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Salary cap and lack of pro/rel holding back Australian soccer

Australia World Cup 2022

Australia punched its ticket to World Cup 2022 in dramatic fashion in June. It was a prideful performance from the Aussies to get to a fifth-straight World Cup.

It was gritty to get there against Peru. Australia played the role of a plucky underdog with its back against the wall. Peru appeared all but set to return to the World Cup. Instead, Australians celebrated with euphoric emotion.

Take Australian Manager Graham Arnold, for example. His reaction to Andrew Redmayne’s final save was that of a stream of tears. The qualification is a huge moment for Graham, particularly given the pressure mounting with qualification struggles. Images of John Aloisi’s penalty against Uruguay in 2005 came flooding back. This year, national heroes emerged in a flash of glory created just like they were 17 years ago. In 2005, it was Aloisi, Cahill and Schwarzer. In 2022, it was Redmayne, Mabil and Hrustic.

However, after the dust settled from the parties, Australians such as myself soaked in what happened. At that time, a sobering reality overtook me. While the Australian squad is going to the World Cup, Australian soccer is at a standstill.

Going back to before kick-off against Peru, Australian soccer carried a pessimistic overtone. Not many Australian supporters, media or anyone else gave them much of a chance against Peru and with good reason. Australia’s put forth a dismal qualifying campaign.

Australia claws into World Cup 2022

Australia finished third in its group. The three-best teams reach the World Cup or the first playoff phase. Saudi Arabia topped the group, eight points ahead of the Aussies. Then, Japan was clear as well, seven points better than Australia. In fact, the Socceroos only finished one point better than Oman, a country with a population smaller than Sydney. Australia drew with China and Oman and lost three times to Japan and Saudi Arabia, combined.

The move from Oceania to Asia for Australia’s soccer came out of ambition. The side qualified for the 2006 World Cup and sought more competitive fixtures. In consequence, the standard of the sport in Australia improves. Validation came with Australia qualifying for each World Cup since then, along with the 2015 Asian Cup on home soil.

However, the top six teams in Asia based on the FIFA World Rankings are as follows. Iran (No. 23), Japan (No. 24), South Korea (No. 28) Australia (No. 39), Qatar (No. 49) and Saudi Arabia (No. 53). Australians believe they are closer to South Korea, Japan and Iran than the two behind them. In reality, Australia is considerably behind those three countries at the international level.

Improvement domestically

One of the reasons for this is the struggles of Australia’s domestic league. There is a legitimate argument that Japan, China, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have better domestic leagues than Australia. The A-League must improve for Australia to enter the realm of the top-three nations for soccer in Asia.

The two main things that hold Australian football back domestically are their salary cap and the lack of promotion and relegation.

The salary cap deters big players on big salary’s from coming to play in Australia. This creates a level ceiling that young players coming up in Australia can play against. A young player in Australia might play against a 30-year-old journeyman who played in Europe’s top leagues sporadically. Meanwhile, a young player in China and Saudi Arabia is playing with world-class players seeking big-money moves. The argument for having a salary cap is that all the teams stay afloat and survive while the league stays competitive.

Here’s the catch, though. Only the teams within the league stay competitive in comparison to each other. The league as a whole doesn’t stay competitive, it falls behind.

Pro-Rel in Australia

The other factor of not having promotion and relegation is that there is no real incentive to improve. There is no drop awaiting if a club is not at its very best. It lets complacency seep in. Before you know it, finishing bottom of the league isn’t so. After all, you can just release all of your players and re-sign six more and try again next year. It also limits how many juniors and players we have playing at the highest level of football in Australia. People will argue we don’t have enough teams and stadiums and the standard will be poor but the thing is we have enough teams and stadiums and our professional league is poor and it will stay that way if we keep sleepwalking into mediocrity.

I was over the moon to see Australia qualify for the World Cup and I am extremely excited to watch Australia perform at the World Cup. The Socceroo’s are always punching above their weight in big tournaments. I just want to make sure that we qualify for the next big tournament and one way we can do that is to punch above our weight domestically as well.

PHOTO: Nikku/Xinhua via Getty Images

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  1. dave

    July 7, 2022 at 4:35 pm

    Congratulations to Australia on earning a ticket to Qatar. Based on the data shared, AFC has interesting parity – must make for a lot of nervy qualifying games
    Does Australia need a strong domestic league to improve its world standing? USMNT features many players with meaningful European club roles. MLS is a path for some, but a global sport provides global development opportunities
    Is the dynamic (time zones, visa issues, etc.) in Australia such that high-potential national team players cannot challenge themselves in Europe?

    • Christopher Douglas

      July 9, 2022 at 2:02 am

      Hi Dave, thanks for your comment.

      The qualifying is undoubtedly a rollercoaster.

      In regards to the domestic league needs to be strong to guarantee domestic success depending on what you consider success. For Australia being number one or two in Asia internationally would be a success. For the USA battling with Mexico for number one is the bare minimum in CONCACAF qualifying. If you look within North America you can see the two strongest domestic leagues happen to be the two strongest national teams in the region.

      I think while there are lots of Americans playing at big clubs in Europe that’s not the case for Australia because there aren’t many players, if any, which could start for any major European side.

      Australian football needs to be funded and expanded at a grassroots level which can take decades. What we can do now though is raise the standard of our top-flight division so that players don’t necessarily have to go to Europe or to get them to high-level European standards of football.

  2. Yespage

    July 7, 2022 at 12:35 pm

    The lack of Pro/Rel definitely impacts the bottom of the table incentive. However, for emerging leagues, I think the use of Pro/Rel would definitely impact investment in teams to begin with. Who’d want to put millions into a team that wouldn’t even play on the TV because they fell to the second tier?

    Promotion/Relegation works in Europe because the sport developed into that system organically. It isn’t as if in 1888 they decided to create 300 teams from scratch into a massive up-down league system.

    • Christopher Douglas

      July 13, 2022 at 10:47 pm

      Hi! Thanks for your comment.

      In regards to who would want to invest when their team wont be on TV – who says the games wouldn’t be on TV? We have lots of semi professional sport played on free to air TV here. From Rugby Union to cricket.

      Also no one is asking for a 8 tier football system with 300 teams and no one would introduce anywhere close to that number in one go. The only request is MORE players getting exposure to professional football.

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