At the recent announcement of the AFC Asian Cup domestic media ambassadors, I sat around a table of highly-regarded football pundits in Australian media. In each of us, AFC CEO Michael Brown said he recognised a passion and a commitment to the game not expressed in other codes.
With less than 135 days to go until Australia faces Kuwait in the opener, we spoke about how we could help raise the profile of the Asian Cup and which locations needed further encouragement to get on board.
Canberra and Newcastle were implicated, to which several people said we should get down to the home of the roundabout to spread the message about the tournament. It was also suggested that the nation’s capital should consider getting behind the Asian Cup more strongly if it wanted to prove that it was worthy of an A-League team.
It struck a sensitive chord with me. Along with being born and raised in Canberra – I lived there for 26 years – I was also very much aware of the pain and heartache that Canberrans experienced when they received word their bid wasn’t successful in 2009.
To set the record straight, the bid committee, spearheaded by Ivan Slavich, the 100-odd who actively engaged in the process and the wider football community in Canberra tried their best. Media and communications manager at Capital Football, Russell Gibbs, still recalls the moment he was told the feedback from the Football Federation Australia “was as good as any bid they’d received”. At the time, they were hopeful and based on what they were told, they had every right to be.
Bolstered by more than 2000 foundation members who each pledged $200, the $2.5 million grant from the ACT government, Canberra Stadium locked in as the venue, the Australian Institute of Sport providing training facilities, the pre-sale of 10 corporate boxes, private investors and a five-year business plan from Price Waterhouse Coopers, all that was left was to prove Canberra had community support.
Told by FFA that if Canberra managed to secure more than 20,000 fans to an Australia v Kuwait friendly, it would prove there was a large enough fanbase to sustain an A-League team in the capital.
And so 20,032 fans turned up to that match, including myself. It was the biggest football crowd Canberra had ever seen. But financially, the bid fell short – raising only five, of the six-million-dollar capital FFA had asked for. People were willing to invest, they just needed something tangible. But without the guarantee of a team, investors protected their pockets.
Still, they put together their 38-page submission, which included a commitment from the ACT government that it would contribute $1 million from an existing fund for every season the Canberra team was alive and the confidence they would achieve up to 10,000 fans for each game based on research they had conducted. Throughout the entire process, the bidding team was led to believe it was in with a real chance, but perhaps it never was.
Five years on and recalling the failure, I spoke to Ivan Slavich, who said: “We were extremely disappointed that Canberra didn’t get up. We kept getting told that we were the next cab off the rank but we’re still waiting.”
Instead, North Queensland Fury and Gold Coast United were given the nod. The sheer disaster that we all saw unfold as the two sides crumbled left many of us either saying “we told you so” or “who didn’t see that one coming”? Everyone but the decision makers.
On the back of the FFA Cup fixture between South Coast Wolves and Central Coast Mariners, 5238 fans made their way to WIN Stadium to witness it. In the post-match press conference, Mariners coach Phil Moss said: “I would like to say that any bid for an A-League club from this area should be fully supported because it’s a fantastic football area.”
Formerly Wollongong Wolves, it, along with Canberra Cosmos, recorded less than impressive crowd figures during the National Soccer League. The Cosmos capitulated in 2001 after financial hardship and a struggling supporter-base, while the Wolves dissolved along with the NSL in 2004.
This marked an end to its top level football presence across Australia, leaving fans asking for more in the current A-League climate, or at the very least, a second chance to prove they were worthy.
Times have indeed changed, and we have moved into a new era of football in Australia. For as quickly as the excited chatter surrounding expansion in the A-League has reignited, it has been doused just as swiftly by claims from FFA that it has no intention of looking into it until the broadcast deals are up for renewal in 2017.
It is all well and good to say “we’re the capital of the country and we deserve a team”, but the proof needs to be in the pudding – a dessert that would sour quickly if their promises to do justice to an A-League team in Canberra failed.
Taking into consideration the collapse of two teams already, it serves as a stark reminder that football is a money-rendering business after all, and whoever FFA awards the next team to needs to do both the walking and the talking.