A-League on a knife edge

Much as everyone connected with association football in Australia wants the new A-League to succeed the signs at present are not as rosy as the announcement of a large $120 million sponsorship by Foxtel last week suggest. The champion club from the inaugural season, Sydney FC, has run out of money and the Chairman of the Football Federation of Australia, Frank Lowy, has had to raise his family’s shareholding in the club from just over 20 per cent to a controlling 51 per cent. Personal investment is something Lowy hoped to avoid, having learned his lesson when he mortgaged his house for a period to support the Hakoah Club in Sydney, where he had his first encounter with Australian football in the 1960s.

The League has also assumed ownership of the last National Soccer League champion, Perth Glory, after founding owner Nick Tana pulled out following several years of subsidising the club, particularly at a time when the eastern part of the old Soccer Australia was not pulling its weight in terms of promotion of the game. Tana promoted and sponsored the Glory, setting an example which none of the other clubs followed, and obviously he has decided the time has come to hand over to someone else. The League is confident of finding a purchaser for the club, but with the season imminent, it does not have much time.

The New Zealand Knights, which finished last season, tailed off in last place, uncompetitive and playing to derisory crowds, has just lost its manager, John Adshead, and is struggling to be ready for the new season which starts with a pre-season cup in July. Though the financial reports are not in yet, it is widely believed that all clubs lost money on the inaugural season, despite higher than projected crowds, the attraction of some sponsorship, a very positive media reaction and enormous goodwill on the part of the football public.

Melbourne Victory drew impressive support last year, but did not make the finals. While it looks set to regain its star player Archie Thompson, who has been on loan to national coach, Guus Hiddink’s PSV Eindhoven, champion of Holland, the Victory needs to add significantly to its squad if it is to challenge for honours in 2006–07. The Victory has some important sponsorship, but it would be fair to say that it has not cracked the Melbourne commercial scene as yet. Mooted recruitment of Brazilian talent seems to have stalled, though the development of young players like Adrian Leijer, Vince Lia and Kristian Sarkies has been very impressive, with Leijer being called up on stand-by for the Socceroos earlier in the year. But they need backing in depth if the Victory is to challenge for honours this year.

The history of the game in this country is of impressive starts followed by a quick falling off from the initial euphoria, resulting in internal bickering and loss of public support. This time, while the international outlook is very different with the Socceroos qualification for the World Cup finals and the acceptance of Australia into the Asian Football Confederation, the problem of establishing a viable domestic national league remains. With all eyes on the World Cup for the next two months, the domestic game has a period when the spotlight will not be on it. Whether this gives an opportunity for the clubs and the league to capitalise on the focus on the world game, or means that they will struggle to get financial support for their own purposes, remains to be seen. But certainly the second half of 2006 will be a critical period for the A-League in Australia.

(This article appeared on the Football Federation of Victoria website <www.footballfedvic.com.au> on Tuesday, 2 May 2006 and in Australian and British Soccer Weekly, 9 May 2006, p. 8.. An edited version under the headline ‘National league still beset by problems,’ appeared in the Geelong Advertiser, Wednesday 3 May 2006, p. 48.)

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