Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why be a Soccer Fan Prt 2

This entire post follows on from the comments on my last piece.

When I first read your comment, Ed, I had to go back and re-read my article. I didn't realise how much it came across as so dark on the A-League. When I sat down to write I had in mind a bit of a comparison of the two soccer experiences of the day, highlighting the simple joys of junior and amateur league soccer. Clearly more than that came out.

The fact is that I too would be heartbroken if the Roar folded, and even moreson if the A-League suffered collapse. That neither of these things is impossible is of major concern.

Thanks all for your comments. I love the idea of a state champions / A-League top 6 Cup, or something. And you're absolutely correct Guido to point out that the reasons people follow a sport can be very diverse and personal.

I want to write more about these sorts of topics - trying to really scrutinise, from a consumer's point of view, what the A-League is. There's a lot of unfiltered optimism about the rise of soccer in Australia, but if you read the introductions of soccer books from Australia going back to the 1970s, this optimism is nothing new.

Les Murray was quick this season to talk up A-League crowds, but we all can see the A-League isn't in the clear yet. Why? What can be done? Does it matter?

I want the A-League to survive forever. Connectedness to the communities, however that is developed, is very important in my view but so is quality. When people follow Rugby or AFL in this country, or for that matter cricket or motor racing, they know they are watching the best in the world; the elite. I mean if you're going to dedicate a lot of your discretionary spending to something, not to mention emotional energy, you don't want it in the back of your mind that you're really watching a second division league.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a fan. 'Fan' is a shortening of 'fanatic' and in the football world we tend to wear it on our sleeves. The important realisation is that we are not the game's locus of growth, or even survival. Fanatics do not a mass-movement make. Fanaticism, as we are often heard to candidly celebrate (see Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch), is a disease. It's not even particularly healthy.

I'll digress more. I am a 'new fan', as I've said. On the face of it, the FFA should see a bloke like me and say, 'cool, a new fan; hope there's lots more like that'. But they would be mistaken. You see I am someone who is guilty of having been utterly fanatical about various religious and political ideologies throughout my life. I may not have been a fan of soccer, but I have been previously diseased nonetheless. From my own mental health's point of view soccer is a wonderful way to live out my disease with minimum adverse impact, a sort of ideological methadone program. So the FFA should not see me as the thin edge of an ever-broadening wedge.

The FFA also must know that to get people interested in the A-League you have to get them interested in the game of soccer, but their immediate dilemna is that an interest in soccer can exist in its own right, and they have only one product available, for which they're asking real money. Back to quality.

I reckon the salary cap needs to be a) kept permanently, and b) raised, a lot. To begin with I think it should be doubled. Basically the criteria should shift from "What sort of figure could all the clubs afford?" to "What sort of figure could the four wealthiest clubs realistically afford?"

I think about the 'market' for Clubs. Not tickets, TV subs or merchandise, but actual Clubs. Dudes like Clive Palmer or the various Russians and Arabs who are buying European clubs for fun. A bloke has to have his train set doesn't he? I think having a salary cap, and a set of reasonable restrictions on foreign players, actually makes the prospect more fun for your average fun-loving billionare. It's just part of the game, and it keeps costs down to the merely stupendous. I'd like to see salary capping across the world for this reason. Note that a high cap can still allow for really amazing teams.

In ancient Athens there was apparently no business taxes and there was hence a very wealthy merchant class. Although these individuals paid no direct tax, they had burdens as citizens. It was normal for an individual to fund (and command) a warship for example, or a production of a play, or a sporting festival. There's a certain sense to this, and there's no real losers.

To have quality teams you need to be able to buy the best in the World. As Ed points out, the A-League is improving and there's no doubt that every top player who comes into the league makes it more attractive for other top players. Lifting the cap on teams like Sydney and the Gold Coast, who can afford better players, would accelerate this process.

Of course these rich teams would come to dominate the league. It's common knowledge that playing against superior opposition helps lift your own game so the result would be a better quality league and the extra drama of actual, rather than merely statistical, 'David and Goliath' stories. And then there's always that other bored billionare...

Finally here, can we allow ourselves to be as ambitious in the long term for the A-League as we dare to be with regard to the Socceroos? We do dare, don't we, to dream for our countrymen the Socceroos to be in the top 10 in the World? Top five even? I have had halucinagenic moments of even thinking that they could, just could, with a mixture of luck, terrible luck for various other teams, and perfectly timed form, win the World Cup! Admit it! You've done the same.

Shouldn't we be aiming to have one of the top 10 leagues in the world? Top 5?

Just as a post script, I also said in my last article that 'Queensland' teams meant nothing to me. What bullshit! Queensland teams all in the top 3 by season's end, and I will be hyperbolically happy.


Anonymous Guido said...

The great Johnny Warren when football in Australia was in its darkest days used to say that we shouldn't just aim to go to a world cup, but to win it.

I think that aiming high is important. I think that we should strive to become a major player in the Australian sporting complex. But we should also be realistic.

I also see this optimism about the future of football, some of which is warranted, but some of it is way too grandiose.

I guess we football fans have been conditioned to be following an 'inferior' code that everytime there is a success we imagine that becoming the major code is inevitable, but that is not the case.

What happens is when this unbridled optimism is not fulfilled (ie crowds not being as good as people hoped) then many fans retreat in a very dark negativism which they learned through the dark days of Soccer Australia. It's a bit like the bipolar disorder of fandom.

The fact is that thus far football in Australia has performed much better that many would expect.

Many thought that the A-League would collapse because there were no 'traditional' teams. I remember an article by Les Murray describing Melbourne as the 'problem city' when the A-League started because he thought that all the traditional fans would not follow Melbourne Victory. Instead Melbourne has attracted the highest number of fans.

At the start we in Melbourne were ecstatic if we filled 11,000 at Olympic Park. A season later we had to move to the Docklands Stadium because we could not contain all the fans. And even if there is a drop of attendances, as far as I know this year we wouldn't have been able to accommodate all the fans at Olympic Park.

We have qualified for the World Cup for the second time in succession, something we we never achieved.

However with any enterprise there will be setbacks. For instance I can already see some commentators (and fans)predicting the demise of football in Australia if we don't make the second round of the World Cup, which is rubbish.

Setbacks are normal. The trick is to go forward. I think that it would be a success if football is seen as an integral part of the Australian culture. No matter if we are 10 or 20 in the world or if the A-League is in the top competitions.

September 16, 2009 5:07 pm  
Anonymous Ed said...

"soccer is a wonderful way to live out my disease with minimum adverse impact, a sort of ideological methadone program" - Simon Kuper, Nick Hornby eat your heart out - this is the best line about football I have ever read. Made me spit coffee all over my desk.

Great article Hamish - will respond with more thought tonight. Also well said Guido - totally agree.

September 21, 2009 9:19 am  
Blogger john said...

Loved that Hamish. Also great comments Guido and Ed. Happy.

September 27, 2009 5:59 pm  
Blogger Hamish said...

"It's a bit like the bipolar disorder of fandom."

Goodness Guido, I may not remember the dark old days, but maybe I'm suffering from this condition!

Truly you do illustrate some real causes for (mild, as you indicate) optimism, and I think my latest post failed to reflect that enough.

You propose a fair criteria: "it would be a success if football is seen as an integral part of the Australian culture. No matter if we are 10 or 20 in the world or if the A-League is in the top competitions." On this basis I reckon we're there, but if we're there, don't we want more?

Thanks Ed and John. Still interested in your further comments Ed, if you get to it.

September 28, 2009 11:16 pm  

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