Soccer in Australia: Is history repeating Itself?

The stoush involving Clive Palmer and the Football Federation of Australia mirrors the game’s earlier woes. AAP

Soccer in Australia occupies a paradoxical position in the Australian sporting landscape. It has the highest overall participant rates, yet is ranked fourth of the four football codes in popularity and resources.

This position means it is seen as a marginal code when it comes to gaining media attention, opportunities for players in Australia, sponsorship and revenue generation opportunities.

The recent breakdown in relations between Football Federation of Australia (FFA) and two of its highest profile and powerful club owners, mining magnates Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler has the capacity to further threaten the corporate and media attractiveness of the sport’s A-League competition.

These circumstances are reminiscent of the circumstances that confronted its predecessor, the National Soccer League (NSL) and ultimately led to its demise.

The National Soccer League (NSL) was the first truly national premiership competition of any sporting code in Australia.

But from its inception in 1977, the NSL was a highly volatile league, plagued by problems and controversies that combined to make soccer a difficult product to develop at the elite level in Australia.

The failure to retain or attract high quality players, tension between clubs and supporters stemming from “traditional” European political, racial and cultural conflicts, financial instability and poor senior-level management were all prominently reported in the sporting and business sections of the Australian media.

More seriously, continued and extensive media publicity surrounding alleged mismanagement and corruption in Soccer Australia eventually resulted in the Australian Sports Commission in 2003 establishing an Independent Soccer Review Committee.

The committee’s report on the governance of Association Football in Australia, called the Crawford Report, clearly articulated that the key to the future success of soccer in Australia was the governance of the professional aspects of a sport.

Following the recommendations of Crawford Report, further change occurred in 2004 when the governing body, the Australian Soccer Association changed its name to the Football Federation of Australia (FFA).

The FFA created the A-League, a new eight-team competition to revitalise soccer in Australia, to replace the NSL.

Early signs suggested that the A-League was playing its role in providing a link between the game’s huge participant community and the new-found success of the Australian representative team. In doing so, the FFA was driving the repositioning of soccer into Australian sport’s mainstream.

Match day, television and online audiences suggested the on and off-field quality of the A-League was resonating and engaging a significant section of the Australian sporting community outside of its marginalised ethnic origins.

But now the controversies that confronted the NSL have returned to challenge the A-League.

During its existence the NSL had 41 teams who participated in the competition with only three founding member teams remaining in the league by 2003.

Seven years into the A-League, the competition is looking to introduce a new expansion team in Sydney to maintain 10 teams for the 2012/2013 competition. This expansion has come at the cost of losing clubs such as the North Queensland Fury, Gold Coast United and possibly the Newcastle Jets.

With the Wellington Phoenix replaced the original New Zealand franchise, Auckland’s New Zealand Knights, the number of clubs leaving the competition seems to suggest a replicating trend.

Similarly, numerous reports suggest that A-league clubs are incurring large operational losses, sponsorship dollars are sparse and sourcing playing talent to ensure a certain quality are all challenges that continue to confront the FFA.

More concerning however has been the Tinkler’s plans to return the Newcastle Jets A-League licence, coupled with the highly public stoush between FFA chairman Frank Lowy and Clive Palmer’s move to set up his own unofficial watchdog organisation, Football Australia.

Interestingly, the feud mirrors the 1987 actions of Lowy, who as president of Sydney City pulled the plug on his club, complaining about a lack of influence over the running of the league, differences with the league’s senior management and the NSL’s business model.

One of the central suggestions of the Crawford Report was to ensure the independence of the governing body of the league from the governing body of the game.

Steps to remedy this current breakdown have been taken with the formation of the FFA Strategic Committee which allows three owner representatives to sit on the committee which may assist in facilitating some changes that owners would like to see.

While other suggestions, such as spreading the competition to a national level and starting with a one-team-per-city policy have been followed, an independent league may have been the missing piece to avoid some of the NSL’s problems.

Given the tarnished history of the sport in Australia, the footballing public would hope it is capable of learning from its previous mistakes. Recent events may suggest otherwise.