The light at the end of the international break tunnel is shining brighter, with our crunch clash against United just days away. As is often the case I have watched none of the internationals, instead choosing to scan match reports for news of good performances and any injuries.
To date things have gone according to plan. Jack Wilshere gave a man of the match performance for England against Slovenia. Welbeck, Chamberlain, and Alexis have all been on the score-sheet. Szczesny kept a clean-sheet for Poland. And it appears to be so far so good on the injury front, with Welbeck the only slight concern as he came off against Scotland – fingers crossed he’ll be ok!
However, there was one particular story that ‘stole the thunder’ from all others during this international break, which is the news that The Arsenal may be visiting Sydney this coming pre-season. It’s exciting news for all Arsenal fans here in Australia, and particularly in Sydney, but furthermore it is fantastic news for the game.
Football has grown, and continues to grow, at a considerable rate here in Australia. The domestic championship, the A-League, is now in its tenth season and comprises of ten teams, with that number set to grow over the coming seasons with continued discussions over which cities will be selected for the next round of new clubs.
Two seasons ago Sydney was selected for a new club, resulting in the formation of Western Sydney Wanderers, and it has proved to be a very shrewd choice by officials. Western Sydney is home to many residents and communities of European heritage and culture, and as such has a great love for the game of football. Everyone was craving a local side to compete with city based Sydney FC and it’s been a whirlwind experience ever since their wish became reality.
Under the guidance of former Crystal Palace captain (and ironically Sydney FC defender) Tony Popovic, Western Sydney Wanderers have been a success story from the off. In their first A-League season they won the Premiers Plate, which is awarded to the team who finish top of the league at the end of the regular season. Unfortunately they were defeated in the Grand Final by Central Coast Mariners, who took the title of Champions, but for a team tipped to struggle in their inaugural season it was a resounding success to have even made it that far.
In their second season the Wanderers were runners-up in both the regular season and the Grand Final, thus missing out on both the Premiers and Champions titles. But the Wanderers’ stock continued to rise as did their fan base, with more season tickets sold than any other A-League side and sell-out crowds at every home game.
Finally it was third season and third time lucky for the Wanderers, who earlier this month were crowned Asian Champions League (ACL) winners following a 1-0 aggregate win over Al-Hilal from Saudi Arabia. The second Australian team to reach the final and the first ever to win it, it was a remarkable achievement for a club in such infancy. It’s an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that the latter stages of the tournament were played during the A-League’s off-season and pre-season (the league campaign is just 6 games old with Wanderer’s having played only 4 due to their ACL commitments) and more so for the fact that the A-League imposes caps on squad size, transfer fees, and salaries, which isn’t the case for the very well-funded Al-Hilal and many of the other Asian Champions League rivals faced by the Australian sides. Their victory was a great advert for the Australian game.
Of the 4 league games played by Western Sydney this season one was away to Sydney FC. It was a pulsating contest which Sydney FC won 3-2, coming back from 0-2 down. The other stand-out feature of the game was the attendance, with the impressive crowd figure of 41,213 the biggest ever regular season home crowd and the largest crowd of any ‘football’ code for a regular season match. To outgun Rugby Union and AFL (‘Aussie Rules’) is one thing (note: AFL is far more popular in Melbourne than it is in Sydney), but to outgun Rugby League (the largest of the ‘football’ codes in Sydney) is a fantastic accomplishment and a further indication for the love of the game here in Australia.
My very good friend Paul is a huge Sydney FC supporter and season ticket holder, so my live football experiences have been in The Cove at Sydney FC’s Allianz Stadium. However, having arrived in Sydney just weeks before the start of Western Sydney’s debut season in the A-League theirs is a story I have followed with great interest, albeit with a tinge of envy as it would be great to see Sydney FC reach similar heights.
But it is also a story, combined with my first hand experiences of football here in Australia, that makes FIFA’s decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup even more farcical. Parking to one side the allegations of bribery and scandal, FIFA claim one of the reasons they awarded the World Cup to Qatar was to aid the growth of football within a ‘smaller’ footballing nation. But given Qatar fail to meet so many of the other criteria, why wasn’t Australia given that opportunity of growth?
Australia boasts many beautiful and vibrant cities in which to host games, all of which have the infrastructure and world-class stadia in place. Furthermore, the traditional World Cup months of June and July are during Australian winter, so there would be no issue with heat or playing conditions. And all of this in a country which is football crazy, both domestically with the A-League and for their national team ‘The Socceroos’, that would have thrived greatly with the additional wind in their sails that being awarded a World Cup would have given them.
Sadly it was not to be and Qatar will retain their hosting rights. So for now the next best thing for Australian football is the visit of major European clubs to their shores and the signing of marquee players. Last summer saw Juventus, United, and Liverpool visit (with the latter taking on Melbourne Victory in-front of a packed house of 90,000 fans at the MCG), whilst the names of Alessandro Del Piero, David Villa, and err…Emile Heskey have graced A-League team-sheets.
From a purely selfish point of view I would love it if Arsenal were the next team to visit, especially were it to be in Sydney given it’s a) where I live and b) home to the wonderfully passionate Arsenal Sydney Supporters club. But more importantly of all it would be invaluable for the good and growth of the game, so that next time maybe Australia can claim the rights to be a World Cup host nation.