Aussie Rules fans, Rugby League fans and (unbelievably at one point in history) Rugby Union fans have or do have domestic competitions that can lay claim to being the best, or one of the best, in the world in their particular sport. The AFL, by default, is #1 in the “world” of Aussie Rules. The NRL is unlikely to be challenged by the Super League as the league of choice of the game’s best any time. Rugby…well the least said about that particular sport these days the better.
What about football fans? For years, they were given the NSL – the permanent laughing stock of Australian sport rife with cronyism, financial instability, ethnic tensions, poor facilities and an inferior on-field product to that dished up by the big, money leagues of Europe. It wasn’t just the general sporting public that treated the league with disdain – football lovers largely ignored it, in the way that you try to ignore your creepy looking uncle at family gatherings. Instead, many football fans pretended the cool uncle down the street that didn’t look like he wanted to date 14 year old girls was its uncle. EPL, La Liga and Serie A, became the league of choice for many football fans down under, save for a few hearty souls who admirably stuck by the NSL before it was put out of its protracted misery in 2004.
It’s now 2013, and the game in this country has changed. The NSL is gone, replaced with the A-League. Australia has qualified for 3 World Cups since, and the FIFA generation are all grown up. At its inception in 2005, the A-League was touted in marketing collateral as “Football…but not as you know it”. 8 years later, this has never rung as true.
The league is growing in every measure – crowds, memberships, revenue, television ratings, column inches and the quality of football on the pitch. The Red and Black Bloc, the North Terrace, the Cove and the active supporter groups of each club have made each and every A-League match an event. Attending an A-League match is an experience that no other code in this country can rival, with noise and colour previously only seen on the terraces of stadia in far off lands. Young upstarts with names like Nabbout, Appiah, Juric, playing alongside veterans with names such as Ono, Del Piero, Thompson not only shows that the A-League has matured rapidly in the quality department, it also points a mirror at the face of multicultural Australia, circa 2013, like no other sport played in this country can.
This summer, fans of A-League clubs around the country will be waving their flags with all their might, pumping their fists in unbridled euphoria, raising their scarves to the sky with pride, singing until their throats can take no more. These fans will be watching athletes who may not be the equal of Messi, or Neymar, or Gary Cahill, managers who aren’t the equal of Sir Alex, Mourinho, or Di Canio, but are professionals who are nonetheless skilled and artful practitioners of this wonderful game. It isn’t the EPL – this is our league. No one else’s. We can’t drop down to Anfield, or Stamford Bridge, or the San Siro every weekend to see our beloved team play. But we can visit Parramatta, Hindmarsh and Suncorp stadiums – stadiums that may not be as famous, or storied, but they are ours, dammit – so we can cheer, sing and soak up the atmosphere that only this most beautiful of games can provide.
If you call yourself a fan of Barcelona without ever setting foot near Catalonia. If you have ever stayed up all hours of the night watching a dodgy stream of Juventus v Napoli. If you have ever called the A-League a “joke” without ever watching a game. I implore you – get down to see your local A-League team this season. Very quickly you will quit those Catalan lessons, close that browser and stop laughing. I guarantee you will pick up a scarf, wave it madly, and join the masses on the terrace to become a part of the most exciting thing in Australian sport.
The 2013/14 season starts on 11 October, and I cannot wait.