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Soccer's come a long way - but what does it signify?

Manton St Tales

As the FFA Cup ramps up and the Matildas prepare for a tilt at Rio glory, Paul Marcuccitti reflects on the state of the game, the significance of ongoing major sponsorship and the dubious christening of a cat named Timmy.

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The state of the game.

It’s an obsession for Australian soccer’s most devoted fans, still trapped between an understanding that the sport has a long and rich history here and knowing that its future is largely determined by the legacy of the revolution that occurred a little over a decade ago.

Among other things, we got a new governing body, a new national league, membership of the Asian Confederation, and then the bonus: the Socceroos qualifying for the World Cup finals.

Last week we got further evidence that, in some areas, the sport has never been in better shape – so much so that a positive announcement was derided.

Before the announcement, Football Federation Australia promised it would be “significant”. And … we learned that the Hyundai A-League will continue to be the Hyundai A-League for at least another four years.

I avoid using “significant” – a hackneyed word. And, as my copy of Sir Ernest Gowers’ The Complete Plain Words instructs, “it ought to be used only where there is a ready answer to the reader’s unspoken question ‘Significant, is it? And what does it signify?’”

But, in fairness, FFA’s announcement did signify something. The partnership with Hyundai will be 15 years old in 2020 and its recent extension shows that the A-League is a good enough (and stable enough) product to earn the backing of a large company at a time of economic uncertainty.

The National Soccer League, which the A-League replaced, only lasted for 28 seasons. Its history of trying to attract and retain corporate dollars reads like a tragicomedy. If we’d had such a long partnership with an automotive giant back then most Australian soccer fans would have ensured that one of its cars was in the driveway.

So why was there so much scorn when FFA’s announcement turned out to be something that is actually really good news?

Leaving aside the sad existence of people who are incapable of expressing anything other than negativity, I can only think of two explanations: there are now a lot of supporters who didn’t suffer through many of the sport’s darker days; or fans thought they were finally going to get confirmation that Tim Cahill is coming to play in the A-League.

The potential arrival of Cahill is more exciting but it’s also less important. No disrespect to him (I persuaded my wife that one of our cats should be named Timmy) but marquee players are sugar hits. Long-term sponsorship may not taste as sweet but it certainly provides more nourishment.

Off-field success is determined by a lot of other things as well but, for state-of-the-game assessments, the Hyundai deal is definitely a plus.

But what of the on field?

Assessing that also relies on several measures but the coming week will give us a couple.

Let’s start with our best female players who have received a lot more attention since the Matildas’ fine performance at last year’s World Cup.

Several observers rate the current women’s national team as our best ever but it’s debatable. In 2007 and 2011 the Matildas reached the quarter finals of the World Cup and they won the Asian Cup in 2010.

When they defeated Brazil in last year’s World Cup, a few scribes (correctly) noted that it was the first time Australia had won a match in the tournament’s knockout phase.

But there’s a catch. The 2015 tournament was expanded to 24 teams (from 16) and the knockout phase began with 16 teams (while in previous World Cups it began with eight). The Matildas were eliminated in the quarter finals again; the difference was just that, for the first time, they needed to win a knockout match to get there.

Supplied image of members of Australia's women's football team during a training session at the Agua Santa club in São Paulo, Brazil, Monday, Aug. 1, 2016. Australia's Olympic campaign opens against Canada in Sao Paulo on August 3, two days before the Games' opening ceremony in Rio, before group games against Germany (August 7) and Zimbabwe (August 10). (AAP Image/Australian Olympic Committee) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Australia’s women’s soccer team during a training session at the Agua Santa club in São Paulo, Brazil this week. Photo: AAP/Supplied.

On Thursday morning they’ll play their opening match at the Rio Olympics’ women’s football tournament. Unlike the men’s football tournament, which restricts teams to under-23s with a maximum of three overage players, the women’s competition allows countries to pick their best teams as they would at the World Cup.

The good news is the Matildas have already done a lot of the hard work in progressing through this competition because, after brilliantly winning the Asian qualifying tournament, they are one of only 12 teams that made it to Brazil. They should reach the knockout quarter finals – statistically they have a two in three chance of doing so – and anything beyond that would strengthen the case for those who argue that this is the best Matildas team we’ve had.

Tonight we’ll see more action from the FFA Cup, the knockout tournament which brings A-League teams and state-based clubs together.

The FFA Cup did begin a week ago but those games included none of the A-League teams and it’s their entry that will tell us a lot about how the semi-professional clubs match up against them.

Eugene Galekovic rides high as the team celebrates on the pitch. Photo: Ryan Schembri/InDaily

Adelaide United won the first FFA Cup in 2014. Photo: Ryan Schembri/InDaily

A year ago I was concerned that the gap between the A-League teams and state-based clubs might be too big.

Since Adelaide City defeated Western Sydney Wanderers in the first ever FFA Cup match between a state-based team and an A-League team in 2014, there have been 18 such encounters… all won by the A-Leaguers and with an average margin of three goals.

Of course, it wouldn’t do the A-League much good if its teams were routinely embarrassed by part-time players, as that would damage its brand.

But we also want the state-based competitions to be at a level that enables promising younger players to continue to develop. Not every potential Socceroo goes through FFA’s Centre of Excellence and then scores an A-League contract or a move overseas.

The gap between the two levels has a lot to do with professionalism. The A-Leaguers get to play the game for a living so they can do a lot more fitness work than the state-based players – many of them are working or studying full-time.

But the way the respective competitions are set up is another reason for the difference. There are just 10 A-League teams, they’re relatively well resourced and can lift their standard by signing foreign players. Talent in the state-based competitions is spread thinly – put all the federations’ top divisions together and you get 90 clubs.

If the FFA Cup continues to see the big boys drub the minnows, it will suffer as a competition. More importantly it will suggest that a better bridge is needed for players straddling between the two levels. The first step should be increasing the number of teams in the A-League but, at the moment, the barriers to entry are high. That’s another column folks.

Paul Marcuccitti is a co-presenter of 5RTI’s Soccer on 531 program which can be heard from 10am on Saturdays.

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