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Australian football at crossroads with on-field optimism, off-field problems

Jason Dasey and Nick Ward give their early thoughts and predictions ahead of the 2017/18 A-League.

Football in Australia finds itself at a crossroads, excited and concerned in equal measures about the future of the game, ahead of the 13th season of the A-League competition.

The sport is buzzing, given both the recent successes of the women's national team and expectations that the men's A-League competition will be seen by more people than ever before. But governance issues at the top threaten to stymie development of the professional game in a highly competitive sporting landscape.

The recent all-conquering form of the national women's team, home and away, has generated unexpectedly widespread public admiration of and affection for the Matildas. The headline coverage of their stellar efforts during the Australian Football League (AFL) and National Rugby League (NRL) finals boosted the domestic game ahead of the 2017-18 A-League season, starting on Oct. 6.

And Graham Arnold, coach of defending A-League champions Sydney FC, is unabashed in telling ESPN FC that he believes the competition is developing at such a rate that, in time, it will sit "alongside some of the top European leagues".

But the national men's team have failed to qualify automatically for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Increasingly fewer Socceroos are now playing prominently in the top European leagues, and the national men's junior teams have been unable to secure places in the past two under-20 World Cup and Olympic tournaments.

Graham Arnold
Sydney FC coach Graham Arnold believes the A-League will soon sit alongside European leagues in terms of quality.

Football Federation Australia (FFA) is also under pressure, both internally and externally, to reform the make up of its congress. It helps to decide how the sport is run across the country by electing the members of the FFA board to three-year terms, and approving changes to its constitution.

A-League clubs, state member federations and the players' association are deadlocked about the FFA's congress. It currently has 10 votes, with each of the nine state and territory federations getting one vote each, while the A-League clubs receive one collective vote. The process doesn't allow A-League, W-League and women's international team players to have a say. With only 10 votes, it is the smallest electorate of any FIFA member nation.

The governing body was told by FIFA in July that a normalising committee would remove the FFA board if an expanded congress that was adequately democratic and inclusive of more stakeholders was not agreed upon by Nov. 30. That committee, if established, will see FIFA announce an interim board to run the reform process until the congress issue is determined -- as it did in the last year or so in Cameroon, Argentina, Guinea and Greece.

Within this stand off, A-League club owners have also threatened to take FFA to court over their share of its latest TV deal worth $A346 million. That means the expansion of the league, which is a collective desire of the Australian soccer community, has been delayed till 2019-20 as more funds are needed to appease owners.

Perth Glory chief executive Peter Filopoulos believes Australian soccer has reached these crossroads because the leaders of the game haven't articulated what the football community wants.

In May 2015, FFA released its Whole of Football Plan, which was a 20-year vision for soccer "to be the largest and most popular sport in Australia". As he announced the plan, FFA CEO David Gallop declared that soccer wanted to double to 15 million the number of Australians "who love, watch and play football" by 2035 -- a number that would be half of the nation's projected population. Progress has been made on that front, judged by the results of the Australian Sports Commission's official AusPlay survey, published in April. That showed soccer, once again, was the most popular sport to play in the country.

The Whole of Football Plan listed also a desire to develop "a distinctive Australian style of playing that puts national teams in contention for all FIFA and AFC championships ... national competitions that attract 75 percent of participants to support a top-tier club ... a combined pool of 3000 elite male and female players from 12 to 19 vying for future national selection and professional contracts ... and academies that provide world-class coaching so that no Australian youth needs to go overseas to find elite development".

In launching the 2016-17 A-League season, Gallop said that 10 teams were "too few" and "we want to move to 12 teams relatively quickly", but he did not present a timeline for expansion. The governing body told ESPN FC this month that the A-League must have a new funding model before new franchises could join the competition.

"Without a new A-League operating model, sustainable expansion of the league will be very difficult, without diluting the funding to existing owners," an FFA spokesperson said. "Furthermore, dreams of a viable, national second division will remain just that: dreams."

Filopoulos says, however, that the governors of the game still "need to set a clear ambition about what we want the A-League to look like in five to 20 years' time".

Melbourne Victory celebrate their 2-1 win over Melbourne City FC.
Derby games in Melbourne and Sydney have added spice to the A-League as it approaches a 13th season.

"In five or 10 years' time there should be 14 very successful A-League clubs playing in a vibrant competition," Filopoulos, an alumni of Melbourne's Deakin University, said. "We should clearly stake our claim as the second-most attended sport in Australia. It should be underpinned by a national second division at that point heading towards promotion and relegation beyond 10 years."

Within 20 years, Filopoulos wants to see two successful national competitions -- the A-League and a B-League, featuring promotion and relegation -- with both shown on national television.

He added: "We've got to match our ambition by building that capability. By strengthening our A-League teams, by identifying new A-League teams and working towards the creation of them."

FFA, nevertheless, is perhaps right to be cautious in its plans, as the organisation has experienced mixed fortunes with regards to expansion.

North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United entered the league in 2008, but the former had their licence revoked in 2010 as a result of poor crowds, poor results and a lack of finances. Gold Coast initially performed strongly, making the finals in their first two seasons, but they failed to draw fans and the FFA eventually revoked the club's licence as a result of breaches of the club participation agreement. That included repeated public statements by controversial owner Clive Palmer's that brought "the A-League, FFA and the game of football into disrepute and [were] prejudicial to the interests of FFA, the A-League and the game of football in Australia".

The introduction of Melbourne Heart for the 2010-11 season, and Western Sydney Wanderers who were fast-tracked ahead of the 2012-13 campaign to replace Gold Coast, has been much more successful, creating the Melbourne and Sydney Derby as marquee games.

Western Sydney Wanderers have reached three Grand Finals, and won the 2014 AFC Champions League.

The City Football Group acquired Melbourne Heart in 2014 for $A12 million, and rebranded the club as Melbourne City. They went within one game of the 2016 Grand Final, with players like Aaron Mooy producing excellent attacking football.

City and the Wanderers have each drawn new fans to the A-League, seemingly without cannibalising the support of their respective crosstown rivals, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC.

Expansion club Western Sydney Wanderers stunned Asia by winning the 2014 AFC Champions League.

The 2016-17 season saw healthy average crowds once again topping 12,000 per game -- including a record 61,880 fans at the first Sydney derby of the season. That record for an Australian domestic soccer crowd at ANZ Stadium trumped attendances at the previous month's AFL qualifying final derby between the Sydney Swans and GWS Giants (60,222) and the showcase State of Origin III rugby league fixture between New South Wales and Queensland (61,267) in July.

The A-League's attendance numbers still lag behind those of the powerhouse AFL and NRL competitions, but there is room to grow. Soccer has a great opportunity this season to overtake the crowds of Australia's Super Rugby after the poor returns of the nation's five rugby franchises in 2017.

The A-League certainly has a pre-engaged audience for spectators, and potential players for future expansion plans. The AusPlay survey reported that 1,104,815 Australians had played football between January 2016 and December 2016. The survey reported that golf, with 724,141 participants, Aussie Rules (665,470), netball (640,607) and tennis (568,248) rounded out the five most popular participation sports in Australia. It showed that soccer had more than twice as many participants as cricket (543,695), and four times as many as rugby league (236,593).

That prospective audience will also have commercial free-to-air television coverage to watch this season for the first time.

The A-League was televised exclusively on the Fox Sports network before government broadcaster SBS in 2013 won the free-to-air rights of the existing deal. SBS was limited to broadcasting the Friday night match every week until June 2017. But those fixtures were often not the high-profile games of the week, so the impact of the free-to-air broadcast was minimised.

The new deal will see Network 10 simulcast live the highest-profile Saturday fixtures, as well as all the finals, on its One channel.

As for the Socceroos, their World Cup hopes hang in the balance. They will now need to overcome a tricky two-legged playoff against Syria in Malaysia and Australia before another playoff against opponents from the CONCACAF region in November if they are to play at Russia 2018.

That means the public soccer spotlight is now firmly on the women's national team, the Matildas. They won the Asian Cup in 2010, five years before the men, and in 2015, they became the first Australian team to win a knockout game at a World Cup when they defeated Brazil.

The Matildas celebrate Samantha Kerr's goal.
The Matildas' stunning success has captured the imagination of the Australian sporting public.

Perth Glory and Matildas forward Sam Kerr, who also plays for Sky Blue FC in the U.S. National Women's Soccer League, believes the new W-League pay deal that delivered players a minimum $A10,000 salary, and Australia's two recent victories over Brazil, are signs of the game's growth.

"For the Matildas, it's awesome," Kerr told ESPN FC. "It's a huge moment. It means we are finally moving in the right direction and it will raise the standard of women's football."

The FFA has recognised the importance of women's football, describing it as "an integral part of our organisation". That was after the Matildas' latest home matches against Brazil saw record-breaking crowds of 15,000 in Penrith and almost 17,000 in Newcastle.

To put those numbers into context, they each topped the 14,865 fans who attended AFL expansion club GWS Giants' first-ever home final at Spotless Stadium the same night as the Matildas played in Penrith. That Giants crowd figure was the lowest for an AFL finals match since 1916, but was still more than the club's season average of 13,195.

The FFA is now working with member federations "to increase the number of female coaches and improve facilities for females". It has announced Matildas' matches against China in Melbourne, as it seeks to build further momentum to support its intention to bid to host the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup.

More immediately, however, the Matildas' performances have added to the excitement, ahead of the new A-League season.

The opening round features a blockbuster game of the week, with Melbourne Victory hosting Sydney FC in a replay of last season's Grand Final. It is the perfect fixture to showcase the best of the A-League, just one week after the AFL and National Rugby League competitions stage their own Grand Finals.

FFA and club officials can expect the Victory-Sydney fixture to draw a 30,000-strong crowd to Etihad Stadium in Melbourne, and they likely will be disappointed if the Melbourne Derby at the same venue on Oct. 14 does not match last season's 43,000, and if the Sydney Derby another seven days later in round three does not sell out the 45,000-capacity Allianz Stadium.

The action off the field will be just as intriguing, with FIFA's shadow looming over Australian soccer, and various stakeholders looking to have a greater say. But "we have got a lot of smart people in the game", says Filopoulos.

"If we all sat down in a room and debated all the issues that plague the sport we'd find a lot of solutions. And that's the biggest elephant in the room: How we go about building towards that ambition," he concluded.

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