Australia Cup fallout shows why soccer must tread carefully with second division

The complicated modern history of soccer in this country was there for all to see in the Australia Cup final last weekend – not on the pitch, where Sydney United 58 and Macarthur FC fought out a cracking battle that has sadly been overshadowed, but in the stands at CommBank Stadium.

At the southern end, no more than a couple of hundred cowbell-ringing fans of the Bulls – the A-League’s newest club, based in Campbelltown – tried, in vain, to make some noise for their team.

Goalkeeper Danijel Nizic thanks Sydney United 58 fans after their Australia Cup final loss.Credit:Getty

But they were completely drowned out by the several thousand packed in at the northern end who conjured an atmosphere as wild and pulsating as any you’d find anywhere in world football, albeit entirely sullied by an unwelcome sprinkling of fascist salutes, symbolism and songs.

That latter group demonstrated exactly the reasons why the old National Soccer League folded and the “ethnic clubs” were sidelined by former administrators when the A-League was created in 2005 – while also, ironically, showing precisely why Football Australia is trying so hard to find a way to bring the ex-NSL clubs back to prominence.

The game desperately needs more scenes like last Saturday night, but it simply cannot afford that sort of baggage.

Two people have since been banned for life from attending FA-sanctioned matches for performing Nazi salutes, while Sydney United 58 has responded to a show cause notice from the governing body and is under pressure to weed out the problem elements from its hardcore support base.

A Sydney United 58 supporter has been hit with a life ban.Credit:Getty

Investigations by FA and NSW Police into other incidents, including one clearly racist gesture captured on camera directed towards Macarthur striker Al Hassan Toure, are ongoing. Jewish groups were left rightfully furious, as were Indigenous representative bodies who watched on with horror as the pre-match Welcome to Country was, at best, ignored, and, at worst, actively booed.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time as FA moves forward with plans for a national second division, to be launched in late 2023 or, more likely, through the winter of 2024. The concept has widespread support within the game, and most see it as a vital tool to help create more high-level opportunities for players and coaches and reunify the ‘old soccer’ and ‘new football’ tribes – even if some people have fair questions over how financially viable a second national competition could be when the first one, the A-League, isn’t exactly thriving.

To that point, others would argue that reviving the dormant fanbases of the ex-NSL clubs, leveraging their strong community-level engagement, and inching closer to a promotion-relegation system could actually help address the A-League’s problems.

FA has done well to bring in a host of new sponsors to back the Socceroos and Matildas, but the truth is it is having real problems convincing corporate Australia to take an interest in club football below the top level.

The Australia Cup – despite involving over 700 teams across every state and territory, more than the 150-year-old English FA Cup gets – hasn’t had a major sponsor for five years. The one it did have, Westfield, was a piece of charity from the Lowy family, while there have been similar problems finding support for state-level NPL football.

It’s easy to imagine any potential sponsors being scared away by what happened in the final. No blue-chip company would want to be associated with a competition where fans show blatant disrespect to First Nations customs, or wave banners featuring iconography closely linked to a regime that co-operated with Nazi Germany and was responsible for the extermination of tens of thousands of Jews, Serbs, Romani people and others during World War II.

Without a decent level of corporate support – and a broader projected image of inclusion, diversity and harmony – the second division simply isn’t going to get off the ground. FA knows this, and that’s why these events will almost certainly become a red line that any clubs aspiring to take part cannot cross. It’s a battle they won’t win in 2022.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of one’s ethnic heritage. In fact, that’s what FA want people to be: it’s why the federation canned the contentious National Club Identity Policy and rescinded a ban on the use of national flags at games. After 17 years of the A-League, the sport has hopefully matured to the point where clubs like Sydney United can be embraced and celebrated for their contribution without whitewashing their identities.

It’s also clear that for some ethnic groups, what outsiders might perceive as fascist behaviour, insignia or slogans might be seen, by them, as a core part of their ancestry. You need a PhD in Balkan history to sort through such complicated territory, and these topics are hotly contested even within their respective diasporas – but even so, ultimately, it comes down to a question of whether the progress of their club and their sport is worth risking for actions which cause direct harm to other groups.

That will be a matter for individual clubs and the people who support them to wade through and respond accordingly. Surely, this is one area where soccer’s myriad factions can find simple agreement.

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