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Return of Adelaide’s NSL derby proves FFA Cup is a winner already

By Vince Rugari

Next Saturday looms as a landmark day for football in South Australia. For the first time since the dawn of the A-League, Adelaide City and West Adelaide will be back on the national stage.

The FFA and FFSA couldn’t have written a better script themselves.

Adelaide’s two exiled NSL clubs will compete for the Federation Cup in front of an expected bumper crowd at Hindmarsh Stadium, with the winner to progress to the round of 32 of the inaugural FFA Cup.

The nation’s new knockout competition has not yet begun, and yet this fixture is already validation of the FFA’s bold gamble to introduce it.

For as rosy as the outlook is now, it has always been a gamble. While a great idea in principle, the devil has always been in the detail. Australia has never had a consistent, truly national cup competition at the top level, and for good reason.

Firstly, given our love affair with grand finals and whatnot, there has never exactly been an aching need for more knockout football on the calendar. Secondly, owing to Australia’s geography, it’s pretty hard to get right and fairly expensive if you do.

The Australia Cup ran for seven seasons between 1962 and 1968 but was abolished because it was a financial and logistical headache. Years later there was the NSL Cup, but that only included NSL teams – none from outside the top-tier were involved. The numbers have never added up.

That is, until now.

Last week, the tournament’s inaugural sponsors were unveiled. Obligatory partners Westfield and Fox Sports are on board, but in a sign of the times, Harvey Norman and NAB – two companies that historically prefer to support rugby league and AFL – have also backed FFA’s investment and will help underwrite the cup.

Adding to the attraction for football hipsters, Umbro, the darling brand of style-over-results recalcitrants everywhere, will provide the match ball. Together, these sponsorships are worth $12 million over three years – enough to pay for the dream of a national cup competition to become a reality.

But while the FFA Cup itself is not going to pour millions of dollars of profit into the game’s coffers, it will make an enormous intangible contribution to the game. The return of the Adelaide derby is a prime example.

This is where football trumps the other codes. The FFA Cup emphasises the game’s universality and romance. There is room for everyone – the professionals at the top of their game, the state-leaguers trying to crack the big time, and the weekend warriors. No other Australian sport will shine as much attention to their state-league competitions and below than football will, from now on.

The tragic shame of the AFL’s two-team set-up in Adelaide is what was left behind. The South Australian National Football League (SANFL) is a proud old competition, made up of clubs that suffered a similar fate to those ex-NSL teams in the state leagues – becoming mere historical footnotes when the Adelaide Crows were formed to join the AFL in 1990.

It’s long been a source of schadenfreude for Port Adelaide supporters who often indulge in reminding Crows fans of the long-standing SANFL loyalties they abandoned. The Power, who rebadged from the Magpies to enter the top league in 1997, are the only non-Victorian AFL club that can lay claim to genuine suburban roots and a proper tradition.

This has meant no national exposure for the likes of Norwood, Glenelg and Sturt, these institutions of Adelaide that were pushed out of the picture by the VFL’s transformation into Australia’s competition of choice. It is the same deal in Western Australia and everywhere else in the country. The best they can hope for is the clearly soccer-inspired Foxtel Cup, a made-for-TV abomination played at low-intensity in front of empty stadiums on cold, lonely Tuesday nights. It means nothing to nobody, and is surely not long for this world.

Meanwhile, Adelaide City and West Adelaide are basking in the unique glory of football and on the cusp of national relevance once again. Their successor, Adelaide United, has brought everyone in South Australia together, but there remains a special place for the forerunners that blazed the trail in the NSL. Whoever wins could very well face an A-League side at their home ground, and through this prism, it’s an opportunity for meaningful engagement between the game’s newer supporters and one of the relics of yesteryear.

City are coached by the legendary Damien Mori and have dominated the local scene since the collapse of the old national league. They are the defending Federation Cup champions, three-time NSL champions and have long dreamed of returning one day to the big league. West Adelaide’s path to this point has been a tad more complicated, and a far sight more inspirational. The club was all but extinct at the end of the 1998-99 season, folding its NSL arm amid mounting debts and dreadful results.

But a Hellas senior team finally returned in 2008 after seven years of dormancy, and has slowly climbed from the bottom of the Adelaide football pyramid back up to state-league level. Their coach is former Socceroo Joel Porter, perhaps best known to A-League fans for his three-year stint with Gold Coast United. Porter took over from Ross Aloisi earlier this year and is so far doing a sterling job – Hellas have lost just one game and are clear on top of the NPL ladder.

Earlier this year, 3000 fans watched the old Adelaide derby open the NPL season with a 1-1 draw at the Adelaide Shores football complex. A crowd anywhere up to 10,000 is expected at Hindmarsh on Saturday week. For a game involving state-league teams, that’s sensational. It’s the perfect storm. It will be a match for the ages.

And to think this is just the beginning. Forgotten NSL rivalries will reignite like this, over and over again, all over the country. New ones will emerge. Clubs and players will make names for themselves. At some point, David will slay Goliath.

The importance of the FFA Cup will be repeated ad nauseam over the weeks, months and years ahead, but it simply can’t be overstated. This is football at its most pure. Bring it on.

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