Leading into the final round of competition for the 2013-14 Hyundai A-League regular season, Adelaide United’s Spanish-born manager Josep Gombau has come out with an interesting argument, suggesting that the Australian domestic league is need of a greater number of teams.
In this, his first season in the A-League, Gombau believes that while the competition’s quality is at or above the level of many European leagues, the low number of teams and high frequency of repetitive fixtures are holding back further advancement in Australian and New Zealand domestic football. He is proposing that the league need expand to 14 teams from its current number of 10.
While consciously trying to avoid the mistake of taking anything and everything a European says about football as gospel, this is still a man that has had significant experience coaching youth squads in Spain, and a head coaching role in Hong Kong, so he certainly has cause to speak on the issue.
So then, would the A-League benefit from a greater number of teams?
If we were to base our answer purely on the practices of the most successful leagues in the world, then yes. The top ten leagues from this list, typically considered some of the best-supported in the world each have a minimum of 15 teams in the competition, with six of them at the 20 team mark.
Typically this means that every team plays each other twice only, once at home and once away, leaving any further showdowns to be played out in domestic or international cup competitions. However, in the current format of the Hyundai A-League, teams play each other a total of three times, with chance deciding which club gets the advantage of two home games. It is a system that cops a significant amount of criticism, with complaints that it erodes the intensity of fixtures in the minds of fans and players when they know they will meet a certain team once or twice more. The repetitive nature of the competition can also lead to ‘fan-fatigue’ in attendance and support early and late in the season.
An A-League competition with 12-14 teams would likely revert to the standard two matches against each opponent, with a slight reduction in the total number of rounds (currently 27). Under this arrangement, one would expect notable fixtures to be more greatly anticipated by fans given their relative infrequency on the calendar, and result in greater interest and attendance. One only has to imagine the added atmosphere of a Big Blue or F3 derby if fans considering attending know it may be one of the few opportunities to see these two teams play.
However, in comparing the A-League to that of the premier competitions of Europe and Latin-America, I may be getting ahead of myself. After all, we are also talking about leagues with a significantly higher population base from which to draw fans, with only the Dutch Eredivisie coming from a country with a lower headcount than that of Australia or New Zealand.
If we look at leagues from countries with similar demographics to our own, leagues like those Gombau was comparing the A-League to, the message remains that more teams are required.
For example, Belgium, a population of around 11 million people has an First Division football competition with 16 teams and an average match attendance of close to 12,000 in 2013-14. Portugal, with a population of 10 million also has a 16 team competition with 10,000 average attendance.
But even then, we are talking about leagues with over 100 years of competition and Europa Cup and Champions League places to play for. They are also countries and leagues with an ingrained football identity and strong supporter foundations, not a country only just coming to terms with a new and exciting past time and currently locked in a battle for the hearts and souls of sport-saturated Australians.
Closer to home, countries from Asia with comparable demographics, like Malaysia, or Saudi Arabia or even Singapore, all tend to hover around the 12 team mark, meaning that by the standards of our neighbourly competitors, the A-League is still perhaps two teams short of a party.
However, at the end of the day, every country is different and the question of whether the A-League can or should have more teams is a question of domestic sustainability. Are there areas within the country that could have a strong enough following of football to sustain a domestic-competition football team? As we have witnessed in the past with failed experiments like the North Queensland Fury, the New Zealand Knights or, more recently Gold Coast United, the issue is not just one of finding a suitable city to deposit a stadium and a football team. There needs to be a strong grassroots potential, and beyond the eastern coastal states of Australia, I do not see anywhere in Australia or New Zealand which has this sort of areas with potential to compete against the traditional sports of Aussie Rules, League and Union.
The only other option then would be the further sub-divisioning of stronghold footballing cities Sydney and Melbourne; a return to the days of the National Soccer League with its often ethnically-divided loyalties through franchises like Parramatta Power, Marconi Stallions or Sydney Olympic. In its defence, the arrangement has been successful for NRL in its competition, with a total of eight teams operating within Sydney alone. Such a move would allow the A-League to draw upon existing club loyalties and rivalries in an effort to drive support and development of the game.
All the same, I would think this would be a a short-sighted move. While the introduction of Melbourne Heart and Western Sydney Wanderers have been extremely positive moves by the FFA and have yielded great results for the growth of the competition, I do not think the A-League ready for any further division. I believe it would have the effect of weakening existing clubs and diluting the current competition, rather than developing unrealised fan bases.
The reality is, that in its current format, the Hyundai A-League is most likely at its optimal size. Crowd support this season has been incredibly strong (a league average of 13,000 per game) and as Gombau points out, the play of high quality. I think the FFA should take the long-game view of this situation, allowing teams to continue to build memberships and support bases, rivalries to grow, and by targeting international success at competitions like the AFC Champions League, Asian Cup and FIFA World Cup. This is what will continue to draw Australians an New Zealanders to football and the Hyundai A-League.
The change is coming, but it will take time and I do not think that pop-up clubs with a short shelf life are going to help with building that momentum, despite the Australian competition being at odds with international standards.
Do you think the A-League should add one or more teams?