Contributed by: Brett Northey Sunday, November 16 2008 @ 12:13 pm ACDT
The battle for Australian hearts and minds, in football terms, continues unabated. And it seems the field of battle is spreading to include neighbouring nations.
The Rugby League World Cup is currently being staged in Australia. As would be the case with a true Australian football World Cup, the Aussies are dominating. However the gap to the next rung of sides is not as great as in Aussie Rules, and the defence-oriented game helps keep the scoreboard relatively respectable. Nevertheless it has been interesting to hear quite a lot of criticism of the tournament, with some media lambasting the level of promotion and/or the quality. But Australian football can only look forward to a time when our International Cup reaches the same level as the RL World Cup, which itself sits a poor third to the Rugby Union WC and soccer's WC.
Disturbingly for Aussie Rules fans, there is talk that Rugby League is now rapidly growing in Oceania (Fiji, Tonga, Samoa etc), and moves are afoot to locate an NRL (Australian National Rugby League) club in Port Moresby, PNG. Meanwhile negotiations are under-way for the AFL to vacate its major venues for up to 2 months if Australia is successful in its bid for the 2018 soccer World Cup finals.
It has been widely reported that if Australia is to host soccer's major event, then the only stadia capable of holding adequate crowds across the various states will be AFL and NRL venues. Ironically that is because soccer has not had sufficient success to build large stadia for itself. Yet now it has re-branded itself as simply "football" and increasingly journalists are abused if they dare to refer to it as soccer (its original nickname to distinguish it from the other codes of football). Some of kind of reverse-racism is in play - where once soccer was considered a game for ethnic minorities, now to even call it by that name is seen as discriminatory, yet its supporters and administrators claim the name football for themselves. Sadly, Australia's national broadcaster, the ABC, has fallen into line.
And the sport's peak body will almost certainly succeed in gaining access to the major venues of Australia, if it does secure the soccer World Cup. That's because bodies such as the AFL and NRL would be seen as, that ugly term, "un-Australian" if they didn't support the country's bid, and no doubt there would also be government pressure to fall into line. On the upside there may be opportunities to improve some of the facilities through government and soccer funding, but it will be at the cost of the round ball game taking centre stage in the years leading up to the tournament.
Fiji's success in the Rugby League World Cup is said to have created major interest in that country, and it has now been reported that Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister, Michael Somare, is prepared to offer government support to a PNG side in the NRL. That would surely cement League as that country's number one sport at a time when Australian football, though by no means challenging for number one, has been doing so well.
The chief of NRL club the Gold Coast Titans, Michael Searle, has suggested[*1] that the NRL should in fact focus on Darwin, PNG and Oceania, rather than traditional Aussie Rules cities like Perth and Adelaide. He points out that "If we had teams along the eastern seaboard, in northern Australia and Papua New Guinea, in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands, then all of a sudden we'd be looking very different to the AFL" and "If we could own Darwin and Papua New Guinea as well as the eastern seaboard of Australia and New Zealand, that would give us demographical dominance over the AFL, who have focused on geographical dominance".
The AFL is focussed on the Gold Coast and Western Sydney, with increasing interest in South Africa and Oceania. The NRL hierarchy itself appears to be battling just to hold its ground, but there are influential people that are pushing for moves into Perth and Adelaide, and others pushing for Darwin and Oceania. Meanwhile soccer appears capable of pushing simultaneously on all fronts, using its international connections.
It was interesting to see the fervour that gripped Adelaide's media as Adelaide United, the city's soccer team, pushed all the way to the final of the Asian Club Championships. All forms of media gushed with praise, and there were even members of the public, allegedly Aussie Rules supporters, pledging that an Adelaide United win would mean more to them than an Adelaide Crows flag in the AFL.
One well known Adelaide sporting commentator, K.G. Cunningham, after speaking about how excited he was about one match, when pushed admitted that he hadn't actually found the game interesting. Yet he was still over the top with excitement because of the international nature of the competition. Like it or not, call it a cultural cringe or not, that is increasingly the Australian focus. And one thing is for sure, if any code stumbles or does not have the stomach to play this battle on the international stage, it will fall by the wayside.