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Paul Izzo, Melbourne Victory goalkeeper, walks off dejectedly after a loss

The Matildas and Socceroos are soaring, while participation is growing – but the A-League is missing its moment to shine

This should be a golden age for Australian soccer. After all, the big picture is good: the Matildas are waltzing, the Socceroos are well supported and Australia was just awarded hosting rights to the 2026 Women’s Asian Cup.

Australia is still buzzing from the success of the amazing FIFA Women’s World Cup last year in Australia and New Zealand. In a phenomenon I dubbed “Matildanomics”, the huge crowds of 80,000 and more for the Matildas in the largest stadiums in the land contrasted with the 15,000 they achieved in a friendly against Brazil in Penrith just seven years ago.

Football Australia was excited about the economic impact even before the World Cup kick-off. They anticipated at least A$400 million in total benefits, including 3,000 full-time jobs and 60,000 visitors to the country.

Beyond tourism and broadcast rights, they were expecting a legacy of long-term economic and social impact.

In the men’s game, the Socceroos also performed admirably at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. It was an incredible sight to see masses of fans at Sydney’s Darling Harbour and Melbourne’s Federation Square watching the national team play.

Soccer is no doubt in great shape at the elite level in Australia. Things are also purring at grassroots levels.

What about soccer participation?

Soccer has long been one of Australia’s dominant codes in terms of participation.

This is particularly so at junior levels, although it drops off as kids enter their teens.

At the moment, at junior levels, participation levels for girls should receive a boost with 407,000 new participants expected by 2027. This is mainly thanks to “the Matildas effect” and Football Australia’s “Legacy23” strategy, which seeks to boost community infrastructure (such as soccer pitches, training facilities and change rooms) to meet surging demand.

With Australia’s national teams performing well, strong participation at the grassroots levels and individual athletes (such as Sam Kerr) and Spurs manager (Ange Postecoglou) having made a name on the world stage, it should be a sparkling era for soccer in this country.

However, these achievements mask some problems for the game at home.

Record women’s crowds but the A-League is still struggling

A-League Women (ALW) attendances are still hardly Matildas-sized, averaging a touch more than 2,200 a match this season. But the 2024 campaign attracted 300,000 fans, which the APL says was the most attended season of any women’s sport in Australian history.

This compares favourably to last year’s Super Netball competition (266,000 fans) and the latest AFL Women’s season (284,000).

But the bigger picture is that the A-League is in financial turmoil. Some of its clubs are in trouble too.

The league’s governing body, the Australian Professional Leagues (APL), is trying to plug a $100 million funding hole and is planning to cut its funding to A-League clubs by 80%.

Then there is the perrenial discusion as to why A-League attendances are falling, on average, since the league’s early days but they are still reasonable by world standards.

Then there are issues with the A-League’s recent broadcast deal with Network 10 and Paramount, with production company Global Advance recently placed into voluntary administration.

Many fans were also outraged by the A-League’s decision to “sell” the grand final to Sydney, with backlash forcing the league to abandon the deal with the NSW government.

What to do at the national competition level below the A-League is also causing issues. Football Australia says a national second division competition for men’s clubs is going ahead, but there is a scramble for clubs that want to be included.

To top it all off, three male players have recently been charged in connection with alleged betting corruption. There has also been recent violence involving fans, players and even referees.

Three athletes from A-League team Macarthur FC were arrested and charged with corruption offences.

These are headlines the domestic game definitely doesn’t need at a time of financial fragility.

Challenges converting opportunities into wins

Late last year, as the A-League Women’s season was set to kick off, former Socceroos and A-League coach Postecoglou warned Australia still lacked serious financial investment in the sport.

When you look at what the Matildas did at the World Cup: unbelievable. But you still won’t see an influx of resources to the game. You won’t, I guarantee it.

Asked about football in Australia again this week, before Tottenham’s friendly match at the MCG, Postecoglou said “I don’t think too much has changed”.

Another challenge for the A-League is the global nature of the sport.

More often than not, Australia’s best talent heads offshore. Most of the star Matildas – like Kerr, Mary Fowler, Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter – play in the United Kingdom or Europe, just as male players like Craig Johnston, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka did before them.

The domestic game can’t attract and keep homegrown talent, with notable exceptions like Sydney FC championship player and World Cup penalty hero Cortnee Vine.

And what about the fans? Is the global nature of “the world game” a mixed blessing? After all, some fans are more interested in how Liverpool or Barcelona are going than Western United or Melbourne City.

Streaming and the digital revolution has changed viewing habits – supporters of overseas teams can watch their games easily, meaning fans in Australia don’t have to engage with the local leagues to get their soccer fix if they don’t want to.

Some observers who love the game point to the need for domestic soccer to get its own house in order, as well as celebrating the global journey of our Matildas and Socceroos stars abroad.

They also believe the sport doesn’t need to engage with “code wars” with other Australian sports.

As leading sports journalist Michael Cain once told me:

We need to look after our own game at home at the local level, as well as on the big stage, and the beauty of Australia is that we coexist with other football codes. Infighting within the sport has always been the code’s Achilles heel. Maybe if soccer in Australia worried about cleaning up its own civil wars, it would never have to look left or right at rivals ever again.

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