Australia woke up to two pieces of news on Sunday morning. One was the Socceroos playing against Lionel Messi’s Argentina(!) in the World Cup’s round of 16(!). The other, dropped at exactly the same time, was the fixture for round one of the 2023 AFL season. This is not a crack at Australian rules football, the sport. Rather, a curious look at the AFL, the organisation. Caroline Wilson, one of the country’s most respected AFL journalists, derided as “lame” the perceived attempt to usurp football’s biggest moment and said it should have given the Socceroos some clear air.
Australia’s code wars do not need explanation. They have been bubbling away for decades, punctuated by the occasional boilover that sends #SokkahTwitter into the siege mentality to which it is always partial. It felt a bit different on Sunday, though. Almost as though the AFL was … nervous? Challenged, even? Had November’s draft not enjoyed the same cut-through because eyes were elsewhere?
The problem – if there is one – is fabricated from within. Because, while Australians cannot get enough of almost any sport on offer, perhaps the one with the least traction in recent times has been football. The very fact the era of 2006 is still the last point of reference for many between then and now is a case in point. Football is not a threat, despite the waves of wonder the Socceroos have sent through society these past 10 days.
For 16 years, administrators, players, coaches and supporters have tried to grow the game but been curtailed by various forces. Some are of their own making. There was a catastrophic World Cup bid, the gradual sanitisation of fan culture to the point of near-death, the failure to capitalise on an Asian Cup won on home soil, and a lack of appropriate development pathways to prevent children with the right skillset from being poached by other sports. These are only a few examples, but demonstrate the puzzle the game must solve to have even a chance of causing genuine consternation among other codes.
Other factors have contributed too, most notably a paucity of government funding and corporate investment for all levels of the game, from grassroots to the professional tier. But perhaps the most sizeable challenge is one which could assist all of the above immeasurably but is also sort of an uncontrollable: public opinion.
To shift such a thing requires more than marketing campaigns and good football. It takes something significant, like an uncharacteristically deep run at a World Cup. And even that probably won’t alter the status quo overnight. Football Australia and the Australian Professional Leagues, which now runs the A-Leagues, are already making moves to take advantage of this unique moment in time which has swept from Melbourne to Perth and everywhere in between. It is difficult to ignore, but equally as difficult to leverage.
The A-League Men restarts this weekend and offers an ideal springboard off which to market its now better-known Socceroos. Head to Melbourne City to see Mat Leckie, down to Adelaide United to see Craig Goodwin and to the Central Coast Mariners to see Garang Kuol (for the next few weeks at least) and Jason Cummings.
“I hope and expect Australians start respecting the A-League, and the quality it has,” the Socceroos coach, Graham Arnold, said in Doha on Saturday, the eve of their 2-1 loss to Argentina. “I’ve been out and about around Europe, and the A-League is as good as most European competitions.”
Goodwin, who scored Australia’s first goal in Qatar against France, was hopeful public sentiment may begin to translate into meaningful change. “We hope that we’ve inspired the young generation to push themselves,” he said. “We hope what we’ve achieved here can help grow the game back home, because the A-League is better than it’s perceived and the quality of Australian football is better than it’s perceived.
“I think it’s been that way for a long time, but hopefully what we’ve been able to achieve here can put the Australian football on the map and help the game grow.”
It can, but attention spans are notoriously short. Not 24 hours after Australia had pushed Argentina until the death, Kylian Mbappé was outdoing himself yet again and England were marching mercilessly on. Australia, despite having elicited global praise, are no longer the tournament’s story.
Goodwin used the word “hope” repeatedly after the match. It is probably the correct emotion, because some things cannot be forced or grown at will. Qatar spent its billions engineering a national football team and culture, all for the return of poor results and fan turnout. The Western Sydney Wanderers barely had a dollar or a squad when they were founded in 2012, but did have the highly receptive working class of western Sydney and Tony Popovic as manager. They topped the A-League table in their opening season and won the 2014 Asian Champions League.
Sometimes the pieces just fall into place, through enterprise or luck or a bit of both – and some other things too. More often, they need considerably more time to arrive at that same place. The Socceroos have woken the Australian public to football, but their achievements will not transform a country’s deeply ingrained sporting inclinations immediately (don’t worry, AFL). What they have done is engineered hope, which is the first step.