Neil Sherwin on why this could be the most important off-season in the history of the A-League.
Sunday’s Hyundai A-League Grand Final really couldn’t have gone any better in terms of advertising football in Australia. The best team of the 2010/11 season, Brisbane Roar, made it 28 games unbeaten to claim their first championship in front of 50,168 fans at their own Suncorp Stadium. Meanwhile, the social media world was buzzing as the ‘#aleagueGF’ hashtag topped trending Down Under ahead of tags concerning the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. It also registered on the world stage as the game ticked over into extra time and penalties.
Former Socceroos international Steve Horvat was pleased with the overall outcome given Brisbane’s stunning unbeaten record and the climax to the final itself. “The Grand Final was an amazing advertisement for the neutral as to why this is the biggest game in the world,” he says. “The people who live and breathe the game already know that but it showed every facet of what can transpire in a final. It had the beautiful attacking football, extra time, the last minute goals and then the tension of a penalty shoot out. Incredible.”
It hasn’t been all plain sailing for the league in recent weeks though with the governing body, the Football Federation of Australia (FFA), coming under criticism for a number of reasons, most notably the announcement that financial support would no longer be given to North Queensland Fury. This move, and in particular the timing of the announcement, was met with much disdain as it fell right in the middle of the finals series and gave the mainstream media more negative material with which to fill their back pages.
However given the feel good factor currently in the football community it might in hindsight have been worse to confirm the demise of a club in just its second year in the immediate aftermath of such a wonderful spectacle. “At the time I thought that the timing [of the announcement] was poor and if the result stayed at 2:0 for the Mariners, people still might be talking about the negatives of our sport,” says Horvat. “However, the beauty about this game is that it is always full of surprises and no matter what happens off the park, ultimately the game is played on it and we have seen again the power and emotion of the game to transform all the negatives into positives with what happens on it.”
The key now is for the FFA to continue this momentum during the offseason and set everything up for a big opening to the 2011/12 season. Horvat is of the opinion that the association needs to pump more money into advertising while also leaning on the big players in the journalism world to give the game “a fair go.” “The league needs to give the clubs some flexibility so that they can create some more revenue streams for themselves rather than continuing down the centralization process otherwise we are going to lose more clubs,” he says.
“We also need to ensure there are football people in both the FFA and the clubs. We need people in administrative roles that have business acumen but also a history, knowledge and experience in the game. Our game is unique and it requires people that understand it and are passionate about it. “Lastly they need to learn from their mistakes. We are a new competition with young clubs but the governing cannot make the same mistakes they have made with their expansion model thus far.”
Season 7 however will not kick off until early October to avoid the current clashes with the finals of both the AFL and NRL competitions. Horvat believes that while this is a significant gap without A-League football it is necessary and there are ways to keep the public interested in the extended offseason. “It is a problem, but I do feel the issue of starting the season during the finals of the AFL and NRL is something that needed to be addressed,” he says. “We struggle for media coverage at the best of times so to battle the other larger codes during their finals is media suicide. There has to be a concerted effort by the FFA and the State Federations to try to lift the profile of the various Premier Leagues. “This is to try and attract spectators and to give them some coverage in the media. A great initiative would be to try and be able to loan some A-League players to play there in the off-season to create some interest.
“Ideally it would great to have the Hyundai A-League Reserve or Under 21 teams playing in the State competitions to link the new competition with older existing clubs.”
Horvat, who was capped 32 times at international level and played in the win over Brazil in the 2001 Confederations Cup, is just one of a number of former top players doing their bit to change the game. Alongside the likes of Craig Foster and Mark Bosnich, he has embraced social media and sees it as a fantastic way to promote the game and interact with fans around the world.
“I think it is great that all past players that have had success can give something in return,” he says. “Not saying all do but the ones that feel compelled to. Whether it is media, coaching or just a helping hand the game needs all the assistance it can get. There has been and will be a wave of players from our generation coming back that have had some incredible experiences and have plenty of knowledge about how things should be done in our code here due to the fact that they have experienced firsthand all over the world.
“The interaction between the fans on a platform such as Twitter has been a revelation to me. You begin to appreciate the career that you have had and the fact that people far and wide have followed you in your career. It’s something that doesn’t hit home until after you retire. Whilst you are playing you are so busy that you don’t have a chance to sit back and reminisce a little.”
In many ways there hasn’t been a more crucial offseason for the A-League but with a strong community spirit in the game now there is every reason for it to go from strength to strength in 2011.
For more from Neil, visit Back Page Football and follow him on Twitter @neilsherwin.