The State of Australian Football – Part 2

footy news blog


It is too easy to underestimate the importance of reputation in the world game. In Australia we have done this for too long. It is hard to think of one footballing nation that derives instant respect without a bona fide superstar.


The football identities of entire nations have been built around individuals who have reached the heights of success. They therefore not just created a name for football in their own nation, but for their countries on the world stage.


Ferenc Puskas, Gheorghe Hagi, Johann Cruyff. These are names that have built football empires in countries smaller then our own. For some temporarily, for others a lifetime of success has followed. Some might say these are one of a kind or too hard to replicate in a nation where football is not the premier sport.


However in Australia we embody a natural advantage that most European countries do not. Our whole sporting landscape is built around the benefits that our perfect climate, masses of space dedicated to sporting pitches and economically secure lifestyle present us.


Who could say that Australia could not produce a genuine football icon, both to develop the game still in need of popularity and respect in Australia and to cement a reputation that we almost had, but never quite believed we deserved.


After all, we already could have. Had Harry Kewell not succumbed to the injuries that have undone litanies of promising sportsmen and women he may have lived up to the title of one of the world’s most expensive footballers back in 2003. He could have even surpassed it.


Letting bygones be bygones, there is nothing stopping us from producing another Harry Kewell, or someone even greater. Our national mentality should encourage it. The fact is, however, far from producing a football icon, we are struggling to produce footballers that can even get game time overseas.


Why the shift in success? If we, as a nation, have had a far too brief taste of the glory that football can offer, why are young Australian footballers not grasping opportunities with both hands and following in the footsteps of their idols?


The reason may be as unfortunately obvious as it hard to correct – Money and the security that money can offer. The one thing that the golden era of 2006 all had in common is they developed as footballers at a time when Australia’s premier domestic league was semi-professional.


To put it bluntly, if you wanted to be a professional footballer you couldn’t expect to become one in Australia. We were a nation that could produce talented footballers but in order to make ends meet they had to move overseas, using their own money, and risk everything for success.


It sounds like a negative, but it ended up a positive for the national team and their psyche. The obstacles, not just of money but also of language barriers and, as previously mentioned, negative stereotypes bred tough, resilient players.


The do or die nature of the quest they undertook also bred harder working, more determined players who couldn’t disappoint their families back home. Liverpool legend Craig Johnston famously told his story of being an Australian expatriate footballer in the 1980’s;


‘My coach said well you might as well —- off back to Australia on the first plane because you’ll never make a footballer in a million years. I couldn’t afford to go. My mum and dad had sold the house to pay for me to come over.’


Craig Johnston went on to win five league titles and the European and F.A Cup’s, where he scored in the final. He is one of the greatest Australian footballers of all time, and he credits his success to how hard he had to work to make it in England.


Ideally, this wouldn’t have to be the case. Australian footballers would develop in Australia in an internationally regarded domestic league, featuring some of the best players and coaches in the world, much like our national rugby league.


It may seem foolhardy to say it will never happen, but even with the footballing popularity a country our size increasingly doesn’t have the economic capability to compete for the best players and coaches in the worlds richest game.


Instead what Australia has is the A-League, a continuously developing and intrinsic part of professionalising football in Australia. By marketing the game to the mainstream, the A-League allows Australian footballers to make a living within Australia, and showcase their talents to a local audience.


The best factors for its existence can ironically be the most damaging, both to Australian football internationally and to the A-League itself. The security it offers to Australian footballers means that never again will they be forced to go through what Craig Johnston and his family did.


As a direct consequence, they won’t have to work as hard. Young footballers will only have to compete against Australians in order to get picked and attain a comfortable lifestyle, doing what they love. It’s nice, but it won’t result in success, either at the highest level, or even in Asia.


This has been proven not just by Aaron Mooy, who spent a brief spell at Bolton before returning home, but has become a pattern amongst Australian footballers. Tom Rogic, Oliver Bozanic, Ivan Franjic, Tommy Oar and James Troisi have all returned to the A-League at promising stages throughout their career.


2016 has witnessed the awakening of footballs sleeping giant. China’s timely reminder that it has both the population and economic capability to be a football powerhouse sounds warning to Australia. We cannot expect to maintain our achievements in Asia unless we continue to improve our standards.


With the Chinese Super League’s growing financial clout, and increasingly younger players choosing the windfall it offers, China’s own rising stars will be able to develop amongst some of the best in the world. This means Australia will almost definitely face an uphill battle just to qualify for World Cups.


In lieu of European opportunities, in the not to distant future this may be the way for young Australians. Tim Cahill, Mathew Spriranovic and Nathan Burns have all recently shunned the A-League for China, paving the way for a new generation to follow in their path. Our future may depend on our ability to take advantage.


However, this is where the problems eventuate for the A-League. In order to sustain crowds, they need a high standard of football. Yet the A-League also needs the exposure of the Socceroos, the primary way of generating and maintaining support for the game domestically.


If Australia’s national football team cannot dominate our region, we won’t stand a chance of being a serious player on the world stage. Without continued success internationally, Australia will once again lose interest. The honeymoon period is over for the casual ‘soccer’ fan. Our ‘golden era’ has already been.


We need to sustain interest for funding and endorsement in our sport. To do this, we need to develop Australia’s reputation on the world stage. For the benefit of our players, we need to encourage Australian footballers to push themselves, and risk more for more reward.


This is why our youth, whether they like it or not, will always have to pursue the highest global echelons in order to have a chance of becoming the standard of player Australia needs, and once had. Australian football needs to prove our golden age hasn’t even begun.

By Matt

Matt is the owner and chief-editor of the Footy Blog, one of the UK's leading football news blogs.