On Monday, thousands of Australian soccer fans will gather in Sydney to pay tribute to their national team, the Socceroos, who in Germany produced their best-ever performance in a World Cup.
Most fans will be clad in the Socceroos’ green-and-gold shirt, which has been the country’s best-selling sports kit this year. Others will probably wear the colours of the clubs that now comprise the Australian top-flight A-League, which was successfully launched just over a year ago.
Yet there is a feeling that soccer is now at a crossroads in sports-mad Australia, where competition for television coverage, sponsorship and supporters is fierce.
The World Cup euphoria has been followed by a hangover sensation. How quickly Australian soccer can get over it could determine whether it is on course to rival the country’s other leading team sports – Australian rules football, rugby and cricket.
The timing of Monday’s celebrations in itself highlights part of the challenge faced by soccer in Australia. The partying had to be delayed by more than three months after the Socceroos lost to a controversial penalty against Italy, the eventual World Cup winners, because most players were too busy with their European clubs to come home earlier. Put simply, Australia’s best footballers all play abroad.
Tim Parker, chief executive of Sydney FC, which won the inaugural A-league season, says: “The enormous step that the sport has now taken over the past 18 months has established the foundations for it to be really established here. But more than consolidation is now required. A lot of building still needs to be done.’’
The World Cup was followed by a number of high-profile departures, leaving a significant vacuum. Guus Hiddink, the Dutch coach of the Socceroos, left to take charge of Russia. Although a local caretaker coach was then appointed, the search continues for somebody with the experience brought by Hiddink.
John O’Neill then quit as chief executive of Foot- ball Federation Australia. O’Neill, who came to the FFA after 16 years in banking and then running Australian rugby union, had been widely credited with the rise of soccer, together with Frank Lowy, the Westfield retail tycoon who became FFA chairman. While both men insisted O’Neill had simply not wanted to renew his contract after a job well done, that has not quelled reports of a fall-out between the two.
Lowy is working hard to find replacements. “I’m not sitting on my bum waiting for things to happen,’’ he said in an interview. “We’ve got ahead of us serious challenges that we need to come to terms with but there’s no doubt that the Australian public and viewers have accepted and want to see it [soccer] succeed.’’
Even on the pitch and in the dressing room, events appear to be conspiring lately against the Socceroos.
They recently lost 2-0 to lowly Kuwait, an embarrassing defeat that has raised doubts about whether Australia can replace the golden generation of players that took them to Germany, led by Mark Viduka, the Middlesbrough striker, and Liverpool’s Harry Kewell. Earlier in the week, Craig Moore, who was about to captain the Socceroos in two matches next week, received a one-match ban from Australia’s football federation for missing training. Furthermore, last season’s best A-League player, Dwight Yorke of Trinidad and Tobago, recently left Sydney to return to England, where he has joined Sunderland.
Yet there are plenty of reasons for optimism. The sport is in the hands of businessmen with financial and marketing savvy, which is reflected in the astute thinking behind the A-League’s format. The season has been timed to avoid clashes with other team sports and maximise TV audiences. While the A-League is only now in full swing, both Australian rules football and rugby league held their grand finals last weekend. “We’re competing for fans with the beaches, not really with the other [football] codes,” says Sydney FC’s Parker.
To boost interest and the level of play without undermining home-grown players, clubs are allowed to have two foreign guest players for four matches each, as well as a “marquee” player on a higher salary for the whole season – as Yorke was last year. Romário, the veteran Brazilian forward who has scored almost 1,000 career goals, is expected in Adelaide next month for a four-match stint.
Lowy is also banking on rising interest for Australian soccer in neighbouring Asia, following the recent inclusion of the Socceroos in the Asian Football Confederation.
Meanwhile, after averaging 16,700 spectators a game last season, Sydney FC have managed to start the season with a small improvement in attendances. The club has doubled its annual corporate sponsorship to A$2m, although attracting business has proved a struggle.
“The number of times I’ve heard companies say they want to ‘wait-and-see’ is huge,” Parker says. “Corporate Australia is treating this with great caution.” A second successful season, as well as an end to the leadership vacuum, would go a long way towards removing those doubts.