They’re unhealthily nutty about sport in Australia. This is a country where one state has a public holiday for a horse race that takes all of three and-a-half minutes (the Melbourne Cup), an office without a “tipping comp” is practically unheard of, and girls not only like cricket but are knowledgeable about it.
But the crucial word is sport, not football. In fact few words are as confusing Down Under as the f-word. AFL (Aussie Rules – or “footy” in Victoria) is the country’s most popular spectator sport, then there’s rugby league (often called “footy” in New South Wales and Queensland), rugby union, cricket, horse racing, swimming, netball... and somewhere in amongst the last few is “soccer”.
At least, that’s how it was in the past. The sport used to be nicknamed “wogball” – racist but perhaps not in the way you'd expect, “wog” is a derogatory term for southern European immigrants – and a key problem for the perennially struggling National Soccer League (NSL) was the ethnic divisions which brought violence to the terraces and alienated mainstream sports fans. Unpopular and poorly run, the competition’s termination in 2004 was seen as a blessing in disguise.
Enter football nut and mega-rich businessman Frank Lowy. Handed the reins as chairman of the newly formed Football Federation Australia (ditching ‘Soccer Australia’ in the process), the Westfield Group owner set about forming a new football brains trust to relaunch and run the game. With former rugby union head honcho John O’Neill on board as FFA chief executive, the result was the 2005 launch of the A-League, backed by a £1.2m advertising campaign. The newly-launched FourFourTwo Australia sounded the fanfare for a new era, launching under the headline “Goodbye Soccer, Hello Football”.
The 11 for 2011: Where the A-League teams are
The inaugural season was a success. Though some inevitable debt was incurred, crowds averaged 10,861 – 17,000 at champions Sydney FC – and the Grand Final could have sold out the 41,000-capacity Aussie Stadium three times over.
In recent years, while the quality of football has continued to rise – imports have included Romario, Mario Jardel, Juninho, Benito Carbone, Michael Bridges and Robbie Fowler – the number of people turning out to watch has dwindled. Other than the consistently solid crowds at Melbourne Victory (which also has the closest to a European atmosphere), numbers have dwindled across the board, in most part due to poor engagement on the part of the FFA and a TV rights deal which sees no free-to-air component.
However, one side which has gone from strength to strength is the national team, the Socceroos. A creditable performance in Germany 2006 saw Australia make it to the knock-out stages for the first time, claiming the scalp of Croatia and cruelly losing to Italy in the Round of 16 on a last minute penalty. Players like Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Mark Viduka and Harry Kewell were already well-known in the Premier League, but they were now becoming increasingly recognised on their frequent trips back home.
A move to the Asian Confederation meant a direct qualification route to the World Cup and a more meaningful qualifcation campaign. The 2010 finals were reached with relative ease, thanks in most part to the experience of the ‘Golden Generation’ and while the heights of 2006 couldn’t be reached in South Africa, the Socceroos look in good health under new coach Holger Osieck.
Other than the lack of fans, taking in an A-League game is a highly pleasurable experience. Tickets are cheap and easy to find (with the obligatory Scouse touts selling them outside the stadiums), facilities are top-notch and there’s a pleasant atmosphere at most grounds before and during the game. The football is a bit rough around the edges but with a beer in your hand and blazing sun on your head, it wouldn’t be polite to complain.
The A-League season runs from mid-August until the Finals Series in late February/March. For more information on ticketing, try the A-League site or check our Travel Shop.
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