Football on the up Down Under

Australia’s national team, the Socceroos, have been launched under the banner 'the team to unite the nation'.

    They're back

    It is apt considering the journey the team and the sport of football have recently taken in Australia.

    Despite Australia being proud of its reputation as a sports mad nation, for the most part football has been merely an after thought.

    Sport in Australia is largely drawn up along state lines; in New South Wales and Queensland, Rugby League is the undisputed king, while in the rest of the land the bizarre code of Australian Rules Football reigns supreme.

    Rugby Union also vies for public attention, mostly through its connection with elite private schools, but over the last few decades football would be flattered to be referred to as the poor cousin.

    The World Cup of 2006 is seen by the recently installed leadership team of the newly formed Football Federation of Australia as the centre piece of a strategy to have football driven into Australia’s mainstream sporting diet.

    The new dawn

    It is worth pointing out here that most things in Australian football currently have the prefix "new" attached to them; this is because after years of political infighting, ineptitude and skulduggery, enough was enough.

    Guus Hiddink: A key architect in
    the revival

    The Federal Government commissioned the Crawford Report and two of its wide reaching recommendations were the closing down of the then National Soccer League and a complete overhaul of its governing structure.

    This saw the doors of Soccer Australia close (with undisclosed amounts of debts still owing), so too closing one of the darkest chapters in Australian sports history.

    From the ashes rose the Football Federation of Australia, headed by former Rugby Union supremo John O’Neill and one of Australia's richest men and mastermind of the Westfield Group empire Frank Lowy.

    The pair were charged with two vital tasks in order to reinvigorate the game in Australia. The first was to re-launch the national competition. 18 months after the final game of the NSL, the new eight team A-League launched with enough glitz and glamour to make a Hollywood publicist blush.

    The feelings after the first season of A-League encourage optimism that the game has a future at the highest level in Australia.

    Crowds were good and television figures strong enough to bring a healthy pay day to the game, however the amounts of money the eight clubs lost was sobering. Inaugural champion Sydney FC lost between $3.5 million and $4.5 million despite the clubs being limited to a salary cap of $1.1 million.

    Returning to the big stage

    The new federation's second task was achieved when Spanish based striker John Aloisi powered his spot kick home in the penalty shoot out of the World Cup play-off match against Uruguay.

    After what seemed like an eternity, but was in fact 32 years, Australia are returning to the World Cup.

    It was a time for football lovers in Australia, who for so long had been drinking at the last chance saloon, to pop open the champagne.

    The qualification was due in no small part to the team of O’Neill and Lowy, who not only provided the capital to hire coach Guus Hiddink, but provided the professional set up that Aussie players have craved for so long.

    This new professionalism was on show after the first qualifying leg against Uruguay in Montevideo, as the Australian side stretched out on a charter jet equipped with massage tables while the Uruguayans battled with a standard long haul flight.

    The Socceroos arrived reinvigorated in Sydney, the Uruguayans fatigued.

    The image makeover

    The drive to the mainstream is also seen as removing the stigma football has in Australia as being unmanly. Australian football legend Johnny Warren coined the phrase "sheilas (women), wogs (migrants) and poofters (homosexuals)" to describe the general view of those who played the game of football when he was growing up in the 1960s.

    Indeed, the problem of "simulation" that has plagued the game has enormous ramifications in selling the code in Australia. A sporting audience which has been groomed on tough players pushing through pain is unlikely to be seduced by players falling theatrically to the ground in order to deceive referees.

    Suddenly football is news in


    Now football, as the banner reads, looks to "unite the nation". While World Cup kick off times for the Socceroos take place at a time normally only convenient for insomniacs, the footballing fraternity will be banking on this World Cup as awakening the sleeping giant of Australian sport.

    While Rugby League, Aussie Rules and Rugby Union often look disparagingly towards football, one area of envy is the participation rates. For a game so long out of the limelight, football has astonishing rates of junior participation.

    No doubt many of those kids playing do so as mum looks to avoid the bash and barge of the other, more physical codes. But what is hoped is that a successful Cup campaign will allow healthy junior participation to be turned into better players for the future as well as attracting money spending fans to the new league.

    Most Aussie kids will be asleep when the Socceroos take to the field in Germany, but what the team achieves during those sleeping hours may just alter the Australian sporting landscape. 

    Indeed, it may just unite the nation.

    SOURCE: Aljazeera


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