Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Host With The Most: Football Rules Australia

Football - or rather 'Soccer' as it is known - is on the up 'down under'. In a country where rugby, cricket and of course, Australian Rules Football are the national sports, soccer (as we'll call it from now on to avoid confusion) is at last becoming the big spectator sport it deserves to be.

Melbourne's Telstra Dome held this season's 'Grand Final' of the A-League, which saw Melbourne Victory face Adelaide United. An attendance of 55,436 saw Melbourne coast to victory - an attendance which was not only the highest of the season but also higher than any Aussie Rules match held in that stadium.

Attendances have been impressive throughout the season too, with crowds of over 40,000 being a regular occurrence. Even amongst the young, Soccer has found a new home with over 350,000 children taking part. That figure is second only to swimming, and Soccer among boys only has more participants (268,000) compared to Aussie Rules (188,000).

So what has gone so right for Soccer in Australia? Obviously the World Cup effect has a lot to do with it, as the 'Socceroos' performed well in Germany last summer. However, the club scene has changed drastically. Major cities now have one club to support, allowing them to call on the support of every fan in their region - Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory for example. Try to imagine that in England if you can - London City, Manchester Rovers, Liverpool Echo... or perhaps, Glasgow?

Consider also Australia's new qualification path to the World Cup Finals. They now play sides from Asia instead of the mismatches against the likes of Western Samoa en route to the inevitable final against New Zealand. Soccer suddenly has a competitive level never seen in Australia before - at both club and national level.

The A-league of Australia has followed a similar path to that of the J-League of Japan, hiring bigger name coaches and signing older but recognisable stars to their league. This trend will continue until Australia produces enough big names of its own or the A-League is attractive enough a proposition to tempt players away from Europe and South America.

Those days are a long way off, of course, but with rising attendances, TV coverage and sponsorship revenue, surely a production line of young and talented footballers is a realistic possibility in a similar way to their cricket academies?

FIFA like to give the 'Global Game' (as they promote it) even more coverage across the globe. The apparent failure in trying to convert the Americans into fans of the sport has had a lukewarm response at best. America had its own favourite sports such as Baseball and American Football, and in cricket, rugby and Aussie Rules it seems Australia had the same problem.

That may have been the case not too long ago, but is that the case anymore? As we know, they love a pis... party down under, and have the infrastructure and experience (thanks to the Olympics, Rugby World Cup and Ashes series) to handle such a major event. Surely, then, Australia is ripe for picking as a World Cup host very soon?

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