Where will the money come from? After World Cup euphoria, Australian football confronts harsh reality | Australia sport

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Halil Hussein was gobsmacked when, on the day of the Socceroos’ historic round of 16 match against Argentina, a Melbourne newspaper ran an AFL story on the front page.

Hussein, a senior assistant coach at Hume City Football Club – one of the biggest in the Victorian NPL – could hardly believe that the Socceroos were not on front pages across the country.

“It’s just not right, the exposure that football gets, the coverage is just not there. Football doesn’t get the recognition that the AFL or cricket does, but we have a World Cup and we were in it.”

Hussein believes media priorities are one factor holding back football’s development, but lack of attention to the elite end of the sport is compounded by financial barriers at the grassroots level.

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“This is a sport that kids are playing, they’re involved in, and we need to give it the airtime it deserves, we need to give it the recognition it deserves. And we need to give it the funding it deserves,” he said.

In conversations with football coaches and administrators around the country, the lack of funding for grassroots football was a recurring theme.

Many said it contributed to a dearth of quality coaching, poor facilities and the exponential rise in costs for parents.

“The potential in this country is huge,” Hussein said. “But that is dependent on whether you can capitalise on that by supporting each family and each coach, to give them the development and incentives necessary.”

The 2021-22 Australian Sports Commission annual report showed how far funding for football lags behind other sports, with athletics, basketball, cycling, hockey, sailing and swimming all receiving greater financial support.

That same report showed that football was among the sports leading the “sector’s Covid-19 recovery after recording significant increases in participation since 2019”.

Participation has always been the game’s strength, with 43.8% of juniors in team sports playing the game and more than 1.4 million players in total across the country.

But the game is plagued with financial challenges at grassroots levels, particularly for those with ambitions to make a career as a player.

Football Australia says it is trying to improve community facilities – particularly to increase club capacities – amid an expected surge in participation after the Socceroos’ heroics, but there is a lack of support from all levels of government.

The chair of the Granville and Districts Soccer Football Association in western Sydney, Steven Elriche, said the lack of financial support meant many talented young players didn’t get their chance.

“The biggest barrier for our kids is the affordability of playing football,” he said.

Basic youth-level registration costs several hundred dollars a season, a big imposition on some families struggling with the cost of living crisis, Elriche said.

“But if you’re talented and want to progress through the ranks, it could cost you between $1,500 to $2,000 a year.”

In NSW, registration fees at the elite levels of youth football can be as high as $2,850, depending on age.

“We see tons of talented kids, some from refugee backgrounds, who can’t pay. And I don’t think we’re getting the best of the best in Australia,” Elriche said.

Fees vary for junior registration in AFL and NRL clubs, but they are generally lower, typically well below $400.

Elriche said some clubs supported players who can’t afford the fees and make arrangements so that talented players can continue, but that hasn’t stopped some players missing out.

Socceroos thank fans for their support as they arrive home from World Cup – video

“From the elite perspective, it’s very disappointing, because a lot of players from migrant or refugee backgrounds are the talented players that miss out.

“I really think there needs to be an identification program that targets talented players from less fortunate backgrounds. More money needs to be filtered into grassroots football.

“The decision here should never be about money,” he said.

But solving the puzzle of football funding is not a simple one.

The president of APIA Leichhardt in Sydney’s inner west, Tony Raciti, said football struggled to secure lucrative revenue streams from broadcasting deals because TV audiences for the A-League lagged well behind those of competing codes.

“Football in Australia doesn’t have mega TV rights deals like the AFL or NRL, so the governing body can’t filter that money down to grassroots levels and reduce registration fees.

“The clubs are not in a position to fund pre-registrations. Who’s going to pay all the costs of running a club, from the council fees, to the coach’s salaries, to the different kits? The costs right now are a necessary evil.”

Raciti said in some ways the game’s problems stemmed from its very popularity, with grassroots interest “exploding” across the country.

“Within two years, we’re going to have 50% boys and 50% girls in terms of participation. What other sport can do that? All clubs, across the country, are seeing registrations go up. It ticks all the boxes.

“Getting to that stage is an extraordinary achievement,” he said.

“And the Socceroos’ success absolutely is rooted in the game here. How much better could they have realistically done? Against footballing powerhouses? What they achieved was extraordinary.”

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