Saturday, October 16, 2010

FFA Cup? A modest proposal indeed...

The recent announcement that the FFA would be introducing a Cup competition from the 2011-12 season hit me with no small sense of bemusement, as it's something that I (as well as countless voices in the footballing community) have been advocating for years. These are some of my first reactions to the announcement.
Based on past form, of course, there is every chance that the FFA will stuff it up spectacularly, unless the new “FFA Cup” is genuinely pitched at building football in Australia – at all levels. For it to work, it must link the different levels of the game, not just act as a tokenistic add-on to the A-League season.

The obvious advantage of such a competition is that it allows for the inclusion of what in my mind is the “real” heart of football in Australia – the State Leagues. I would, however, advocate that once established the competition should be further expanded, getting not only the state leagues involved, but also the best of the regional leagues.

A competition that not only allows South Melbourne to play Melbourne Victory, but that also gives a team from rural NSW, South Australia or Queensland the chance to pit itself against the best of Adelaide FC or the Brisbane Roar, would finally give football the level of permeation and community support to make it a challenger to the title of Australia’s main code.

Of course, how such a cup should work is still open to discussion and debate. The most convincing proposal I have seen so far is one that pitches the top one, two or three teams from the state leagues into a form of elimination round (or rounds) with A-League teams.

The cup-winner should also be given an automatic place in Asia, alongside the winner of the A-League.
But an FFA Cup alone is not enough to fix the fatal flaws in the FFA world-view, and which will continue to kill the game unless they are addressed.

Some more modest proposals...

First and foremost, there is no need - especially with a Cup competition - for a 30-round season. 20-odd rounds (that is, one home and one away game) are more than enough, would fit better within the constraints of the competing codes' seasons, and would allow for a genuine cup competition to flourish. 

Secondly, it is long past time to abolish from football the ridiculous "finals series" that infects so much of Australian sport. In most of the civilised world - where "football" is called "football" and is "the" main code - the winner of the most points at the end of the season is the Champion. End of season? End of story.

Thirdly, introduce a system that allows the promotion and relegation of teams between the state leagues and the A-League. The current malaise of new clubs being created from scratch as FFA “franchises” does little or nothing to really help build the game in the one place where it needs to grow – local communities.

The franchise system is about a corporate outfit trying to "buy in" to a local "market". Football should be - first, foremost and in the final instance - about football, and the communities it is played in. Where we already have existing, functioning and popular clubs, why set up new ones?

The effect that this total separation of divisions has had on the state teams is palpable. Quality players, trained up from childhood at considerable expense by state teams with genuine community connections, are regularly pilfered by A-League clubs for compensation that amounts to little more than peanuts.

This is not to blame the players. When you can't play in the big league for the big bucks with your club - not for lack of talent but because you're not allowed - then naturally you'd consider the switch.

But I'd be willing to bet money that - were the good NSW or Victorian league teams allowed into the A-League - they would put most of those over-hyped and over-marketed teams to shame.

Of course the ugly bug-bear of an argument most often made against including many of the state or old NSL teams in the A-League is the ethnic tensions between clubs that helped to bring the old competition undone.

However, these ethnic divisions - where they still exist - have largely vanished, or have diminished to the point that they are negligible in the scheme of things. What little exists would, I believe, be largely overcome by the popularity and following these teams would attract were they allowed the right to re-enter the national competition.

The creation of franchised "clubs" such as Western Sydney Rovers - if that walking disaster ever gets off the ground - remains both a slap in the face to the supporters of such quality and well-established teams as Marconi and Sydney United - who have provided many of Australia's best players - and is a recipe for eventual disaster for one or both tiers of the sport in the area.
It would be possible, if complicated, to create an effective divisions-based system that allows for regulation and promotion. Given the geography and demographics of Australia, a similar system to that introduced in a Cup would need to be put in place to protect some state representation in the A-league, and that could cause frustrations and complications.

But it would also help provide a genuine sense of club affiliation, support and rivalry within cities and states between teams - exactly what is needed to boost attendance and support - and would in turn boost revenue for clubs.

The other downside of the "franchise" nonsense is that the clubs remain essentially the playthings of the FFA - and Lowy in particular. The recent sale by the FFA of Newcastle Jets - who had been suffering financial troubles - from under the nose of its owner is a case in point.

Another frequent argument is that cup competitions - such as the FA Cup in England - are now "passé", and have lost their attraction. While I would actually contest that argument on its own merits, it actually misses the point.

Australian football is in a unique position in the development if the game both domestically and internationally. What might no longer work in Europe, may still work here. The point is relating these ideas to the current reality of Australian football, and working out if they will help or hinder. For the points already given above, I would argue that a Cup would be more beneficial than not.

Another - more complicated issue - relates to club finances and control. Football in Australia is suffering financial woes that are of a largely different nature to those in Europe, but some of the solutions being proposed could act to solve a number of Australian football's problems.

In particular, the question of fan ownership and control of clubs - in contradistinction to FFA control - could go some way to solving both the financial and the attendance problems in the A-League.

I'm under no illusion that Australian football and its fans are ready for full-blown cooperative ownership - not yet anyway. But a model along the lines of the Bundesliga's 50% + 1 would serve to allow corporate investment while increasing fan identification and input into how a club is run.

Obviously, the golden thread - money - runs throughout all of this speculation and wishful thinking. But with the losses the FFA - and by extension, Lowy - are making each year on an A-League that has clearly stagnated, throwing the game back to the people might not be such a bad idea.

The current situation - where crowds are falling and the FFA has been in charge of both the Fury and the Reds, has financial commitments to both Brisbane and the Mariners, and recently bailed out Newcastle when the Jets couldn't (or wouldn't) even pay their players - is clearly untenable.

The FFA Cup idea will cost money, and will probably need a sponsor before it takes off, but it could be the beginning of a revival in football's fortunes - much more than the nightmare effort hosting a FIFA world cup would likely be.

Then again, maybe the FFA would be better off actually properly funding and promoting the W-League. The skill is there, the grass-roots interest is there, but the dollars and cameras clearly aren't. But that's another story again.

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