One of the fundamental and historical challenges faced by Australian football has been connectivity.
From as far back as 1880 when Wanderers, the first official Australian football club was birthed in Sydney, the game has struggled to form a unified face.
For near on 100 years, just like Australia’s more traditionally favoured pastimes of cricket, AFL and rugby league, the game existed as a predominately amateur endeavour. As that changed football lacked a cohesive and overarching structure that allowed the game to flourish in the way we still hope it can.
At the core of that division was race, culture and ethnicity. It would be nice to think that we have moved beyond that scenario in the 21st Century, yet the game still struggles to see itself as an all-encompassing beast, as opposed to a collection of individual components.
With post World War II immigration providing the driving force, the beautiful game exploded in Australia during the 1950’s and 60’s. Clubs built around the idea of community support networks became the norm and by the mid 70’s, the demand for a more formalised, organised and national competition had well and truly been born.
The Italian, Maltese, Greek, Yugoslav, Arabic and English communities longed for football to become a more significant part of their lives; just as it had been in their homelands.
That longing and demand was met casually on Saturday afternoons in amateur play before it finally began to take shape as a semi-professional league in the late 1970’s.
Founded in 1977, the National Soccer League gave voice and presence to the world game on Australian shores and as a five-year-old boy at the time, still remains something of a hazy and distant memory.
With a myriad of political issues existing between many of the clubs, some ethnic hostility and clear inter club tensions, division became the norm. So much so that as a little and pasty white Anglo-Saxon kid I was banned from attending NSL matches in the 1980’s.
My father felt I might get hurt and preferred to watch highlight packages of English football than risk life and limb at an NSL match. How wrong he was about so many things, including football.
We should all probably excuse him considering the negative media coverage the game received at the time; racist and inflammatory, the images and copy gave the game little chance to thrive.
Such coverage kept the game well and truly divided from the potential main stream interest of a keen and enthusiastic Australian sporting public. For nearly 30 years, football battled through re-incarnation after re-incarnation; desperately seeking acceptance that was not forthcoming thanks to internal division and external bias.
By the late 1990’s the game was hamstrung. Despite phenomenal growth in junior participation rates, division had led to stagnation. At the eleventh hour, the A-League was born. It was an attempt to bridge the divides, yet one that appears to have had little impact in drawing football together as one and may in fact have widened the chasm between the past and present.
There is no doubt that culture and community can indeed interact with professionalism, modernity and corporate football in Australia. However, the A-League has not proven to be the answer. Finding that answer is key.
Now, after 15 years of A-league play and a strengthening NPL competition that continues to highlight the lessening gap between the two, football may finally be on the cusp of morphing into one entity.
With the FFA Cup showcasing traditional and community based clubs and a newly independent A-league, the domestic game stands at the dawning of a new financial and collaborative football age.
If Perth Glory owner Tony Sage is correct and there is indeed an extra A$80 million to allocate towards the advancement of Australian football, one of the keys will be corporate connectivity. Moreover, a broad vision, driven by people with not just knowledge of football but knowledge of football in Australia and all its foibles, is paramount.
The game stands at a crucial juncture where vision and reality must combine in order to fund and develop the game at all levels. The women’s game requires investment, as do the immensely talented youth leagues from where our next generation will emerge.
Building clear connections between the traditional history of the NPL, women’s football and the now independent top tier is paramount.
The visionary decisions that need to be made require clear, corporate and unbiased minds; capable of picturing the long term future of the game, perhaps at the cost of some short term disappointment.
For decades, the game has been divided, a hodgepodge if you will. The moment has now arrived, where an independent top tier can take the lead and drive change. Change towards true promotion/relegation across the country, a transfer fee system that reflects the realities of world football and a connection to the women’s game that acknowledges the changing face of the sport.
If done well, the corporate interest in the game would increase, with the financial sector excited by a truly united and inter-connected game with immense promise and potential.
Both spiritual and financial connectivity are required. Let’s hope football has the vision to put the right people in place to achieve such a goal.