Another milestone in the ongoing growth of Australia football will take place in four humble suburban grounds across the country on Tuesday evening. The FFA Cup will make its bow with the nationwide cup competition finally in operation nearly ten years since the A-League commenced.
In that period the national team has enjoyed a regular presence in the FIFA World Cup™, Australiahas joined the Asian Football Confederation, and a successful and buoyant national league has been established. This week’s opening FFA Cup matches will mark another step in the nation's football growth.
While there have been two previous incarnations of a national cup during the 1960s and 1980s, this much-anticipated competition is the first of the fully professional age. During those eras the FA Cup resonated with Australian football fans, perhaps more so than other overseas club competition. It is appropriate, therefore, that the FFA Cup is styled in the finest traditions of the English version, with local teams having the opportunity to win through to a meeting against the nation’s elite. There are points of difference - notably the A-League teams are forced to play away in their opening match - but the primary cup traditions remain.
The coming month will see the ten A-League teams, including the New Zealand-based Wellington Phoenix, join the Round of 32 alongside semi-professional or amateur teams from all six states. Those 22 teams have all won through to this stage via their local cup competitions in a process involving over 600 clubs.
Old and new align
The disbanding of the National Soccer League (NSL) in 2004 saw many famous clubs drop out of the top tier, and resulted in a natural schism between some segments of the game. The cup will mark the first time that the grand old names of Australian football will have a chance to test themselves against top-flight opposition in a competitive fixture. This round includes three all A-League ties, and the nature of the draw means at least one non-professional club is guaranteed passage to the semi-finals.
“The FFA Cup has taken on an almost mythical status among football fans who have longed for a national knock-out cup competition to fill a void in the football calendar,” said Football FederationAustralia chief executive David Gallop. “The FFA Cup comes to life as a very tangible link between community football and the professional tier. It’s a unique sporting link from the locals to the legends.”
Tuesday’s opening action in the Round of 32 will feature three clubs - Melbourne Knights, Sydney Olympic and Brisbane Strikers - who between them won five NSL championships, as well as producing countless national team players.
At least half a dozen of Australia’s World Cup players over the past decade learnt their trade at the Knights, most notably former Socceroos captain Mark Viduka. The Knights line up this week against the Brisbane-based Olympic FC, and awaiting the victor is a possible meeting with an A-League club - and a bumper pay-day. “To get a Melbourne City or Melbourne Victory at Knights Stadium would be just out of this world for the club,” said Knights coach and decorated former player Andrew Marth.
Lesser lights aim to shine
The Greek-backed Sydney Olympic, like Melbourne Knights, are two-time former national champions and boast similarly proud traditions. “It is nice for the club to be back on the big stage in this way,” Olympic coach Grant Lee told FIFA.com. “Who knows what can happen, and who you can draw if you win through the next stage.”
“It has taken a long time to get it (nationwide competitions) right and the cup is a natural progression, which brings a little bit more profile to the (state) league. It is nice for some of the big old clubs to be recognised, so this is a nice format for those clubs to have the chance to shine a little bit.”
Tuesday will also see a classic cup outsider line-up as self-styled “pub team” South Springvale from Melbourne’s third tier league take their place. But perhaps the quirkiest participant is Hakoah, a club representing Sydney’s Jewish community, who will take the field next month.
Hakoah is another of well-known old name in Australian football circles, and they are one of only two clubs listed on the honours board for both the 1960s era Australia Cup, and the later NSL Cup. While not strictly the same entity, it is somehow appropriate that this small fourth tier club secured unlikely passage to the maiden edition of the FFA Cup.