Kudos to the good people of Perth for putting on such a good show on Sunday night. 56,000 fans created a superb backdrop to the season finale and while the result didn’t go the Glory’s way, the crowd figure is a further indication that fans of the A-League (and the game) are still plentiful — if we make it attractive enough for them to turn up.
Bouquets too, for Sydney FC in earning their fourth championship. A club that suffered massive upheaval last off-season weren’t tipped by many to go all the way.
The Sky Blues lost Graham Arnold, Andrew Clark, Adrian Mierzejewski, Bobo, Jordy Buijs (and others), suffered regular injury problems to key players (Buhagiar, Warland, Zuvela, De Jong, De Silva), and had to play the entire season as wandering nomads around their own city while Allianz Stadium is being redeveloped — so it’s some effort to come home with the biggest prize of all.
But none of the feel-good factor surrounding the grand final should take the focus away from those charged with reversing the A-League’s arrested development.
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Put simply, this off-season is crucial in getting things right off the pitch ahead of the 15th season of the Hyundai A-League.
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By June 30, we’ll know if the competition will be independent, or not. Clubs (and FFA) say they are optimistic a solution will be found, and the conditions created for greater investment in the league by the owners. Hallelujah.
The sticking point however, remains the state federations, and whether they will be brave enough to vote for the change the sport so desperately needs.
If they delay the inevitable still further, then the A-League runs the risk of yet another season of minimal investment.
In that scenario, quite how the A-League can get back on track is unclear.
Arguments over portions of the financial pie are all well and good — but if the sport doesn’t move quickly, then very soon there’ll be no pie left to squabble over. It’s that important.
Ultimately (and yes, I’m aware everyone has governance ennui but — as has been demonstrated — if the governance doesn’t work then the game suffers) the federated system needs to go.
A leaner administration needs to emerge, with a clear national vision set out from head office via a unitary model, and regional bureaus operating with professional management teams.
Ten governing bodies across the country is nine too many — little wonder we remain mired in administrative quicksand, with each having their own board, their own agendas, their own plans, and still far too many of the congress votes.
There are murmurs that government is prepared to intervene if necessary, and while this could potentially bring about a response from FIFA (which, laughably, lectures from the moral high ground on ethics), the game in Australia simply cannot afford to keep repeating the same old mistakes.
An independent A-League can be the economic driver of the game, which, eventually, will benefit everyone.
If clubs can make some money, they may be prepared to spend some, but at the moment, (as one executive put to me recently), the present situation is akin to being asked to spend huge amounts on constantly refurbishing a house you do not own – a bottomless pit.
Football-wise, the competition is — by and large — fine.
There are good games and bad games (the same as anywhere else), but the difference between here and elsewhere are the stadiums.
Too many are too big, don’t feel like home, and have cabbage patch surfaces. Boutique is best, save the biggies for the big games.
The heavy-handed nature of security towards football fans (and the lack of understanding of fan culture generally), has contributed to this too, and needs to be fixed as a matter of urgency.
Crowd atmosphere is our point of difference, but unfortunately, we’ve killed the golden goose by a consistent policy of appeasement towards the “mainstream,” despite other sports (most notably AFL), having far bigger issues with crowd misbehaviour.
Once the independence of the league is resolved, then the responsibility will pass firmly onto the A-League clubs.
Their brief will be to promote the competition properly, invest in players, pathways and facilities. To connect with the community, and convert them into paying spectators. Most haven’t done nearly enough in that regard.
For those crying out for national second divisions, promotion and relegation and the rest — yes, those are things we all want. But at the moment, it’s a question of priorities – and the A-League has arrived at its fork in the road.
With expansion coming, and a new operating model on the horizon, there are grounds for optimism – especially as FFA now seems to have also grasped the nettle on spruiking publicly for the funding the game needs, and deserves, for the huge grassroots playing base, leading all the way to the national teams at the top. That’s the FFA’s proper role.
The players have done their bit to hold up their end over a difficult last nine months. Now, it’s up to those who have the biggest responsibility.
Get this sorted, and the game, with the A-League as the vanguard, has a brilliant future ahead. Get it wrong, and we will emerge out of the back door of the last chance saloon.