With the A-League season now done and dusted, Matt Tilby discusses the league’s Finals Series and why it’s holding Australian football back.
Ever since John Aloisi thumped in that penalty and sent the Socceroos to the World Cup all those years ago, football in Australia has been trying to find its place.
The A-League goes from strength to strength attracting more quality players, the national team has improved dramatically and have shown they can match it with the best in the world, and local football nation-wide has seen a steady number of young kids lace up the boots for their team. It’s encouraging to see football in this country jumping out of the dark times and carving a niche for itself.
It hasn’t always been smiles and good times for football in Australia. The Old National Soccer League (NSL) was plagued with riots, poor attendances and the like. Sure, any Australian reading this can tell you the A-League has its problems but the NSL had them too.
The national team were throwing around the rest of their fellow Oceania teams like ragdolls in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup, but up against more experienced opponents, numerous attempts to reach the prestigious event fell unfortunately, and almost embarrassingly flat. So when Aloisi scored that penalty, Australia broke free of “Soccer’s” shackles.
TV deals were smashed out in order to bring this unusual thing called “Football” to the masses. The NSL died out, soon to be replaced by the A-League, the nation’s top level competition. The national team – even though they are STILL being referred to as the “Socceroos” – jumped over to the Asian confederation, the AFC, and have proven themselves. Even the nation’s governing body was given a reboot – Soccer Australia then became Football Federation Australia.
So everything appeared fine and dandy again for football in Australia. But one thing irks me. One thing, if taken care of, will prove that Australia has truly established a new identity for itself – the removal of the “Finals Series”.
Australia’s big sports, such as Rugby League and Australian Rules football, follow a simple schedule. Twenty five or so weeks of a regular season are done and a “minor premier” is crowned – essentially the team who finishes top of the table. This however leads into the Finals, where the top eight square off for the “Championship” – this is the real deal for these teams; the title they all want to win. It’s an almost Americanised attempt to fight for what is essentially a playoff spot, similar to how sports like the NBA and the NHL deal with teams going for the prize at the end. The A-League follows this idea, with 6 teams qualifying for the Finals.
If the FFA wants to truly tap into the market, which has been made so famous by the big leagues in Europe like the Premier League and the Bundesliga, they need to find a way to establish a “first past the post” system and do away with the finals series. But how? An extended season is ineffective mostly due to the A-League’s small number of teams (which would make playing the same team six times over a season a little boring). An all knockout Finals Series will create more problems than it solves. Calls for the forming of an FFA Cup, which would see the state league teams have a crack at the big boys, have been going around for years and have unfortunately fallen on deaf ears, for the moment at least.
It’s obvious the governing body are still concerned with the national league and its inability to get off the ground in what can be considered the teething stages. Financial problems have plagued the league for a number of years now and with the controversial folding of Gold Coast United, the highly sought after FFA Cup may be in doubt. The knockout competition akin to the much heralded English equivalent would allow more growth for not just the A-League teams but the State League teams as well. Who wouldn’t want to head down to their local ground to see the best players in the country take on the town’s finest?
That’s not to say Finals Series games are a complete waste. I’ve attended plenty of A-League Finals games, including two Grand Finals, and they are an exceptional spectacle for the game. The tension is ratcheted up a notch, the crowds are bigger and the play is superb. The real drama happens in the Finals. In addition, the winner of the Grand Final wins qualification into the next AFC Champions League, however this something that could be brought into the FFA Cup, much in the same way that winning the English FA Cup earns the winner Europa League qualification.
So why can’t the FFA capture this rapturous excitement and use it for the FFA Cup? The introduction of such an event would surely please the insatiable masses, who’ve always longed to see South Melbourne play Melbourne Victory, or the Brisbane Strikers play the Brisbane Roar – and this time there’d be something at stake. New rivalries can be formed, old ones can be resumed, and considering the FFA’s plan to televise earlier round matches, the general footballing public can witness grassroots football on a national scale.
Then, and only truly then, can Australian football continue to prosper, and emerge out of the shadows of the big sports in this country.