Football’s multicultural grassroots have massive assets, which FFA is finally beginning to harness. And it’s a bloody good thing that it is.
26 Feb 2013 - 10:31 AM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2014 - 5:14 PM

Six years ago, when the A-League was in its baby boots but acting more like a spoilt adolescent, the coach of Sydney FC had agreed to a pre-season friendly match against Sydney Olympic.

Sydney Olympic was and still is a NSW State League club with an illustrious past in the old NSL and one with strong connections to the Greek community.

The match never went ahead. Some bright spark at FFA – and let’s not bother with his name – vetoed it. No A-League club was permitted to have this kind of direct and cosy relationship with an 'ethnic’ club. It was fine for Sydney FC to play friendlies with Blacktown City or Sutherland Sharks but not Sydney Olympic.

The directive was disgraceful, discriminatory and probably illegal.

All this was in the name of the cleverly coined 'Old Soccer, New Football’ marketing slogan – which, under more forensic examination, may as well have meant a case of 'new football’ urinating on 'old soccer’ from a great height.

What the game’s new governors were trying to do was to effectively create two distinct and separate football worlds: the new and the old, stupidly imagining that the two should never meet or overlap.

Now, six years on, FFA is on a mission to embrace holistically the State League clubs, those so called 'ethnic’ clubs like Sydney Olympic included, in an effort to bring unity between the game’s pointy end and its throbbing, passionate underbelly and its lifeblood.

As I have said in a number of columns in this space down the years, 'new football’ would be nothing and would not exist without 'old soccer’. That penny has now dropped at FFA headquarters.

What made this clear was the recent launch by FFA of the National Premier Leagues (NPL), a move to promote and recognise the rich value the under-tier, semi-pro leagues and clubs provide to our game.

Said David Gallop, the freshman CEO of the FFA, "The semi-pro state league clubs have long been the engine room of Australia’s player development system and have always provided a local focus of football passion across the nation.

"Today’s launch of the National Premier Leagues model gives the state-based competitions the status and organisational structure they deserve."

Distilled down to more pithy English, this says, 'Let’s at last recognise the passion-driven tier of the game as its true and indispensable lifeblood.’

And now there’s more, with the more recent announcement of the FFA’s 'multi-cultural initiative’, meant to recognise and harness the natural links between football and the cultural diversity that nourishes the spirit of our nation and our nationhood.

This unmistakable and unbreakable link between football and our cultural diversity is indeed football’s big edge over the sports with which it competes.

Unveiling FFA’s Harmony through Football program, David Gallop said: "Football is the face of Australia and is a sport that truly reflects the cultural diversity of our nation.

"With 1.7 million participants, football is Australia’s most inclusive and accessible sport, one that bridges gender, age, linguistic, ethnic and religious divides.

"In 2012 FFA undertook a cultural audit of the A-League which showed that 87% of players have an overseas ancestry and 68% have one or more parent born overseas, both well above the national average.

"Football’s broad fan base similarly reflects this diversity and our aim to help foster this diversity through the Harmony through Football program."

Federal sports minister Kate Lundy added: "Sport is a powerful unifier which brings together people from diverse backgrounds. This initiative shows football living up to its status as the world game – a universal language and passion."

This is indeed the backbone of football in a culture and economy in which it wants to grow and compete successfully. It tries to prosper in a market and media space dominated by two team sports (AFL and NRL) flush with money and with a huge capacity to invest in growth.

Yet for all their money, neither AFL nor NRL can ever hope to boast of having the kind of natural affinity with our country’s cultural diversity that football has.

AFL proudly puts out press releases every time a player of a non-Anglo origin breaks into one of its teams. But it’s a hollow crow.

What matters is not so much who plays the game but who its followers are. A glance at the demographics that make up the A-League’s crowds and support base will affirm football’s appeal to our living diversity.

The pulsating support Western Sydney Wanderers enjoys in an area that is the heartland of multicultural Australia is further testimony of this edge football has over other sports.

And these fans are mostly young, too. So much for the 'ethnics’ belonging to 'old soccer’.

The fact is that football’s multicultural grassroots, including its State League clubs ('old soccer’ if you will), have massive assets, which FFA in its early years blindly devalued and failed to harness.

That is essentially what is now changing. And it’s a bloody good thing that it is.