally, finally got it right.
Amen to that.