"Another new era for the game?"
Delivered through a grin, leave it to Ange Postecoglou to keep an eye on the bigger picture.
Once again, Australian football is being touted as entering a brave new epoch as the 2021-22 A-League Men season dawns, alongside an A-League Women campaign that will begin on Dec. 3. Yes, ALM and ALW; the two competitions, alongside A-League Youth, brought under the same "A-Leagues" banner and serving as the most obvious portent that this is a new age in the Australian game.
After spending the past few years seemingly in a holding pattern, waiting for the resolution of a governance civil war and Football Australia congress reforms, and then the subsequent "unbundling" process to separate the leagues from the federation, the coming seasons represent the commencement of the actualisation period of a transformation in the Australian top flight that has long been promised by its new masters: the Australian Professional Leagues (APL).
Following a not-always-sweet 16 years under the umbrella of Football (Federation) Australia, the 2021-22 campaign marks the first in which the A-Leagues are to be operated under the auspices of the collective body of its participatory clubs, who are now responsible for the day-to-day and commercial operations of the competitions. For years, the APL declared that it was the clubs, not Football Australia, that possessed the requisite skills and singular focus required to allow Australia's professional tiers to thrive. Now is the chance for club owners to put their money where their mouths have been.
And easy as it is to ease into the loving embrace of cynicism (this is Australian football after all), the APL has, in a commercial sense, made a promising early start to life as lords of their new domain. In May, the organisation sealed an agreement with ViacomCBS that will see the leagues shown on free-to-air Network Ten and subscription streaming service Paramount+ for the next five years; the enthusiasm shown by the network in promoting and covering their new property (as you'd rightly expect) has excited many about the possibilities that having (some of) its properties taken out from behind a paywall can bring. Further, last month it was reported by the Sydney Morning Herald that the APL had negotiated the sale of a stake in its competitions to American private equity firm Silver Lake for $130 million, which will allow greater investment in projects such as a new digital content hub in the vein of MLB, NFL and NRL offerings.
Of course, Australian football and the A-Leagues, as lamp-shaded by the former Socceroos and now Celtic boss, has already seen a number of new eras across its history. This week alone is the 16th anniversary of John Aloisi's penalty that sent the Socceroos to the World Cup and, alongside the launch of the new A-League, was supposed to awaken the sleeping giant that was Australian soccer.
"A new era, we've had these before," observed Postecoglou, who previously led both Brisbane Roar and Melbourne Victory. "They usually start with enthusiasm and I guess the key to that is to make that enthusiasm into something meaningful and tangible that actually grows the game.
"Inevitably when a new era starts people, especially in Australian football, love to get right behind it but it doesn't take long for people to pick things apart and almost predict our own demise in many respects.
"I'm hoping this early enthusiasm sticks and people understand that there are going to be challenges for the game -- like there always has been. What we do know about Australian football is that the few times Australian football has been united it can accomplish great things but too often it's divided within itself, which usually ends up with things not progressing as they should."
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But what about the actual football? The games themselves, and what will actually happen therein, have been largely relegated to the background of the hype surrounding this coming season; this is perhaps reflective of ongoing trends across Australian football, and sports in general, to treat off-field maneuverings, balance sheets, TV ratings, and social media metrics, as on par with, or even more important than, what happens on the actual green stuff.
A year on from the A-Leagues being heralded as producing one of its most entertaining seasons ever -- even if technical reports indicate that that phenomenon might have been narrative, rather than football driven -- it appears well-poised to again deliver moments that can be fashioned into tales of wonder and delight, even if there is little to indicate that we are on the cusp of the next revolution in how sides approach the actual matter of putting the ball in the back of the net.
Last season's Grand Final, for instance, featured a suitably metaphorical conclusion and scene-setter: nouveau riche Melbourne City ruthlessly dispatching the figurehead of the league's Ancien Regime in Sydney FC and seizing the mantle of the team to beat for this campaign and the years ahead.
And indeed, the Citizens remain the team to beat this season, although Sydney don't appear set to go into the night abruptly. Beyond that, however, the league appears remarkably open, , as it was in 2020-21. Scenarios can be constructed to justify almost any of the league's remaining 10 teams putting together a season that ends in the top six or, just as easily, accounts for a season that ends in chaos and abject disappointment.
At such a time of excitement, when there is so much hope and promise for the future, and a general sense of goodwill permeating the game, it can feel churlish to do anything that might serve to bring the mood down, to put the proclamations from those in power under the microscope, or raise potential concerns about the ramifications of the tide of reform. As Postecoglou observes, Australian football can be its own worst enemy, and one doesn't want to be cast as the figure trying to tear down what is being built.
And yet, there are elephants in the room that can't, and shouldn't be, ignored.
The influence of Silver Lake, for example, is one that bears close observation in the years ahead; what sort of influence will the American company, which has no vested interest in the Australian game beyond a return on investment in its new stake, yield? You don't get money for nothing and kicks for free in football. Another is the influence of the City Football Group across all levels of the game.
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Another issue is the APL's approach to COVID. Despite the AFL and AFLW competitions seemingly establishing the precedent that leagues can pursue a vaccine mandate, the A-Leagues have instead joined the NRL in not making vaccination against COVID-19 a requirement to take part in the competitions -- seemingly content to instead allow government regulations to do the job for them.
Regardless of the APL's actual reasoning, the decision represents a disappointing abdication of responsibility from administrators, and an opportunity missed to send a strong, pro-public health message from an organisation that is all too happy to drape itself in a narrative of football's power to do social good when it suits.
Further, as observed by ESPN's Ante Jukic, the actual football in the leagues, like other areas of the game, also remain highly pragmatic in nature. The league has also made a great show of promoting itself as an incubator of young talent his season but, unfortunately for the marketing departments, it is football departments that retain control of who actually plays on the weekends. As the shadow of COVID slowly begins to lift across A-League Men, if its teams continue to play young players or revert to experienced type will merit close observation.
And while Postecoglou is correct that football is far stronger united, the concept of unity is not a one-way street. While the APL has communicated the necessary niceties surrounding cooperation and inclusion with the various levels of club football below it, it remains an inescapable reality that as it forges ahead with its own vision, the competition occupies its own reality in the Australian football space. Outside the FFA Cup, there remains no scope for crossover between A-League Men clubs and those below beyond low-stakes preseason friendlies, and the two system's calendars have very little meaningful crossover; the APL is adamant in its desire to remain a summer league. Promotion and relegation remains, at best, a long-term vision for the powers that be and there's the inescapable angst that the APL's objective to return a profit on their asset.
"It's definitely not siloed, because that's not the way it's been set up," Football Australia CEO James Johnson told ESPN. "The role of Football Australia is to sit over the top of the league and to govern it and to regulate it. I don't see for a moment the league and FA going in different directions, because effectively we're all part of the same sport and we all have a role to play within the league."
Yet regardless of the hype, regardless of the questions, and regardless of the misery. The A-Leagues remain Australia's league. It's a competition featuring some of the best and brightest talent Australia has to offer, as well as some of its next generation. There's a sense of absurdity, chaos, mischievousness that, if you don't take yourself too seriously, is undeniably fun.
The king is dead. Long live the king!