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Australia's FFA Cup closes divides between clubs

Competition modelled on English FA Cup

icon australia202220 August ~ The FA Cup may have lost a good deal of its credibility in England in the past couple of decades, but it's still thought of fondly in Australia, where for many years the final was the only English domestic game screened live on TV. But when Football Federation Australia (FFA) finally achieved its long-awaited goal of a national knockout competition, that residual affection was much less relevant than the pressing need to breach the gaping and often fractious divide between the A-League and the semi-professional state leagues below.

The ten A-League clubs came into the competition in July to make up the last 32 after each state's qualifying process had weeded out hundreds of tiny clubs with ambitions to get their often implausible name on the national stage (sadly neither Dapto Dandaloo Fury nor the St Mary's Band Club, drawn against each other in the first round in New South Wales, made it).

The survivors were a mixture of happy-to-be-here local clubs, ambitious newcomers and ethnic-based remnants of the old National Soccer League (NSL), some of whom have nursed bitter grievances since the establishment of the A-League in 2005, with its essentially artificial franchises, relegated them to relative obscurity. Those troubles have popped up again during the FFA Cup, with petty disputes over the display of national symbols (primarily involving the perennially disgruntled Melbourne Croats), while question marks remain over the competition's elongated format and cost.

But on the whole it has so far proved a hugely encouraging success, with healthy crowds, some dramatic ties and innovative media coverage. The first night of last-32 matches (four ties have been played each Tuesday across four weeks) attracted wall-to-wall live coverage on pay-TV, and live internet streaming on subsequent nights has been well received by fans unaccustomed to such nimble local initiatives.

One A-League club has already succumbed to a giant-killing, Western Sydney Wanderers going down (to a rather fine goal) against the former NSL club Adelaide City. Wanderers had to quickly recalibrate from that suburban setback when they resumed their Asian Champions League campaign at the quarter-final stage the following week by hosting Marcello Lippi and his multi-million dollar Guangzhou Evergrande squad.

The FFA Cup has given the likes of City and fellow former NSL sides such as Sydney Olympic and Brisbane Strikers a hint of former glories – toeholds that some hope will one day lead them into the A-League, or a second national tier. But equally importantly, it has showcased football's local roots in places such as Tasmania, Canberra and far-north Queensland which have previously had bad experiences – or none – at a national level.

With the draw arranged so that A-League clubs competing against their supposed inferiors must play away, many of the games have taken place at grounds that barely justify the word stadium (and in one case revealed highly disconcerting pitch markings). That was the case again last Tuesday when Hakoah went down 2-1 to Palm Beach (Queensland) on the less than hallowed artificial turf of the Hensley Athletic Stadium in Sydney's eastern suburbs, with the former Brentford, Sheffield Wednesday, Reading, Yeovil, Cheltenham, Luton, Barnet and some other places striker Lloyd Owusu grabbing Hakoah's goal.

One tiny stand and a few temporary tent-like structures were the only protection from a filthy night, but the game attracted a crowd of more than 1,000 against a team notionally at least two levels above Hakoah – Palm Beach, from the Gold Coast, have run away with the Queensland state league. Hakoah are a famous name in Australian football, having been one of the pioneers of the NSL in the 1970s before fan apathy got the better of them. Their driving force then, the businessman Frank Lowy, was subsequently a prime mover in the formation of the A-League and is still chairman of the FFA.

One of his functional Westfield shopping centres loomed symbolically behind the goal as Lowy, 83, braved the wind and rain to watch his club put up a stout fight before going out of the Westfield-sponsored competition. Lowy's dominance of Australian football has not left an entirely positive legacy, but for now the FFA Cup looks like a promising step towards greater unity among the disparate forces that have often driven the game to damaging splits and infighting. Mike Ticher

Joe Gorman of Guardian Australia has written evocatively on the history of some of the minor clubs in the FFA Cup ties. Find his reports here.

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