AUSTRALIAN soccer has always been defined by a paradox.
It has always had more junior players than the other three major football codes.
That was true 50 years ago, it is true today and will remain true, especially given that some parents see junior rugby league more and more as a violent sport for a future playing elite.
Watch an under-14 league game, and watch warm-ups and skill drills that last almost as long as the match; see trainers running on and giving instructions during breaks in play, see bench players come on to perform specific roles on specific parts of the field.
It’s very professional, but it aint as much fun as it used to be.
Soccer, of course, was there first. It was first to have yelling parents from the sideline, riots and early talent spotting. That’s been superceded.
And though soccer has had the most junior players it has stayed fourth among the football codes, save for when Australia qualifies for the World Cup and the game enters the national consciousness. Therein lies the paradox.
Junior strength hasn’t meant senior mass popularity for the A League. Football Australia supremo Frank Lowy’s ambition to make it the nation’s No.1 football game was and will remain unrealistic.
The A League could gain mass attention — briefly — if there was a riot — then it could be dismissed, to paraphrase the late Johnny Warren’s autobiography, as a wog’s game. Which it’s not.
Australian soccer has come a long way since great names like Leo Baumgartner, Karl Jaros and Johnny Giacometti came from Europe and moved it into the modern era.
Before then, Australian soccer could cling to the great Joe Marston, who had played in an FA Cup final with Preston North End, and the fabled Reg Date, who might have beaten the world if he hadn’t of beaten himself.
When a young Canterbury-Marrickville, led by the likes of the Johnnie-come-soons, Warren and Watkiss, started winning competitions in the early 60s, it indicated the potential of the home-grown local player.
That potential has been realised; it’s a long time since an Adrian Alston could make news because he was playing in an English lower league.
Now Australian players are oversees in their 100s, and a national team should make the World Cup more often than not. But this doesn’t translate to lots of bums on seats and mass interest in the A League.
Every budding Harry Kewell and Lucas Neill wants to play overseas, doesn’t want a career in the A League; that’s just a stepping stone.
There’s no solution to that, no holding them back. And most soccer aficionados know more about the English Premier League than they do the A League. No solution to that either.
A Sydney FC can become a glamour club - briefly - by attracting a marquee name like Dwight Yorke at the end of his career, but a Yorke can only walk and talk on a short-term contract.
Rabid fundamentalist Craig Foster can exhort the wicked to repent and follow the one true religion all he likes, but fans will make their own choices.
Does this mean there is no future for the A League? No, but it can have no future without a successful western Sydney team.
Parents pay around $700 for children to play in Blacktown association junior representative teams, and Blacktown is about the cheapest association. The bottom supports the top.
In rugby league and AFL, the top can support the bottom because of lucrative television deals. There’s no equivalent deals available to soccer, especially not on free-to-air.
And there aren’t Russian billionaires to treat clubs as toys, and the A League is doomed if it is banking on private ownership, as Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler’s ephemeral participation shows.
Palmer and Tinkler might rope in Jamie Packer and start a rebel Australian Series Soccer, but the game already has coloured clothing. A western Sydney team will represent multiple associations.
The players and the potential audience and sponsorship are already there, the west is already won. Contrast with the GWS Giants.
The stakes are high but the yet unnamed western team, if dominant, can raise the A League’s profile and its television rights attraction.
Muck this up, and the A League will forever be dependent on the occasional interest of Palmer-Tinkler equivalents to prop it up.
YOU can usually win a trivia quiz by asking which Australian prime minister was born in Chile. The answer is John Watson, the world’s first Labor prime minister.
He went to New Zealand at two and on to Australia at 18 when work dried up. Watson was a keen rugby player among other things. What might he have been: an All Black or a Wallaby, or a Chilean national soccer player if that was his game?
Should Bobby Fulton and Keith Barnes have played for Great Britain, since they were born in England and Wales and came to Australia at four and 13 respectively?
Plenty of children have been born in foreign countries while their Australian parents have been working or stopping over, making those children technically of another nationality.
There lies the difficulty in using birthplace as a measure of eligibility. His birthplace shouldn’t have disqualified James Tamou from being selected for Australia to play rugby league against New Zealand, but he didn’t arrive here as a child.
By any commonsense measure, Tamou should have been playing for the Kiwis if he were playing for anyone.
His Australian selection devalued the Test. Australian coach Tim Sheens seems to be the only one who doesn’t regard it as farcical.
As Greg Inglis’s selection for Queensland is farcical. Make it simple. You play for the state-country you first played in after 12.
THIS is the different world Murray Rose swam in. Before the 1960 Rome Olympics, the Australian team trained in Townsville because of the warmer climate.
There were no heated southern pools. Rose was not allowed to qualify for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics through the US trials, and he was still rated the world’s best distance swimmer.
Wouldn’t be a problem to return and qualify now. Distance swimmer . . . the 400m was regarded as a staying race then, not the extended sprint it is now. Swimmers touched the wall in the 1500m instead of doing tumble turns.
On times alone, Rose and Jon Konrads would be lapped now but that’s misleading. Because of training-and-technique advances, Rose was swimming times in his 40s that equalled the gold-medal performances of his prime, as professional golfers drive the ball in their 60s the same distance as in their prime because of club-and-ball advances.
Rose will always remain arguably Australia’s greatest swimmer. He was a golden boy from a golden time.
Rose transcended swimming; he helped Australians give themselves their mythical self-image.