Friday, 22 February 2008

Presumably, eight isn't enough

Football Federation Australia announced this week conditional approval for two new Queensland teams to compete in the A-league from season 2008-09. Provided the backers behind each of Gold Coast Galaxy and the Townsville-based Northern Thunder can jump financial and other hurdles in the next two weeks, then the eight-team A-league will become ten, with the FFA apparently planning to go to 12 teams at some point before too long.

The eight-team league has proved frustrating for football fans, serving up only 21 rounds plus finals. Frustrating also for players, who find the lengthy off-season detrimental to career progression.

And so the A-league, the great white hope of Australian league football after 28 highly-flawed seasons of the old National Soccer League, appears set to tweak itself for the first time. World-weary cynics like me shudder a little, remembering the former NSL managed to tweak itself about 20 times over those 28 seasons.

A primary concern is that the playing standard will be diluted. Adding another 45-50 players to fill out the two new squads will be achieved either by raiding existing A-league clubs or by importing players of the ilk that has so under whelmed expectant supporters in the past three seasons. Fair weather Australian football supporters who turn up only for the big World Cup qualifiers, who presumably are nourished on a TV diet of English Premier League, and who often complain of the relatively poor standard in the national league will hardly find greater attraction under this scenario.

A corresponding concern is the financial well-being of the clubs, old and new. Odd that Queensland clubs will account for 30% of the new league. It's hard to see the Gold Coast team not taking supporters away from Queensland Roar, which will surely revert logically to a Brisbane moniker. Funny to think that in the old NSL there were several seasons in the late 80s and early 90s with no team north of Tweed Heads.

The old NSL saw no fewer than 42 clubs breeze in and out over its lifetime; 15 of those are now defunct and the carcasses of most others litter lower state leagues. The A-league has brought a new level of professionalism and excitement to Australian football that was never present under the old spluttering model. Let's hope the survival rate this time around is appreciably higher.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

On the road to find out

This Wednesday sees the start to another World Cup qualifying campaign for Australia. Rather like ring marks on a tree, I often muse on marking my life as a series of Aussie qualifying campaigns - how many left for me, I wonder?

This time around has a particular resonance, since it has the somewhat novel distinction of coming off the back of a successful campaign last time . Somewhat novel, but not unique, as I remember the last time this happened, with the qualifying campaign for the 1978 World Cup.

There was a similar euphoria when Australia qualified for and played in the 1974 World Cup. The buoyant mood helped provide the momentum to kick off a national competition, the Philips Soccer League in 1977.

With the national team, things were less rosy. Political infighting (largely NSW versus the rest of Australia) had contrived to produce a new national coach that in fact none of the states wanted - a Mr Nobody from the north of England called Jimmy Shoulder.

And thus we entered another qualifying campaign through Asia. First of all, there was the matter of dispensing with Taiwan, Fiji and New Zealand, then into the final qualifying group comprising South Korea, Iran, Kuwait, Hong Kong and Australia. In July 1977 I tripped along to Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide to see the Aussies breeze past Hong Kong 3-0, with local boy John Kosmina scoring twice. The Aussies were untroubled but not terribly convincing.

Fast forward 31 years, and Australia faces a rather different challenge in its hopeful path to South Africa in 2010. It's back in Asia for WC qualifying for the first time since 1977. (It would have faced Asian opposition in 1981 had it been able to get past New Zealand).

It's been slightly surreal to see Australia's first-up opponent Qatar training assiduously in Melbourne with its entire squad intact, while Australia has a most splintered build-up for this qualifier. It appears likely that nearly the entire eleven who kick off on Wednesday will have arrived only one or two days prior to the match, and be subject to the tactical desires of a new coach for the first time.

Back 31 years ago, Australia drew strength from its playing squad, all home-based, getting very used to playing with each other. These were the days when it was still not unusual for the national team to organise tours around the world to help the playing group gel.

I recall the first time that Australia made a particular point of rushing back overseas players, in this instance player, in the case of Eddie Krncevic for the critical qualifier against Israel in 1989. It failed - Krncevic, our most credentialled player, failed to spark, and Australia disappeared from the qualifying race.

So it's not the ideal set up for the Aussies in their first hit out. And frankly, there's not much latitude for Australia to have a shaky start, with Qatar nominally the weakest of our three opponents in this group. A draw at home would put pressure on from the outset; a loss, even scarier to contemplate.

Pesky Sydneysiders will point to Melbourne being a "bad luck" venue for the Aussies, harking back to the failed play-offs in 1997 and 2001, although Melburnians could point to Sydney playing its part in failures in 1981, 1989 and 1993! Thinking of Asian opponents and that 1977 campaign, I recall the wheels started to fall off in Melbourne when Dave Harding missed a penalty against Iran, who won 1-0.

By all accounts, the Qataris will be defending solidly and hoping to catch Australia on the break. It's likely to test the patience of Australia to find a way through Qatar's defence. Celtic's Scott Macdonald could be key to converting whatever chances Australia can manufacture. Tim Cahill will be another important element.

The road to determining Australia's 2010 destiny starts on Wednesday. It could be a nervy night.