Paul Marcuccitti

Paul Marcuccitti is a passionate soccer fan from Australia who will share his views about the World Cup in this column.

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The golden wattle

    A couple of months ago, my girlfriend and I holidayed in the south-east of my home state of South Australia. It was only a short holiday - three relaxing days on the outskirts of a small seaside town - but it was sheer bliss.

    It's a common type of holiday in Australia. If you live in most parts of Europe, you can easily spend three days in another country. But, without meaning to delve too far into the obvious, my country is different. It's big, it's isolated and most of it is sparsely populated. Nearly 20 million of us live here but about 60% live in Australia's five biggest cities.

    And those cities are a long way apart. By road, Melbourne is 730 kilometres (450 miles) from Adelaide but, of the five main cities, those two are the closest together! Once you venture out of any of those cities, you can find anything really - including nothing. I live in Adelaide. With around 1.1 million people, it's the smallest of the five and the capital of South Australia.

    Robe, the small town we holidayed in, is 340 kilometres (210 miles) away. It was an easy enough drive because there are only a few towns between it and Adelaide. It's a nice "getaway" town because it has a quiet little harbour, a big beach and the countryside surrounding it is rather pleasant.

    And we stayed in a lovely beachside cottage. Winter is fairly moderate in my parts so a lot of Aussies don't mind getting out and about at that time of year.

    At some European beaches, it can be a nightmare just to find a vacant spot to rest your body on. But we've got over 25,000 kilometres of coastline down here and that means that there are plenty of places in which you can literally have a beach all to yourself - and we did. Perhaps that's a buy off for our inability to make quick and easy visits to other countries.

    I highly recommend the type of holiday I had in Robe. When it concluded, my batteries were recharged and my mind refreshed.

    The country roads around that area are quite pretty in parts. And one thing really sticks out - a beautiful tree called the wattle. It's everywhere and the sight of its golden flowers on a sunny day could inspire a painter or a poet.

    Regular readers might have noted that I'm not awfully sentimental. But seeing golden wattle after golden wattle really made me think about my country. It's our national floral emblem and, in a way that I couldn't possibly put into words, it's inspiring. Don't just take my word for it. Think of all the Australians - particular on the sporting field - who have drawn inspiration from the colour combination derived from those golden flowers and green leaves. (Yes, now you know why they're our colours.)

    We're fairly good in a lot of different sports. You can usually expect the green and gold to be at (or near) the forefront in cricket, rugby union, rugby league, field hockey and netball. We've produced some great swimmers including Ian Thorpe, the sport's current star and an utter freak in the pool. (Sadly, however, the "Thorpedo" has shocking taste in our sport - he's a mad Spurs fan!)

    I know he's not greatly loved but the world's No. 1 ranked male tennis player is Australian (from Adelaide too) and we also have a great history in that sport. We even broke new ground when a chap called Robbie McEwen won the points race (the green jersey) at this year's Tour de France.

    And there have been motor racers, golfers, squash players and even sailors who have represented Australia with great distinction. The America's Cup might be in New Zealand now but, in 1983, it was Australia that first wrenched it away from the New York Yacht Club's vice-like grip.

    I know I've missed plenty of high achieving Australian athletes in other sports but my mild outbreak of patriotism has probably bored you already. I'll conclude these "God, we're good" paragraphs by reminding you that all this sporting excellence has been achieved despite a small population (compared to, say, the US, the UK, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, etc) and while many of our finest sportsmen are engaged in a game which is virtually exclusive to this country - Australian Rules football.

    But you know where all this is going don't you? There's one sport which we just can't seem to get right - soccer.

    I may be a fan of many different sports but this one will always be my greatest obsession. My Italian father introduced me to soccer when I was a little kid; he took me to games and watched on television with me. I remember watching from as far back as the late 1970s when I was four or five years old.

    Unfortunately it always seemed like it wasn't an Australian sport. TV would only show an hour of soccer each week and local matches were played, largely, by European migrants and their offspring. The two biggest clubs in Adelaide had almost always been one that was established by Italians (which was called Adelaide City Juventus) and one established by Greeks (West Adelaide Hellas). Interstate you'd find Melbourne Croatia, South Melbourne Hellas, Sydney Croatia, Sydney Olympic, Preston Macedonia, etc.

    Therein lies the big paradox. Soccer's growth and survival has largely been due to the waves of European migrants that came here after the Second World War (like my parents did). But, on the other hand, the largest part of our population - Aussies with several generations of ancestry in Australia - has trouble warming to the sport and part of the reason is that soccer is considered an "ethnic" game.

    Soccer needs more general acceptance among those "dinky-di" Aussies. With it, our national league and national team would both benefit.

    I can think of no better examples than Steve and Mark Waugh. Both have represented the Australian cricket team since the 1980s and Steve is the Australian captain in test match cricket, the longer (5 day) version of the game. I love cricket and I've enjoyed watching them both play since I was a teenager. But, more to the point, both were outstanding junior soccer players and could, by all accounts, have played the game at a very high level. Cricket would have seemed far more lucrative and it offered clearer career paths. And so the Waughs were lost to our sport. There are plenty of similar stories.

    Australia's domestic competition, the National Soccer League, is in such bad shape that many observers believe it's on the verge of collapse. It is poorly attended; its profile in the sporting media is low; nearly half of the teams can't shake off their "ethnicity" and struggle to gain a wider appeal; most of the clubs are losing money hand over fist; and, of course, the standard is low. To top all that off, the teams are poorly distributed around the country. More than half are in the state of New South Wales and although it's our most populous state, it won't be able to sustain the number of teams it has.

    In my last column, I highlighted some of these problems and disparaged of Soccer Australia, the sport's governing body. To top everything off, we're stuck in Oceania - the confederation that Peter Goldstein once described (correctly) as FIFA's ugly duckling.

    I don't think I could have possibly painted a bleaker picture. And do you know what's worse? Every time there seems to be some sort of hope for the future, it's usually snuffed out fairly quickly.

    Soccer fans have had plenty of false dawns in this country but, despite the fact that I'm a born pessimist, I do feel that a turnaround might not be far away.

    The World Cup finals woke a lot of Australians up to what we're missing out on. That - coupled with Australian soccer's seemingly natural ability to shoot itself in the foot - has triggered a government inquiry into the sport.

    Publicly, at least, Soccer Australia has welcomed the inquiry. It's long overdue and there is a good mix of people involved. That gives me confidence that the inquiry will not only identify the problems - it might find some solutions.

    Of course, I reckon I have all the solutions and, through the process of public submission, I'll be sending them to the inquiry. You'll get it first on World Cup Archive ... but that's my next column, the last in the "down under" trilogy.

    Still, there are other reasons for optimism about the sport's future in Australia. There are plans for an "overhaul" of the NSL at the end of the current season. The probable outcome will be a streamlining of the competition and the speedy removal of clubs which can't demonstrate future viability.

    A couple of the existing clubs have actually proven to be successful on and off the field. There is no better example than Perth Glory. The city of Perth, on Australia's west coast, is a long, long way from the other major cities - even by our standards. Perhaps that helps explain why Perth didn't have a team in the NSL until 1996 (the competition began in 1977). But since the Western Australians arrived, they've shown the rest of us how it's done. Crowds are regularly around or over 10,000. That may not sound high but it's miles better than most other teams are getting.

    Most importantly, "the Glory" has integrated itself into the Perth community. I spent a week in Perth not long ago and I was impressed by what I saw. The Glory was the second sport item on the television news and visible on advertising boards and pamphlet stands in major retail outlets. I even overheard young schoolgirls talking about the Glory boys' latest match while I was on a local train! When it comes to domestic soccer, you just don't expect that kind of popularity in Australia.

    The Glory's success is even more remarkable when you consider how truly dire the NSL is. It's an example, however, of what can be achieved.

    There are other soccer lovers determined to make sure that Australian fans can see some half-decent action in this country. It's hard to attract major club teams here for anything more than an end-of-season holiday. Arranging big international matches is harder still. Usually, the best we can hope to see is high quality youth players. But that's much better than nothing. In 1993, Australia hosted the World Youth Cup. Adelaide hosted an entire group - Norway, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Brazil. Yes, we were treated to the Brazilians! And they went on to win the tournament having defeated Australia in a semi-final.

    I went to every Adelaide match. When you're soccer mad and Australian, you don't miss things like that. And the "which of these players will become good pros" game is always fun. I remember, for example, being rather impressed by Norway's goalkeeper - it was Thomas Myhre. The lanky Petter Rudi, who played a few seasons at Sheffield Wednesday, was also in that Norwegian side and he became quite a crowd favourite. Dida was goalkeeping for Brazil and in the Brazil-USA quarter-final (also in Adelaide), the authoritative referee was a Danish chap called Kim Milton Nielsen. England reached the tournament's semi-finals and its team included Nick Barmby, Chris Bart-Williams, Julian Joachim and David Unsworth. The most notable players representing Australia included Craig Moore, Kevin Muscat and Paul Agostino.

    Earlier this year, Adelaide played host to a new competition which brought talented young players to our shores. The "Festival Cup" invited Newcastle, Glasgow Rangers, Juventus, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Vasco da Gama to bring their best under-20 players here for a tournament. They were joined by a team selected from Australia's best youngsters and a team from China.

    It was an enjoyable tournament (Rangers won it, since you asked) but, more to the point, it shows the kind of resolve that many Australian soccer fans have to continue promoting the game.

    Indeed, we're even looking at a bid for the World Cup finals in 2014. OK, OK, before you burst out laughing, I know we probably won't get it and maybe 2018 is a slightly more realistic target. But I'd like to think that the ambition being shown in bidding for the tournament is a positive, a step in the right direction.

    While we're back on the subject of the World Cup, Oceania's eternal friend, Sepp Blatter, has repeatedly promised to give Oceania its best possible route to the World Cup finals yet. Yes, Blatter wants us to have our own spot. (I always said he was a great guy, didn't I?)

    It may surprise you to hear it but I'm actually rather sceptical about the merits of Oceania gaining an automatic place at the finals. And, seeing as Blatter can't deliver the finals berth on his own, it may not happen. If Blatter throws his clout behind OFC, however, we could come up with a happy compromise - like taking our qualification route through the second phase of the Asian qualifiers.



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