In Australia, European Super League battle reopens old wounds

Oligarchic dreams of a European Super League (ESL) may lie in ruins, but the seismic impact it has wrought appears set to linger – both in Europe and around the world.

Sunday’s news that 12 rebel clubs were planning to form a closed breakaway competition prompted an immediate wave of visceral reaction across the continent; ranging a gamut of fan groups, sponsors, administrators, players and coaches, and even political figures such as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron.

In the face of this cataclysmic backlash and having horrifically bungled their communications strategy, clubs began to break ranks on Wednesday and announce that they were seeking to withdraw – leaving the plot imploding as the ESL issued a statement declaring it was considering ways to “reshape the project”. 

In Australia, half a world away from the backrooms of Turin and Manchester, denunciation of the concept was also swift and constant; op-eds against it running across a number of major mainstream media outlets and fans on social media almost universally united in their disgust.  

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But beyond the revulsion, the plans of the ‘Super Clubs’ also served to reignite the constantly smouldering debate surrounding how football is structured within the Australian sporting landscape. 

Unlike the all-conquering behemoth it is in Europe, the world game in Australia occupies a small niche in a marketplace dominated by Australian rules football, cricket, and rugby league. It struggles to command the interest of the public at large – a latent perception that the game represents a foreign, ethnically charged interloper bubbling away under the surface – or to attract significant commercial and television/streaming deals.

Its highest tier of men’s domestic football – the A-League – was established in 2005 in part to attempt to tackle these issues after its predecessor, the National Soccer League (NSL), collapsed under the weight of financial mismanagement, lack of public interest, and general incompetence. 

Whilst it’s not a completely closed shop — it expanded from ten to twelve teams over the past two years — the league, like the American MLS, operates without a system of promotion and relegation between it and the various state and territory-based second-tier leagues below it. This means that the only way to gain access is for prospective teams to bid for and be awarded a licence.

The comparisons, such as those made by former Socceroo Craig Moore, are there to be made.

Clubs in the semi-professional tiers below the A-League have long pushed for inclusion or an opportunity to win a place in the competition, only to be consistently denied. 

A number of these claimants former competitors in the NSL and possessing roots that trace back to waves of post WW2 migration, they argue that having been forced to survive for a decade and a half out in the cold, the hard ceiling they face limits both their’s and the game’s potential for growth and professionalism.

They portend that the A-League suffers from a lack of competitive tension and forced adaption that comes with avoiding the perils of relegation, something the league’s falling ratings and crowds attest to. 

The argument is then made that an opening of the Australia system would serve to reinvigorate interest, foster innovation by rewarding success and punishing failure, provide new storylines, and bring Australia into line with the principles of fairness and competition that traditionally define football.

Seeing the visceral reaction to the ESL, agitators for reform were thus quick to draw a line between the near-universally condemned features of the breakaway European competition and the structure of the A-League. 

But the challenge for proponents of change Down Under is that, unlike the effectively universal wave of people power that rose up against the ESL, opinion amongst the Australian football proletariat on its own direction is split. 

While there is very little outright opposition to a full and open pyramid, in principle, a significant proportion of the Australian footballing public believes targeting its implementation in anything other than the medium- or long-term, given prevailing local factors, is unviable, hubristic, and short-sighted – at best. 

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After operating under the auspices of national federation Football Australia for its first 15 years, the A-League transitioned to the control of its clubs – who form the collective Australian Professional Leagues (APL) – this season; one which although highly entertaining on the field has been characterized by economic contraction and austerity off it. 

Key figures at the APL often acknowledge the benefits that a fully professional national second division (NSD) would bring to the game, but these statements are couched with declarations that the most pressing priority for the domestic game should be the growth and consolidation of the A-League and its sister competition the W-League. 

A traditional multi-tiered pyramid of football prevailing in nations where the game posses a foundation of over a century of dominance, they argue a rushed replication that model needlessly risks collapsing the only professional league and clubs in the country; taking with it the gains in professionalism, player welfare, and commercialism, amongst others, that have been won over the past 15 years. 

The A-League, advocates aver, is a footballing foundation in a hostile environment that needs to be secured before a sustainable pyramid can be implemented, whereas the ESL was uprooting an established and ostensibly sustainable model purely out of avarice.

Football Australia, who retains the ultimate say over the introduction of a second-tier and the introduction of promotion and relegation into the Australian game, have been – very slightly – less tempered than their APL counterparts. 

Its CEO James Johnson, a former head of professional football at FIFA and senior vice president of external affairs at City Football Group, has declared a NSD a matter of “when, not if”. 

It will be incumbent on the federation to provide leadership, transparency and clarity on the issue in the months ahead.

But for now, a tier below the A-League remains in the realm of hypotheticals rather than reality and the introduction of an open pyramid is even more speculative. 

Fans throughout the world appear to have won a famous victory over the ESL but, in Australia, they also appear set to continue their bitter Cold War – triumphs abroad aggravating the division, mudslinging, mistrust, and fatalism that defines their home.  

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