Roar, Glory and Jets, plus The Big Blue dust-up

A complete guide to the game across two countries

The A-League kick-off just after Christmas 2020 coincided with the announcement of its independence from soccer’s governing body, Football Australia. Now the Australian Professional Leagues oversees the A-League, the W-League for women and the Y-League for young players. 

With the A$57 annual million broadcasting deal with Fox Sports also running out in July 2021, many feel it’s time to time for a rethink. At present, the A-League is a stand-alone franchise without promotion or relegation to the sprawling 80-team National Premier Leagues below it. 2020-21 newbies Macarthur FC made unwanted headlines quibbling over the A$3.5 million instalment – instalment, mind – of their licence fee to join the elite.

The other sticking point is the calendar. A switch to a winter season would align with the European transfer window and avoid the searing (and now dangerous) heat of the Australian summer. The timing of the World Cup in Qatar for the end of 2022 may force a rescheduling of next season into that calendar year.

While attendances remain quite modest, most of the 12 A-League clubs playing before four-figure crowds, the overall average bumped up by ever-popular Melbourne Victory, there are reasons for optimism. The A-League sprang from the demise of the National Soccer League (NSL), Australia’s failure to qualify for the 2002 World Cup on its doorstep hardly beckoning sports fans away from more deep-rooted football codes. 

The original eight-team A-League of 2005 is now a division of 12, with 16 the general consensus on an ideal expanded number. Waiting in the wings, Canberra and Tasmania are willing inclusions, although onerous travel logistics proved a disruptive influence on the structure of the NSL way back when.

As seen with MSL in North America, the gradual opening of soccer-specific spaces should change the dynamic of the game and ease reliance on large, empty stadia designed for other sports – particularly if a winter season creates scheduling clashes. 

Melbourne City are currently building a complex at Casey Fields, the hope also being for the kind of cross-city derbies that made the NSL an occasional success. Built on the principle of one city, one club, the now independent A-League can shape its own future – although the FA still has a say on potential newcomers.

The arrival of Western Sydney Wanderers in 2012 at last gave rise to the Sydney Derby, superstar Alessandro Del Piero saying kind words about the atmosphere, but it’s not on a par with The Big Blue, the term not only referring to the shirt colours of Sydney FC and Melbourne Victory. Both clubs date back to the origins of the A-League and claim the lion’s share of titles, although the trophy also going to PerthBrisbane and Adelaide has been good for the game. 

A move towards reconnecting with Australian soccer’s roots in its ethnic communities – which produced the likes of 2006 World Cup heroes Mark Viduka and Mark Schwarzer – is also seen as essential for more sustained growth.

The Socceroos no longer have a relatively easy passage to major finals any more, having opted to play in the same global soccer basket as Asia. A full house of 76,000 at Sydney’s Stadium Australia was sold out within minutes for the victorious AFC Asian Cup Final in 2015 but a shock defeat to Jordan when the Socceroos defended their trophy in 2019 proved that the days of 31-0 wins over American Samoa are long gone. 

The Matildas, meanwhile, gain a free berth to the 2023 Women’s World Cup being played at five cities in Australia and four in New Zealand. Kiwi women’s team the Football Ferns should be playing at least one match at the Cake Tin, aka the Wellington Stadium

This is also the home of the Yellow Fever, passionate followers of Wellington Phoenix. Covid restrictions for 2020-21 mean that New Zealand’s only A-League representatives played at the WIN Stadium in Wollongong, Australia. The Nix reserve side compete in the New Zealand’s National League Championship, a newly restructured competition to take place in the latter half of 2021.


Arriving and getting around by public transport

The vast distances involved in the A-League mean that flying is the only practical way to follow games between major cities. National carrier Qantas, its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar and Virgin Australia serve the main hubs. 

For relatively short hops overland from Sydney to Campbelltown, Gosford, Newcastle and Wollongong, check with Transport New South Wales.


The league system, cups and the Champions League

The A-League comprises 12 teams, who play each other three times during the regular season. A team hosts another twice and faces them away once, the fixtures reversed the following season. Three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw. Goal difference, then goals scored, divide teams finishing on equal points. The club finishing top after 33 games claim the Premiers Plate. The runners-up go through to the qualifying play-offs for Asia’s premier trophy, the AFC Champions League, along with the winners of the FFA Cup, which we’ll come to in a minute.

In recent years, the regular season has run from October to May. A switch to a winter season, ie from around March to October, may yet be brought in. The Finals Series involving the top-six finishers then runs over three weeks. The third-placed side hosts the sixth-placed, the fourth-placed the fifth-placed in the initial Elimination-finals. 

The winners go through to the Semi-finals, where the lowest-placed side from the regular season faces the one finishing top, the runners-up the other victors. All ties are decided on the day. These winners meet in the Grand Final to decide the A-League champions. Also offering a berth to the group stage of the AFC Champions League, the prestigious climax of the A-League season is hosted by the highest-placed club from the regular season, if its stadium is deemed suitable.

Currently, there is no promotion or relegation between the A-League and National Premier Leagues, sectioned off into eight state federation divisions of between eight and 14 teams. The leading ones are the modern-day descendants of clubs formed by ethnic urban communities more than half a century ago, often Greek or Croatian. 

The eight winners qualify for the National Premier Leagues Finals, whose Grand Final also offers automatic qualification to the following year’s FFA Cup. Each state winner also joins clubs finishing in the top four to six, depending on the size of the division, to play off within the federation. The winners are then declared Premiers Champions. The NPL runs down for several tiers, with limited promotion and relegation between them according to state.

The only time the A-League and NPL dovetails is for the FFA Cup, a 32-team team knock-out tournament usually run over a calendar year. The top eight in the A-League qualify for the initial round of 32, the bottom four play off for the remaining two berths. These ten A-League are joined by the previous NPL champions plus 21 clubs from the state federations. 

Each has its own qualifying tournament – for 2020, more than 750 clubs wished to enter from across Australia. State federations have specific allocations of berths in the FFA Cup Round of 32 in July, four for New South Wales, two for South Australia. This first round is zoned, after which an open draw operates. Ties are decided on the day. The final takes place in October or November.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

All A-League clubs have standardised websites (hooray!) with upcoming fixtures and ticket purchase across the top of each homepage. Sales and distribution are handled by two companies, Ticketek and ticketmaster. Buying on the day is also possible, with availability rarely an issue.

Average admission is A$25-A$40. Pensioners and full-time students are discounted at the Concession price of A$15-A$30, juniors (usually 4-16s) admitted for around A$10. A family package of four, sold at nearly all stadiums, comes to A$50-A$60. Some grounds also have standing areas. The gaggle of visiting supporters is usually allocated a single sector, the away bay.

Beer and fast food are plentiful, with bars in and and around stadiums. For international fixtures, you can also buy tickets online for the Socceroos, Matildas and New Zealand’s teams. Tickets for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, to be played in nine cities across Australia and New Zealand, will go on sale nearer the time.