FFA Cup will finally bring the romance of football to Australia
Harry Gale has just fixed the tiles in my laundry. Jai Wadick is studying sports science at university. Kale Hopper is a high school teacher in Coffs Harbour. Cale Simmonds is a bank manager.
Twice a week they train together at the ''Cabbage Patch'', the home ground of Urunga Raiders. Last year the Raiders made history by becoming the first country team to win the Northern NSW State Cup. Until recently, the trophy was proudly displayed in a shop window in the main street of Bellingen.
In just a few weeks, the Raiders hope to go one better by defending their title and realising the ultimate dream of qualifying for the last 32 of the inaugural FFA Cup, when the big-name professionals from the A-League enter the fray.
Don't rule them out. ''It's the best team we've had in my time at the club, and that's 10 years,'' Gale says. ''It's such a healthy squad, everyone's fighting for positions.''
Such is the romance of the Cup – a fairytale the FFA is actively encouraging by guaranteeing the presence of at least a few minnows in the main draw. If you doubt the importance of this as a selling point, you must have missed this week's announcement of a portfolio of sponsors by David Gallop. Westfield have come on board as naming rights sponsor, joined by NAB, Harvey Norman and Fox Sports in deals worth $12 million over the next three years. Four blue-chip sponsors who are effectively investing in the middle tier of football – between the A-League and the grassroots – because they recognise the value of romance as much as the rest of us.
That connection between the top and the bottom of the game, between the old and the new, has always been part of the game's fabric. Yet so far it's proved to be a struggle to manage it. Hopefully it's a case of third time lucky.
The first attempt at a nationwide cup competition came during the 1960s, when for seven seasons clubs from most states traversed the country to play for the Australia Cup. Some of the players from the last winning side, Hakoah (now Hakoah Sydney City) still get together for lunch on a weekly basis in Coogee.
Then there was the NSL Cup, which ran for 20 years from 1977, but never truly captured the imagination because, for the most part, it didn't include teams from outside the NSL. The Achilles heel for both competitions was a lack of publicity, lack of corporate support and an ambivalent attitude from head office. The signs are the FFA has learnt from those mistakes.
So why is this competition so important? Mostly because it demonstrates a base that is deeper and wider than all the other codes. Everyone knows football's participation base is its greatest strength, so here's the golden opportunity to advertise the fact.
The inaugural FFA Cup kicked off in February with 661 teams. Next year, once the sponsorship money kicks in, there are hopes the entry list will grow three or four times. That's impressive.
Left fighting for a place in the last 32 (the draw will be televised on June 26) are 13 former NSL clubs (Sydney Olympic, Sydney United, Sydney City, Blacktown City, Parramatta FC, South Coast Wolves, Brisbane Lions, Brisbane Strikers, South Melbourne, Melbourne Knights, Green Gully, Adelaide City and West Adelaide), as well as the minnows like Urunga Raiders, Lismore Workers, Bayswater City, South Hobart, Mackay Magpies and Tuggeranong United.
Note down May 31 for a special occasion – the FFA qualifier between Adelaide City and West Adelaide, which is tipped to draw 10,000 people to Cooper's Stadium.
Once the main draw kicks in (games will be broadcast from July 29), Fox Sports are as keen as the rest of us to showcase the authenticity of the Cup.
''We look forward to taking our cameras to these boutique stadiums because we believe the romance of the Cup is one of its best selling points,'' chief executive officer Patrick Delany says.
Whichever way you cut it, the advent of the FFA Cup is truly exciting, and especially liberating for those from ''old soccer'' who have rightly felt disenfranchised since the arrival of the A-League.
All the serious football countries have a knockout competition, and finally we've joined them.