Football's critique facing critical times

Australia's progress at club and national level could be compromised if a new trend in football's critique is allowed to gain momentum.

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Adelaide United players celebrate their grand final win Source: AAP

There exists a perception among football's cognoscenti that those infidels who are unprepared to place the Australian game on a pedestal should be demonised and castigated for their lack of goodwill and patriotism.

It is claimed that Australia will always be seen by some pundits as a poor relation to Europe, despite the fact that the continent comprises 55 national associations ranging from Germany to Gibraltar.

Particularly if such critics happen to have a European background.

Well, like many others, I am an Australian of European extraction, I love European football and I would not trade the UEFA Champions League with any other club competition in the world.

Yet the fact that I admire what Australian football has achieved since it left Oceania in 2006, that I follow the Socceroos with a passion, that I try to watch as many A-League matches as possible and that I have fought for our game with sports editors for decades does not get me out of trouble with those who expect me to also sell the game as if it was one of the leading lights in world sport.

So, there you go, that makes me a dead set Eurosnob then, someone with a tainted image and whose criticism should always be taken with a pinch of salt.

At this point it has to be asked: Why does Australian football become so defensive when it is directly or indirectly compared with its European equivalent? And why does it have to keep beating its chest and reminding us that it is a top product and much better than most people would give it credit for?

One of the main problems with Australia's football mentality is that the game is still struggling to find its niche on the domestic scene and on the world stage. We are not quite sure where we fit in the general scheme of things.

Which is probably why we believe we ought to constantly talk up our game domestically so as to make us feel good about ourselves and protect our brand from those who would love nothing more than to destroy it.

No sooner do you dismiss a sub-standard A-League match than you are curtly reminded that "bad games take place everywhere so what's the big deal". As if what happens abroad is relevant in terms of pinpointing a particular game's failings.

Or why, despite our efforts to lift our game, we are not sure how good we are on the international front so we tend to take offence whenever somebody has the temerity to pass disparaging remarks about our league or national team or the way the game is managed.

We become prickly, which is perhaps a sign that we cannot shake off the insecurity and inferiority complex that may have hindered our progress for many years.

Ange Postecoglou is a man of high intellect who loves his country like few others and who is transforming the game in Australia. So when he speaks you listen carefully even though you might not necessarily agree with what he has to say.

The Socceroos coach made an interesting point on the occasion of the naming of the Australia squad for the forthcoming 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Saudi Arabia and Japan.

"Watch some football from Europe. It's hard to watch. It's very poor in standard," he said a few weeks after claiming the media does not give enough credit to our elite players.

"I'm not just talking about the UK. I've just come back from Europe and I won't mention the clubs but I saw a couple of first-division games and I could have walked out at half-time.

"That's not a knock on them but paying credit to our competition."

Well, Postecoglou is entitled to talk up our players and our game but let's be brutally honest about this: it is true that many elements of the European game are very poor but by the same token some of the football you see in the A-League is not exactly of a calibre that you'd pay too much money to watch.

Forget the top two or three teams in the A-League: some of last season's matches involving clubs from the lower half of the table were unwatchable.

We have an inflated opinion of the comparative standard of our game which admittedly is improving all the time and no doubt will keep getting stronger as our coaches become better and more foreigners choose to join the A-League.
Yet the 12-year-old competition has its technical limitations which are there for all to see.

Some players who would walk into any A-League team find it hard to get regular game time abroad even in some of the lesser leagues in Europe.

Former Australia and AC Milan goalkeeper Zeljko Kalac once told me that you learn more by just practising with top players day in day out than by playing in the A-League. Former Socceroos coach Pim Verbeek was crucified for expressing the same sentiments but nobody came up with an argument to show he was wrong.

That's the way it still is, unfortunately, with Australia.

Yet despite its flaws and drawbacks the A-League remains a respected and popular competition with honest, attacking play and a loyal fan base its main attributes.

But as it seeks to improve, the more established leagues in Europe will always be a yardstick and at the moment there would be 12 or 14 leagues of a higher quality than Australia's which of course is no disgrace. Such countries had a century's start on us.

It is up to the A-League to silence its critics. It certainly is on the right track but it has a way to go to overtake, say, Germany's 2.Bundesliga or England's Championship.

However for people who contend that the A-League is weaker than many European competitions to be sneered at is unfair, ridiculous and probably counter-productive.

It makes you wonder who the real snobs are, actually.

If Australian football is so sure of its quality and stature it should let its players and teams do all the talking on the field where it matters most and the future will look after itself.

Postecoglou also has gone on record to urge the media to be more critical of our players, coaches and teams whenever they under-perform.

In other words he wants them to be accountable for the benefit of the game.

That's fine but if real and lasting progress is to be made across the board the game must stop being on the defensive or feeling besieged from within and the media needs to know that justified and well-intentioned criticism of the A-League or Socceroos would be taken on board and not be met by accusations of snobbery.

There is no way we can fix a problem if we fail to recognise that we have one in the first place.

And without an ideal standard our game has no other means of identifying its shortcomings, let alone fixing them.

So I reckon we should all settle down, enjoy our football, work together as a team, certainly keep an eye on technical and tactical developments abroad ... and see where that journey takes us. I'm sure we'll be fine.

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7 min read
Published 24 September 2016 at 8:31am
By Philip Micallef
Source: SBS