8 November ~ Australian football is hoping for good news when FIFA announces the hosts of the 2022 World Cup on December 2. It could certainly do with some, as the struggling domestic league lurches from crisis to crisis. Launched with huge optimism as an eight-team competition six years ago, the A-League was billed as the final chance for football to break out of its ethnic ghettoes and minority status, and occupy the mainstream of Australian sport. But all the hopeful signs of its first few years are turning to flashing lights and deafening alarm bells as crowds slump, financial doom threatens several clubs and expansion falters.
It's hard to say which of its problem children is likely to give the FFA the most grief in the long term, but the school has been on the phone constantly and police have been at the door in the middle of the night more than a few times. Last month Newcastle Jets seemed ready to go under before they were rescued by Australia's richest fat lad, Nathan Tinkler. He made his money in the booming mining industry, reportedly more than $600million (£376m) in just four years, has spent a lot of it on horse racing and comes across as a foul-mouthed, arrogant bully. Such is the desperation in one of Australia's oldest football strongholds.
Things are little better further north on the Gold Coast, where another smug, confrontational mining magnate, Clive Palmer, has overseen a shambolic expansion club, constantly at war with the federation. Crowds hovered around 5,000 in Gold Coast United's first season, as Palmer frequently closed three sides of the ground to save money. The club has survived several near-death experiences, but with barely 3,000 showing up this year, football is losing the battle with other codes for one of the most hotly contested patches of turf in the country.
Crowds are down everywhere, most worryingly in Sydney, where the defending champions have won just one of their first 12 games watched by an average of 8,000, half what they were attracting two years ago. Brisbane have suffered a similar drop, while Melbourne Victory, now challenged by an ill-advised expansion club in the same city, have failed to sustain astonishing averages of 20,000-plus in the past four seasons.
A bizarre calendar has not helped. The league has finally admitted what seemed obvious to many, that it was futile to start its season just as the other codes reached their finale in September – that will change next year. But one team is idle each week because there are an odd number in the competition. Add international dates, uncertainty over venues and favoured days of the week, plus plain incomprehensible scheduling, and you can understand why some fans simply can't be bothered to keep up. Central Coast have no games at their Gosford stadium between October 2 and November 21, then three in 13 days.
The exciting news, some would say, is that David Beckham and LA Galaxy are coming for a friendly against Newcastle this month. But if a meaningless game involving a washed-up celebrity is still a big deal, that's a sure sign the domestic game hasn't grown up enough to stand on its own feet. Mike Ticher