Football fans in Australia will no doubt have breathed a sigh of relief this morning when reading on the World Game website that the FFA have rejected a move from the A-League club owners to expand into Asia. This is the right move by the game’s governing body despite the fact that they still have plenty of work to do to get their house in order in Australia.
The news that the move was supported by Brisbane Roar, Newcastle Jets, Adelaide United, Perth Glory, Western Sydney Wanderers, Central Coast Mariners and the City Football Group, which controls Melbourne City, was no great surprise. Seven out of the ten A-League franchises is more than anything proof that the Franchise model adopted by the FFA when they created the A-League is flawed.
In fact this should be the point where the FFA seriously considers finding a way to move away from such a model.
The news that seven club owners are advocating such a move is proof that this is purely about business and nothing to do with football or player development.
Central Coast Mariners owner Mike Charlesworth is quoted as saying “Expansion north can tap into tens of millions of football fans, significant commercial opportunity and subsequently a raft of top EPL marquee players who have already expressed an interest in helping grow football across the region.If we truly want football to become the biggest sport in Australia we need to be more ambitious and this platform would not only help us achieve that but put domestic Aussie football on the global stage.”
It is hard to agree with his sentiments. Very few A-League clubs are likely to garner support from regions in Asia. They are many many miles from having the regional pull, let alone global pull of clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool. Most A-League clubs have struggled to create supporter bases in cities outside of their home one within Australia, so why should we believe that they can achieve this in Asia where fans focus is first the Premier League and then their local clubs? This is another key factor, most football fans – Manchester United probably being the exception – support their local team, and follow them above and beyond all others. Football has and always will be about local identity. If you fail to tap into your local market you will never succeed.
Ironically Mr Charlesworth owns a club where they have tapped into the local market and created a local identity better than most in the A-League, however he and his staff are still unable to make this work. Whose fault is that? Have they set unrealistic goals and budgets? If there was more local involvement, or dare we say local ownership would this help swell the gate on a match day? Would this make people more determined to see the club succeed and climb out of their armchairs and go to the ground?
What also seems contradictory in Mr Charlesworth’s comments is the fact that the clubs want to tap into the “significant commercial opportunity” in Asia, yet want to bring washed up EPL stars out to play in the A-League. Case in point even though he was not an EPL player, Alessandro del Piero was finished as a top class player when he came to Australia. He could not run, could still pass exquisitely and strike a deadfall with precision, and dare we say fall over an outstretched leg convincingly. Officially he cost Sydney FC $1million a season; a club source has said it was closer to $3million. He was good for PR and media, but was he good for the A-League? He went to India -not renowned for its football – to play in the new Indian Super League and in four games they realised he was finished and he did not play another game. Yet in Australia we still have people lauding him playing here and his performances. If we are to move the game forward there has to be more honesty. Fans do not like being conned.
Ex EPL players in decline are not what the A-League needs. If these owners want to tap into the Asian market why are we not seeing more Asian talent coming to play in the A-League? The reason is simple. The club owners, and to be honest most Australian football fans know very little about Asian football and the leagues, even though we are a part of the Asian Football Confederation.
Mr Charlesworth is right to talk about ambition, but he is naive if he thinks a few ex EPL players at the end of their careers are going to help raise the profile of the A-League overseas. With so much football on television around the world, fans know whether a player still has it, or if his career is on the wane. They cannot be fooled. Hence the massive crowd drop offs when the likes of Robbie Fowler, Harry Kewell and del Piero played their first and second games. As the NSL proved these players are a very short term solution, and one would have to say ultimately cost the game money that could be invested more wisely.
A prime example of a less known player showing what he can do in the A-League and also showing where the A-League stands in terms of standard is Perth Glory’s Andy Keogh. He has been outstanding in his first season. Yes, he played in the Premier League but was a fringe player, yet he still has International pedigree, and in truth he would have been fairly unknown before coming to Australia. Yet he has come while he still has a good few years playing at the highest level in him, and he has been outstanding. The test for him will be to maintain the standard he has set in season two in Australia. Often that drop in standard starts to show in a player’s second season. Thomas Broich and Besart Berisha are two other examples of players who have played in top leagues, although struggled for regular first team football, but who have been stars in this league.
Asia is definitely not the way to go at this point in time in the A-League’s development. We need to have the clubs on more solid ground financially before such a move. Also rivalries are beginning to evolve in the A-League; and we are not talking about the contrived ones such as the lame “desert derby.” Rivalries take time and often arise out of what appears an insignificant incident, ten years in the A-League is beginning to see this becoming a reality. To go to Asia would dilute these.
If this went ahead when the Asian sides came to play in Australia one has to question whether these same owners, who moan about home crowd attendances, will not in fact witness more games with low gates; ultimately costing them more money. The average fan in Australia knows little about these teams and so the game will have little meaning or relevance. Meaning without extensive marketing – another cost clubs do not want to pay – that these would be the games that a family and on a budget will opt to miss. Crowds at many of the Asian Champions League games are proof that fans are not that engaged with Asian teams, purely due to a lack of knowledge on the Asian leagues and teams.
Let us get our house in order here in Australia before looking to head overseas. Let us see the clubs on strong foundations, marketing of the clubs and the league lifted to another level before trying to match it with our Asian counterparts. Let us show our keenness to integrate with Asia by importing more Asian players, showing more Asian football on television and having more Asian coverage in our papers and online. We need to show Asia more respect, rather than simply see them as a way to make money.
Ultimately though we need to see clubs move away from the current ownership model. There has to be more community involvement, without this, as has been seen around the country, some fans and sponsors will not walk through the turnstiles as long as they feel people with no genuine passion or understanding of the game own ‘their club.’