The Football
Federation’s John O’Neill has been in the CEO job a little over two
years. If anyone had offered him a first season with average attendances over
11,000, Foxtel ratings to rival the rugby union, a sell-out final of 42,000 and
World Cup qualification, he’d have grabbed it eagerly. It was supposed to be a
modest first step, a foundation year. Suddenly, expectations are sky high,
everyone in the country will watch the World Cup, and before we draw breath,
the next season will start in August. The future is guaranteed. Or is it?

There are good
reasons why O’Neill’s Head of Operations, Matt Carroll, gave the season
a
cautious six out of ten. Beyond Sydney’s joy were some notable
failures. The wretched New Zealand Knights won only one of their 21
games, with attendances often
below 2,000. Perth Glory was a shadow of the feared team of prior
years, and Newcastle’s
international players – Zelic, Milicic, Carle, North – underachieved in
front
of disappointing home crowds. Melbourne lost their star player, Archie
Thompson, and despite a good start,
finished second bottom. At least half the teams in the league would be
disappointed with their first season, and more importantly, the size of
their
paying support. For all clubs, few fans travel to away games.

Football (aka
soccer) in Australia has had many false dawns. In 1997, a Frank Farina-led Brisbane attracted
40,000 to a winning Grand Final, only to return quickly to crowds of a few
thousand. Northern Spirit filled North Sydney Oval throughout its first year in
1998, and Australia qualified for the World Cup in 1974 without capitalising on the
success. But there are many
reasons to believe this time is different.

The new links to Asia are a sensational
opportunity. Australia will play in the Asian Cup, as well as compete for future World Cup
qualification against quality opposition such as Japan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Korea Republic, all ranking above Australia
in the FIFA ratings. A-League clubs will play in the Asian Champions League.

The improved media
coverage, albeit on pay television, and resulting extra income, will enable
clubs to retain more high quality local players, and attract big name foreigners,
even if past their best. Australia
will never hold the Kewells, Brescianos and Vidukas, but Brazilian
clubs can’t hold onto Ronaldinho, and French clubs can’t keep the likes of Thierry Henry – and their local
competitions still manage to thrive.

In Frank Lowy and
John O’Neill, the league is run by canny administrators, who will not let the
game return to its ethnic mistakes. They have a base of 1.1 million active
participants to attract, and football is already Australia’s
most popular team sport (Roy Morgan Research, November 2005).

And the boost from
the 2006 World Cup will be enormous. The A-League is
football’s last chance to become a mainstream spectator sport in this country,
and this time it will succeed.

Peter Fray

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