On Australian LlaMas (Or is that Outback Camels….)

As an Australian, when I lived in the UK and wore my local football team’s jersey out an about in the streets of England, one of the first questions I was asked was “do they even have football down under?”. When the obvious answer was given, the more clued-in then asked about what the Australian league system looked like. The answer is quite simple, really – there isn’t one.

To give a brief history lesson, football in Australia prior to 2005 had been run by an organisation called Soccer Australia, who ran the National Soccer League, which featured clubs that for the most part had been established by European migrants during the 1940s – 1960s. The NSL ran for a few decades and as such was vaguely successful, even expanding to be a truly national competition in the 1990s with the inclusion of a team from Western Australia (previously football was mainly confined to New South Wales and Victoria, with the odd South Australian team thrown in). Unfortunately the NSL was a victim of Soccer Australia’s mismanagement and a bad media image, thanks in no small part to random bouts of ethnic-related violence at football games.

Thanks in no small part to the findings of a government commissioned report into the game, the Soccer Australia board was abolished, along with the NSL, and a new administration called Football Federation Australia (soccer was now a ‘dirty’ word associated with those horrible ethnics) was set up, along with the new A-League national competition. Of the old teams, only Perth Glory, Adelaide United, and Newcastle United survived – more significantly, the FFA did not accept bids for entry into the competition from any of the established ‘ethnic’ sides that had played in the NSL, such as South Melbourne, a Victorian side with a strong Greek heritage. This created a division between old and new, with scaremongering and propaganda on both sides, that has only recently begun to fade.

While all of this was happening at a national level though, very little had changed in Australia’s lower tiers. There had never been a promotion or relegation system in Australia – the vast distances involved generally made life difficult in that regard; and as such each state has their own footballing body and league system. In Western Australia, where I live, the peak body is FootballWest, and there is a Premier Division, Division One, and Division Two (with promotion and relegation from each) whose games all take place on a Saturday. To go along with this there is the Sunday League system, which is a more amateur-based competition in comparison to the semi-pro nature of the Saturday leagues (a few amateur clubs in Div 1 and 2 notwithstanding). There is a State Cup, which Sunday and Saturday sides take part in, as well as a Sunday Cup. The Saturday competitions also have a pre-season Night Series, with all games played under lights, which involves teams from across all divisions. It’s worth pointing out that at a national level, there is no Australian Cup competition at present – just a finals series played out by the top six sides in the ten-team A-League.

The standard of play in the WA Premier League is poor compared to the A-League; this isn’t a surprise. The Victorian and NSW Premier Leagues are of better quality, but even their best sides would struggle in say, the Ryman League in the UK. Teams in WA often recruit players who were youth-trained at English clubs, or who until recently were playing for teams like Carlton Town in the Evo-stik First Division South. What compels a man to leave one winter league for another? Well, the fact that his new winter league has an average weather forecast of 23 degrees and sunny probably doesn’t hurt. On occasion, silly wages (for a league of this level) also helps turn a head or two.

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Most, if not all, sides in the state divisions are ethnically-aligned in some way. As such many ‘new football’ fans in Australia class the state leagues as ‘old soccer’ and do not attend. More still stay away because of the relative lack of quality. As such, games like the State Cup match I attended between Division One’s Wanneroo City and Inglewood United of the Premier League will draw a crowd of perhaps 200 people, tops. That’s a pity – because not only are these clubs very welcoming in my experience, but their bar prices and social facilities are actually far superior to the options available at top-level clubs in Australia. This stems from the fact that these are actually real football clubs, not the franchises owned and operated as part of the A-League.

The world of Football Manager has always seen Australian state leagues poorly researched and modelled – with player names being correct but their positions and attributes seemingly randomly-generated, and no real effort made to distinguish between a Division Two club and one that resides in the Premier Division. But there’s a new idea on the horizon that may just go some way to changing that – and that’s the concept of the Australian Premier League.

The Australian Premier League is an FFA initiative to align all the country’s state leagues under the one banner. This is significant, because there would be no difference in rules, regulations, or fixture windows between say the Australian Premier League – WA Conference and the Australian Premier League – NSW Conference. Right now, the state leagues start at all different times, players are paid a varying amount across the country, and the standard of club facilities fluctuates wildly (amazingly, the current league champions in WA, Balcatta, play at a suburban park enclosed with cyclone fencing to separate their ‘home ground’ from a child’s play area). The APL initiative would aim to set standards across the country, something which many fans would welcome with open arms Unfortunately, the game in Australia has always been dogged by the spectre of politics – and I fully expect the different state federations and the FFA to be at loggerheads over who needs to do what, how many teams will be allowed in each division, and what kind of (possibly national) cup competitions will take place.

In the meantime though, prospective LLaMas can always head down to their local suburban ground and grab a bit of local lower league action; the cheap beers help too. And with the A-League being a summer competition, and the state comps run during winter, it’s football all year round. How good is that? Truly, Australia is the Lucky Country…

F1 Dave 2012