WHAT NEXT FOR THE A-LEAGUE EXPANSION?

Big problems in the A-League at the moment, where next for the FFA and can they really keep looking at the MLS as their point of reference to help grow the game?

No Australian football fan would deny that the first seven years of the A-League have been marked by lingering anxiety and occasional periods of tumult. However, judging by the launch of the league’s newest, as yet unnamed, club in western Sydney on Wednesday, it appears that that game’s administrators may have learnt little from the league’s troubled expansion in recent years.

The CEO of Football Federation Australia (FFA), Ben Buckley, flanked by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, several local members of parliament, and $8 million of Federal Government funding, announced that the A-League’s newest club would be based in western Sydney and that it would play its first competitive game in six months time. The club is to be owned and operated by the FFA for its first three years, with the expectation it would revert to ownership by club members at the end of FFA’s guardianship. Buckley declared, ‘it has taken time to get an A-League club in western Sydney and now the time is right and I believe the model is right.’

A cynical observer may note that the timing remarkably coincides with the downfall of another expansion club. Gold Coast United was formed in 2008, bankrolled by billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer and with early intentions to become the league’s glamour club. The club signed Socceroo Jason Culina as its marquee player; unlike other national team players like Craig Moore and Kevin Muscat, who had returned to the A-League in the twilight of their careers, Culina joined Gold Coast as a regular member of Australia’s first XI. The squad travelled to away matches in one of Palmer’s private jets, as Palmer bullishly declared that his side would go through its first season undefeated.

Fast forward to the most recent A-League season and the big dreams for Gold Coast United had evaporated. The club’s community engagement program never got going, and its average attendance slid from 5,392 in season 2009-10 to 3,546 in 2011-12; the club’s largest home attendance of 14,783 was a result of Palmer throwing open the gates for free entry. Although the club signed former Blackburn Rovers striker Maceo Rigters at the start of the season, the squad was largely made up of untested young players, a distant fall from the star power promised at the club’s inception. The club was in a constant public battle with the FFA, who questioned the way in which the team was operated. Palmer argued in return that the FFA was not allowing the clubs enough say in the operation of the league. Gold Coast United would finish the season last.

The standoff came to a head in February this year, when Palmer intervened in team selection and chose 17-year old debutant Mitch Cooper as the captain of an injury-laden Gold Coast team to play Melbourne Heart. Gold Coast coach Miron Bleiberg, himself known in Australian football for his outspoken and colourful turn of phrase, accepted the decision, but noted to media that the position would largely be ‘ceremonial’; after all, senior players would do much of the leadership on the pitch after the coin had been tossed.

Palmer, incensed by the temerity of his coach to question his authority, promptly suspended and later sacked Bleiberg. Palmer told Brisbane’s Courier Mail (later claiming he was misquoted) that he thought ‘soccer’ was ‘a hopeless game’ and that he much preferred rugby league. The FFA made its concern public, and Palmer responded by replacing the sponsor on Gold Coast United jerseys (a hotel owned by Palmer) with a bold declaration: ‘Freedom of Speech’. This action was enough for the FFA to revoke Palmer’s league participation license, and to take over running the club for the remainder of the season. The day following the western Sydney announcement, the FFA announced it would be closing Gold Coast United.

This made Gold Coast the third A-League club to fold in five years, following the New Zealand Knights (based in Auckland) and North Queensland Fury. Similar to Gold Coast, the Knights were shut down owing to mismanagement by the club’s owners. North Queensland folded after just two seasons, when owner Don Matheson could no longer afford to bankroll the club, and the FFA decided not to take on the stricken Fury itself. ‘The FFA is not a bank,’ FFA chairman Frank Lowy later affirmed, ‘it cannot be there to bail out clubs that cannot play their role’.

This week’s decision to launch western Sydney would appear to contradict that statement. The harbour city’s other A-League club, Sydney FC, is firmly based in the city’s east and has struggled to engage football fans from the western suburbs. Western Sydney is an entirely different community to the city’s eastern half; though culturally diverse after decades of immigration, it is treated by outsiders as an amorphous whole, and hotly contested by politicians as the crucial battleground in Federal politics, as evidenced by the turnout of local Labor members at this week’s launch.

The area is also an intensively competitive sports market, with long-established rugby league clubs, and most recently the launch of an Australian rules football club in Sydney’s west to compete in the Australian Football League (AFL). Although Australian rules is a foreign game in Sydney’s suburbs, being most popular in Australia’s southern and western states, the Greater Western Sydney Giants only enter the AFL after three years of development and community engagement, and somewhat helped by an investment by the AFL estimated to be up to $200 million.

And herein lies the question being asked of FFA executives by A-League watchers. Gold Coast and North Queensland were undone by poor due diligence, with the FFA charmed by rich, lone benefactors lacking community engagement strategies and far from sustainable financial backing. Although no such benefactor exists for the new western Sydney team, it is hard to ignore the argument that the club is only being introduced to ensure the A-League remains a 10-team competition ahead of negotiations for a new television deal to commence next year. As Australia’s most storied football commentator Les Murray recently noted, ‘it is not western Sydney that needs an A-League club, it is the A-League that needs a club in western Sydney’.

And western Sydney, it should be remembered, is possibly Australian football’s most important nursery. It is home to clubs of grand histories such as Marconi, Sydney Olympic, and Sydney United, who competed for decades in the former National Soccer League, and have moulded players including Harry Kewell, Mark Schwarzer, Brett Emerton, and Tony Popovic. It is the fans of these clubs that the new club will need to engage in its very brief incubation period. In 2004, around the launch of the A-League, former FFA CEO John O’Neill declared that the new league would mark a break between ‘old soccer and new football’. How the FFA intends to overcome such barriers it built for itself is unclear, and one fears whether or not they will learn from lessons taught in North Queensland and the Gold Coast.

Optimistic observers like to point to Major League Soccer, the A-League’s key reference point, and note that despite MLS’s contraction around the turn of the millennium, at a similar age to the A-League, it has become a much sustainable operation that is growing in spread and strengthening its roots. But the United States has a population 15 times that of Australia; the FFA can ill afford to continually scorn communities with poorly planned clubs and rapid retreats. Western Sydney is the biggest prize of all, and the A-League must get it right this time.

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