Building Australia's Football Community—review into the sustainability of football
The move to the Asian Football ConfederationFor many years, Australia was part of the Oceania Football Confederation. On 1 January 2006, after a concerted lobbying campaign, FFA became a member of the AFC. Membership has afforded the opportunity for higher quality and more consistent preparation of national teams in a rapidly growing economic and football region. The move has also provided FFA with a greater opportunity to enhance its credentials and influence in world football. It does however increase the cost demands on FFA as a result of greater team activity in a context where all bar one of its teams (the Socceroos) are non-revenue generating.
Australia’s off-field prominence in the AFC is shown by Australia’s representation on ten major AFC Committees. This includes Chairman Frank Lowy on the Associations Committee, Board Member Moya Dodd as an AFC Vice-President and Chair of the Women’s Committee, CEO Ben Buckley as a member of the Competitions Committee, FFA staff member John Boultbee on the Junior Competitions Committee, FFA staff member Kelly Cross as Deputy Chair of the Technical Committee, FFA staff member Lyall Gorman on the Professional Leagues Committee, FFA staff member Kyle Patterson on the Marketing Committee, FFA staff member Jo Setright on the Disciplinary Committee and Melbourne Heart FC Chairman Peter Sidwell as a member of the Professional Clubs Committee.
The move to the AFC helped to integrate football in Australia with the fastest growing economic region in the world – the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region. This has already led to increased exposure for Australia and major events hosted, or to be hosted, in Australia, such as the 2007 AFC Conference and Gala Awards, the 2008 FIFA Congress and, most significantly, the 2015 Asian Cup.
There are downsides to AFC membership, in that commercial rights such as broadcasting, hospitality and merchandising associated with certain AFC games and tournaments are not distributed to participating teams. However, by being part of the AFC, there have been more frequent, significant and meaningful Socceroos games played in Australia each year, generating increased revenue in this area of its business for FFA.
World Cup qualification rates for Australia’s junior teams declined upon entry to the AFC, however this trend is improving as Australia adapts to the requirements and nuances of playing regularly against Asian opposition. Australia’s recent successes on the international field include the Australian women’s team winning the Asian Cup in 2010 and reaching the quarter finals of the World Cup in 2011; and the Socceroos finishing runners-up in the Asian Cup in 2011.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup BidIt is neither within the remit of this review, nor productive, to go into detailed analysis of the World Cup bid and its outcome. It was a disappointing result for FFA, government and the Australian public. However, in the context of the position of Australia in world football it is worth noting that although the bid was unsuccessful, the fact that Australia was even considered a viable contender is an indication of how Australia’s influence and credibility has grown within the world football community. Australia’s bid was technically excellent and built on Australia’s reputation for hosting outstanding major events. The bid enjoyed bipartisan support at all levels of government and a strong groundswell of community support. It was the process, and not the quality of the bid, that undermined Australia’s chances.
As is inevitable following a controversial outcome, criticism was directed at FFA, the bid and government’s involvement. Research undertaken for the purpose of the review has identified that some commentators who were supportive of the bid prior to December 2010, are subsequently highly critical. The failed World Cup bid has affected many people’s view about how the public and government should engage with the game into the future and is yet another challenge for FFA to contend with.
On the fieldThe approach taken by FFA since 2003 has seen a significant increase in the number of international matches played, both in Australia and overseas. The Socceroos played 39 fixtures between 1999 and 2003 and of these matches, only nine were played in Australia. However between 2006 and 2010, the Socceroos played 61 games, of which 20 were on home soil.
Home fixtures are important in terms of the revenue they generate through crowd attendances, corporate sponsorship and higher television ratings. Home matches are also highly regarded in terms of building the profile and brand of the players, team and the sport generally which in turn increases commercial opportunities.
The Australian public also gets to see the Socceroos higher profile overseas-based players representing Australia more often as a result of the larger and more meaningful competition program that FFA now has in place. Leading players seem more willing and able to represent Australia, enhancing the profile and marketability of the sport.
The move to the AFC, and the higher quality opposition, has resulted in a poorer overall win/loss record. From 1999-2003 Australia won 59% of its fixtures compared to 49% between 2006 and 2010. However, arguably this poorer record does not reflect that victories against tougher opponents in Asia are far more meaningful and, irrespective of the result, the fixtures themselves far more important to the achievement of longer term goals.
The overall improvement in the performance of the Socceroos and Matildas over the last eight to ten years is clearly evidenced by the teams’ FIFA world rankings. The Socceroos’ world ranking between 2000 and 2011 has improved from the mid 80s to the low 20s. The Matildas’ ranking of 9th in July 2011 was their highest since the inception of the women’s rankings in 2003.
The high cost of national teamsIt should be noted that while successful, the maintenance of national teams participating regularly in the AFC (and FIFA/Olympic) competitions is very expensive. FFA is responsible for up to 12 national teams depending on the annual competition schedule:
- U23 Men (Olyroos)
- U20 Men (Young Socceroos)
- U20 Women (Young Matildas)
- U17 Men (Joeys)
- U17 Women
- U13 Men
- U13 Women
- Beach Soccer
Within the national teams program, the sole income generating brand that is the Socceroos carries the cost of supporting the entire sport at an international level. Sponsorship and other income raised revolve around the Socceroos and must be spread across the other national teams. In a discussion about self-sufficiency of football in Australia, clearly there is a balance to be struck between maintaining an extensive, high cost, national teams program to drive longer term success and prioritising investment to ensure sustainability and reduce the level of government assistance. With the exception of the point that follows, this review does not make a judgement about how support for national teams should be prioritised, but considers that until sustainability is achieved prioritisation must occur noting the need to balance short, medium and long term objectives.
It is worth noting that FFA is required to invest heavily in the women’s (including the Matildas) national team program compared to the men’s program (including the Socceroos) because the Matildas are not able to match the commercial revenue generated by the Socceroos. The growth in women’s participation and the continuing excellence at the elite level suggest this
particular investment is worthwhile. To the extent national teams are required to be prioritised, and with consideration of the importance of strengthening elite women’s sport and providing pathways from grassroots to elite levels, government should encourage continued investment in women’s football.
High performance programThe high performance program (of which the international competition program is one element) that is currently being implemented by FFA to produce better footballers is overall more structured, sophisticated and better resourced compared to the program that existed eight years ago. However, it is widely accepted amongst experts that the processes and systems to produce international sporting success take many years to come to fruition. While the achievements of the recent past are significant, the current high performance program is designed to take football in Australia to the next level. This may take eight to ten years to realise.
- Some of the notable improvements to the high performance program that are likely to bring long-term benefits include:
- increased number of State institute and academy programs
- introduction of a National Football Curriculum
- recruitment of staff responsible for the technical development of players at national and State and Territory level
- implementation of a skills acquisition program for 8-12 year olds
- Small Sided Football program to improve the technical ability of young players
- AFC-approved, elite coach development courses
The Socceroos’ world ranking between 2000 and 2011 has improved from the mid 80s to the low 20s. The Matildas’ ranking of 9th in July 2011 was their highest since the inception of the women’s rankings in 2003.