Football in Australia is broken.
In the eyes of the national media and indeed broadcasters, a ten-team competition is no longer doing enough to keep fans buying tickets and tuning in.
A slightly above average Sydney FC are currently undefeated 19 games in, only two or three out of six finals spots are up for grabs and Adelaide United are set to finish last without the interest of a relegation battle to hold anyone’s interest.
Naturally, expansion takes centre stage.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The problems with football in Australia are far deeper than the number of teams in the A-League.
The reality is that football in Australia operates like some sort of topsy-turvy parody. Semi-professional/community clubs have bigger junior football academies and operations than the elite clubs.
Those elite clubs essentially have the pick of the litter from their semi-pro counterparts, for little or no compensation.
Money comes into the top of the game via broadcasting deals and commercial sponsorships and is seemingly locked away at the top of the tree, while the bottom of the pyramid – which supplies the top with its next generation of players – essentially must fund itself.
I struggle to think of a sport where money is institutionally stopped from trickling from the elite down as it is in Australian football.
Expansion might be the name of the game at the moment, and it is certainly a very important issue for Australian football which must be addressed, but can the infrastructure beneath cope?
The National Premier Leagues is run by every member confederation under Football Federation Australia (FFA), the game’s governing body, in a structure that places high costs on clubs and makes them responsible for identifying and developing talented players with little to offer in return.
Clubs are expected to run on a semi-professional basis, pay a lot of money for a license for the privilege of doing so, while simultaneously cutting their junior programs down to one team per age group, from which they are meant to bring through talented players who have to pay substantial fees in line with a curriculum that only coaches with minimum accreditation – which itself is expensive to achieve – can teach.
This is effectively Australia’s second tier of football, which is meant to serve as a massive part of the pipeline of Australia’s next generation of playing, coaching and administrative football talent, and it is being asked to foot the bill for their troubles.
Worst of all, there is nothing to play for.
No promotion to the A-League, no financial reward for developing players who move onto the A-League and no way of achieving more affordable outcomes for the paying parents.
Clubs have to charge parents eye-watering fees – who then have to pay for their child’s travel and equipment – to keep up with license payments and all the other outgoings, such as paying for coaches (including a technical director) and senior players.
The result? You end up with kids who can afford to play in the much-hyped NPL junior leagues and not the best players.
Not that these clubs are themselves entirely without blame.
Clubs go for broke in the hope of senior glory, sometimes at the expense of investing in long-term strategies such as facilities or junior coaching programs, for a trophy worth a fragment of what they would have invested in winning it.
If the pay-off was promotion to the A-League and a share in that season’s TV money, maybe you could understand the expense. But there is no promotion.
So what is the point? How long can we expect administrators and parents to justify all of this effort and spending?
Even if a club chooses not to spend big money on the senior team and focus on developing its more talented youngsters by blooding them into the senior team, what reward is there to gain for their efforts?
These clubs can only offer senior players a one-year contract, meaning even if they do manage to bring a player from their youth teams into their senior team, an A-League club can poach them for nothing, or the paltry sum of their one-year contract.
Worse still, they can lose them to a direct competitor for nothing as well.
Even in the A-League this applies. The league’s salary cap and transfer restrictions means that A-League clubs cannot pay other A-League clubs fees for players.
The intention of this, of course, is to ensure a certain level of equality in the league, but it is absolute madness and almost unheard of in professional football. It simply does not work in a global economy.
This is made worse by the fact that Melbourne City has a convenient loophole thanks to their parent club over in Manchester – which they have used to acquire Luke Brattan and Anthony Caceres in the past directly from A-League competition – which completely undermines any notion of fairness this rule was meant to provide.
And if this is what is happening at the elite, professional level, what hope do the National Premier Leagues clubs have?
It is an absolute shambles and that is without discussing the non-existent compensation which exists for so-called “community” clubs – where the vast majority of Australia’s budding football talent play.
Obviously, there is a limited kitty to go around but there is no reason that money should not at least be allowed to organically trickle down. Instead, the FFA has almost systematically ensured that money does not leave the supposed elite clubs.
No one can say there is an easy solution to these complex problems, but the restraints the FFA places from the top down help no one’s cause.
Expansion might be the flavour of the month – something the FFA still cannot seem to manage if these latest delays are anything to go by – but there needs to be a long hard look at what is happening underneath the flashing lights of the A-League if football is going to truly prosper in Australia.