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  • Writer's pictureBen Horvath

It's time for Australian football to unite and discard the negativity

It’s time. After decades of leadership by the conservative government, 'It's Time' was the infamous election-winning campaign slogan adopted by 1972 Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Front Page Football's Ben Horvath explains why it’s time for Australian football to unite and change the negative mindset that has often held the game back, almost five decades after Rale Rasic’s Socceroos qualified for the World Cup in 1974, the first of what is now six appearances on football's biggest stage.

The Matildas' rollercoaster ride to the Women's World Cup Semi-Finals united the nation on home soil. (Reuters)

In 2005, then Football Federation Australia President Frank Lowy successfully lobbied FIFA to move Australia from the Oceania Confederation, which it dominated for 40 years, to join the much more competitive Asian Confederation. Australia has been a solid power in the AFC for nearly two decades. The Socceroos won the Asian Cup on home soil in 2015 under Ange Postecoglou’s guidance and have qualified for five consecutive World Cups as one of the top five nations in the fastest-growing and most rapidly improving football confederation on the planet.

The country hosted the most successful Women’s World Cup in history, shattering all viewing metrics in stadiums, on TV, and across all social media platforms. It was undoubtedly the biggest sporting event in this nation since the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and the Matildas' strong fourth-place finish converted millions of fans along the way.

Yes, there’s still a long way for Australian football to mature and become embedded entirely in the country's culture. But Lowy made massive inroads, and more recently, current Football Australia CEO James Johnson is determined to continue down a positive, reformist path.

Australia united behind the Socceroos and Matildas during both recent World Cups. (Socceroos)

Explaining how I was indoctrinated into the game is relevant because many readers would be able to relate and then understand the motivation behind this article.

I'm the proud son of a football-obsessed Hungarian father who migrated to Australia in 1950 and a sports-mad Anglo-Australian mum of Irish descent.

Throughout my youth, I was constantly reminded by Dad and his friends about the 'Magnificent Magyars', the tremendous all-conquering Hungarian national team featuring Ferenc Puskás and Sándor Kocsis that went undefeated for six years, other than an inexplicable loss in the 1954 World Cup Final against Germany.

Dad often said, "Kangaroos will never be able to compete against the strong European nations." Looking back, I’m sure thousands of children of European and South American migrants would relate to hearing their parents say, “Australia will never make the World Cup; we are too far away to play football at the highest level.”

Dad was one of the original Blue Danube group, the loose collective of post-World War II Hungarian migrants at the grassroots level who were there from the outset in the formative years before the establishment of the powerhouse that later became known as St George Budapest in 1957. The great Yugal Prague side of the 60s featuring Leo Baumgartner and the Ninaus brothers was the previous benchmark before Saints became Australia’s strongest football club in the 70s.

As a child in the 70s, I attended just about every St George Budapest game at Hurstville Oval and then later at St George Stadium.

St George Budapest's 1977 NSL kit. (Australian Football History Facebook)

Dad started believing in St George’s great 70s side, and the first signs of a positive narrative change regarding the Australian national team came when Rale Rasic’s Roos qualified for the 1974 World Cup.

When Australia made it, Dad and his Hungarian mates were all behind the Socceroos. I, being brought up very much as an Australian, loved that, and so the undying love and positivity from our family towards the Socceroos, St George Budapest, and later, everything Australian football began then and continues to this day.

I stayed up late at night with Dad’s mates and watched all three of Australia’s 1974 World Cup group stage games against East Germany, West Germany, and Chile, back when only 16 teams qualified. Back then, Socceroos manager Rale Rasic was a God, and St George’s Socceroos in Johnny Warren, Attila Abonyi, Doug Utjesenovic, Manfred Schaefer, and Harry Williams were my heroes.

Manfred Schaefer (left), Jimmy Rooney (centre right), and Doug Utjesenovic (right) against West Germany in the 1974 World Cup. (1974 Socceroos Facebook)

As the Hungarian migrants aged, they assimilated into Australian societal structures and eventually couldn’t follow or help fund their club anymore.

Our family, though, continued to be Australian football supporters, watching everything, believing in, and supporting the NSL, even when St George was no longer involved. We just craved good Australian football. Whether it was the great Sydney Olympic side featuring Brett Emerton, Nick Carle, and Jason Culina, Adelaide City with Damian Mori, Milan Ivanović, and Alex Tobin, or Northern Spirit with Robbie Slater, Graham Arnold, Kresimir Marusic, Gabriel "Chi Chi" Mendez, and co.

When the A-League was established off the back of the Johnny Warren-inspired Crawford Report, we embraced the competition, never missing Ange’s great Roarcelona team featuring Broich and Berisha, or Tony Popovic's Mooy, Ono, Bridge, and Juric-led Wanderers who conquered Asia. We attended, supported, believed in, and enjoyed the improved level.

Internationally, the heartbreaking play-off losses to Scotland in 1985, Maradona’s Argentina in 1994, the 'Iran-gate' disaster of 1998, and Uruguay part one in 2002 were tough to take for Socceroos supporters.

Even though the Socceroos didn’t qualify for the World Cup for 32 years, there were still many green shoots. In 1981, the Young Socceroos, led by Peter Raskopoulos, Mark Koussas and Jim Patikas, beat Argentina 2-1 at the World Youth Cup at Sydney Sports Ground. In 1988, Frank Arok’s team, including Graham Arnold and John Kosmina, famously defeated Yugoslavia and made the quarterfinals of the Olympic games in Seoul. Four years later, in Barcelona, a team boasting the likes of Mark Bosnich, Ned Zelic, and Tony Vidmar finished fourth at the Olympics in Spain.

There were some incredibly memorable performances by the Socceroos against strong European and South American opposition. In 1988, Australia defeated the then reigning world champions Argentina 4–1 in the Australia Bicentenary Gold Cup. Charlie Yankos' pile driver in that game was particularly memorable. In 1997, the Socceroos drew with reigning world champions Brazil 0–0 in the group stage of the FIFA Confederations Cup. Then, they defeated Uruguay in the semi-finals to reach the tournament's decider. In 2001, after a memorable Clayton Zane goal, they beat world champions France in the group stage of the same competition, eventually finishing third at the 2001 Confederations Cup, beating Brazil 1-0 in the third place play-off. Australia also famously defeated England 3–1 in 2003 in a memorable friendly at Upton Park.

Despite the green shoots on the pitch, the game's administrative side always lacked organisation. It exhibited a lack of belief, seemingly expecting its national team not to qualify for World Cups. In the 70s and 80s, Sir Arthur George was the low point, whilst the figures of David Hill, John O'Neill, and David Gallop in the 90s, 2000s, and 2010s weren’t much better.

Australian football seemed naive, and it had little to no support at FIFA.

Lowy made confident, forward strides aplenty during his term at the head of the FFA, establishing the A-League, whilst the Socceroos qualified for four World Cups under his and later son Steven’s watch. Current Football Australia CEO James Johnson is seemingly the absolute great white hope, and he has led a commercial resurgence by securing broadcast deals with Network 10 and Viacom CBS and sponsorship deals with Commonwealth Bank Australia, Cadbury, and Rebel Sport. During Johnson’s tenure, the domestic game underwent a significant governance transformation, with the A-League being separated from Football Australia. Johnson also helped secure Australia and New Zealand’s hosting rights and delivered the best FIFA Women’s World Cup this year.

From the infamous 2006 World Cup qualification win over Uruguay to this day, Australia has progressed a long way towards becoming a genuine football nation.

The unity on November 16, 2005, was undoubtedly palpable. (Socceroos)

There is still, though, much work to do.

Bizarrely, the A-Leagues are currently not broadcast regularly on one of the country's four major free-to-air channels. Yes, it has two games broadcast live, on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, which is on 10 Bold, not the main Channel 10.

The solid standard of the A-Leagues deserves prime-time free-to-air coverage on one of the major channels and generally a lot more media support.

Australia punches well above its weight internationally. As mentioned, the Socceroos have qualified for the last five men's World Cups, making the Round of 16 and finishing 11th at the 2022 edition, with a primarily A-League-based and produced squad. Meanwhile, the Matildas made the semi-finals whilst hosting the best Women’s World Cup to date, and Football Australia have now cemented friendships at FIFA. There is word a National Second Tier is months away from becoming a reality.

Unfortunately, though, there are still factions of the domestic game that still too often revert to a familiar negative mindset. Murmurs of negativity towards the proposed National Second Tier and criticisms regarding the level of the A-Leagues and the Socceroos are still prevalent.

The fact is Australia can compete against most teams.

“Australia is a good team, and we did not underestimate them. They were hard-working, honest, and have a good team spirit. They made it hard for us,” England international James Maddison said after their recent friendly against Graham Arnold's side.

The quote accurately sums up where the Socceroos stand after the defeat at Wembley. The national team is ranked 27th in the FIFA rankings, higher than some influential and historical European footballing nations such as Serbia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czechia, Turkey, Norway, Scotland, and others. The A-Leagues have proved decent development leagues that can export dozens of players annually into mid-tier European divisions and sometimes even higher.

Australia put in a cohesive attacking performance against New Zealand after losing to England at Wembley in their most recent FIFA window. (Socceroos)

Men’s players like Riley McGree and Samuel Silvera have recently gone straight from the A-Leagues into starring roles in the English Championship. Many A-League Women's talents have recently progressed into the English Women’s Super League. There are now thirteen Australian players plying their trade in the competition.

When China hosted the Socceroos against current world champions Argentina, it was ahead of showcasing their Chinese national team. Whatever way you look at that, it is significant recognition in Asia. Despite losing, Arnold's side played a fearless, eye-catching brand of football against the world’s number one. In September, when he fielded an understrength lineup away to world number 12 Mexico, Australia drew 2-2.

Meanwhile, the Olyroos beat France at the prestigious Maurice Revello Tournament, and the Young Socceroos also just beat France, Denmark, and the Netherlands at the Marbella Week of Football, providing further evidence that younger A-League players are competing favourably against some of the best in Europe.

Players like Jordan Bos, Aiden O’Neill, Ryan Strain, Lewis Miller, Patrick Yazbek, Nicholas D’Agostino, and more have moved from the A-League Men. They are doing exceptionally well in Belgium, Scotland, and Norway. I remember attending games in the 70s and 80s when Scottish club teams like Hearts and Rangers toured here and played against the Australian national team. Now, Australia is exporting players from its top club competition into their league. That’s undisputed progress. Yes, 'Golden Generation' exports like Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Mark Bresciano, Vince Grella, Paul Okon, and Ned Zelic broke into even bigger leagues. But in the last year or two, the number of A-Leagues exports has risen significantly, which augers very well for the future.

Jordan Bos (left) and Ryan Strain (right) are doing well in Belgium and Scotland, and for the Socceroos. (Socceroos)

It looks like this trend is set to continue, and one hopes the A-Leagues and a possible second division continue to give young homegrown talents a go. In recent months, further down the pyramid, a swathe of NPL NSW talent has also graduated into the A-League Men, with names like Aidan Simmons, Justin Vidic, Nathan Grimaldi, Fabian Monge, Jack Gibson, Alex Bonetig, and many others securing contracts.

Australian football needs executives with a background in the game, like Johnson, to continue running the federation. It requires the Bozzas, the Fosters, the Okons, Postecoglous, Vidmars, Kewells, and other former players, coaches, and administrators who have been at the top level in Europe to formulate plans and make decisions for the game.

From my experiences as a player in the NPL youth system in the 80s, many age bottlenecks in the 16s to 18s bracket and 18s to 20s still exist today. Back then, though, you also had the U23s and Reserve grade providing opportunities. But there were no A-League level academies.

Currently, thousands of mums and dads still have to pay an average likely in the $1,000-2,000 range for their son or daughter to play NPL youth because there’s such a lack of funding from governments at every level.

Additionally, too many NPL clubs put their sole emphasis on their men’s or women’s senior teams and do not take enough interest in developing the club's U20s, 18s, 16s, and younger youth age teams. The SAP program started with much promise a decade ago. But it has since morphed into a money spinner whereby many clubs have become overly dependent on junior fees to help pay their senior players.

A Football NSW SAP Gala weekend. (Football NSW)

That is the current state of play. It's not like there aren’t some very well-run, development-focused SAP and NPL youth teams in the top tiers because there are. But again, there’s not enough funding from federal and state governments, corporate support, and a severe lack of media coverage of the game. Notably, Ange Postecoglou and Graham Arnold again highlighted the lack of government funding for the game before the England friendly. Change in this department is well overdue.

Australian football supporters like myself have become extremely frustrated with the division amongst some factions of fans, administrators, and other contingencies in the game.

After the Socceroos and the Matildas' success in their respective World Cups, it’s time for everyone in the game to unite and believe, despite the ongoing challenges, some of which have been alluded to above, that have existed for decades.

Johnson has recognised many issues and is busy improving corporate governance one problem at a time. He is trying to connect the football pyramid and bring all the various state federations and groups together whilst also lobbying federal and state governments and corporate Australia for the good of the game.

James Johnson is trying to connect the football pyramid in Australia. (Football Australia Facebook)

It’s time for football fans in Australia who only watch the English Premier League, La Liga, or Serie A to get behind, or at least take an interest in the A-Leagues, Socceroos, and Matildas.

Too many Australian football fans are completely unaware of the meteoric rise of Asian football and don’t understand that qualifying and competing successfully in Asia is now extremely difficult.

There’s mounting evidence Asia is rapidly bridging the gap to Europe and South America as a confederation. Asia has moved ahead of CONCACAF and is arguably on par with Africa regarding development, results, and potential for future growth. Look at what is happening in Saudi Arabia, both in clubland and with their national team. Look at the strength of Japan defeating Germany and Spain at the World Cup, along with the rapid improvement of countries like South Korea, Iran, Uzbekistan, Qatar, Thailand, Vietnam, the UAE, and many others.

There’s no better time to move on from the last remnants of the negative mindset from some sectors within the game and acknowledge that Australia is now a respectable mid-tier footballing nation with the potential to be so much more.

The obvious geographical difficulties regarding distance will always be there. But star exports of years gone by like Aaron Mooy, Mathew Leckie, and Tom Rogic progressed to the EPL, Bundesliga, and Scottish Premier League from the A-League, and now Australia is exporting coaches too, with Ange Postecoglou at Tottenham, Kevin Muscat at Yokohama, and several more likely to follow in their footsteps.



The A-Leagues are Australia's top-tier national competition; it is something football fans should be proud of.

Yes, it does need to expand to 16 teams and 30-game seasons at a minimum, and yes, the landscape does require a second division with promotion and relegation as soon as possible to keep up with Asia’s growth. The domestic competition still probably sits third or fourth behind the AFL, rugby league, and cricket, and maybe it will for many years to come. But the game is resilient; it has by far the highest participation rates of any sport, and Australia can realistically aim to be at least a top 20 or even top 10 football nation in the future. Remember, the Golden Generation reached a FIFA world ranking as high as 14th in 2010.

Australia undoubtedly has the talent; its football fans, critics, and administrators need to believe, unite, be comfortable with the country's realistic place in the global pecking order, and eliminate the negativity once and for all.

The Global Football Rankings places the A-League Men at 29th on their list, between competitions such as League One and League Two in England. That seems about right, with all things considered.

On many other domestic league ranking systems, like Opta, the A-League Men is ranked ahead of divisions in many historic European football countries, per Australia's international ranking. Furthermore, its crowds and stadiums also compare favourably.

It is fitting that the final word here goes to the 2023 Central Coast Mariners championship-winning A-League Men manager, Nick Montgomery. Remarkably, 'Monty' was only coaching the Mariners' U18s in the NPL NSW 2 just a few seasons ago, and now he has made a solid start to life with Hibernian in Scotland.

“A lot of players from the A-Leagues have gone to top clubs all around the world. In the last 12 months, I’ve sold a player to Newcastle United (Garang Kuol), we sold a player to Bayern Munich (Anthony Pavlesic), and obviously, a lot of players have come to Scotland. To see the success [they’ve] had is fantastic," Montgomery said in a recent interview with the BBC.

"Australian football is a very good standard. It’s just a country that has so much sport. It has shown that if you can be successful there, you can come to top leagues around the world like the Scottish Premiership and compete.”

He's singing the praises of the A-Leagues, and he's no longer in Australia. It's time for all football fans in this country to follow suit and replace unhelpful negativity with renewed positivity and optimism.

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Ben Horvath
Ben Horvath
Oct 30, 2023

Both great comments, value your feedback. Thank you. I'm working on a youth pathways piece in the not too distant future that touches on the above points. At the end of the day i believe increases in gov funding are absolutely crucial in bringing about improvements to the current pay to play system.


Oct 29, 2023

So how do we overcome the issues of lack of government funding and lack of media support. You overcome these issues and you are significantly progressed to have the various current competing parties in the game working together for the greater good


Strike Force Academy
Strike Force Academy
Oct 29, 2023

Well said & great opinion piece .

AUS world ranking is too high & does not reflect the true level and quality of play. yes , I know it’s hard to hear that, but it’s true nonetheless..

our pay for play system that has been adopted in all “high” level clubs

(same problem as the USA ) denies great talents from reaching their full potential because of money..

more so , players that don’t live around a big city have practically almost no chance of getting picked to represent aus or even trial for a ”higher“ level club Unless they have prior SAP or NPL experience , which means they had payed their way through.

not to say they are…

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