Friday, 21 October 2016

The A-League can't afford the folly of a second division

In the last few weeks, there's been a surge of support for expanding the A-League, and in particular calls for promotion and relegation to and from a second division. The arguments range from "we're bored with the current teams", "there's no punishment for poor performers", through to "overseas leagues all do it" and even "it's a football (soccer) thing".

The A-League simply can't afford a second division; the impact of distance, low population and football's competition in this country with other codes and other sports simply rule it infeasible.

People talk wistfully of the days of the old National Soccer League (NSL), which expanded at one stage to two conferences and 24 teams. I remember those days well - relative to today's A-League, games were played in poor stadiums, with sub-standard amenities, often located well away from convenient transport, and the standard of play was poor, by comparison. The vast majority of teams had a strong ethnic base - good for atmosphere, but marked by occasional unwanted tensions, and hardly conducive to attracting new supporters without a team.

So where will the money come from? The A-League, which transformed club football in this country and which represented a clean, fresh start in 2005, still can't sustain ten clubs without propping them up financially. So how would we manage with another division?

Our geography kills us. Across Europe, there are some leagues where the longest road trip is akin to travelling from Melbourne to Shepparton. There are few examples where clubs in Europe are forced to travel by air to participate in their domestic leagues, whereas it is simply a way of life for us. For this reason, it's no coincidence that none of  the major Australian national leagues, the  AFL, NRL or the A-League, prop up second tier competitions. It's not a cultural thing - it's purely economic.

From where would the clubs to form a new division be drawn? From which population centres? Football's competition with other codes and other sports in this country simply means they can't count on the same level of support compared with similar sized European cities. Geelong may have a similar population to a city like Mainz in Germany, but where the latter can count on solid support and occupy a place in the Bundesliga, simply not the same proportion of Geelong's population can be counted on to provide critical mass of support for an A-League club, being drawn to alternatives such as Geelong's massive AFL club, or in summer to Big Bash cricket.

The failure of North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast in recent times, and going back further into NSL days, the demise of clubs from Canberra (twice), Gippsland, Adelaide, Brisbane, even the perennially strong Sydney City and other examples show that the critical mass of support required to sustain a club can be tenuous.

If regional centres such as Canberra, Townsville and Geelong can't be counted on to support a sustainable A-League club, then can Melbourne and Sydney be relied upon to fill out a second division? The most expedient solution would be the reintroduction of "old" football clubs like South Melbourne Hellas and Melbourne Knights in Melbourne, and the likes of Sydney Croatia and others further north. While these clubs have proud traditions, loyal supporters and have developed some of our country's greatest footballers, many would see this as a retrograde step.  The alternative is to invent new "neutral" clubs in the manner of Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City. And yet could Melbourne for example sustain a third such club without the benefit of ready-made "ethnic" support? I don't think so - even the cash-rich Melbourne City, parading one of the most star-studded and attractive A-League squads ever assembled, could only attract 8,000 to its first home match this season.

Is promotion and relegation simply a "football" thing? Absolutely not. There are a myriad of domestic Aussie football leagues with promotion and relegation. The Victorian Amateur Football Association has seven divisions which has had annual ups and downs as part of its DNA for decades.

In following national club football in this country every season since the inception of the NSL in 1977, I've seen too many ill-conceived wanderings off the path, which have continually served to hold back progression and consolidation, We simply can't afford the folly of a second division.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Palace's underdog king leads underdog nation

Crystal Palace's gritty midfielder Mile Jedinak was chosen last week to lead the Australian national team into the World Cup finals. For Jedinak, it marks a crowning point in a remarkable football journey.

Jedinak has just completed a remarkable season in the English Premier League. Palace, the unfashionable South London club I have followed for forty seasons, defied all the odds in not just retaining its status in the league but finishing 11th out of 20.  This with the lowest paid squad in the EPL and having endured a horrid start with 9 losses from their first 10 games.

Jedinak emerged from Sydney's western suburbs to feature for Sydney United in Australia's old National Soccer League, progressing to Central Coast Mariners in the A-League before catching the eye of Turkish league club Gençlerbirliği.  After a season and a half, he moved to South London.

Crystal Palace has signed more than its fair share of Australian footballers in the last 20 years, but few have made a lasting impact on the South London faithful.  With most of Palace's football played in the demanding and physical second tier of English football over that time, "elegant" midfielders like Nick Carle and Craig Foster aren't remembered fondly, while striker Nicky Rizzo, midfielder Anthony Danze, defender Shaun Murphy and keeper Steve Mautone stayed briefly without making impact. Kevin Muscat is recalled as not much more than a thug, and though Carl Veart is remembered affectionately in some quarters, his sobriquet "goal machine" was largely tongue in cheek.  The only Aussies to make any lasting impact were Craig Moore, whose stay was all too brief after cash-strapped Palace had to sell him back to Glasgow Rangers, and Tony Popovic, who followed his playing career as assistant coach to Dougie Freedman.

Jedinak had a rocky start at Selhurst Park following his arrival in South London at the start of the 2011-12 season, with fans comments including "you see better players on a Sunday morning in the pub", "pretty likely he'll never cut it as a real midfielder" and "Dougie's worst signing simply not good enough".  However, before long, the hardened Palace faithful came to admire his robust tackling, interceptions and hard yards.  By 2012-13 he had become a fan favourite, was made club captain, and was Palace's player of the year.  

Following the club's success in the Championship play-offs, Jedinak was inspirational in leading Palace's remarkable 2013-14 Premier League campaign superbly.  He started every Premier League match for Palace, anmade more tackles and interceptions than any other Premier League player during the season.

Jedinak has been handed the Socceroo captaincy at a pivotal time for the national team. Coach Ange Postecoglou has engaged in a clearing of the decks, with a series of retirements largely dispensing with the remnants of the so-called "golden" generation which reached  peak with the 2006 World Cup campaign. What remains is the greenest, least-prepared squad seen in many years.

The 2014 Socceroos, faced with their own group of death against 2010 finalists Spain and the Netherlands, plus highly rated Chile, are expected to make a quick and potentially reputation-damaging first round exit in Brazil.  The Aussies are given as much chance of making an impression as was Palace after promotion a year ago to the Premier League.  

How fitting then that Jedinak, the battler from battling Palace, is charged with the responsibility of leading the youthful Australian über-underdogs into the fray. It is more than symbolic that Postecoglou forsook the option of choosing to hand the armband to the enduring and popular talisman Tim Cahill.  Although he falls well short of the grammatical atrocities of the former Socceroo Mark Bosnich, Jedinak lacks the smooth talking and wherewithal of Cahill or former captain Lucas Neill.  But the bustling "beast" from Selhurst Park seems just the right man in the right place for this job.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Atléti and La Liga provide a beautiful conclusion

For those of much more used to a diet of English Premier League, last Saturday's winner-takes-all contest in La Liga provided a stunning, absorbing, highly-satisfying bookend to the season of domestic league action in Europe.

Along with other Australian aficionados, I was faced with an interesting choice of late night /early morning viewing - the FA Cup final between Arsenal and Hull City, or 2nd vs 1st in Spain.  While the former probably exceeded its billing and provided a more drawn-out and closer contest than most pundits predicted, I was so glad I chose the latter.

The La Liga fixture computer had provided the most dramatic of final round contests.  Barcelona would host Atlético Madrid, with the visitors in pole position, but needing at least a draw to win the title. A home win would reap the title for Barcelona.

Some context.  For the previous nine seasons the title had been shared between the two superpowers of Spanish football, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and in only one of those seasons had another team finished runner-up. Atlético, forever in the shadow of its royal city rival, had not won the title since 1996. More than this, Atlético faced into the 2013-2014 season with a financial disadvantage routinely seen across Europe's leagues.  The eleven who started this game in Atlético's away yellow had cost under €40m, less than the individual value of most in Barcelona's team.  In EPL terms, this was Aston Villa attempting to trump Man City and Chelsea for the title.

The stage was set brilliantly at Barcelona's Nou Camp, with sunshine dousing the 100,000 crowd, of which only 500 seats had been made available for the visiting fans.  A mass display from the 100,000 (less the 500) provided a foreboding entree for the visiting team.  We cut to the sight of the nervous Atlético players waiting in the tunnel.  Eventually they were joined by their opposite number from Barca, and we were treated to the sight of genuine, affectionate embraces between the opponents - extraordinary given the momentous occasion, and that shortly they were to engage so vigorously and physically on the field of battle, and a contrast with the sullen, uber stoicism seen in EPL tunnels from a Gerrard or a Terry.

Come kickoff and quickly the viewing audience was immersed in a superb contest.  Barcelona, certainly not at their best, showing great nerves, but buoyed by the mass home support, and having the lion's share of possession. Atlético, soaking up great pressure, skilled and dangerous on the break, and with no small measure of confidence drawn from the previous 37 games of out-performance.

Then the drama.  Within a few first-half minutes, Atlético had lost both top scorer Costa and Turan to injury.  Perhaps Barca smelled blood, but whatever it was, Sánchez conjured up a freakish goal out of nothing for the home team.  Half time and the title was heading back to Barcelona, and a 5th title in 6 years. The alluring Atlético coach Diego Simeone was seen gently shaking his head, wondering how fate was conspiring against him and his team.

Come the second half, and it was Atlético who bounced out of the blocks, dominating possession and after twice going close, finding the precious equaliser. Inspired by their rally, and with the holy grail now within reach, the red and whites (in their away yellow) foiled the desperate forays from the home team.  The tension was palpable, the home support increasingly fervent.

The climax. The final whistle.  Scenes of utter jubilation from the Atlético players and the small dot of away supporters on the Nou Camp canvas.  And then, perhaps the most extraordinary sight of the afternoon, with great swathes of the Barcelona home support breaking into spontaneous warm and generous applause in recognition of the contest they had witnessed, and the visiting team's gallantry and massive achievement in dragging the title away from the big two.  Atléti's proud coach Simeone joined in the celebrations, and then briefly, but beautifully, returned to his dugout as the television cameras caught him in a quiet moment of proud reflection on the enormity of what he and his team had just accomplished.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Fossie, Slater lead a dismal week

A week for reflection on matters round-ball. In Australia, a curious contretemps between former Socceroo team-mates Craig Foster and Robbie Slater. Both now long-time pundits on the game in Australia, they click their keyboards rather like they played their football - brash, gung-ho and a little raw. Foster this week peddled a well-worn theme of his, the disdain for anything from the mother country, or thereabouts, within the Aussie football context. This time it was Melbourne Victory appointee Jim Magilton in his sights. Foster, aided and abetted by flagging football warhorse Les Murray, saw Magilton's appointment as an unwanted pimple on the new face of Australian football - one which has progressively dispensed with its ties to our British past, in favour of more cosmopolitan influences.

Slater, also one not to mince his words, and having spent his English playing days at a slightly higher level than Foster, branded his former teammate as racist for airing such anti-British views. He also managed to throw in some recollection of a Socceroo incident from the distant past which somehow implicated Foster. Irrelevant and tawdry.

If matters football were rather scrappy locally, there was a week of similar untidiness globally. Pepe's stamp on Messi in the latest instalment of the El Classico in Spain, and a reinforcement of the polarity of English football these days - Chelsea's rather odd signing of three young brothers from Luton Town, and the sad near annulment of Darlington FC from the face of football altogether.

Maybe next week we can focus on the positives on the pitch!

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The best of times, the worst of times

With the sun just set on the European season, a chance to reflect on a whirlwind finish as leagues, cup competitions and play-offs came to their conclusion. Undoubtedly the climax and highlight was the UEFA Champions League final, bringing together two stand-out teams in Barcelona and Manchester United to decide the trophy at Wembley. The occasion provided a great match and a great winner in Barcelona. The Catalans were masterful, worthy of every superlative, and a cut above United. Yet despite their dominance, the game remained in the balance for some time. After the Spaniards have taken a deserved lead worthy of their superiority, Rooney stepped up with a superb equaliser to leave the contest level at the break. For an Aussie, it was another example of the great attraction of the code - had it been Aussie Rules, a half time score of Barcelona 11.7, Man Utd 3.2 would have been apt, with the game all over.

Come the second half, Barcelona did exert control and the 3-1 win left even the most one-eyed United fans conceding they had lost to the better team. Having sat through a few of these, the Catalans' dominance took me back to AC Milan's similar superiority with their Dutch trio of Rijkaard, Van Basten and Gullit leading the way some 20 years prior.

What a contrast therefore to witness just days later the calamitous standing of FIFA, with scandalous allegations merely confirming what most thought, that the peak body in world football is a corrupt and lamentable beast. Another blow for those promoting the game in Australia. The naysayers having a field day- not only is the game ruled by cheats at the bottom - the divers, the "simulation" merchants, but it's clearly ruled by cheats at the top!

The juxtaposition of the Champions League final with the ructions of Blatter and co just days later was quite maddening. I hope as the years roll on I'll just be left with memories of the former, a beautiful night in London where the red and blue stripes reigned supreme.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Victory the loser amid Muscat mess

More than just a few bytes have been consumed in the wake of Kevin Muscat's horror tackle on Adrian Zahra which marred Saturday's bristling A-league derby between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne Heart. At time of writing, the Victory's hardman's crude lunge seems likely to provide a coarse full stop to a career punctuated by a number of violent episodes.

As much as this incident has provoked vitriol towards the man himself, public opinion has also biased firmly against his club. In six seasons Melbourne Victory has established itself as the biggest club in the Australian A-league. Its support is the country's largest and its two titles are only matched by Sydney FC. Its star players such as Archie Thompson and Muscat have attracted as much media attention as any, while Ernie Merrick remains the only surviving A-league coach from season one.

The public statements by coach Merrick following Muscat's act via have been truly lamentable. Merrick forsook the opportunity to denounce Muscat and his action. Post-match he tediously grasped the "I didn't see it" defence before launching into criticism of the referee's performance. The next day he chose to defend Muscat's "professionalism" while bleating that Victory weren't the kind of club that played dirty. This simply provided a green light for the parading of a litany of violent acts perpetrated by Muscat and his team mates over a long period. Finally he had the sheer temerity on Melbourne radio to lambaste the management at Melbourne Heart who had by contrast conducted themselves with quiet decorum since Saturday's contretemps.

For Victory members like me, this has been a gut-wrenching time. For all his faults, Muscat has been a leadership figure at the club and contributed positively to its success. But for me that has been obliterated and more after Saturday. He was due to retire and now should immediately. But more than that the implied endorsement of Muscat by the club is a bitter pill for me to swallow.

In this its first season in the A-league, Melbourne Heart has genuinely struggled to find a point of difference, a unique selling proposition in marketing terms, for it to build a critical mass of support. Melbourne's size and sporting disposition should support two teams, but to date, notwithstanding an attractive squad (and the league's most attractive playing strip) Heart has managed gates often not much more than 6,000.

I'd reckon that after this week, Heart can afford to stop worrying. In a single blow (literally), Muscat - and by association his club - have kick started Heart's recruitment drive. There were over 32,000 at the derby on Saturday, by far the biggest gate for any game in the league this year, and far exceeding the combined attendances of both constituent clubs. For those casual football followers who fronted for the first time this season, there could be only one club that would have their support after Saturday's and subsequent events - and Victory is indeed the loser.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Asian Cup sets twin test for Aussie football

Australia will be tested in more ways than one at the Asian Cup finals tournament which just kicked-off in Qatar. The first will be to maximise its playing performance in difficult conditions against eager and talented opposition. The second and arguably greater challenge is for Australia to act with grace and respect to towards both its opponents and towards the competition in general.

The 2007 tournament brings back only bad memories for me. In the wake of the Hiddink-led brilliance of Germany 2006, the finals tournament was a substantial let-down. Australia underestimated the opposition and was poorly behaved on and off the field. Most of the fallout followed the 3-1 group loss to Iraq. Immediately after the final whistle TV viewers were treated to the unpopular boss Graham Arnold bagging the playing squad, with Mark Viduka seconds later challenging the boss's comments. Captain Lucas Neill had "led" by example with a red card for dissent.

Following Australia's exit at the hands of Japan, red-carded midfielder Vince Grella in a massive dummy spit scorned the AFC, its referees and each of Oman, Iraq, Thailand and Japan. The net impact left onlookers with the impression that Australia didn't respect the competition, its organisers or its competitors.

Aussie football followers would expect increased respect, particularly in light of the announcement this week that, albeit as sole bidder, Australia had been handed the hosting rights for the 2015 Asian Cup finals. It was rather bemusing to see Melbourne Victory hard-man Kevin Muscat singing the praises of the competition, as he hasn't managed to do so for the confederation's other major tournament, the AFC Champions League. With his club's continuing poor performance in the competition, Muscat pretty well bagged the entire tournament once Victory had achieved rapid fire elimination last time around.

The blanket lack of support from the Asian confederation for Australia's hapless bid for the 2002 World Cup means that Australia must display consistent and committed support of football in Asia. Let's hope the report card at the end of the 2011 version has more ticks than we saw last time around.