As part of our partnership with Beyond The Pitch, Football Channel Asia is publishing a weekly series of features profiling football in various Asian countries. These features were originally used in the Japanese-language publication Asian Football Critique, published by our parent company Kanzen in June 2015.
Australia built itself on immigration over the last two centuries, with the majority of migrants coming from Europe. With many of these migrants craving sport, football began to grow and became a significant part of Australia’s culture. The first football association in the country, the Commonwealth Football Association, began in 1911 and the first true national league, called the National Soccer League (NSL), began in 1977, inviting clubs from each state.
Largely consisting of clubs with migrant backgrounds, the league dissolved in 2004 and a new league, the A-League, began in 2005 in an attempt to remove the conflicts of the ethnic rivalries that had caused controversy for the sport in the media.
Football Federation Australia (FFA), the successor to Commonwealth Football Association, administers the A-League as a franchise model similar to America’s Major League Soccer; each club in the league is granted a licence to participate, but do not officially own their licences. To ensure the clubs remain equally competitive, the A-League has a salary cap of AU$2.55 million and allows clubs to sign up to three marquee players outside of this cap, including one foreigner.
Currently, each club receives enough money from a broadcast deal with Fox Sports – one of the FFA’s largest sponsors – to cover the cost of the salary cap, leaving only marquee players’ wages to be borne by the clubs. Clubs are also unable to purchase players from other clubs and are only able to sign A-League players at the ends of their contracts.
This year saw the second breach of the salary cap regulations in the A-League’s history. As a result, offenders Perth Glory were fined and removed from A-League Finals contention after an audit found the Western Australian club had breached the cap by AU$400,000 over the last three years. Clubs have requested a more relaxed salary cap and for FFA Chairman Frank Lowy (also owner of Westfield Group, a major FFA sponsor) to provide administrative financial support.
This season saw Melbourne Heart taken over by the City Football Group and rebranded as Melbourne City FC, showing the global potential for marketability and confidence in the A-League as a sustainable product.
Each A-League club is allowed to sign up to five foreigners of any nationality and, recently, the most popular destination for scouting is Europe, with Spanish, Dutch and British players making up a large portion of the foreign positions in the league.
Several big names have appeared throughout the league’s history, with Alessandro del Piero, Shinji Ono, Kazuyoshi Miura, Dwight Yorke, David Villa and Romario playing either as marquees or “guest players,” which allows clubs to sign well-known players for up to ten A-League matches.
While the league and the sport itself has battled for widespread recognition in the country against the country’s more popular professional sporting codes of Australian Rules football, cricket and rugby, attendances have grown significantly over the last ten years, with the 2014/15 season averaging 12,514 across the ten clubs. Western Sydney Wanderers have arguably the strongest connections to their community after holding numerous forums within their region, allowing fans to decide on the name, colours and badge amongst other discussions. This sense of community-build ownership has also been aided by football having the highest level of registered participants across any sporting code in the country.
Along with the development of a new national league that has continued to grow technically, tactically and in public interest, the national team – affectionately nicknamed the Socceroos – has qualified for and played in the last three World Cups and has recently began redeveloping its playing style and philosophy under Australian coach Ange Postecoglou.
Taking over from Holger Osieck towards the end of 2013, Postecoglou was faced with a national team that had very little experience amongst its younger players and spent the next several months identifying and providing experience to inexperienced players under his possession-based playing style, with the aim of restoring pride in the national team to the Australian public. At the 2014 World Cup, Australia faced a tough group of Chile, Netherlands and Spain and impressed many supporters, persisting with the new playing style and coming close to defeating semi-finalists Netherlands.
In the remaining months leading up to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, Australia struggled to find consistency as Postecoglou continued to search for the playing group that would suit his philosophy. Despite growing criticism, Postecoglou again persisted with his style and his determination culminated in the Socceroos’ first trophy in Asia, beating Korea Republic in extra time in the final and unearthing a new Socceroos star in tournament MVP Massimo Luongo.
The development of the Socceroos has come in tandem with a new national curriculum for grassroots and elite development by the FFA, which involves a new approach to coaching education and a national playing philosophy aimed at creating a uniform approach to developing the next generation of technically-gifted players. The aim of the curriculum is to develop the players required to place Australia in the top ten in the world rankings and eventually win a World Cup.
Former Belgian national youth coach Eric Abrams has also joined the FFA this year as the new Technical Director, as the federation look to strengthen their approach to youth football, while a “Whole of Football” plan is being rolled out after holding forums and surveys with local and grassroots clubs to work on an approach that can incorporate all levels of football development.
Football in Australia has grown significantly since its involvement in Asia, which it joined in 2006 and has since seen both the men and women’s national teams win Asian Cups and Western Sydney Wanderers lift the AFC Champions League trophy last year.
Occasional political challenges from West Asian nations over Australia’s standing in Asia remain, however the country has continued its strong partnership as a member of ASEAN and, with former Australian women’s national team captain Moya Dodd a member of the AFC’s Executive Committee, it seems as though Australia will remain an important member of the AFC.