Debate on the future of the game is essential to become a football nation

In regards to the conversation around Australian football right now, everything is on the table.

Despite the current times we are experiencing with the coronavirus pandemic, it’s refreshing to hear constructive debate around the future of the game.

Football is a game of opinions, after all. Everyone throws in their two cents, even more so when there are no domestic games to watch or participate in, at a grassroots or professional level.

The range of voices we have heard from in recent weeks, including former Socceroos and Matildas, current administrators, as well as past and present coaches, has given the footballing public a sense of belief that the game will finally focus on football first.

The in-depth discussions and dissections of what a Josip Skoko believes is best for the game, or what a Peter Filopoulos thinks, in such a transparent manner, is something we need more of to be a healthy football nation.

Most of these figures have spoken openly on what they think the new FFA CEO James Johnson must attempt to address, ranging from topics such as player development, junior fees, promotion and relegation and governance structures.

The overall consensus? Despite the last couple of years of largely negative press, if we address the long-standing issues of the game, it will have a positive future.

One of those issues is the disregard that was shown to NSL clubs when the A-League was established, despite all the positives they continued to contribute to the game, including youth development, traditional football culture and much more.

Former Socceroo Gary Cole told this publication recently that he felt “the history of Australian football, for a long time, kicked off in 2004.”

It resonated with me a while after. How could you not agree with Cole, in this case?

I was quite young when the NSL folded; most of my life, all I have known is the A-League.

‘Old soccer’ as Cole called it, was barely referred to and when it was, it had a negative or embarrassing connotation attached to it, during the opening years of the A-League and arguably still does now.

Why was this the case? It’s inexcusable. You can’t tell me now that the game has properly recognised our previous national competition or the clubs involved and the heroes of that era.

Younger generations can’t celebrate legends like Cole who paved the way for the likes of the Tim Cahills and Harry Kewells of the world, if they are not told who they were, who they played for and what they achieved.

Clubs like Cole’s Heidelberg United are central to one of the other pressing debates discussed by those in the game, a national second division.

Ex-Socceroos goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer put forward his plan during a ‘State of Football’ chat with Optus Sport on Sunday, in which he outlined a region-based conference system for a national second division setup.

“It minimises travel costs, but creates a second tier, semi-professional, with a view in the future to lift it up,” he said.

“In Germany for example, the third division is regional. The top two teams, depending on the region, (size of) participation, go into a play-off for eventual promotion.

“Why can’t we create a similar structure?”

Will everyone agree with Schwarzer’s idea for the second division? Absolutely not.

But that’s beside the point. The more these matters are spoken about and debated, the urgency increases for administrators to take all views into account and move forward with plans to implement.

There are those who think some former Socceroos, without any administrative experience, are not best placed to make calls on the future of complex governance decisions within the Australian football system.

That’s a fair enough criticism, but that doesn’t mean their involvement in the discussion of the game’s future, through different online platforms and now FFA’s Starting XI panel, hasn’t already been effective and will continue to be so.

Their influential voices form part of the narrative from all corners of the game who now support a national second division, with a point being reached where no other option will be accepted.

Call me an optimist, despite the game’s governance track record over its history, with James Johnson at the helm, football can finally be its unique self and stand on its own two feet.

There is renewed confidence that decisions will be made in the best interests of the sport, not simply trying to replicate what rival codes do.

In the end however, while discussion and debate around the game’s future is important, it’s the actions that count.

Philip Panas is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S3 Ep 2 with Gary Cole interviewing Steve Corica

Corica FCA

Steve Corica is Head Coach of A-League Men at Sydney FC, where he narrowly missed out on three A-League Championships in a row, losing to Melbourne City in the Grand Final last season. What a remarkable start to his first senior head coaching role!

He played his junior football in Innisfail in North Queensland, before heading to the Australian Institute of Sport and playing just under 500 professional games in Australia, England and Japan.

Steve’s preparation for coaching began while he was playing, and he started to gain his coaching licences before taking on an assistant role with the Sydney FC Youth Team.

He served a seven-year apprenticeship at Sydney with the Youth Team and then as an assistant to Vitezslav Lavicka, Frank Farina and Graham Arnold before taking on the Head Coach role in 2018. He learned from each of these coaches and also learned, like most ‘he didn’t know, what he didn’t know’ when taking on the Head Coaching Role.

Steve believes that team and club culture are key to success. He understands that while he is the driver of the culture, that buy-in from all of the players is integral to behaviours being demanded from the playing group of one another.

Steve’s ‘one piece of wisdom’ was ‘to be yourself’. Know how you want to play, the style of football you want to play. Be strong when you do get setbacks, but believe in what you’re doing, stay strong and keep believing in the style of football you want to play.

Please join me in sharing Steve Corica’s Football Coaching Life.

A-League supporter numbers grow – but 2 million football fans still unattached

Despite attendances dropping in A-League matches over the past few years, supporter numbers across the board have grown in the past 12 months, according to a recent Roy Morgan report.

“A-League clubs have enjoyed a substantial increase in support over the last year in line with the increases seen for other football codes such as the AFL and NRL,” Roy Morgan Industry Communications Director, Julian McCrann, stated.

“Over 3.6 million Australians now profess support for an A-League club, an increase of over 1 million (+38.3%) on a year ago.”

“As we have seen across other football codes the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many sports to be played in front of empty stadiums but live on TV to supporters stuck at home in the many lockdowns we have seen over the last 18 months around Australia.”

Sydney FC have the biggest supporter base with 640,000 fans according to the report, a 32% increase on last year’s numbers.

Melbourne Victory were also well placed on the supporter ladder, slightly behind Sydney with 632,000 fans, an increase of 46% on a year ago.

A-League Men’s champions Melbourne City and expansion side Macarthur FC also saw impressive numbers of increased support.

“Another big winner over the last year has been Melbourne City which won its first A-League Men Championship earlier this year after defeating Sydney FC in the Grand Final (between Melbourne’s fourth and fifth lockdowns) in late June,” McCrann said.

“Melbourne City’s support has increased by an impressive 50.9% on a year ago to 249,000 to have the highest support of any A-League Men expansion team.

“The newest club in the A-League Men, Macarthur FC, has had a successful first season in the league with a finals appearance, a victory in an Elimination Final, and a loss to eventual Champions Melbourne City in the semi-final.

“Not only has Macarthur FC performed strongly on the pitch but they have already attracted 84,000 supporters to rank in tenth place overall.”

Whilst all A-League sides saw an increase in supporters in 2021, Central Coast Mariners experienced the largest percentage rise from 2020 – with fan numbers growing by 90%.

In regards to television numbers, over 1.5 million Australians watch the A-League Men’s competition.

However, the report states that 3.5 million Australians watch any football match on television, including leagues such as the English Premier League or international tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup.

This represents a huge untapped audience of around 2 million Australians, something which should be capitalised on.

“Looking ahead, the challenge for the A-League will be to continue to grow the league in an increasingly competitive sporting market and find a way to connect with the millions of Australians who love their football but don’t presently engage with the A-League,” McCrann said.

“There are over 2 million Australians out there who watch high quality football competitions, such as the English Premier League, who are yet to become fans of the A-League. This at-hand market of 2 million Australians is a significant market for the A-League to target during the recovery from Covid-19.”

The Australian Professional Leagues (APL), the new body running the professional game in this country, have continually emphasised in their messaging that they want to target football fans of all types to engage with the local elite competition.

The organisation’s investment in a $30 million digital hub is set to play a big part in converting these fans into A-League supporters.

“It is the biggest single investment football has made in itself. It’s a $30 million investment into digital infrastructure and data infrastructure that will serve the football fan. It won’t be the home of Australian football; it will be Australia’s home of football,” Danny Townsend, Managing Director at the APL, recently told FNR.

“What it will deliver is content – audio-visual, editorial and everything else you need.

“Part of the reason we are doing that, and investing in what we are calling APL studios, is ensuring that by organising the football community in one place we are able to deliver the utility in their everyday lives and focus on how they choose to consume football. If you do that – they’ll keep coming back.

“You put great content in there, you serve it, and you will continue to understand that fan and all of their preferences.”

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