After a night of celebration and contemplation, many will have woken today with a throbbing headache.
But no hangover will be as thumping as that suffered by Australian football, which starts 2018 wondering why it has been forgotten by so many of its old acquaintances.
Amid concerns about poor crowds and tumbling TV ratings, this is the greatest problem for the A-League and, by extension, the game in Australia — its sudden vanishing act.
Even allowing for the holiday period when the Big Bash League dominates evening sports viewing, surf and sand can seem more tempting than a hot night at a Glory or Roar game and tennis stars cuddling koalas become back page news, the A-League’s profile is currently lower than Tyrion Lannister’s hammock.
This is not to be confused with the quality of the competition which, if measured by the recent performances of barnstorming Sydney FC, is at an all-time high.
But the disparity between the improving standard of A-League games and the measurable drop in public interest only deepens the concern of those who fear the competition has gone into gradual and possibly even terminal decline.
Australian football fans do not often welcome criticism from supposedly agenda-wielding outsiders. So perhaps the best sign of the A-League’s current plight is the number of respected local football writers trying to explain its stalled progress.
Fairfax Media’s Michael Lynch hit the rawest nerve when he bemoaned the A-League’s “push to make grounds into giant adult day-care centres” and the subsequent loss of atmosphere.
Those words had barely hit cyberspace when the Barmy Army was told to take down England flags at a Melbourne Victory game and children at a Sydney FC match were forced to move away from the fence by security guards.
A-League fun police turn football ‘vanilla’
Australians too often chastise officials for imposing laws that are merely common sense. But the A-League’s heavy-handed fun police help legitimise the Nanny State label.
Lynch also reminded us how much energy was “put into demonising ‘old soccer’ and creating ‘new football’ when the A-League was launched in 2004-05”.
This observation resonated with those who wonder how a game that seems so colourful and vibrant elsewhere has become so vanilla here.
I was among those who strongly advocated the establishment of clubs that catered for all. But enter a half-filled and often relatively subdued A-League stadium and it is impossible not to feel that in creating the A-League’s football safe place, the competition’s energy has been diminished.
Inarguably, the FFA has been spooked by sections of the media who have sensationalised behavioural issues to push anti-football and even anti-multicultural agendas.
Yet rather than boosting attendances and ratings by ‘cleaning up its act’, the A-league is flat-lining because it has diluted the vibrancy that appealed to hard core supporters and which was one of the greatest potential attractions to new fans.
A promotion-relegation system that would include and potentially energise traditional and grass roots clubs has long been touted by traditionalists as the best means of connecting healthy grass roots with the struggling top tier.
The obvious objection is financial — that the A-League clubs would immediately go out of existence if they were relegated while smaller clubs could not afford the operational costs if they were promoted.
So why does promotion-relegation work elsewhere? Because most major football competitions were devised to cater for the clubs while A-League clubs were manufactured to showcase the game.
Thus they owe their identity to their competitive status. After all, what are the Central Coast Mariners or even the Melbourne Victory if they are not A-League clubs?
Independent A-League would bring its own risks
Those championing the push for an independent A-League believe being freed of the FFA shackles would unlock the league’s potential and, by extension, provide a far better showcase for the game.
The obvious fear is that the clubs will cater for self-interest and create the same roadblocks as the FFA had with measures such as the scandalously late inclusion of a second Sydney team.
Meanwhile the Socceroos do not have a coach six months before the World Cup after the last one left frustrated by the slow pace of progress or, worse, fearing that for all his team’s success the game was going backwards.
After four years in charge, Ange Postecoglou knew that without significant reform the World Cup would be a band aid rather than a panacea for Australian football.
The multi-million-dollar appearance fee would be used to pay bills that should have been covered by a better TV rights deal for the A-League, not fund programs that might improve the standard of the next national squad.
A month or two of improved media exposure would not significantly boost participation because participation numbers are already high.
The real dilemma — converting thousands of young players into elite talent or A-League fans — would remain unsolved.
Of course people have been trying to “solve” Australian football for 50 years and the game has gone on regardless.
Yet one thing now seems non-negotiable: the next person charged with “saving the game” must have the kind of passion that she or he is trying to ignite amongst the public, not a mandate to suppress it.