More progress for the game that never sleeps

It’s the time of year that schools, businesses and Australian households usually take a breather for the Festive Season, but not football. It’s the game that never sleeps.

While many organisations can pause and reflect on the achievements of the past 12 months, Australian football has time only for a quick peak in the rear-view mirror before continuing to power full-speed down the highway.

That’s what makes our journey so exciting at the moment. We’re making progress on so many fronts at a cracking pace.

How about last week’s Westfield FFA Cup final? We had a sold-out final, great drama and fantastic football. The magic of the Cup was felt everywhere with the silverware being held aloft by the joyous Adelaide  United team.

The FFA Cup is now firmly entrenched in the Australian sporting calendar, but it’s easy to forget that we only unveiled the Cup and announced the format in February this year.

It’s been a remarkable achievement for all involved, and I commend the State and Territory member federations and the 22 NPL and community clubs who joined the 10 Hyundai A-League clubs to kick off the Cup in the Round of 32 in July. You are pioneers who have built something grand.

At the same time, Western Sydney Wanderers FC were representing Asia and Australia at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco. It’s a travesty that such an important occasion was marred by the water-logged pitch, but as ever the Wanderers played with pride. The extra time loss was hard to take.

Now in the week of Christmas, we’ll have a Socceroo squad announcement for the AFC Asian Cup today (Tuesday) and Hyundai A-League matches on Boxing Day. In fact, there are eight matches between Christmas and New Year and another seven crammed into the first week of January before the competition breaks for the Asian Cup.

That’s why this column is not so much an “end of year” review, but a snapshot of today’s vista after a whirlwind 12 months.

From the professional tier to the grassroots, we’ve seen incredibly important achievements.

The 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil was hugely significant. Yes, results are critical and the Socceroos lost three games, but I know how the football community reacted with pride. Our national team played with a style and substance that was “made in Australia”.

There’s now a crucial link between the national team and the National Premier Leagues, a major national initiative rolled out over the past two seasons. The NPL model is designed to be the engine room driving our production line of elite players. Over the next two seasons, the A-League clubs will have teams in the NPL senior ranks and in time will have junior pathways and academies. The advances made this year will prove their worth in time.

The Westfield Matildas were marvellous in defending their Asian title at the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup. Going down to Japan had some consolation – qualification for the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. Unfortunately, like the Socceroos, the ping pong balls in the fishbowls didn’t do us any favours at the draw, but we have a new coach and a side full of skill to take on the top nations.

At the grassroots level, the announcement that AIA Affinity is the inaugural commercial partner of the MiniRoos program is significant for many reasons. This sponsorship will put resources on the ground to make sure Australian kids have a great introduction to football in clubs and schools.

Earlier in the year, the Hyundai A-League Grand Final at Suncorp Stadium was a classic. My personal experience was a little frustrating. With the Wanderers winning 1-0 thanks to a Matt Spiranovic goal, I headed down to the pitch to be part of the presentation ceremony. When the lift doors opened, I heard a roar! Yes, a Besart Berisha equaliser. I had a return trip in the lift to watch extra time.

Brisbane emerged victorious, but I’ll remember the wonderful colour and atmosphere created by the Roar and Wanderers fans.

In calendar 2014 we had two Westfield W-League Grand Finals, due to the fact that Season 7 had to be brought forward to avoid a clash with the Asian Cup. Melbourne Victory took the honours in the Season 6 decider over Brisbane Roar, then Canberra United grabbed the title over Perth Glory last weekend in the West. 

There were other amazing nights. Josep Gombau guided the Foxtel A-League All Stars to within 15 minutes of an upset win over Italian giants Juventus at ANZ Stadium. The way the A-League combo played that night was testament to the growing skill and technical excellence of our competition.

Of course, I’ll never forget the euphoria of Riyadh. The Western Sydney Wanderers are champions of Asia. Born in April 2012, the conquerors of a continent in November 2014. As I said, events are moving at lightning speed.

Behind the scenes, the less glamorous, but equally critical work of administration never stops. FFA has embarked on a Whole of Football Plan to get everyone in the game following the same roadmap. The first stage is consultation and there have been 13 public and stakeholder forums across Australia.

I’ve been so impressed by the insights of the football community at these forums. We have so many committed people who volunteer their time and effort to run clubs, coach kids, referee games and support our booming sport.

Our ambitious objective is to be the largest and most popular sport in Australia.  The Whole of Football Plan will give us all a set of tangible goals that we need to achieve if we are to meet our objective. I sense a unity of purpose across the game, and that’s a powerful force.

Before I go, I wish all members of the football community a peaceful and pleasant break. I hope football brought you joy in 2014. See you at a game soon.