News broke yesterday that A-League club Wellington Phoenix had a bid for a ten-year licence denied, putting the club's immediate future in doubt. From an Australian point-of-view, here's why Wellington Phoenix offers more to the league than just a token New Zealand position.
For all of the rivalry shared between Australia and New Zealand, the inclusion of Wellington Phoenix in the A-League has shown a rare example of unity between the countries. As a nation who, on political and ethical levels are still learning to fully accept multiculturalism, there has been a national acceptance of our neighbours in the league. This is the case in the NRL as well, offering the New Zealand clubs the opportunity to play in a more competitive environment and develop their squads.
Before any of us start waving our arms about how much of a charity Australia has granted, remember we are part of the Asian Football Confederation, despite not technically being part of Asia...
The only contention surrounding Wellington Phoenix has been their eligibility for the Asian Champions League. When Australia was nationally integrated into the Asian Football Confederation, New Zealand remained part of Oceania. Even though the Phoenix are part of the Australian tournament, they are barred from entering the competition based on their geographical location.
Following the success of Western Sydney in the Asian Champions League last season and the opportunity to face competitive opposition worldwide through the FIFA Club World Cup, places in the Champions League have become a lot more elusive and a larger incentive to succeed domestically.
While the Phoenix are yet to finish a season in an ACL position (though they came mighty close last season), it is an issue fans have been calling to be addressed. Even if Wellington were classed as an Australian team, there are then discrepancies around the foreign player cap, as the majority of the club’s players are Kiwi, therefore considered foreign.
Being part of an Australian competition also means Wellington are inapplicable for qualification into the Oceanic Champions League, leaving the club with no direct route to the FIFA Club World Cup and other financial opportunities. Not only does this stifle the ambitions of the club’s owners and directors, but disheartens the loyal fans.
Should the Phoenix be disbanded and another NZ club not take its place, it is highly unlikely that any New Zealand football fans in Wellington will continue to follow the A-League. New Zealand have its own national competition: the New Zealand Football Championship. This unfortunately does not have the same level of coverage and support as the A-League and until recently wasn’t acknowledged on an international scale.
The most coveted of the New Zealand teams, Auckland City put is name on the map in 2015. After clinching the New Zealand Football Championship and Oceanic Champions League, the club stunning the world by reaching the semi-final of the FIFA Club World Cup. This achievement and the famous ‘undefeated’ 2010 World Cup campaign for the national side has at least temporarily inspired a country whose sporting population is dominated by fans of other sports, namely Rugby Union.
Unfortunately, this has never translated into interest in the Wellington Phoenix in terms of active crowd participation. Home crowd attendance in Wellington has never been a particularly flattering aspect. Last season, the Nix averaged just 8,695 attendees over the season, the second worst in the league behind Central Coast (as per aleaguestats.com), although the fans should be commended for their commitment to taking off various items of clothing during the match, despite the subarctic temperatures.
The loss of Wellington Phoenix would be a blow to the A-League. Despite being an inconvenience to Australian clubs and fans at times, it is an indication of how widespread the A-League catchment is and how inclusive Australian sport has become; a testament to the values of the World Game itself. Players and fans have previously complained about the inability to go to Wellington and pick up points, but doesn’t that add an element to the sport? After all, English fans have adopted Stoke in the same light.
Could they do it on a cold rainy night in Wellington? Let’s hope we get the chance to find out in the coming seasons.