Feature

A-League presented with a window of opportunity

Victory captain Mark Milligan is a high-profile 'casualty' (Getty)

No sooner does the Australia national team 'pinch' a number of A-League players in its never-ending bid to establish itself on the international front than the clubs and media start jumping up and down in howls of protest at the absurdity of it all.

The 18 November international between the Socceroos and Japan in Osaka will deprive the weekend Big Blue between Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory of several key players and possibly diminish the spectacle as a result.

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With many national teams also in action on the designated FIFA break, the A-League will lose players to other countries too.

At this stage Mark Milligan and Terry Antonis (both Australia), Kosta Barbarouses (New Zealand), Daniel Georgievski (Macedonia), Marc Janko (Austria) and possibly Ali Abbas (Iraq) will miss the big match at Allianz Stadium.

Needless to say, this has given clubs and the media the impetus to voice their disapproval at Football Federation Australia's failure to implement international breaks in the A-League season to help those teams that provide several players for Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou and other national teams and protect the appeal and quality of the competition.

Ray Gatt in The Weekend Australian raised several valid points about this unfortunate situation, even citing "an undercurrent of anger that the clubs are forced to field weakened line-ups while players are away on representative duty".

The controversy is not new and Gatt's views are not isolated but they reflect the general mood of the football family.

However what needs to be remembered is that our problem is almost exclusive to countries like Australia where football is not the number one sport and there is not much we can do about it other than stop the A-League.

FFA has explored every avenue to solve the problem and it is safe to say that Australian football in its current form cannot afford international breaks, particularly this season when it hosts the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in January.

The A-League season is in a calendar straightjacket so it must start and finish in a limited window.

Catch-up midweek fixtures are not the answer either because Australian fans, unlike their European and South American counterparts, do not like going to games during the week or watching them on television for that matter.

FFA also is keen to stick with a proven formula.

Half of the A-League's aggregate attendance and television audience comes in the first 10 weeks of the season between October and mid-December and FFA understandably won't halt the competition in that period. The clubs, fans and broadcasters would not want that.

The front-end loading of the season with big fixtures in the 'clean air' between the Australian football and rugby league and cricket seasons is working brilliantly. Since Season 7, when the league first kicked off in October, crowds have gone from an 8400 average in Season 6 to an average of 13,250 in Season 9. Television ratings (pay TV only) went from 44,000 to 84,000. Membership has gone from 51,000 to 96,000.

FFA also sees playing through FIFA windows as a commercial reality like the salary cap, squad limits and AFC Champions League fixtures affecting the A-League finals. FFA would see the current structure as fundamental to the success and would not want to pull apart a successful strategy and not expect a negative consequence.

This certainly is a challenging scenario for FFA and the league but the biggest challenge is faced by the game itself.

This club versus country problem will not go away yet if the quality of our domestic competition continues to rise and draw even larger crowds and viewers, it would be in a position of strength and it would not matter too much when the A-League starts and finishes its season.

It would then be able to go head to head with the other stronger and more established football codes and map out a longer season to accommodate international breaks and let them worry about our game for a change, assuming they are not doing so already.

This is not pie-in-the-sky stuff because the steady progress of the A-League is very visible and undeniable.

Football might never be the number one sport in Australia, but it is getting close to a point where it can consider itself not that far off its rivals in terms of spectator, viewer and sponsorship numbers.

What we as a football community need to do is have faith in the game's administration to do what's best for the game although we might not always agree on how it goes about things.

There are some highly-qualified people running the game these days and we will all win if football continues to grow, after all.

It's not mission impossible and recent events across Asia have shown quite clearly what can be achieved against all the odds if a spirit of goodwill and teamwork prevails.

And if we accept Australia's difficult situation, stop complaining about things that are beyond the game's control, get our heads down and get on with the job of making do with what we've got and try and raise our standards, who knows what lies around the corner?

So let's lift our game. We can do it as long as we pull together.