The predicament facing the A-League struck me shortly after the 2010 grand final. Sydney FC had defeated Melbourne Victory in a thrilling game at Etihad Stadium. It was a massive win for Sydney. Instead of the first five seasons of the A-League being Melbourne 3 Sydney 1 for overall championship wins (and Newcastle’s 1), it was Melbourne 2 Sydney 2. Melbourne had been one kick away from claiming A-League supremacy and the resulting bragging rights. Almost unbearable for a Sydney fan.

The next afternoon, the Sydney players returned home to a city of four million people and what should have been an exciting and wild celebration. The club had erected a huge covered stage on the playing field at the Domain, with a backdrop of an enormous Sydney FC shirt.

The entire team was picked up by bus from the airport and brought directly to the sun-drenched Domain. There was Australia’s 2006 World Cup hero, John Aloisi, who had just played his last game for the club. The club captain, Steve Corica, with leg in a brace, had recently announced his retirement. Slovakian international Karol Kisel was about to return to Europe. All were ready to sign autographs and embrace their fans for the last time. And what did the champions look out on as they held the trophy aloft from the stage? A couple of hundred diehards who cheered and clapped and tried desperately to show their gratitude for a fantastic season. Surely the players thought, “Where the hell is everyone?”

That’s the mystery and the problem. A great spectacle needs a big crowd. I go to all Sydney’s home games and the standard of play is usually excellent. In 2009-2010, the football was entertaining and highly skillful, as new coach Vitezslav Lavicka brought discipline and flair to the team. Football’s profile was sky high with the Socceroos successfully qualifying for the World Cup, and the excitement of South Africa approaching. Season five should have seen football on a high and crowds filling the stadiums.

Yet in my over-45s weekend team, where every player stays up all night watching the English Premier League, nobody else goes to Sydney’s games. We talk about Sunderland and Everton. At work, a few people who went regularly in the early seasons no longer bother.

Yesterday, Sydney had its lowest-ever crowd of 7500. Its average crowd reached a peak in the first season, at 16,710, and has been falling since.

Last week, the owner of the Newcastle Jets, Con Constantine, asked Football Federation Australia to save his club. They were champions two years ago in a soccer-mad city. FFA already owns North Queensland Fury and Adelaide United, and Gold Coast United is teetering. The owners of the new club expected for next season, Sydney Rovers, will need very deep pockets, because it is estimated that combined losses across all clubs total $25 million a season. Love of the sport only goes so far when you’re losing a few million a year.

In most other countries, the game is booming, with the English Premier League the world’s most watched sports competition. FIFA has 208 member countries, more than the International Olympics Committee.

The highly successful World Cup in South Africa took top-level soccer to a continent of 800 million people for the first time, and there is an Asian tsunami of interest. The 2014 Brazilian World Cup will be one big global party. Teams such as Barcelona and Chelsea are producing some of the greatest football ever seen, and Forbes Magazine rates Manchester United as the most valuable franchise in any sport.

In Australia, soccer is the only football code listed in the top 10 sports and recreational activities for participation by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The biggest problem in Sydney is finding enough grounds to cope with rapidly expanding demand. Of the 2000 registered players at my local club, Northbridge, 500 are women and girls. Australia is the only country that has four football codes competing for public attention, and while each has its problems, it has been assumed that the world’s most popular game would be one of the survivors. But participation is not translating into paying interest in the A-League.

While there’s a decent chance Australia will host the 2022 World Cup, and this will give the sport a lift as it approaches, that’s a dozen years away. There’s no real problem with the quality of the product, the standard of our stadiums, the coverage on television or the behaviour of players, but there is so much else to watch and do in Australia that football will continue to struggle. The tradition of attending games whatever the circumstances, which sustains clubs with a long history and loyalty built over decades, has not yet created a sufficient fan base. The A-League will survive only due to revenues from pay television and international games, and the benevolence of a few wealthy optimists.

For many years to come, there will be far more empty seats than warm ones in A-League stadiums, regardless of the quality of the players and worldwide popularity of the game. And there seems nothing that FFA can do about it.