Even Cheika and company gripped by World Cup fever

Sydney did not exactly grind to a standstill on Thursday night. Australia did not quite hold its collective breath.
Even Cheika and company gripped by World Cup fever

Yet, as the Socceroos kicked off their World Cup group game against Denmark there was the distinct feeling that what was about to unfold in the Russian sunshine over Samara did mean an awful lot to a considerable number of people.

According to the Australian Sports Commission and its annual AusPlay survey on sports participation, more than 1.1 million Australians are playing club football, making it the number one club sport for both adults and children in a country of 24m people.

Among Australian children, aged between five and 14, the AusPlay survey reports more than 610,000, or 19 per cent of that demographic, play organised football out of school hours. Which represents a big potential audience for Football Federation Australia.

In the here and now, the Socceroos’ 1-1 draw with the Danes topped the television ratings for Thursday night, according to Friday’s Australian newspaper, which reported that about 3.2 million Australians in total tuned in to public broadcaster SBS to watch the match.

In metropolitan areas the game bagged a 54.7% share of free-to-air viewers and a 39.6% share of the regional equivalent with a peak of 2.5m following the equalising penalty by Australia captain Mile Jedinak.

The bars in Sydney’s central business district had stayed busier in anticipation of the 10pm local time kick-off as office workers hung around to watch the game with colleagues rather than scurry back to the suburbs at 6pm.

And all eyes were fixed on television screens rather than pint glasses and the game was being discussed in all quarters. Even Michael Cheika, who will guide the country’s rugby union side into this morning’s deciding Test against Joe Schmidt’s Ireland in Sydney’s Allianz Park was discussing the Socceroos at his team announcement press conference on Thursday.

“I’ll be watching,” Cheika declared. “Ten pm kick-off, not too late, I don’t have to go to bed before midnight. I’d say (the players will) be up watching it, I couldn’t imagine they wouldn’t be, I don’t put the curfew on that they have to be in bed by 11pm.

“It’s a big game, they were unlucky in the last game, bloody VAR.”

Oh yes, VAR. The video technology in use in rugby for as long as anyone can remember is still new-fangled in the beautiful game and its introduction at the 2018 FIFA World Cup caused a bit of a stink in Australia when the Socceroos tasted an opening defeat to France following a VAR-influenced winning penalty for Les Bleus last Saturday as the Wallabies were losing to the Irish in Melbourne.

Bloody VAR, though, would come to Australia’s aid five nights later as striker Mathew Leckie caused panic in the Danish defence, his header deflected by the hand of Yussuf Yurary Poulsen.

As Aussies at the Samara Arena and back home in the pub screamed for justice, it took a while for referee Antonio Lahoz to cotton on before a word in his earpiece prompted him to stop play.

Pints were frozen in apparent suspended animation midway between table and mouth as Lahoz strode to the television monitor but it was not long before Jedinak had the ball, was ignoring Kaspar Schmeichel’s intimidatory tactics and sending the Danish keeper the wrong way to level the scores.

There should have been more as Leckie, who plays for Hertha Berlin in Germany’s Bundesliga, continued to give opposing defenders the runaround only for the Aussies to hit a brick wall.

Their dream is still alive after the 1-1 draw with a victory over Peru in the early hours of next Wednesday still making progress to the knockout stages a possibility but whether or not the Socceroos go home or stay in the competition, the work to grow the professional game back in Australia will continue apace.

As the aforementioned AusPlay statistics suggest, there is a solid constituency for football in the country and if you add in officials, coaches and volunteers in the sport to the participants it represents a body of 1.38m Australians, an encouraging number for what is still considered a non-traditional sport here, behind Australian Rules football, rugby league and cricket in the nation’s affections.

There is certainly an upward trend that will become more acute if the Socceroos make the round of 16 for only the second time in five appearances since their tournament debut in 1974.

Yet if there is an issue facing the sport’s governing body it is arguably how they go about converting those healthy participation numbers into spectators at its A-League games.

The league is still young, just 13 years old, and its 10 clubs (Melbourne Victory are current champions) are run frugally, unable to attract supporters to their franchises away from the more traditional amateur clubs which were founded by immigrants along ethnic lines and whose strength lies in the tribal nature of their competition.

The A-League season pointedly does not run over the winter months, when the youth and junior leagues are played out, but during the summer, thereby avoiding a clash it cannot win with the big-hitting, television-dominating Aussie Rules competition the AFL, and rugby league’s NRL.

A World Cup skews that thinking, with the Socceroos commanding the front and back pages of Sydney’s Daily Telegraph tabloid yesterday, morning but until next Wednesday’s final group game hoves into view, you can bet the centre of attention across every media outlet in the city will be tomorrow’s rugby league showdown between New South Wales and Queensland in this season’s second State Of Origin game.

Come the summer, however, and soccer has different competitors, namely beaches and barbecues.

In short, when the World Cup hullabaloo dies down, the A-League will need reinvigorating ahead of next season’s kick-off in October if that groundswell of support for the game is to transition into bums on seats at stadia.

The FFA is working hard to promote its home-based players and grow some recognition for A-League stars other than figurehead Tim Cahill, now 38 and soon to retire.

New heroes are needed in the gold shirts of Australia that can be followed week in, week out in different jerseys across the country over the winter. It will be a long slog for the A-League to truly find its feet in a land dominated by the heritage-laden AFL and NRL but there is optimism.

For now, engaging kids in a sport they want to play more than any other is surely a positive step. The trick will be hanging onto them as they grow older and then persuading them that the sport they played is the one they want to watch as well. Reaching the Round of 16 in Russia would be a good start.

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