Jump Ball Sports
Don’t look now, but Australian football is taking its first tentative steps into an age of enlightenment after decades in the darkness.
A sport plagued by false dawns has finally emerged blinking amid the first rays of early morning light.
Of course, there is still much to do for the round ball game to reclaim its proper place on this country’s mainstream sporting mantle.
But the difference now is that there appears to be consensus as to past mistakes and future direction.
A consensus borne of the contemporary rock bottom that was the combination of a flatlining A-League, a weak Socceroos’ incarnation, the disastrous Alen Stajcic sacking, and the salt rubbed into football’s wounds by the meteoric rise of arch-rival, Australian men’s basketball.
Critically, this meeting of the minds has helped to remove finger pointing from a sport long defined by blame.
And a happier local game will hopefully shed the prickly, defensive shtick - while not without merit, there surely has to be a limit to the amount of outrage expressed over double standards in media coverage of crowd misbehaviour to choose just one example - which has long made the sport difficult to embrace from the outside.
Headlining football’s renaissance is the hard-fought (in-principle) independence of the A-League, which will come into full effect following a transitional 2019-20 season.
By wresting control from the hands of the maligned Football Federation Australia, the clubs have given the A-League the desperately needed clean air to achieve a turnaround in fortunes and themselves the investment motivation that comes with having a far bigger piece of the pie.
The job of reviving the A-League will be made easier by what appears to be a far more engaging and well thought out marketing approach, the just-inked ABC free-to-air TV deal and agreement as to the need for relegation via the introduction of a second-tier competition.
Not to mention the critical buy-in of the players themselves. The A-League club captains assembled for this week’s season launch made all the right noises as to the importance of the upcoming campaign and the key role of the players in driving the competition’s resurgence.
Throw in the good news stories that are the Western Sydney Wanderers’ return to the rebuilt Bankwest Stadium, Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler’s appointment as Brisbane Roar coach and the inception of new Melbourne club Western United - complete with boom recruit Besart Berisha - and you have a league flirting with national sporting relevance.
As well as relinquishing control of the A-League and focusing on national team and grass roots football, changes within the FFA itself have gone a long way to eliminating the divisiveness that has long been its calling card.
Steven Lowry’s 2018 FFA exit marked the end of the Lowry family revolution, which promised much before ending in acrimony between the game’s key stakeholders over fundamental governance issues.
The resignation announcement in July by FFA CEO, David Gallop - who had become a lightning rod for criticism over the Stajcic dismissal - then took even more air out of the anti-FFA tyres.
Speaking of former Matildas coach Stajcic, we are still awaiting the findings of the review into national team management mandated by the FFA in the wake of his sacking.
Significantly, the FFA has also set about addressing legacy issues borne of the local game’s football-related cultural cringe, which has informed the rocky adaption of football in this country.
There was the news that Gallop’s replacement will be a ‘football person’, which bucks the FFA’s curious trend of looking outside the game for someone to run it.
The FFA also lifted the controversial ban on ethnic club names and symbols, a prohibition which always smelt like a self-conscious sport forsaking the power of its rich history to better fit in.
Despite all these inroads, the FFA cannot wave a magical wand at the labouring Socceroos nor the lack of Australian men’s representation in Europe’s top leagues, both of which remain a drag on the domestic game’s revival.
But it can rely on the new-found patience afforded to Socceroos coach Graham Arnold from a football public still rattled at its potential culpability for saviour-turned-sacrificial lamb - and Arnold predecessor - Ange Postecoglou’s exit from the top job.
So too the general awareness as to issues with youth development in this country, and the remedial action it hopefully sparks.
Then there are the Matildas.
To say this country’s women’s side has picked up the national team slack during the Socceroos’ lull is a gross undersell.
The world-class Matildas were already basking in national goodwill before earning widespread praise for admirably persevering despite the sense of sabotage the Stajcic dismissal lent to the team’s ultimately disappointing World Cup campaign.
Not to mention Matildas’ headline act, Sam Kerr - currently scoring goals for fun in the United States’ NWSL - who is the gift of positivity that keeps on giving.
Against this relatively sunny backdrop, one can make out a path for Australian football emerging from the fringes of the local sporting wilderness in which it has resided for far too long.
There are obstacles of course, but the all-important direction is now clear.