If you think of sport in Australia and draw up a numbered list of the undertakings that this famous sporting nation are most renowned for, football won't be high in the order. In fact it probably wouldn’t even make the cut. Yet this perception would now be wrong. Although they fell at the first stage of the 2014 World Cup, the performances of the ‘Socceroos’ caught the footballing world’s attention. Their recent triumph at the 2015 Asia Cup, held on home soil, has simply confirmed what people are now steadily beginning to realise – Australian football, or ‘Soccer’ as the natives down-under call it, is on the rise and this ascension is showing no signs of slowing down.
Let’s start with that Asia Cup triumph. Australia’s extra-time victory over South Korea made them the first ever international team to become Champions of two Confederations, following previous successes in the Oceania Football Confederation Nations Cup. It also meant they are the first country to simultaneously hold the AFC Asian Cup and AFC Champions League titles, with Western Sydney Wanderers stunning Asia’s finest teams to win the continent’s premier club tournament. Playing in an aesthetically pleasing possession based and attacking style, they won 5 of their 6 games, scored 14 goals and had 4 players in the team of the tournament. Winning it pushed the game even further into the hearts of 21st century Australians – indeed when James Troisi scored the dramatic late winner in the final, more than 5 million people were watching. The tournament captivated the nation, with a total of 649,705 people flooding through the turnstiles. With the women’s team winning the Asia Cup in 2010, and the men’s team now due to appear the next FIFA Confederations Cup, Australia is taking on ever more territory on the global football map.
Yet it’s not just at an international level where Australian soccer is thriving. The growth and reputation of the Australian A-League is well-known, with the holders just happening to be from the Sport Lived gap year destination of Brisbane, three times champions Brisbane Roar. The league continues to expand and gain international appreciation, with more and more fans tuning into see the likes of Melbourne Victory, Perth Glory and Sydney FC. The acknowledgement of the development and potential of Australian football is evident in Manchester City’s acquisition of A-League side Melbourne Heat. While old famous names such as Alessandro Del Pierro and now David Villa have been there to see out the twighlight years of their careers, the league has provided a fabulous platform for the current generation of Australian players, such as Mark Milligan and Matt McKay, to demonstrate their immense talents. The A-League, and the players residing within it, are no longer mere sub-plots to the world of football but are taking their place on the centre stage.
The quality of Australian football is evident from the number of players its system continues to produce who play the game around the world. The likes of Golden Glove winner Matthew Ryan, Mile Jedinak, Trent Sainsbury and 80-capped Luke Wilshire may not be household names but they are play pivotal roles for their sides in some of Europe’s biggest leagues. Such players were developed and refined within a domestic system that is finally receiving some long over-due recognition. It is a system that you will get an invaluable taste of by doing a football gap year programme in Australia with Sport Lived. Increased international success, a stronger domestic scene and an rise in Australian players showcasing the nation abroad is contributing to its steady ascent up the footballing ladder.
The outstanding football on offer in Australia is enhanced by the impressive facilities that accommodate it. Brisbane Roar, for example, play in the magnificent 52,000 seater Suncorp Stadium. Fans are getting to see teams facing off in some of the country’s grandest sporting arenas, such as the Melbourne derby at the equally striking Etihad Stadium. The infrastructure and facilities were a key factor behind Australia’s decision to bid to host the 2018 World Cup, while the Asia Cup was defined not just by the quality football but the superb environment it occurred in. However, it is not just these great stadia that make the Australian facilities so terrific. The quality has filtered down to the grass roots levels, contributing towards the more and more youngsters taking up the game. Australian clubs, which often have 5-10 men’s teams and several ladies’ sides, are known for their structure and playing facilities as well as their fervour. Yet don’t think that this is just a recent revolution. A nation defined by its passion for sport has long provided fantastic opportunities for footballers wishing to develop their games.
Winning this Asian Cup as put the Socceroos and Australian ‘Soccer’ back in the public eye but it hasn’t catalysed a rise – the ascent was already being made. As Manager Ange Postecoglou stated after the final, ‘this shows that Australia is only increasing in quality, that our league deserves respect, our players are worth courting and that we are far from being a peripheral nation’. Australia had to wait 32 years to make a return to the World Cup in 2006 when they made the quarter-finals. Football was, rightly or wrongly, seen by some as being on the periphery of the Australian sporting landscape. This is no longer the case. A resurrected domestic game, increased participation, international success, higher quality and excellent facilities have combined to make the country a wonderful place to play the game.
Australian football’s rise has been a steady one but it’s gaining greater momentum. If there was ever a time to head there to play the game it is now. Football no longer stands in the shadows of rugby, cricket and others. The Soceroos’s success at the Asia Cup and the way the tournament engrossed the nation was not just a timely reminder of what football is now like down-under but an indication of what it can become. Australia is famous for many sports – football is about to become another one.