Opinion

Why it’s time to start respecting the A-League

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After what felt like an eternity, the A-League finally made it’s long-awaited return from the wilderness to see Sydney FC welcome Wellington Phoenix to Jubilee Stadium last Friday night.

Amidst all of the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the broadcast deal drama and chaotic attempts to scurry across the Victorian border, the conversation was once again poised to return to what we all know and love - the beautiful game.  

Or so we thought.  

For 115 days, the Australian football community found itself doing what it does best - lamenting about the state of the game and wondering if the country’s top flight competition would live to fight another day.  

We were all frustrated, tired of the politics and rightfully questioning if we would ever see the game reach its full potential.   

For a while there, serious doubts had been cast over whether or not the A-League would make a comeback but fortunately, a deal between Football Federation Australia and Fox Sports was eventually struck and the game received the short-term lifeline it so desperately needed.      

In the time it took the powers that be to get the game back up and running, it took less than 24 hours for the infamous 'Sokkah Twitter' to weigh in on the ratings for the opening match and destroy the competition.   

Worse-still, an article published on Crikey by a reporter - who has tweeted about football as many times as I have about cricket - posed this question the night before the game: "Because the A-League’s return doesn’t resolve a deeper question that’s made fans, players and administrators anxious for years: does anybody really care?"

Yes. We do.  

While the ratings and the crowd attendances may not show it, you can bet your life on the fact that the 265-odd A-League players currently contracted give a damn about the competition.  

So too, do the 11 coaches, their assistants, administrative staff, referees, investors, volunteers, the PFA, paying members and club sponsors.     

As does Ante Milicic who just turned his back on leading the Matildas to the Olympics and a FIFA Women's World Cup on home soil in favour of joining the A-League next season with the Macarthur Bulls. 

Then there is the fact that football is the number one organised sport in the country, with more than 1.76 million participants as confirmed by Sport Australia. 

At some point, a moment of opportunity will arrive where young kids will be able to turn their passion into a career and if Europe isn’t an option, the A-League and the W-League will become their pathways and playgrounds.  

Now let’s be clear, the road to the promise land is in serious need of repair and the awaiting pastures aren’t in any better shape either, but so much of how we view the A-League is by choice and by no fault of the game itself.  

For years, I have heard every argument under the sun on why the competition isn’t "good enough" or how it’s "failing" and in fairness, many of them have been highly valid and ones that I have bemoaned myself.  

Whether it’s the unsuitable stadia, exorbitant ticket prices, the killing-off of active support, over-policing at matches, lack of promotion and relegation, the recycling of players or poor leadership at the governance level - all of these have contributed to the disenchantment within the game.   

But what I cannot reason with or rationalise is how it could kill your love for football because when you pledge yourself to the game, it becomes a life-long marriage and divorce is never an option.  

In the face of failed title attempts, misguided player signings, poor coaching appointments and financial woes - true supporters will stand by their clubs in sickness and in health.    

Just ask long-suffering Leeds United fans how they’ve felt for the last 16 years.  

As a sporting community, we are very quick to defend the game of football when it’s attacked from ill-advised external bystanders hell bent on tarnishing our reputation but internally, the environment is hostile and brutally toxic. 

The 'old soccer versus new soccer' war continues to rage on with the National Soccer League faithful refusing to sell their souls to the current establishment. 

I am a product of the NSL diaspora and it represents some of the fondest memories of my childhood, but I am wise enough to know that many of my memories are observed through rose-coloured glasses.  

I loved the tribal atmosphere at Edensor Park, lining up at the canteen to get my cevapi roll and running amok on the training fields with the friends I had made at the ground.   

The best part about it all though was that the strength of our support for Sydney Croatia was bound by our heritage but ultimately, all of it was beautifully underpinned by our love for the game.  

We wouldn’t have been there if it wasn’t for the football and nowadays whenever I walk into a stadium, whether it’s the Luzhniki in Moscow, the Max-Morlock Stadion in Nurnberg or AAMI Park in Melbourne - they all feel like home because to me, football is home.  

Then there are those who will rubbish the quality of football and say things like "I’d rather watch the Premier League" or "it’s not as good as the football in Spain."

The A-League isn’t trying to compete with these leagues and the last time I checked, if you admire the game, you admire it in all forms. 

We are the first to protest about the cost to play at the junior level, and have been accused of becoming an 'elitist sport', but when it comes to watching the game - we’ve adopted the same spoiled view.  

For as much as Australian football fans would like to, you can’t just carpool to Old Trafford to watch the Red Devils play or hop on a train to the Camp Nou to see Messi produce a masterclass, yet we continue to worship foreign clubs and sully those in our own backyard.   

By way of context, I was born in Canberra to Croatian parents and I’ve been a Liverpool fan since I was six years-old - purely because my brother Ivan, whom I idolised, was.  

For the better part of my adulthood, I have watched almost every monumental game that the Reds have ever been involved in, not to mention the dead-rubber clashes and heartbreaking losses.  

I’ve lived through coming ever so close to winning the title in 2014 and watching my beloved captain Steven Gerrard slip, I’ve begrudgingly tolerated coughing up $50 million for Andy Carroll and watched the likes of Luis Suarez and Phillipe Coutinho bid farewell to the Kop.    

After we lost to Real Madrid in the 2018 UEFA Champions League final, I fought back tears on-air and sobbed all the way home.  

It’s been a rough old ride until we finally secured the title this year, but the most incredible factor to consider in all of this is that I’ve never, ever stepped foot inside of Anfield or watched Liverpool play in the flesh.  

My entire relationship with them has been formed via a television screen, smartphone or iPad and all because my brother carried a Liverpool kit bag to football training some 28 years ago.  

Yet somehow, we, as a group of self-proclaimed football lovers in Australia - who were either born and raised on this great land or have grown to call this country home - find ourselves in a situation where we have deemed our own league to be unworthy of our affections.  

As Sydney Morning Herald journalist Vince Rugari aptly put it: “One of the saddest things about following Australian domestic football is seeing football fans - with the names of foreign or NPL clubs in their Twitter bios - almost celebrating when the A-League struggles.” 

“I get why (especially NPL clubs, promotion-relegation and all that) but it shows how fractured the game is.”  

In the past, the game used to be thing that united us but now it has become the very thing that has divided us. 

For years, our anger towards the FFA chiefs of old like Steven Lowy or David Gallop have dictated our feelings towards the game but where are they now?   

The poor administrators, dodgy owners, overpaid marquees and ordinary fixtures will come and go but the football will continue to outlive all of them.

It’s high time we started treating the football with the respect that it deserves. 

We cannot continue to chastise nonsensical sensationalists like Alan Jones or reporters with zero skin in the game for attacking us, when we ourselves have failed to champion our own league. 

I know there have been a series of missteps that have pushed fans and pundits alike from flocking to the matches or singing its praises, but the pendulum has swung too far now.  

The fact is, we have become more enamoured with the idea of hating on the A-League than we have with loving it, and the sad reality in all of this is that it’s ourleague.  

It’s the only elite football competition in the country that we have and I am sick and tired of watching it get bashed, bloodied and bruised from poor decision-makers and mercurial football snobs. 

So, tonight after the working day is done and I’ve put my daughter to bed, I will turn on my television to watch the Sky Blues take on the Jets at 7:30pm.  

Not because I am a fan of either club, not because of the broadcaster or because an advertisement or the FFA told me to, but because the football lover in me wants to.