Well, football down under is really progressing of late, with the A-League now an established and well supported competition, and greater success for the national sides of Australia and New Zealand (relatively speaking) means that football has never been better followed in this part of the world. And while the beautiful game will never challenge that weird one with a squashed ball in this part of the world, continued expansion of the A-League looks like it could keep the development going.
Next season will see two new teams enter the A-League competition, with Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury pushing us up to having ten competing teams, which seems much more like it. It is also good to see that with two new teams entering the league, there is every chance that both will have plenty of chance to succeed. While some would assume that new teams entering an established league would be almost cannon fodder for the established teams, the A-League is as wide open as always and the addition of two new teams should increase the excitement if anything.
Gold Coast have already started splashing the cash, securing a number of good signings, most notably Shane Smeltz who they have nabbed from the Phoenix, who will be a major asset, especially if they can give him better service than he’s enjoyed at Wellington. It is the A-League’s almost unique transfer system that has enabled this, with transfers between teams and long term contracts both forbidden, and a strict wage cap with only one marquee player enforced, it means that all clubs have a reasonable chance of signing quality players.
At the moment Gold Coast are being linked with top draw player after top draw player, but having already made some good signings (including giving Smeltz a hefty contract if they had to match what Wellington are said to have offered) , I think that soon they will have to start signing up more and more average players to ensure they don’t go above the wage cap, and so the cocky fans who believe that they will come in and walk the league will not be so cocky once the squads are confirmed.
The one thing that I do worry about is the suggestion by the head of the Asian FA (or someone like that, I forget the details) that Australia should sever ties with the Wellington Phoenix and make the A-League a 100% Aussie competition. This comes off the back of the confusion that has surrounded what would happen should the Phoenix win the league, therefore claiming an Asian Champions League place, considering they are not part of that federation.
It is also affecting Wellington’s ability to create a youth team, as the AFA will not fund them to compete in the A-League’s youth competition and so they are at present missing out on that valuable facet of club life. For me the only way forward with this is for Wellington to essentially become an AFA registered team that is simply based in New Zealand.
Some would argue this is problematic, but I don’t see that as being the case. Looking at the sheer size of Australia, it is not as if a removed location can be held against the Phoenix when they are a closer fixture for Sydney than Perth are, for example. And I feel that for the A-League to lose the participation of it’s New Zealand team would be a sore blow for the league in the long run. In New Zealand, the potential fan base of the Phoenix is the entire population (roughly four million) and so that is the possible consumer base for the A-League of that club.
Now naturally that is not the actual consumer base, but as the competition grows and develops as it is doing, and the thousands and thousands of young Kiwis who are playing more football than rugby grow up, the interest in the club is only going to increase. This is the same situation for all of the A-League clubs, but my point is, that few have a realistic chance of matching the Phoenix’s possible consumer base if we remain the only NZ team. It is possible that quite a few years down the line a second NZ team could be introduced, but the A-League must not sever its ties with NZ unless they can afford to lose such a vast potential for expansion and income – which in the current economical climate they surely can’t.
For anyone to suggest that Wellington should be kicked out then is frankly ridiculous in my eyes. Thankfully I don’t believe it will be taken too seriously as a suggestion by the A-League’s governing body, especially as there are even whispers of a Pacific Island team going for one of the next spaces in the competition, which suggests that they are looking to expand even further in the region.
What is important for the A-League most of all though, is that they continue this balanced and nurtured approach to expansion. So far they have been very sensible in applying the afore-mentioned financial rules etc. to let the competition develop healthily. What is important is that when the competition does start to take off, and attract more attention financially from sponsors and investors and the like, they must retain their considered approach.
They must keep their heads if expansive opportunities present themselves and consider what is best for the league itself, and therefore keep the carefully governed financial restrictions in place. Because while they may be tempted if big money was offered, taking it would mean a quick buck, but in the long run would destabilize the league and lead to it’s appeal as a competition dwindling. The Premier League experienced a financial boost in that way, all at once suddenly there was money everywhere.
But what it has created is a league full of teams who are for the most part financially insecure, and just a few who are absolutely rolling in the dough. This has resulted in the current situation that sees only one of four teams realistically challenging for the league title, and therefore many are criticising it as a competition, saying that it lacks the excitement and possibility created by an open and winnable league.
Indeed, it is only the incredible support for the game that England has, where it is essentially a religion, that has supported the game in these recent years. The income from fans is enormous, and it is testament to fans’ commitment that the clubs in the Premier League who have no hope of winning the league still turn up religiously week in, week out to support them.
If the A-League were put in a similar situation, it would not rocket to a global phenomenon as the Premier League did though, It would crash and burn. And that is because the league does not have the supporters to survive in such a situation. The passion of fans in this country is a million times less intense. Attendances are affected by the weather for christ’s sake. The thing that is keeping the A-League going at the moment is the sheer unpredictability of it all. Anyone can win the league. Some are more likely than others, but all have a realistic chance. Every fixture could go either way very easily, and it is this that keeps the fans coming.
If the A-League is to keep this up, they must retain the financial balance. If they get a big money offer, it would be hugely tempting to accept, but eventually an imbalance would be created and in this continent, if there is no chance of winning, there’s no chance of attendance.
All in all, the A-League is progressing very healthily as a league. It is an exciting and open competition and the standard of football will continue to develop over the next few years. I look forward to the introduction of new teams with the confidence that it will remain as closely contested as always, and I hope that silly suggestions like kicking NZ teams out will be rightly rebuffed for the good of the competition, even if it means a little more work to resolve awkward situations, it is ultimately the football that counts. What we have to remember is that although money makes the world go round, it is not what football is about. Necessarily the two have a large association, but if it comes down to a choice between large bank accounts or a balanced and exciting league, the football has to come first.