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The Socceroos and The A-League: From the World Cup Round of 16 to Mediocrity

For those who grew up watching the Socceroos in the 2000s, there holds a lot of cherished memories. The era held our greatest generation of players, including the likes of Mark Viduka, Mark Schwarzer, Harry Kewell and Tim Cahill – all whom were stars in the English Premier League and spearheaded a talented crop of Aussie talent.

Therefore, it is quite depressing that the drop in quality of Australian talent from this golden period has been staggering. Currently, barely even one Aussie features regularly in the Premier League: Brighton’s Matt Ryan – whom has recently been dropped as the number one goalkeeper for Brighton –  following the departure of his former teammate Aaron Mooy to China. Awer Mabil does also get regular game time at FC Mitdjylland, and did just score his first goal in the UEFA Champions League, but aside from those two players, the level of Aussies at the highest levels in Europe is at an all time low. This does correlate with the drop in quality of the Socceroos, whom are always a regular feature in the World Cup, but haven’t been able to replicate the promise that was shown in 2006.

 

Australia in Oceania and the transition to Asia

The golden generation.

Prior to the ‘golden generation’ of the 2000s, that led Aussie hearts and minds on the world stage, the Socceroos were the dominant force in Oceania, when we were part of the OFC Federation, before joining Asia’s AFC. As part of a weaker Federation, where the sporting dominance of a nation like Australia was on display, the Socceroos managed to steamroll through all other opponents, a class above the rest of Oceania. It was only when matched with improved opposition, did the frailties come through.

Being the greatest team in Oceania typically meant trophies, where Australia managed to win the OFC Nations Cup four times: in 1980, 1996, 2000 and 2004, with the last three in particular being spearheaded by the burgeoning talents of our golden generation. These success led us to regular appearances at the FIFA Confederations Cup, an international stage for us to grow our presence and learn to fly on our footballing wings, facing the best the world had to offer. Most famously, we made the final of the 1997 FIFA Confederations Cup, before being thrashed 6-0 against Brazil. However, it was a sign that we were starting to stamp our place in the world. A near miss against Iran to qualify for the 1998 World Cup summed up our dark ages, but signs were slowly starting to bloom.

Prolonged dominance in Oceania proved that we were ready to remove our training wheels – no game demonstrating this as infamously as our 31-0 win over American Samoa, where Archie Thompson netted in 13 goals. In the build up to the 2006 World Cup, Australia managed to switch federations and join the AFC, becoming a part of the Asian processes and cementing that we belonged with football’s best teams. We all know what followed suit – that famous win against Uruguay, leading us to a miracle run in the 2006 World Cup, where we were narrowly defeated by eventual champions Italy.

This then set us up for asian success, having been planted as the best asian side, alongside Japan and South Korea. An AFC Asian Cup success in 2015, paired with regular qualifications for the World Cup out of Asia, sealed our place.

 

The World Cups since 2006

The 2010 World Cup was a disappointment for the Aussies.

In 2010, Pim Verbeek’s squad that featured ageing heroes of 2006 still was hoped to exit the group stage in South Africa, but following a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Germany, the writing was seemingly on the wall. Australia needed to make up the ground lost in this game, but ultimately finished 3rd on goal difference, culminating a disappointing showing. 2014’s World Cup in Brazil was rather promising, compared to 2010, despite Australia’s second consecutive group stage exit. A tough loss to Chile was followed by a narrow defeat to the Netherlands – which we really could’ve won – condemning the Socceroos to another early exit. The promise showed in this tournament did shine through, as we managed to win the AFC Asian Cup on home soil in 2015, Australia’s first major international trophy. It looked like promising signs.

Unfortunately, the promise from this event wasn’t fulfilled, as we stumbled our way through the World Cup qualifiers for the 2018 edition in Russia, surviving a scare against Syria, before Ange Postecoglu announced his resignation, leaving Bert van Maarwijk to try and make do with the squad. A favourable group draw in Russia left us a chance to finish 2nd, behind France and ahead of Denmark and Peru, but alas we never scored a goal that wasn’t a penalty awarded by VAR and we ended up finishing bottom of the group.

Now, Australian football is at a crossroads, with not enough talent to make a serious impression, but still good enough to qualify for major tournaments. The A-League isn’t faring any better, with a lack of growth and interest further damning what was once our promising league that could be on par with the USA’s MLS, and serve as a consistent breeding ground and springboard for our up and coming players.

 

Extortionate fees

Similarly to issues that take place in the USA, football/soccer in Australia is far too expensive for any child to regularly participate. It seems that Australia and America are indeed the only countries in the world where football isn’t a sport for the working class, with this being particularly the case in Australia. Participation costs for sports are already high enough, but soccer is at another level, considering the high percentages of children whom have chosen to take up the round ball game.

For boys, football/soccer is the most participated team sport in Australia, with 21.9% of boys aged between 0-14 taking it up in 2017, according to a study from the Australian Sports Commission. This is a clear indication that the demand to play soccer in the country is high, proving that we’re not shy of players willing to take it up and potentially proceed further with their ambitions into higher levels – perhaps even the pros.

Where the issue lies is the costs. In some states and with some clubs, the fees can be in the thousands. Earlier this year, when discussing the issue on Optus Sport, Schwarzer, Viduka, John Aloisi, Josip Skoko, Vinnie Grella and Craig Moore each lamented the high fees for participating in soccer for Australian youths, calling it “ridiculous” and labelling the game as an “elitist sport” in Australia, rather than the working class game that it is seen as everywhere else around the world. Figures as high as $2650 per annum were reported by the men discussing the issue, which doesn’t need telling is a stupendously high fee for an average Australian family to be expected to pay to allow their child to play a sport of their choice. Compared to Europe, Viduka and Grella – whose kids are raised and play in Croatia and Italy respectively – contrasted the cheaper fees that they pay for their kids. Viduka claims to pay the equivalent of around $80 per month, for an all inclusive package that includes tournaments and a plethora of games, giving the kids a chance to grow their skills. For Grella in Italy, he stated that he only pays the equivalent of $205 per year, for a superior system for his kids to develop their abilities.

It’s clear to see how this can hamper the growth of the game in Australia. Our next generation of players are not able to afford a fair go in the game, due to high fees. Participating in soccer can sometimes cost four times as much as playing Rugby or Aussie rules, and still it’s got a higher participation rate. It’s evident that people want to play the world game, but they’ll never be able to take their skills further if the fees are consistently too high. If the fees are lowered, there’ll be an even greater participation rate, more incentive for parents and kids to pursue soccer well throughout their childhood and adolescence, thus creating more crops of talented players that can make it in Europe and bring to Australia another golden generation.

 

A-League’s Lack of Competition, Flair and Interest

Not since Alessandro Del Piero has the A-League drawn such a star.

On its inception, there was plenty of buzz and excitement around the A-League. Australia was getting a revamped professional league, that was hoped to have rivalled that of the MLS and serve as a springboard for our talented players. Unfortunately, it hasn’t quite panned out as hoped in the 16 years since its inaugural season. The FFA has simply left it out to fend for itself, rather than use the momentum gained from some successful seasons to push it further. A lot of mistakes have been made that have possibly left the competition unable to be resurrected.

For starters, the stringent salary cap on players deemed to be “international marquees” has really hampered the pulling power of the league for veteran Europeans who can come to Australia and help the growth of the league and the game. In the MLS, a direct comparison to the A-League, it features the Designated Player Rule (The David Beckham Rule), which allows teams to sign players outside of the cap, usually being international superstars. David Beckham, of course, was the first of these players, and his example set the precedent for many to follow. Since Becks, Thierry Henry, Andrea Pirlo, David Villa, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are some of the many superstars who’ve been lured to the USA and helped put the MLS on the map, thus facilitating the growth of soccer in America, which is no small feat given the saturated market of professional sporting leagues in America that the MLS has to try and compete against.

Australia, meanwhile, doesn’t have the same pulling power as the USA precisely because of the way our cap is structured. The A-League currently allows clubs to sign two marquee players to its team, whom are exempt from the cap. A great idea in theory, it places restrictions on who the clubs can sign, restraining the ability to poach superstars in the same way that the MLS can do. Alessandro Del Piero was a big signing for Sydney FC in 2012, but since his departure, there hasn’t been the same level of star. David Villa’s contract at Melbourne City (as part of his deal to then send him to New York City FC in the MLS) was a fiasco in itself, where the player only played in six out of his contracted ten matches, before heading off to the United States.

A way around this issue is to not limit how many marquees clubs can sign. The A-League needs a spark, something for fans to get excited about, and a star player heading here to Australia would be just that. If Melbourne Victory, for example, could theoretically pull off a legendary player from Europe, whom is known the world over, it would bring a level of attraction and attention to the A-League. This would increase the revenue and the quality of the domestic game in Australia. A better domestic competition would then equal better player development and therefore a better Socceroos side.

It’s certainly not an easy fix, but these ideas will help make the Socceroos competitive again. Allowing the game to be more accessible to our youth, whilst turning the A-League into an attractive prospect for international stars, will help achieve these ambitions.

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