Football has never been big in Australia. For most Aussies, the ranking of sports goes: Australian Rules Football, rugby, cricket, tennis, and then football and basketball. We even call the game “soccer”. Our national team is the “Socceroos.”
Soccer currently stands as the most played outdoor team sport in Australia, and sits only behind swimming as the sport most participated in. And swimming isn’t really an optional extra in Australia; you basically have to do it, or you’re going to be that one kid on Bondi Beach looking out miserably at all the other kids having a great time.
Soccer is hugely popular at junior levels, and you can see why. It’s a fun sport to play. It promotes regular exercise and teamwork, both of which appeal to parents wanted to get little Barry and Steve off the XBox and out into the fresh air. And better yet, unlike Australian Rules and rugby, there’s very little chance of massive head trauma or crushed ribs beneath a spear tackle when you’re playing soccer.
But once it passes amateur level, soccer’s popularity goes increasingly downhill. In Australia, if you genuinely like soccer, you follow the EPL and maybe La Liga, too, if you’re motivated. In the country itself, we have the A-League, perhaps the most pointless professional football competition ever created. It’s where Alessandro Del Piero’s football career went to die. In a nod to the quality of the players we produce, 39-year-old, post-Juventus Del Piero is still regarded as the best A-League player we’ve ever had. David Villa played four games for Melbourne City once, and only because Melbourne City and his main club, New York City, were both owned by Manchester City.
Watching players who wouldn’t get a game for a club side in Europe knock a ball around for a 0-0 draw is frightfully dull. Especially when, around the corner, a game of Australian Rules football is being played, a sport that continually dominates television ratings and has the fourth-highest average attendance ratings of any sport in the world.
This historically hasn’t been the case for Australian football, or “soccer”, for the simple reason that our football has never been consistently good enough to raise public attention towards it. In a country where people expect our sport to be played well, whether it be our Australian cricket team, nearly always one of the best teams in the world, or our swimming squad, who were heavily criticized for winning only 10 medals at the 2012 Summer Olympics, the Socceroos’ continuous absence from the FIFA World Cup between 1974 and 2006 meant there was little competition that we could cheer the team on in.
Recently, though, that has started to change. The new wave of popularity for Australian football began in 2005, when the Socceroos defeated Uruguay on penalties to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Then, in Germany, they beat Japan 3-1, thanks to three goals after the 84th minute from Tim Cahill, Cahill again and John Aloisi. We even made the last 16! And when a controversial penalty in the 93rd minute against Lucas Neill, something that still enrages Australians to this day, saw the Socceroos knocked out by Italy, who actually went on to win the thing, football in Australia had reached hitherto unseen heights.
After 2006, though, this progress stalled considerably. The Socceroos were unable to repeat their efforts in the 2010 World Cup, unable to recover after being smashed 4-0 by Germany in a match famous among Australians for the tactics of head coach Pim Verbeek, who went into the match without a recognised striker. Even at the 2014 World Cup, most people paid only fleeting or partial attention, really only noticing that one Tim Cahill goal everyone seemed to love. (By the way, that goal is on YouTube. Check it out.)
In the last year, football in Australia has taken its biggest step yet. The 2015 Asian Cup, held in Australia, was heavily covered in the media, and 76,385 people showed up to see Australia defeat South Korea in the final after a James Troisi goal in the 105th minute. It was beautiful.
Australian football has also taken major strides through the women’s game, too. Unlike our men’s team, which remains small fry compared to the major European and South American teams, the Matildas can actually compete with the better teams. In the round of 16, they even beat Brazil, and made it to the last eight. That’s the best ever result by an Australian football team, men or women. And the media coverage of the triumph was enormous. Football was, and is still, starting to get a stronghold in a world previously dominated by Australian Rules and rugby.
Hopefully, the progress seen over the past three years is a sign of things to come. It could be that, in the next few decades, football in Australia becomes our premier national sport.
Maybe then we’ll do what nobody thought possible, and make it to the quarters in a World Cup.