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Jan 10, 2010

From anticipation to expectation

There would have been a few almighty sighs of relief coming out of the FFA (Football Federation Australia) headquarters on New Year's Eve, given the tumultuous beginnings of the decade just passed and defining moments that salvaged the sport.

At the dawn the century, Australian football's administration appeared intent on political infighting and mismanagement, while the sport seemed destined for yet another long spell in the international wilderness.

The Socceroos had failed (yet again) to qualify for a World Cup, this time at the hands of Uruguay in 2001, while domestically, the sport's image was about as alluring as Margaret Thatcher in hotpants.

Soccer Australia (the name of Australian football's governing body at the time) was doing its best to transform the organisation into a comedy club - botched international friendlies, a TV rights saga and rumours of trading while insolvent were legacies left by those in charge.

The sport was at rock-bottom and the future appeared as bright as a sunset on a rainy day. Thankfully, the forecast soon changed and the Federal Government intervened just in time to ensure the sleeping giant of Australian sport awoke rather than falling into an eternal coma.

An investigation conducted by leading corporate figure David Crawford, on behalf of the Government and Australian Sports Commission, called for "a comprehensive governance framework and management structure for the sport that addresses the needs of affiliated organisations and stakeholders". Since receiving the wake-up call and digesting the Crawford report, the sport has gone from strength-to-strength.

After Soccer Australia was succeeded by the Australian Soccer Association (later FFA) in 2003, billionaire businessman Frank Lowy was appointed as chairman and he immediately set about establishing an organisation that would fulfil the immense potential the sport embodied.

The raft of new additions included an eight-team national competition, the A-League, the appointment of a new national coach for the Socceroos' 2006 World Cup campaign (Guus Hiddink) and a lucrative seven-year TV rights deal with Fox Sports worth $130 million - the biggest TV rights deal in the history of the sport in Australia.

The most significant achievement, however, would occur on 16 November, 2005, when John Aloisi stepped up to the penalty spot at Stadium Australia and guided his shot past an outstretched Fabian Carini to send Australia to its first World Cup in 32 years.

So, with the first decade of the 21st century bringing about much change to the Australian football landscape, what does the next one have in store?

Unlike the previous ten years of anticipation, the new decade is one of expectation in Australian football. Public opinion is that World Cup qualification is now a formality and they expect, not hope, that Australia will advance beyond the group stage of the 2010 World Cup.

Having gone from a climate where CEOs haggled for a TV rights deal that included coverage of a few local games at best, Australian football now finds itself in a commanding position, fuelled by public interest, ever-increasing participation rates at grassroots level and the prospect of hosting the game's biggest showpiece event, the FIFA World Cup.

Yet while football in Australia has built momentum and is surging forward, much of this momentum hinges on the future success of the Socceroos. While the A-League has been great for domestic football fans and increasing the awareness of the sport locally, it's the Socceroos that drive interest and bring in the corporate bacon.

It is therefore essential that the FFA keeps its house in order and focuses on the technical development of aspiring footballers by ensuring all stakeholders carry out its national football curriculum. World Cup qualification might therefore become a formality, our players could continue to grace the top leagues of Europe, local football would remain on our TV screens and, one day, a Socceroo captain might stand atop a podium with the World Cup in hand, shouting out "You beauty".

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