Relegating the Boys to the B-League


As German striker Birgit Prinz sunk Brazilian hopes in the Women’s World Cup final, it drew to a close one of the sporting spectacles of 2007. While the tournament was defined by those feelings of solidarity and humanity that are seemingly reserved for World Cups and Olympic Games, it was also highlighted by the flair of Brazilian striker Marta, the structure and organisation of the German team, the drama of the United States’s selection policy, and the surprise of many sports fans who suddenly discovered the world of women’s football.

It was in a feeble attempt to counter my own ignorance of the women’s game, that I stumbled upon a YouTube clip of Craig Foster. ‘Fossie’, perhaps the most eager commentator in football, is known these days for his role as SBS’s Chief Football Analyst (no, I’m not making the term up). In this particular clip, he was sharing his feelings about the state of the game in Australia, and in particular about the style of play Australia has come to adopt.

Football, or ‘soccer’ if you must, is painful to watch when played poorly, but can border on some kind of ecstatic vision when played well. I think it has something to do with the technical nature of the game. That’s not to say all sports don’t require a level of technical skill, but the focus on integrating these individual skills into a team performance means that when played well, football can feel almost rehearsed; divine even. There’s an emphasis on set pieces; a reliance on the execution of well-laid plans.

Earlier in the tournament, as I sat at home flicking channels, this link between good and organised football became even clearer as I stumbled upon the Matildas’ match against Norway. I sat watching, both shamefully surprised and enthralled by the purposeful passing, the well-timed runs, the methodical build-up towards goal.

I had a vague memory of watching the US team in a previous World Cup thrill crowds with their unique style of play. Apart from that I was new to women’s football at any level. But watching the first half of Australia versus Norway, when both teams launched and repelled waves of purposeful attack, I couldn’t help but make a comparison between our national women’s football team and our national men’s league. What was the difference between the two styles of play? Why did I find watching our women’s national team a completely different and altogether more satisfying experience than watching a game between the Newcastle Jets and Perth Glory?

I’ve been a vague supporter of the A-League since its inception three years ago. Brisbane being Brisbane, I knew a couple of the Queensland Roar players from high school. The summer scheduling also meant that there was finally a summer football option to enjoy. And football, unlike the other summer sports, is at least a sport you can take a date to the games only go for 90 minutes, they’re fast-paced, and in Brisbane the Roar’s home matches are played at a premier venue. Even if that also means premier pricing: by the time you leave the stands, you feel like you’ve just shouted dinner at a suburban bistro.

But the dozen or so games I’d been to had been a let-down. I was an unlucky charm for the team, because in the first five of those games, the boys had failed to score a goal. On a few occasions, they hadn’t even looked like scoring, with shots flying either 30 metres awry or 30 rows back into the stand. And all the time, the opposition goalkeeper always had the same look on his face: smug, secure, but a little annoyed that he might not get to make a save all afternoon.

In contrast, the Matildas echo the attitude and style of play which has made the game so successful internationally. They exhibit the same free-flowing approach that we saw on display from the Socceroos in Germany last year, but which we are rarely privileged to see in our own national competition. While the women’s shots at goal might not hold the same power as some of the men’s, they are nonetheless struck with thought and precision.

In Australia’s 2-2 draw with Canada, super-sub Lisa de Vanna set up the last-minute equaliser with a piece of fancy footwork before crossing in to an unmarked Cheryl Salisbury in the middle of the penalty box. And now here’s the good part: rather than blazing away at a goalface crowded with defenders and a lunging, desperate goalie, Salisbury paused thought and shot behind the diving ‘keeper.

It was a demonstration of the power of thinking in sport, something often left behind in the desire to train sportspeople who are the fittest, the fastest, the strongest in their field. Salisbury is Australia’s most capped international footballer of either gender, as well as being Australia’s highest international goal-scorer of all time. Her goal against Canada was timely, in that it gave the Matildas a berth in the quarter finals, but also reminded us why we watch sport, and in doing so, why we switch off.

Certainly the A-League is a step up from the bad old days of the National Soccer League. But while flashy uniforms, repressed racial tensions and larger crowds are all positive things to take out of the new league, they do not in themselves define the new league. So far, this season’s A-League games have been largely inept displays by teams who apparently harbour no great desire to hold the ball, build momentum or play to a plan. Players often look like they’re in some deadly game of pass the parcel with a team of al-Qaeda operatives, such are their efforts to give the ball away needlessly to the opposition.

It reminded me of what Guus Hiddink, and a few Dutchmen who came before him, brought to our game. In the 1970s, Holland instigated a revolution in world football. Tired of the defense-dominated style of play, Rinus Michels, coach of club Ajax, developed an approach both flexible and well-organised, daring and intelligent. With star Johan Cruyff up front, he devised a system which encouraged his team to keep possession, but eliminated the need for players to remain in their intended organisational structure. In Michels’s game plan, players like Cruyff would run wherever they felt they could be best used, and when they left a position, their spot would be taken by another member of the team. This created space, built momentum, and made for a simple, attacking style of football. Michels went on to coach the Dutch national team in the 1974 World Cup finals, and with the Total Football structure, took an underrated side to an eventual 2-1 loss in the final to West Germany.

While it’s foolish to suggest that every team in the A-League should be playing Total Football even in Europe they’ve moved on I think it points the right way forward for football in Australia.

And it taps in to what Fossie was trying to point out on YouTube, in his duty as our Chief Football Analyst. Foster talks of safeguarding the future of Australian football, but not through a re-allocation of funds or the hiring of a foreign coach for our national team. He talks about passing the ball along the ground; about keeping possession. He talks about the need to develop a style of play which is both intelligent and entertaining, which is uniquely Australian (Drizabones perhaps?) but not in the classic sense of just booting the ball down the middle in the hope that a striker might get a toe on it.

This point was made clear throughout the Matildas’ World Cup campaign, which finished with a tight 3-2 loss to Brazil.

Australian local footba
ll is at a crossroads. Never before has hope for the game been so high. Unfortunately, the skill level is still a long way from what the fans want. Men’s football will continue to be called ‘soccer’ in Australia until we see the foot skills in our national league like those on display in the Matildas’ World Cup tilt.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.