They say you shouldn’t compare the Australian A-league to the English Premier League, but should it not be the benchmark for success?
Interest in football continues to evolve in Australia, but this hasn’t directly translated into interest in the local club teams. The Socceroos continue to improve and develop luring a greater national following, but many Aussies are still following foreign teams in ‘better’ leagues. It is the responsibility of the FFA to make the A-league a more attractive investment of time and money for the average Australian.
Australia’s geographical layout is an issue. Unlike in England, A-league clubs are located fair distances away from each other, meaning they do not have to scrap for contested areas of supporter bases. In recent years, the introduction of Melbourne City and Western Sydney Wanderers has divided their respective cities, resulting in eagerly anticipated and hotly contested fixtures throughout the season which have attracted sizeable amounts of fans.
This has also given the fans of Melbourne and Sydney clubs the chance to attend ‘away games’ in the season. Given just how widespread the club locations are in the A-league, it is practically unfeasible for fans of Adelaide, for example, to travel to Brisbane, Sydney and Wellington in a year, particularly on the average football fan’s salary.
There simply aren’t enough followers in places like Perth to consider two teams in every location, so how do you create the same atmosphere for neutral clubs as the local derbies? Not all derbies are location based though.
The long-distance derby between Wellington and Perth has been made more competitive by the introduction of a aggregate trophy. Trying to fabricate rivalry and force fans to get on board isn't the answer. For instance, how boring is the F3 derby?
Rivalries have to be born themselves, through fans and players alike, potentially instigated by acts of injustice on the field. Take Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide United for example. Players from these clubs previously would have felt indifferent about on-field performances against each other, but a string of previous incidents, from Kosmina choking Muscat to the 5-0 Grand Final thrashing, have led to this fixture being feisty at almost every encounter. The players embody this rivalry in this instance, with the fans more than happy to follow suit.
The most vital element A-league clubs are still yet to solidify is a club identity. Any Arsenal fan will tell you that their club is all about class; Liverpool indulge in a rich history; Dortmund have the loudest fans in Europe; Real Madrid are the ‘Galacticos.’
Identity is vital and there is opportunity for A-League clubs to build their own. Melbourne Victory are associated with success and carry that with an air of arrogance…after all, it’s in the name! Brisbane in the Ange Postecoglou era were known as Roarcelona, emulating the possession-based style Barcelona have built success on. Western Sydney use their location in the disenfranchised Western suburbs to build a sense of community and pride. Still, none are yet to fully embrace their stereotypes. Wellington Phoenix could better utilize their position as outsiders, while Newcastle, Central Coast, Perth and Melbourne City fans would struggle to consign a single word to describe their club.
Let us not forget the importance social media plays in establishing a club’s brand identity in the modern era. Each of the A-league clubs run various social media channels. Twitter has prevailed as a key area of fan interaction and is a stronghold that clubs such as Western Sydney and Central Coast have dominated through the bold form of banter (see here for the best example of this).
Given the nature of the A-league as a transitional league for players to either make their way to Europe or come back to finish their careers, squad inconsistency is unavoidable to an extent. Excluding stalwarts like Thomas Broich, Archie Thompson, Matt Simon and Alex Brosque, fans can’t really attach themselves to quality players for any more than a couple of seasons. This is why the fans need to embody the spirit and identity of the clubs and the players will emotionally attach themselves to their supporters, resulting in higher player retention.
The A-league is still young and developing, but the next few years are vital to the development of the league. With foundations well and truly set, blaming competition with AFL and NRL is no longer excusable and responsibility lies with the fans to show their faith in support, the clubs to show solidarity and stability, and the FFA to show consistent progress and momentum. If sneaking flares into stadiums and promoting competitive rivalry on and off the field is what it takes to build interest in a sport renowned globally for passionate fans, why shouldn’t we embrace it?
What I’m trying to say is that Sydney vs Western Sydney's sold out derby today is great for the game and I can't til the rest of the league is at the same level.