Ah the offseason. The worst of times.
With Australian football's propensity to navel-gaze, the offseason always creates a vast array of topics to discuss, to varying degrees of rationality and civility.
With the A-League approaching its 15th year, though, the 2019 break seems different to the others. The first phase of Australian football's "rebirth" is now over. Questions that were once secondary while the fledgling A-League was finding its feet are now being asked. The game is at a fork in the road.
Australia's premier men's competition is confronted with declining ratings and thinning crowds at a time when negotiations for the next broadcast rights are on the horizon. A Grand Final that was high on drama, but woefully short on quality, capped a season where pragmatism ruled. Then there's also the not-so-small matter of the Socceroos' qualification for the 2022 World Cup, which FIFA recently confirmed will remain at 32 teams. The current business model is potentially under threat.
Fans, pundits and members alike are looking to the clubs, and those running the game, for leadership. What does the A-League stand for? And what does it want to be as a representation of the Australian game?
Over time, discussion on the state of football in the A-League has grown peripheral, in comparison to the conceptual and corporate directions of the competition. There is always room for improvement and, in relation to the actual game, there is a lot of work to be done.
Where do we go from here, and how? Here are few issues in the A-League that must be addressed:
1. The standard of play and discourse
Not to make this about the dreaded Code Wars, but a benefit the AFL holds through concentration is the eased ability to change the rules, which then impacts the aesthetic quality of the game. For example, the 6+6+6 rule was one of a handful of changes introduced this season with the intent of opening the playing field and creating a more expansive game following goals. Thus far, the product has been more exciting and varied for audiences, even though scoring hasn't increased. Football in Australia doesn't exactly have that luxury.
Aesthetic is not entirely relevant in a competitive sphere but, as discussed during the A-League finals series, the nature of play in the A-League is overwhelmingly pragmatic and allergic to risk. It raises significant concerns over what Australians, as coaches, players or individuals, value in their football, especially when exposed to different environments.
While nothing new, the tricky bit is it can't necessarily be legislated against from a pure standpoint of playing rules. What the FFA can impact is the ability to learn -- which makes the current cost of coaching illogical.
This issues is not exclusive to the A-League. One only need to look to the NPL for evidence of that, especially in an era where football has witnessed such a revolutionary tactical shift. This is a generational problem, and clubs have as much of a responsibility as governing bodies in this respect. Greater accessibility to courses for coaches with varying ambitions creates a wider and greater interpretation, which can then raise the standard of the game.
2. Competition format
It can be argued that the current format of the A-League also breeds that sense of pragmatism. Though it might sound perverse given the A-League is a competition after all, the need to accumulate points for teams over the course of the season is not optimal. The past two seasons saw the eventual Grand Final winners finish well off the league pace over the course of 27 games.
Also relating to the footballing product itself, this season witnessed a frightening aura of emptiness between January and May, with the top six effectively sorted and no threat of relegation. Expanding on that logic, does a lack of competitive purpose in this sense also undermine the legitimacy of the A-League premiership? What kind of footballers does that kind of environment create?
Does it mean the finals should be scrapped as a whole? Not really. Why does the A-League have to change, just because other nations and leagues place sole value on being first past the post?
In the A-League's current form, though, it's a difficult problem to solve. Changes to the 2019-20 fixture have been impacted by the A-League's broadcast partners just as much as expansion. By extension, it also poses the question on what the competition means in relation to the rest of Australian football.
The idea remains Australians love a finals series. Though it should not be an immediate aim, a potential variable of promotion and relegation can allow the league to be broken up for a final stage between top and bottom halves -- like they do in Scotland -- playing for silverware and survival respectively while incorporating points totals.
3. Landing the right marquee players
It has been proposed in some parts that Keisuke Honda's signing for Melbourne Victory this season was more a promotional exercise than competitive objective. Those claims are far from true.
While providing a financial boost, the 32-year-old undoubtedly made the Victory a better team also, and his effectiveness was more a question of tactical implementation than having to walk the promotional/footballing tightrope.
The idea of a marquee is the clearest footballing representation of the A-League's conceptual predicament, but when done right, it is a clearly positive aspect of the competition. Honda's arrival on Australian shores was a model marriage of both its football and marketing purposes. It should be seen as an example, not a cautionary tale. Especially in comparison to Central Coast's failed Usain Bolt experiment.
Like Honda, Milos Ninkovic or Diego Castro, a marquee player should bring a truly superior playing value to the competition. Bringing people in through the turnstiles can come as a consequence, through creating a tangible and viable footballing product.
4. Adjusting foreign player quotas
This extends to one of the more relevant issues relating to Australian football, making its lack of discussion in comparison to other points of focus rather concerning. Similar to a number of topics regarding the A-League, there are two dominant schools of thought. As noted in the New Leagues Working Group Report, the A-League franchises are intent on expanding the number of foreigners in their respective squads.
On the other hand, most recently proposed by Socceroos coach Graham Arnold (despite suspect disparity between his words and actions) at the recent IFCCA conference in Gold Coast, there have been calls to align with the Asian Football Confederation's 3+1 rule. Looking at the Australian game through a more holistic lens, the latter is the more beneficial. For extended squads as a whole, not just on matchday. Essentially, 3+1 would help save Australian clubs from themselves.
Theoretically, along with signalling a legitimate footballing embrace of the continent Australia plays within, its implementation would help facilitate more astute scouting from football departments. In scenarios of both squad composition and on matchday, it can give further responsibility to match-winning Australian footballers -- trusting thinkers and creators as well as runners.
5. A national second division
Financial viability is a pertinent point in the introduction of an Australian second division, and despite the absolute necessity for meritocratic footballing principle in the game, it creates a need to temper calls for immediate promotion and relegation. Meanwhile, views against A-League reserve teams in such a competition minimise overall scope. It can be an option and not a necessity.
However, having A-League teams in a second division should also require an expansion of their youth setups from the lowest ages up, incorporated within state footballing systems. Though investment would be greater, the positives outweigh the negatives when viewed within the prism of coaching and player development, in order to create a viable revenue stream outside of television rights.
For aspirant clubs outside the A-League, there is an initial need to work within financial and operational means, relative to a professional or semi-professional structure. Similarly though, a prioritisation of investment, which by extension creates a healthier footballing framework in Australia, is the absolute priority.
Discussions on such a league's composition and logistics undoubtedly carry a sizeable amount of baggage. Regardless of whether it is run through an independent league commission, though, they are a must.