Australia – the land of golden sands, bustling cities, and aboriginal wonders. Exploding with new opportunities, it is a place where you can start a new life and pursue a new career in the never-ending sunshine. Where people with bleached blonde hair and sun-kissed skin can be found littered around the beaches without a care in the world. However, within this utopic land of Oz lies an aspect of life that is not commonly picked up on. That, of course – is football.
It is no secret that other sports such as rugby and cricket dominate the sporting world in Australia, with some of the best players in the world having hailed from down under. Even the rather unusual and incredibly confusing game of ‘Australian Rules’ has a significant following within the enormous population. However, one game has been growing bigger and bigger since its introduction way back in the late 19th century. Football in Australia is at the highest point in its history, not only providing a nice retirement home for older players but also as the foundation place for future stars.
Legends such as Tim Cahill and even first-team regular Aaron Mooy can thank the nation of sunshine for how their careers have panned out, but, the footballing scene down under hasn’t always been this way.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Introduced by British immigrants in the 19th century, the modern game as we know it has been around in Australia for just as long as it has in the disputed home of football – England. However, the beautiful game differs greatly between the two nations and not many people know why.
The first club formed in the country was the now-defunct Wanderers founded on 3rd August 1880 in Sydney. Despite this, a structured league system was not put in place until almost a century later. In 1977, a semi-professional national league, known as the National Soccer League, was formed. Contested by a total of 42 teams, the league saw a ton of sponsorship come and go in a blink of an eye as well as a constant shift in format, using a conference system very similar to today’s MLS at one point.
Teams such as the Marconi Stallions, South Melbourne and Sydney City were the most successful with each side winning a total of four titles each. The league also held a domestic cup competition known as the NSL Cup which ran until 1997.
However, after running its course for almost 30 years, the National Soccer League was losing fans and its viewership was steadily declining. The more sought after and higher paid players were looking for new horizons to test their skill as the thought of a professional Australian football league was becoming slim. Seven of the total 42 clubs had folded by 2004 with the majority of the others having either been relegated or leaving for a new subdivision within the FFA (Football Federation Australia). Only five teams would go on to see what would come after the abyss left by the National Soccer League.
Just 16 months after the demise of the National Soccer League, a new ray of light shone beyond the horizon. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a new fully-professional football league was formed in 2004 and it was to be named the A-League.
Eight teams competed in the inaugural season of 2005, four teams from the defunct National Soccer League; Adelaide United, Newcastle Jets, Perth Glory, Queensland Roar (previously Brisbane Lions and now Brisbane Roar) and New Zealand Knights (previously New Zealand Football Kingz and now Wellington Phoenix). The remaining three teams were newly founded for the inaugural A-League season; Central Coast Mariners, Melbourne Victory and Sydney FC.
As time went on the league developed into a more structured and popular division, captivating spectators from all over the continent-sized country. Many teams joined the league from different areas of Australia adding a sense of geographical pride to the variation of clubs within the league. In 2007, Wellington Phoenix replaced fellow Kiwi club New Zealand Knights as the only New Zealand team in the division. Both Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury joined the league in 2009 before having their licenses revoked just three years later.
Melbourne Heart joined as an inner-city rival to the dominant Melbourne Victory, and later went on to become Melbourne City after being acquired by the City Football Group who’s flagship club is Manchester City. Sydney FC was also given a rival in the 2012-13 season in the form of Western Sydney Wanderers who went on to win the AFC Champions League just two years later, the most prestigious club tournament – in Asia?
Despite many misconceptions, the FFA fall under the umbrella known as the AFC (Asian Football Confederation). Although situated geographically within the continent of Australia, also known as Oceania, both the national team and domestic clubs are eligible to compete in Asian competitions.
However, things were not always this way. Australia once competed alongside New Zealand who both dominated football within the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation). During this time the Socceroos had only qualified for the FIFA World Cup once back in 1974. As time went on, a longing for international recognition and success resonated amongst the Australian fans. Having won the continent’s primary international competition four times, the OFC Nations Cup, the Socceroos were still struggling to make a mark on the world stage and decided something had to be done.
On 30th June 2005 and after almost 40 years of association with the OFC, FIFA had approved Australia’s bid to move from their current confederation to compete in one of a higher calibre – the AFC. The majority of the Socceroos’ fan base shared the view that the only way Australia were to progress would be if they abandoned the OFC. This not only meant that Australia would have more room to progress but also come up against tougher opponents.
The move to the AFC would not take effect until the 1st January 2006 however, meaning that Australia would have to qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup as an OFC nation. Rather than seeing this a set-back though, the Socceroos used it to their advantage. One last chance to qualify for the most prestigious tournament in arguably one of the easiest qualifying confederations.
Following the step-down of coach Frank Farina, Guus Hiddink was appointed as the man to try and take Australia to their first World Cup finals in 32 years. To secure their place, they would have to beat Uruguay in the inter-confederation play-off. After losing 1-0 in South America, the gold and green still had the return leg to play back home. Playing in front of a packed out Stadium Australia of 82,000, the Socceroos led 1-0 for 90 minutes thanks to national legend Mark Bresciano. With the scores still tied after extra-time, penalties would be the method in deciding who’s World Cup dreams would be broken. Not only did Australia win the shootout 4-2, but the boys from the Land of Oz have qualified for every FIFA World Cup ever since.
THE 2015 AFC ASIAN CUP
From that moment through to Russia 2018, the Socceroos have been a household name on the world stage. However, that yearning for international success still wasn’t quenched by merely qualifying for the World Cup. Australia needed silverware.
The 2015 AFC Asian Cup was the 16th edition of the competition and the first to be hosted in Australia. A dismal performance in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil saw the Socceroos finish bottom of their group with no points making the importance to succeed in the Asian Cup much greater. A second-place finish was enough to see them into the quarter-finals, losing out on the top spot to South Korea to whom they lost 1-0 in the final game of the group stage.
Next up was China. The Chinese had breezed through the group stage obtaining their full nine points in a group containing Asian big boys Saudi Arabia. However, it wasn’t meant to be as the Socceroos’ most famous talisman, Tim Cahill, fired two past China and fired Australia into the semi-finals. The United Arab Emirates awaited Australia in the next round hoping for what would’ve been a shot at their first title. Thanks to two early goals and the whole country cheering them on though, Australia headed into the final.
From the atmosphere to the drama, the stadium to the scoreline, everything about the 2015 AFC Asian Cup final will live on in the hearts of every Australia fan for decades to come. Having already suffered at the hands of the South Koreans, the Socceroos would need to give everything they had to ensure they won silverware on home soil. It was a dream start as Massimo Luongo put the gold and greens ahead on the stroke of half-time.
The clock was nearing the 90-minute mark. This was it, the whole country started to believe. Yet, Tottenham poster boy Son Heung-min had to upset the proceedings with a 91st-minute equaliser. The trophy that was so close had been ripped from the nation who were then on standby. Extra-time started and the Socceroos delivered once more. Just before the end of the first period of extra-time, Kim Jin-Hyeon parried the ball after a great save but James Troisi was there to fire the ball home into an empty net.
76,000 screaming Australians watched on in absolute euphoria as Australia won the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in the same stadium that saw them qualify for the 2006 FIFA World Cup nine years prior.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Despite not being the most exciting of nations to watch play football, Australia’s football scene is undeniably growing at an exponential rate.
With the A-League looking to expand the number of teams to 12 for the 2019-2020 season, the beautiful game will attract more and more fans across the enormous nation. Clubs such as Western Sydney Wanderers are now competing for the continent’s biggest titles and more teams are sure to follow.
As for the Socceroos, they haven’t failed to make an appearance at the World Cup from 2006. Although they are sat at 42nd in the FIFA World Rankings, Australia is certain to keep progressing through the ranks in an attempt to reach their end goal and establish themselves on the world stage. Whether they make it or not, only time will tell, but one thing for sure is that football in Australia is only going to get better.