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Sleeping giant looms over footy's fragile web

Richmond's Trent Cotchin after losing to Carlton.

Richmond's Trent Cotchin after losing to Carlton. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

The Socceroos' bubble burst disappointingly in the end. From channelling Eddie McGuire - "What a big week it's been in football" - ebullient Australian fans were soon reminded of another slogan: a week is a long time in any dog-eat-dog pursuit.

A fleeting glimpse of the possible again turned out to be no more than a shimmering mirage. But in 2014 another taste was offered of how exciting this World Cup thing could one day be. And it hasn't done the development of the round ball game in this country any harm. Long established sporting cultures don't change overnight. Australian soccer has come a long way in 10 years.

Which raises the question: is there more the indigenous game should do to insulate itself against any long-term challenge to its claim as most popular football code in the land?

Against the backdrop of high excitement at the early performances of Ange Postecoglou's team, last weekend's AFL round began with a stinker. It was surely one to have that self-confessed hater of modern football, Mick Malthouse, taking his hot milk to bed early.

No doubt plenty of ordinary soccer matches are played around the globe in any week. It's just that the Australian code exists within a more fragile web, and one poor spectacle, on prime-time television, can initiate a week-long discussion.

That match featured Richmond, a club that better than most reveals the plight of Melbourne's "battlers"; and indeed the plight of the AFL. The Tigers have a large and loyal following that has endured an excruciatingly long period in football's wilderness.

The patience of these fans has been tested beyond reasonable limits. And lately it's showing. Scarcely more than half the number who attended last year's game against Fremantle, when the team was riding high, were at the same fixture on the same ground a fortnight ago.

Richmond is the best supported of five Melbourne-based clubs for whom life, to borrow from Damon Runyon, is 6/5 against. North Melbourne, the least secure of the five, is the only one to have won a premiership in 34 years. The other three of the quintet, between them, haven't unfurled the prized calico in nearly half a century.

Now the five have a couple of AFL-backed newcomers climbing all over them on football's ladder of supposed opportunity. The progress of the two fledgling clubs in the non-heartland football states is symbolic.

On the field they needed all the help they could reasonably be given at their formation. For without a leg-up they couldn't hope to win hearts and minds in foreign constituencies. And it now appears that, following relatively brief periods of pain, both will be highly competitive. It's in football's business interests that this should be so.

The Famished Five of Melbourne, meanwhile, battle on with no end in sight to the misery. Five newcomer clubs from four states outside Victoria have won 11 premierships between them in the last 22 seasons. And you'd be battling to get 6/5 against the other three non-Victorian clubs winning flags before any of the Famished Five.

But this is not just about haves and have-nots. It's about the dichotomy of the AFL competition. Eight clubs outside Victoria represent particular geographical constituencies, while most of those in the foundation state rely on the loyalty of tradition, rather than of geography, for their support.

For the first decade of the national competition, the game's administration took the philosophical view that such loyalty wasn't sufficient reason to support the weak among those existing clubs. But, following a couple of acrimonious merger attempts, it did a complete about-face. Since the late-1990s, a commitment to the traditional clubs has been central to the AFL's ethos.

The inevitable problem is that its commitment to expansion, and thus its new clubs, is stronger than that to the old ones. It has to be if those new clubs are to survive, let alone thrive.

So there is a fundamental imbalance. And while the imbalance continues, the competition will continue to be two-divisional. Every attempt at equalisation so far, going back to the institution of the draft and salary cap, has failed to bridge the gap.

So what is the answer? Greater minds than ours have been turned to this over a quarter of a century without a solution. I recall a large AFL media briefing lunch in the first half of the 1990s when I put precisely that question to then-AFL commission power broker, Graeme Samuel. His reply, as I recall, was slightly cryptic and to the effect that "we all know the answer".

Samuel was a rationalist who preached mergers. And he lived to regret it. In a valedictory interview at the end of his 18 years on the commission he admitted that, had his 1990s proposal of six Victorian clubs entering three mergers been pursued, "... we'd have torn the heart out of Victorian football".

Yet, as the long-time sleeping giant of football codes in Australia gradually awakens, the AFL must more than ever be conscious of the need to run a competition that constantly engages maximum support. And the template of teams to most effectively achieve that, even after a quarter of a century of experimentation, remains unclear.

 

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