Football in Australia is experiencing astonishing growth, much of which can be attributed to a somewhat natural progression. The launch of FFA's Whole of Football Plan (WOFP) is a practical step towards increased engagement in all tiers of Australian football, and FFA CEO David Gallop is now accountable to his document rather than his rhetoric.
This is a bold, but necessary step for Gallop, and the WOFP succeeds in identifying numerous issues that need addressing for the sport to develop further. Fortunately, the document has parked technical jargon in favour of an intelligible style which is accessible to the average dad/junior football coach.
One of the most crucial sections of FFA's 20-year vision is 'Fan Connection'. The Australian football community comprises anyone who engages with the sport, regardless of method. Gallop describes the football community as "anyone who plays, watches, and loves the game. Not just in the local park, it's fans in stadiums, in front of a screen or even the new generation of gamers playing FIFA 15".
Only a small percentage of fans shaping the football community support a 'Top Tier' club (A-League club). Unless you're a Melbourne Victory member, this statistic comes as no surprise. Despite the imminent arrival of a host of famous clubs to our shores, it doesn't hide the reality of consistently uninspiring A-League attendances. This, juxtaposed with the rapid progression of football in Australia, reveals a deficiency and a contradiction.
FFA research shows only 22% of junior football participants are fans of an A-League club as opposed to 70% for other Australian sports. The plan further states that "these other sports do not have the complication of attractive international club brands, as Football does". This is a major challenge, and half the reason why fans are more interested in a novelty fixture - featuring Liverpool - at Adelaide Oval over meaningful support at Coopers Stadium.
Using Adelaide United as an example, there has been little discussion about Adelaide's dismal home crowds this season thanks to the elephant in the room that is Liverpool. People have worked under the assumption, if Adelaide can sell-out Adelaide Oval for Liverpool, and draw more than 33,000 for a round 2 match against Melbourne Victory, then there is no issue. This is distinctly the problem, and the WOFP aims to target this.
Excluding Adelaide's two Adelaide Oval games (Round 2 against Victory & Elimination Final against Brisbane), United averaged a home crowd of 11,100 fans for the 2014/15 season - hardly a success when you consider the club's third-place finish paired with its insistent brand of attacking football. Even including the two Adelaide Oval games, the average only grows 2,000 fans to equal 13,100, and that's counting another game.
When the Socceroos are the showcase, the football community loves to analyse the capabilities of our players and methods of our coach in comparison to other national teams, many of which are far superior. Fans will also be the first to criticise. Either they are unaware or simply neglecting the fact that actively supporting an A-League club will, in-part, benefit the development of Australia's national team.
The A-League's match-day atmosphere shows remarkable promise, but such potential will not come to fruition if the football community continues to neglect the domestic league. Gone is the tired notion that the standard is inadequate, and as the WOFP states, "supporting one team will not stop you supporting another". It is perfectly acceptable to support Liverpool, Adelaide United and Adelaide City simultaneously.
So, how to inspire the youth to engage with their local A-League club? This is heavily reliant on parents introducing their children to the A-League and attending matches together. Obviously, time management and cost are factors which can thwart this exercise, but Gallop's not pleading fans to attend every week. Rather, participate, engage and support your A-League club in the same manner you do when Liverpool or Chelsea comes to town - your A-League club deserves equal respect. In an entertainment-obsessed society, passionate supporters are the A-League's gold nugget.
The growth of Australian football mustn't be forced, it's imperative the game grow naturally. But, until now there was no tangible guide, plan or direction. The WOFP is an essential luxury, and it holds the key to a stronger football institution. So, when the big boys roll in, make sure you hold your A-League scarf aloft and sing to the beat of our drum.