Having recently returned from a Christmas spent in the sun of Australia, and having taken in a live A-League fixture, it would only be proper of Simon Bunn to report his findings on the progress of Australia’s top level “soccer” league.
In terms of football the Australian ‘A-League’ is yet to suffer from the teenage traumas of we all faced. Having been founded, in its current state, in 2005 the league is only just embarking on its 8th year of development. Meaning that it is still relatively fresh from days spent suckling on a metaphorical tit and now finds itself in the stage where it is likely to be force fed vegetables for the sake of healthy growth. Yet despite its obvious immaturity the 2012-13 season has been surrounded with commercial hype.
The first truly International name to ply their trade in Australia was Dwight Yorke in 2006, Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler has also given it a go. But it was Australia’s marquee signing this season, Italian super star Del Piero having joined Sydney FC, which really caused the world to stand up and take notice. The Juventus hero was quickly followed, of course, by England’s Emile Heskey to Newcastle Jet’s. Strangely the former donkey has managed to cause a similarly hyped stir to that of Del Piero, his acquisition becoming the catalyst for ‘HeskeyCam,’ and he has arguably out performed his more decorated marquee rival to date. As such much intrigue, envy and success has been expected of the league this season.
On December 21st 2012, whilst in Queensland, I went to watch champions Brisbane Roar take on Perth Glory, in a repeat of last seasons Grand Final. This time around it wasn’t quite surrounded by the same level of importance as last season, with, in a league of only 10, both teams languishing in 7th and 5th respectively. Such has been champions Brisbane’s decline that it was actually the first game in charge for their new manager Mike Mulvey.
The match itself was a relatively dull affair, with a 44th minute goal from Perth’s Steven McGarry deciding the game. It did however allow me to observe the various cultural similarities/differences between the A-League and the Premier League:
STADIUMS – Brisbane Roar play their football at the Suncorp Stadium, which is also used by Brisbane Bronco’s in Rugby League and the Queenland Red’s in Union. It’s an impressive modern stadium with all the facilities you would expect, boasting a capacity of 52,500. Stadiums in general in Australia are of a good standard and capacity, with many being multi purpose venues. The smallest in the league is Adelaide’s 17,000 capacity stadium and the biggest is Melbourne Victories Etihad stadium, which can host 56,347.
ATTENDANCES – The attendance for Brisbane Vs Perth was 11,352, which is a drop in numbers compared to earlier in the season. In general it is there or thereabouts compared with the average attendance taken across the entire league for the season, that being 13,062. A figure that is up on the previous four seasons but behind it’s 2007-08 peak of 14,608. The arrival of Del Piero has nearly doubled Sydney FC’s attendances to 21,126, but that still falls behind Melbourne Victory, who attract the largest following with a season average of 22,458.
FAN LOYALTY – Although admittedly quite low attendances, since the leagues formation they have been pretty consistent, averaging between 9,831 and 14,608 each year. Although during the finals last year Brisbane were reported to be attracting over 30,000 fans to matches, which suggests that there is a fair amount of “glory fans” in existence or simply a greater thirst for games of greater importance. Being such a new league it’s difficult to judge loyalty, as support is not passed down through generations like it is in the UK. With such great distances between clubs, and sparse choices available, the team you support in Australia is largely determined by where you live.
CLUB COLOURS DISPLAYED – I was surprised at how many of the fans in attendance were decked out in the bright orange replica kit of Brisbane Roar, many even coupled it with a scarf. In terms of colour, those that were there, could match any league in Europe. Then again Australia does offer a climate where t-shirts are standard outdoor clothing.
ATMOSPHERE – It would seem that fan’s in Australia are trying to combine aspects of both the Premier League and Europe in terms of atmosphere. As you would expect, due to the dominance of the English language in Australia, many of the chants heard could have travelled straight from a Premier League stadium. ‘When the Brisbane go marching in’ and ‘we love you Brisbane we do’ are two such examples. The chants do however appear limited and they lack the wit and creativity of their English counterparts. What did impress me though was the sight of a European style microphone orchestrator. The stadium had even equipped the man with his own special sectioned off booth to lead the fans chants from. The only problem being that the man appeared to have forgotten to turn the microphone on. It was a good attempt at creating an atmosphere, but in all honesty you would find better watching Kidderminster Harriers at Aggborough.
RACISM & CROWD TROUBLE – Although nowhere near as prevalent as it is in England or Europe, and not having witnessed any myself, there are signs that this ugly side of football is creeping into the game in Australia. Wellington Phoenix forward Paul Ifill has made claims of racial abuse from fans and trouble was reported amongst supporters during a derby game between Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers.
CROWD KNOWLEDGE – Usually when watching a game in England, live or in the pub, you can’t help but hear grown men discussing tactics and ‘what’s going wrong,’ as if they are the ones barking instructions from the sidelines, in charge of the team. In Australia I didn’t really encounter this sort of detail. At the Brisbane game fan knowledge was better displayed by aggressive unintelligent instructions shouted from the stands, usually centring along the lines of ‘snap his legs in half’ or the simpler, ‘get the ball.’ Of course, like in America, the most annoying aspect when discussing football with an Australian is that the majority still refer to our beautiful game as “soccer.”
FOUL MOUTHED WOMEN – Compared with the sparse scattering of females that you see at football stadiums in England I would put forward the notion that a higher percentage of that gender appear to be prevalent at matches in Australia. I was also particularly taken aback by the language displayed by the said species down under. One lady continued to hold my attention, frothing at the mouth she continually shouted abuse such as the delightful, ‘get the f***in ball soft cock!’
FRONT ROW FORNICATION – In England a football match isn’t commonly seen as an ideal environment for a date. At Brisbane Roar however there appeared to be an abundance of couples watching the game together. Including a couple sat in the front row, seemingly far more concerned with ‘finger banging’ rather than witnessing any degree of football.
DRINK & SMOKING CULTURE – Although I was unaware of any pubs where fans get together before the game to drink together there was evidence in the stadium of intoxication. Unlike in England however it is acceptable to purchase and drink alcohol in your seats. Smoking though is not allowed. The half time whistle usually signals a surge of fans rushing for the exits to smoke in smoggy unison, or acquire more alcohol.
STANDARD OF PLAY – As many would already know the biggest gulf between the A-League and the Premier League is the standard of play. The A-League now is littered with South American’s and Europeans showcasing their talents, and although the standard of play has no doubt improved since 2005 it remains at a very poor level. Australian teams typically struggle in Asia’s version of the Champions League and it’s easy to see why. During the warm up’s, and watching the subs ready themselves, the players all looked admirably technically gifted, to some extent even on a par, or better, than some you see in the Premiership. The problem comes when they get onto the pitch in a match situation. They just don’t seem to understand the game or have the collective knowledge to put their abilities to good use. Sat watching I even began to think that I could carve out a career for myself in Australian “soccer.”
Overall I don’t think that the A-League has progressed in tandem with the hype that surrounded the start of this season. Del Piero may have attracted interest and numbers but, his team currently sit bottom of the table and questions are being asked as to whether the second optional season in his contract will be activated. Most Australian’s that I spoke with also seem to realise that there is a long way to go. Whenever I informed natives that I went to watch an A-League game the most typical response was, ‘that must have been a come down for ya mate?’ How right they were. From my televised and live experiences of the A-League I can’t help coming away feeling like a dad who has just discovered that his son possesses far inferior football skills to that of his class mates. The dad can do little more but sigh regrettably and say, ‘bless him, he’s trying.’
image: © doggiesrule04