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A-League’s bungled restart highlights difficulties in changing Australian football’s narrative

The FFA last week released a discussion paper titled ‘XI Principles for the future of Australian Football’.

In a move which invited the football community to have their say on the future of the game, one of the principles the governing body identified centred around resetting and re-building an optimistic narrative for Australian football.

A focus on this aspect comes after years of negative press, through incidents of political infighting and declining TV ratings across the board.

Sometimes the media attention was justified, sometimes it was not, but the FFA believes the game needs to be in better control of its narrative and unify the footballing public.

In the early hours of Friday morning, a fortnight ago, it had just the perfect news story to get this process underway.

The announcement that Australia were awarded the right to co-host the 2023 Women’s World Cup, was a shot in the arm the game needed.

Let’s not understate this for a second, the FIFA Women’s World Cup is at the very least in the top four biggest sporting tournaments in the world.

Because of this event, football participation will rise significantly, investment in football infrastructure will be prioritised, as well as a host of other positives for the sport.

FFA CEO James Johnson and his team were rightly lauded in securing the event, with the win receiving considerable coverage in the mainstream media.

Importantly, however, it gave football fans in this country a favourable narrative to unify behind, with an event to look forward to, as well as a growing sense of faith in an administration that has promised to put the best intentions of the game first.

How quickly things change in football.

Move forward to this week and the focus is not on the success of the Women’s World Cup bid, but rather the diabolical situation in regards to the resumption of the A-League.

The scenes of players from Victoria’s A-League clubs not being able to leave the state after the rising coronavirus count, were farcical.

It’s an all too familiar moment where the administration has shot itself in the foot, with Supercars facing a similar situation but able to navigate around it in an appropriate, timely manner.

The AFL, NRL and Rugby Union also relocated all of their Victorian teams to other states in advance.

Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) were highly critical of the FFA, after the events that transpired on Monday and Tuesday.

“What the players and their families have had to endure over the past 48 hours is unacceptable,” the PFA said in a statement on Wednesday.

“The lack of clarity, the ad-hoc planning and shifting commitments have left the players embarrassed, frustrated and entirely lacking confidence in the process.

“Whilst the situation is complex, what the players require is simple; a reliable and feasible plan that does not shift the game’s inability to effectively manage these challenges solely on to players and their families.

“Responsibility sits with FFA to present and then execute an achievable resolution that will ensure the completion of the A-League season and does not create further distress for the players.”

FFA’s Head of Leagues, Greg O’Rourke, has accepted responsibility for the stuff up, but ultimately it made the league look amateurish.

This is an example of how quickly the football narrative can change for the worse.

That feeling of positivity and hard work conducted by the FFA to win the hosting rights of The Women’s World Cup has partly come undone.

Instead, the football community is left embarrassed by self-inflicted mismanagement at the top, not by external forces.

It’s once again a case of football being its own worst enemy.

The issue, as of late Thursday night, seems to have been somewhat resolved with an exemption granted to the Victorian clubs to travel to NSW.

James Johnson’s intervention was likely to have been essential, to get his administrative team out of hot water.

“I would personally like to thank the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and NSW Heath Minister, Brad Hazzard, for granting this exemption during these extraordinary times,” he said in a statement.

However, if the governing body is to properly project a positive narrative to get its fanbase on board, they must set higher standards and not sit on their laurels.

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. Follow him on Twitter @PhilipPanas

Destination NSW partners with A-League

Football Federation Australia (FFA) have announced Destination NSW will become an official partner for the remainder of the A-League season.

As the state government’s official tourism and events agency, Destination NSW is currently undertaking a marketing campaign titled ‘Love NSW’, encouraging people to spend locally during this time.

The Love NSW campaign will feature in LED and virtual signage across a majority of the remaining A-League games this season.

NSW Minister for Jobs, Investment, Tourism and Western Sydney, Stuart Ayres, believes the partnership will be a huge boost, in what has been a tough year.

“In what has been an incredibly challenging year, the NSW Government is proud to support the return of the Hyundai A-League and use this high-impact opportunity to help our state’s tourism industry to recover,” Mr Ayres said.

“This partnership is a fantastic opportunity for us to promote the unique experiences and attractions NSW has to offer local holidaymakers now and in the future through high-reaching broadcast and social media activity.”

“All travellers and businesses must follow the latest health advice to ensure all NSW adventures are COVID-safe.”

FFA CEO James Johnson thanked the minister and Destination NSW for their support.

“Over recent weeks, we have been working with the NSW Government at many levels, through their support and assistance in getting our Hyundai A-League teams to NSW, and on developing this integrated marketing partnership,” Johnson said.

“The fixture to complete the season will see Hyundai A-League matches played across five different NSW venues, in Sydney and in regional areas, and is therefore a great platform to showcase the state of NSW.”

Johnson continued: “COVID-19 has required sports rightsholders and marketers alike to be agile and look for creative partnerships that adapt to the constantly evolving circumstances our community is facing.

“The condensed nature of the restart to the Hyundai A-League season allows brands to capitalise on the unique media opportunity that our Festival of Football provides, especially for those looking to amplify targeted campaigns.

“We greatly appreciate the support of the NSW Government through Destination NSW for the remainder of the Hyundai A-League season and encourage our fans across the country and the world to #LoveNSW,” he concluded.

Matildas and Olyroos receive funding boost for Olympics

The Matildas and Olyroos will receive a high-performance grant from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to prepare for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.

The Olyroos will receive a one-off high-performance grant of $400,000 from the AIS, whilst the Matildas will have a longer-term commitment of funding from the institute beyond the conclusion of the Olympic games.

The AIS will draw the funds from the Federal Government’s $50.6 million investment package in high performance sport for the next two years, which was announced last month.

FFA CEO James Johnson welcomed the announcement and contribution from the respective parties.

“We appreciate and acknowledge the investment of the AIS and the Federal Government into the Matildas and the Olyroos ahead of Tokyo 2020,” Johnson said.

“The high-performance funding that both the Federal Government and also the Australian Institute of Sport provides our code is extremely important.”

“Football is the world’s most competitive sport – there are 211 countries across the world that are playing it, 46 in Asia alone. In Asia, Governments are investing in national team activity, so this additional support is helpful for us as we aim to continue to maintain our competitiveness against our neighbouring countries.

“We believe that the participation of the Matildas and Olyroos at next year’s Games – the first time that they have competed together since Athens 2004 – will add significant interest and excitement to the Games in Australia.

“Football has two million participants in Australia, so we expect our sport’s presence on this great international stage to play an important role in engaging Australians with Tokyo 2020, and inspiring more kids to take up sport and be active. And we look forward to working closely with the AIS and Government as we build up to the FIFA Women’s World Cup on home soil in 2023,” he concluded.  

The Olyroos will compete at their first Olympic games since Beijing 2008, whereas the Matildas reached the quarter finals of the 2016 tournament in Rio.

Will Australia ever see the FFA Cup again?

A total of 765 football clubs had registered to compete in the 2020 FFA Cup, yet a recent decision to cancel the competition may well have put its future in doubt.

Football Federation Australia arrived at the necessary yet unfortunate decision last week whilst also announcing the cancelation of the NPL Finals series due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of the NPL Finals Series, the financial ramifications of the last six months will no doubt have played a major role in informing the move. Interstate travel appears an impossibility considering the losses in gate takings and sponsorship that each and every club across the country will have no doubt experienced in 2020.

A return to NPL play may well see the clubs delve even further into the red as running costs continue to remain higher than the meagre amounts being accumulated in sponsorship revenue and match day takings.

As for the FFA Cup, financial considerations will also have played a role in the decision, yet the sheer logistics of the competition and the time now available to complete it must surely have proven the final nail in the coffin when it came to FFA’s announcement.

The preliminary rounds slated for early 2020 were obliterated by the pandemic and many teams would normally have been eliminated by this stage of the calendar year. With a frantic month of A-League action now upon us in an effort to complete a season that has stretched for near ten months and NPL play ramping up as we speak, the chances of cramming cup, NPL and A-League into the most chaotic of schedules and crowning champions in all three by Christmas, appears something of an impossible task.

Sadly, the 7th edition of Australia’s much loved and long awaited cup competition has been necessarily torpedoed by the governing body. More concerning are real fears that it may be the last we have seen of it.

The FFA Cup brought something unique to the domestic game and provided Australian fans with a basic tenant of football so longed for and domestically absent. All over the world, league competitions pause frequently, as both minnows and heavy hitters take their chances in knockout play in an attempt to raise their respective nation’s cup trophy.

Such a moment says nothing about consistency, staying the course or a clubs’ dominance in home and away play. Cup competition is all about the moment and the ability to seize one, particularly when teams from lower divisions force their way into the later stages and seek to scare the heck out of their top tier rivals.

Thus the phrase, ‘cupset’.

Despite Australia’s cup having never left the hands of the A-League clubs, the competition is structured in such a way that a lower tiered team always features in the final four. In much the same way that EPL teams are kept away from each other in England’s FA Cup, Australia’s elite clubs do not meet until the late rounds, with NPL clubs in full training and competition given the chance to knock off their fancied rivals who are still to build into top form during their pre-season.

Most years, the ‘cupset’ plays out.

With suburban grounds hosting matches in mid-winter conditions, the atmosphere of the FFA Cup is both unique and inspiring. Traditional clubs draw considerable support from their communities and the subsequent lift in performance of the semi-professional teams has been evident on many occasions during the competitions’ short but impressive history.

Without stern determination to ensure its survival and return, the FFA Cup may well be another in a long line of victims that the coronavirus takes in 2020.

The cold reality for NPL clubs in a post pandemic world will be financial struggle. The sponsorship and investment challenges mentioned above will remain evident for some time, with many clubs having been openly keen to cancel the 2020 NPL season for fears of only worsening their precarious financial position.

Similar headaches lie ahead for FFA, with a newly signed Fox Sports broadcast deal destined only to cover A and W League play, Socceroo World Cup qualifiers and friendlies, as well as friendly matches involving the Matildas.

As such, those cold winter nights with televised FFA Cup play and live reports from the other fixtures taking place around the country appear gone. Fox obviously saw little return on their investment and have dropped the cup competition as they lessen their overall financial commitment to football.

Whilst many will cite the FFA’s need to take over the production costs of the domestic game and potentially on-sell content to Foxtel, Kayo Sport and potentially other providers, such an endeavour is challenging, long term and involves considerable financial investment.

Doing so in an effort to spark the A and W League may be a fair objective, however, the logistics and expense in attempting to produce the FFA Cup in-house, may well be a bridge too far, especially considering the remote locations that often play host to important matches.

In its official press release FFA expressed a clear desire to bring back #themagicofthecup in 2021, yet despite its best intentions, the financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic may well make such a return near impossible.

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