Australia Cup has foundation to be magic competition worthy of national attention

As far as send-offs go, the atmosphere surrounding Melbourne Victory's 2-1 win over Central Coast Mariners on Saturday was certainly grandiose enough in scale to do the FFA Cup justice.

Not that the Cup is going anywhere, of course; its branding is simply being changed to the Australia Cup both as a nod to Australian football's history and because Football Federation Australia has rebranded to Football Australia and FA Cup is, ahem, taken.

Thanks to the acoustics and the wall of noise that was Victory's support in the North End of AAMI Park, the 15,343 fans in attendance sounded like at least 20,000. And when Jason Davidson 's 70th-minute free kick nestled in the top corner of Mark Birrighiti's net to make it 1-0, the resulting explosion of noise from the Victory supporters might have been heard all the way in Gosford. As Chris Ikonomidis' thunderous volley sealed the game in the 95th minute, the seething mass of joyous humanity could not be contained behind the barricades, spilling onto the field.

Unless your heart beats yellow and blue, it was a very fun "farewell."

But even if Saturday evening was more of the last time in the John Farnham sense than an actual farewell to the Cup, the competition's metamorphosis provides a suitable cue to take stock of what it has delivered to the Australian game since its 2014 introduction, and to examine what the Australia Cup can do for the game in the years ahead. For in football, there's nothing quite like a cup competition. And if the famous "magic" surrounding the Cup can be properly harnessed, it has the potential to become not only one of the most significant competitions in the domestic footballing calendar, but also the broader sporting one.

In no other sport in Australia can an amateur -- let alone a semi-professional -- player hold out hope of putting together a magical run of results that culminates in them facing off with their professional counterparts in a competitive fixture. In Australian football, there exists a chance that the lads from the Burleigh Heads Bulldogs can go on a run that ends with them facing off with Alessandro Diamanti, Jack Rodwell or Daniel Sturridge. And, as was quickly established when Thomas Love fired home for Adelaide City with 15 minutes to go against Western Sydney Wanderers back in the Round of 32 in 2014, providing the competition with its first "cupset", there are few things better in domestic football than watching the underdogs down an A-Leagues side.

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These battles of David vs. Goliath provide an obvious hook for a broader Australian mainstream conditioned by Hollywood to root for the underdog in a way that the A-Leagues simply can't; but they also speak to one of the other key aspects of the Cup, one that is vital for an increasingly fractured footballing community: Inclusivity.

Uncomfortable as it may be to acknowledge (and it's certainly not alone in Australian football's history), the A-League was founded on the principle of exclusivity. The eight original clubs were handed unchallenged control of their fiefdoms and, with the backing of the national federation, given the tools they needed to succeed with scant thought paid to the health of the clubs below. They represented new football, not old soccer. There were no transfer fees, no competitive meetings, and no hope of admittance based on sporting merit.

The Cup, conversely, was and is a competition for all. Whereas only 10 teams were deemed worthy of top-flight status in 2014, 621 clubs from around the country were allowed to take part in the first iteration of the Cup. This year, that number had swelled to nearly 800.

This platform of "even" competition (certain aspects of the Cup admittedly still need work but the sentiment is there) also played an important role in re-familiarising and, though they shouldn't have needed it in the first place, legitimizing clubs, mostly those of the ethnic variety, that existed outside the A-Leagues in the mind of the broader footballing community.

Just three months before he was taken from Australian football too soon, the late Football Australia Hall of Fame member and Sydney Morning Herald journalist Michael Cockerill wrote of how the FFA Cup was serving to demystify the so-called "mainstream" football public with the ethnically backed clubs that had served as its backbone for generations; this was a potent tonic to the previous decade in which privately owned franchises were provided with exclusive and unfettered access to markets deemed most suitable to the A-League's ends, and demonising the clubs that had gone before.

In an ideal world, from familiarisation flows understanding, and from understanding comes respect. Thus, there was widespread condemnation when it was revealed that NPL Victoria club Avondale FC had been forced to hastily cover the Tricolore on the back of its kits with gaffer tape to avoid falling foul of the ill-considered National Club Identity Policy (NCIP). Football had always been happy to tout its multicultural foundations and welcoming atmosphere, but it was the FFA Cup that helped to drive the conversation to a point where the rank hypocrisy of a sport espousing these values while simultaneously instigating its NCIP could be confronted. This is a conversation that remains ongoing, and old habits die hard, but the Cup helped the game, as Cockerill might have put it, begin to grow up.

Growing respect, combined with increasing numbers of upset results and rising standards in the NPL also helped to lay the foundation for a renewed push, and a more receptive audience, for a National Second Division (NSD). The concept of a second tier has long been one of the great white whales of Australian football, and it cannot be argued that recent progress towards an NSD -- tentatively targeted for a 2023 introduction by Football Australia -- would be anywhere close to where it is without the Cup's introduction. Thanks to the Cup, a significant audience was exposed to what existed outside the A-Leagues as a potentially viable footballing ecosystem -- not just a farm for juniors before they were plucked by A-Leagues clubs -- and the ability of clubs to make the leap to the next level suddenly didn't sound like the realm of fiction.

That's not to say, however, that there will not be challenges to be overcome and pratfalls to be avoided for the new Australia Cup.

As welcome as the familiarization and levels of respect for clubs is, there is an inevitable risk -- one the Cup already battles with -- that this balancing act will teeter too far and irrecoverably into tokenism or, worse, infantilisation, where clubs are treated as canteens for fun ethnic food that also happen to play football from time to time. This also carries over to the way that players and coaches are described, not as athletes and mentors with significant value that could be tapped further up the pyramid, but as a ragamuffin collection of tradies and office workers who are just happy to be on the pitch.

In 2021, returning after a one-year hiatus because of COVID, the competition was forced to adopt a number of workarounds in order to take place as the pandemic lingered: Geographical zones, haphazard fixturing, and fielding NPL clubs long out of season and out of condition. Though one upset result was still provided -- APIA Leichhardt downing the Wanderers -- this resulted in a decided lack of romance, especially compared with year's past. Local rivals sound good in theory, but the magic of the Cup isn't seeing familiar sides facing off once again, but in fresh matchups that wouldn't otherwise happen. There was also no talk of special guest players in the vein of former Greece national team captain Kostas Katsouranis to Heidelberg.

There will inevitably be challenges associated with the 2022 iteration and future iterations, but a return to normalcy at some stage will be welcomed.

Then there is the thorny issue surrounding A-League clubs.

As previously observed, the position of the Cup means it currently holds secondary importance to professional clubs, as demonstrated by their consistent heavy squad rotation throughout its history. In the short term, there are benefits to be taken from this in a commercial sense in that it increases the likelihood of upsets. But in the long run, especially in the wake of an NSD's introduction, the issue of A-Leagues clubs writing the competition off as little more than a distraction, one they'd be happy to fall out of, will need to be monitored.

Nonetheless, thanks to the magic that each year's iteration brings, combined with the landscape-altering effect it has provided, a significant case can be made that the introduction of the FFA Cup, outside of perhaps the unbundling of the A-Leagues from Football Australia, is the most significant reform to the domestic scene of Australian men's football in the past decade -- one that, almost uniquely, has been met be near-universal appreciation.

The Australia Cup, therefore, has a foundation from which something truly special can be built.