Opinion: Report card on IC2005

Sunday, August 21 2005 @ 10:14 am ACST

Contributed by: Brett Northey

After following international footy for some time, and reporting on it in detail for over a year, it was a pleasure to meet so many people I have dealt with by email, online forums and phone. It was also great to see the Cup in the flesh having been unable to attend the inaugural 2002 event.

So many people have expressed opinions, mostly positive but some negative, about the Cup and its role in football and whether the AFL should do more. Having read such comments here and elsewhere, and seen the tournament first hand, and debated and discussed the issues for some time now, including during the event with many other international footy supporters, I thought it would be a good opportunity to offer my own opinions about the 2005 Cup - hopefully well-founded thoughts but nevertheless just personal opinions.

Country Numbers

Firstly there is the issue of the number of teams. 11 attended in 2002 and it was hoped 2005 would see more. 12 confirmed their entry, but Denmark pulled out with several weeks to go, and Nauru just a few days out, leaving 10 teams. This was by no means a disaster, as 10 is still a good showing and the original 12 certainly represent the vast majority of countries with Aussie Rules programs in place with significant development of nationals rather than expatriate Australians only. It also allowed a semi-final system which produced great footy. It was no surprise Nauru pulled out, as their tiny nation is in a perilous financial situation. It was just very unfortunate timing after the AFL had widely published the draw. Denmark had financial, internal political, injury and unavailability issues. The only way to get more countries to attend would be significant financial contributions from the AFL, which will be discussed later.

Player standards

Those that attended the 2002 Cup are of no doubt that across the board the standard of play had risen in 2005. This is probably the single most encouraging point. Troy Beard, coach of Japan, remarked that although Spain were beaten badly in most games, they were still better this time than the winless teams of 2002, Japan and South Africa. Having personally seen South Africa just 6 months ago, they have improved dramatically.

If one is to be brutually honest, the bottom few sides probably aren't above the bottom levels of amateur football in Australia. The skills are still lower, but the commitment and fitness are higher - there's no doubt all the teams trained hard, as expected as representatives of their countries.

The higher ranked sides, generally with more players who took up the game as juniors, would probably compete well just off the top of the major amateur leagues, such as the Victorian VAFA or South Australian SAAFL, although this is hotly disputed even within the ranks of World Footy News. The Grand Final between PNG and New Zealand was a high standard, especially considering big match pressure was on, and it compared well with the 2002 final (available to watch on the AFL website for subscribers). There is no doubt the Kiwis were the stand-out nation and played a very polished game, with great discipline, strength and skill. The PNG of 2005 were no doubt better than 2002, but again runners-up. The smaller fields, higher pressure and shorter quarters of the Cup probably masked just how good the top two or three sides were. With an average winning margin around 10 goals, the truth is that New Zealand in "normal" football conditions were probably 100 to 200 points better than most other sides. That's exciting to see the standard lifting, but a worry for the other countries.

Although most improved, the one side that may not have reached its previous levels was Ireland. Last time they were too strong for PNG in the final. The lads from the Emerald Isle gave it their all to make the Grand Final this time, falling short in their semi, but it's fair to say the squad this time was a bit down, due to the loss of many top level Gaelic footballers who were unable to play for various reasons. But in all other cases the standard was up and that is really all we can hope for. Later we'll do a story looking into just what level New Zealand has reached.

Tournament Organisation and Implementation

With so many countries coming from around the world, there are bound to be a few hiccups along the way. As mentioned, the draw and Official Souvenir Program available to most people was incorrect with Nauru's very late withdrawal. Somewhere along the way the numbers of some guernseys didn't match the guides either. There were also some complaints about the changerooms at Murphy Reserve being too small, but this seems to be a minor issue in the bigger scheme of things.

Player eligibility was raised several times, with passport checks being done (or re-done?) relatively late in the tournament. This doesn't seem right. What if a player was ruled ineligible? Would the team then forfeit all their prior matches, throwing the series into disarray and making the event a farce? We don't have inside information on the exact processes, so it isn't fair to comment too strongly. But it would be better if all countries were given the opportunity to protest before the tournament and that be the end of it unless clearly new information comes to hand. Perhaps that was the intention and the problem is determining what constitutes new information.

Venues

The grounds were varied, with matches on some days on adjacent ovals at Murphy Reserve Port Melbourne, other rounds being split between Teac and Optus Ovals, and the Wangaratta country matches being held on adjacent ovals there. The concept of the Murphy Reserve games being held together was terrific, allowing the crowd, media and waiting players to see all teams at the same location. The drawback was that the fields were painfully small. The marked line that might normally be 50m was more like 40m and very close to the centre square. Although the grounds stood up well to the many games and inclement weather, and the locals got behind the matches, the short lengths and narrow wings didn't encourage good football as the weaker sides bottled up the play. Perhaps a similar set-up could be found in future, with bigger fields - you certainly want the nations to be able to display their best footy. So a positive experiment that just needs some fine tuning.

The Optus Oval and Teac Oval matches were good for the players to experience excellent facilities, they just lacked the crowds and of course didn't have the benefit of the closeness at Murphy Reserve, but overall were very successful. Besides Wangaratta, probably the peak attendance was around 300 people besides players and officials turning up at each of Optus and Teac in Round 2, with numbers dwindling thereafter.

The Wangaratta round was magnificent. The V-Line transportation got the players up to Victoria's northeast and the town's people turned out in numbers for the games. It's well known country people are passionate about their footy and appreciate the grassroots nature of the sport internationally. With schools involved as well, probably 2000 to 3000 people turned out, greatly enhancing the atmosphere much to the pleasure of the players. Such a show was more appropriate for international footballers than the 100 or so onlookers who turned up to most matches in Melbourne (besides the support staff and players looking on).

Promotion

Did the AFL do enough to promote the 2005 International Cup? This seems to be a contentious issue and opinions are many. I believe they did a fairly reasonable job. The overall budget for the event was reported to be approximately AU$100,000 with maybe around AU$30,000 on promotion. This included radio spots, paid print media adverts, the Official Souvenir Program, several pages in the AFL Record the week before the matches started, no doubt reaching many thousands of AFL fans, and posters etc in Wangaratta. The AFL also had daily media releases, and staged AFL Football Operations Manager Adrian Anderson's weekly press conference at the opening ceremony and games, ensuring the football media was present. A great deal of mainstream media articles and stories were produced, no doubt raising the profile of international football significantly in Melbourne (if not anywhere else in Australia or the rest of the world).

So why the small crowds? The turnout at Wangaratta was great. And on the opening day of the Cup there were dozens of media and perhaps a few hundred interested onlookers. As the word spread, it was hoped the numbers would grow in the following rounds. They didn't. By the time of the seeding matches (the last round) on the final day, there were probably less than 100 people at Optus Oval. There is no escaping that that is very disappointing although I'm told similar to 2002.

I don't wish to be controversial but increasingly it is becoming clear that, in broad general terms, the football fans in Melbourne are interested in their AFL team and that team alone. Wandering amongst the small crowds I asked people where they were from, just doing a small sample. Unless they had friends or family playing, or a connection with the local club, most seemed to be from interstate or country Victoria. This trend extends further, to the people involved in setting up the game in other countries. So many are from Adelaide, Perth, country Victoria or even Queensland or New Zealand. Given Melbourne's claims as the home of football and relatively large population compared with some of those other regions, I get the feeling Melburnians are slightly under-represented in spreading the Australian game. That's a great shame, especially since Melbourne has much to gain from this event and footy in general growing around the world. There are many Melburnians involved too, it just seems, perhaps anecdotally, that there should be more. I could be wrong but others have noticed this too. Perhaps with the International Cup slowly growing then maybe it will change anyway.

I also have no doubt that if the International Cup was partially staged in a city like Adelaide (I use this as an example as it's my hometown) that with a smaller advertising budget it wouldn't be difficult to generate crowds in the thousands (and charging them entry, unlike the current free arrangement). An agreement with the SANFL for a bye weekend and a bit of promotion woud see significant numbers at say Adelaide Oval. There are reasons against such a move, but food for thought. I certainly wouldn't propose a total move away from Mebourne, but some games could be staged elsewhere in the first week, with all roads leading to the MCG for the final.

Funding and Costs

A major issue is the cost for the teams to attend the Cup. New Zealand are believed to have spent around AU$70 000 and some European countries more than AU$120 000. This money, if spent on junior development, could do wonders for the sport. But of course most of that money would not be spent on juniors, because much of it is raised (or simply contributed) by the players themselves, for the express purpose of going to the International Cup.

It would clearly be better if the countries did not have to foot the bill though. At least some extra money could then be diverted to game development. However the major issue is flight costs. It probably composes more than 75% of the total budget of countries. Help on the ground is provided to varying degrees by AFL and community clubs, with the Sydney Swans and Bacchus Marsh two stand-outs. So the biggest issue is the flights. If the AFL did hand-out cash for that, the budget would quickly approach AU$1 million. With many clubs crying out for more money from the AFL, from AFL clubs down, any expenditure has to be justified. The AFL has been burnt before handing out money internationally for no return. Plenty would argue "why is a league in country x more worthy than Australian league y?" So it's unlikely that funding to specifically attend the Cup will be forthcoming any time soon.

So the event does drain money from countries, and often leaves volunteer officials exhausted and burnt out. On the other hand it motivates players to stay in the game, and to achieve higher levels. It attracts more athletes to the game when offered the chance to represent their country. In some cases it has been shown to generate more awareness of footy. It also raises the international leagues' profile in Australia, helping justify AFL funding and allowing leagues to build support networks.

So there are many pros and cons, besides the obvious enjoyment the Cup brings to players. Overall it seems to be a good thing, that will continue to grow, but the switch to a four year cycle after 2008 is probably for the best, to spread out the costs over a greater time.

Summary

Overall I think most who attended the 2005 International Cup, be it players, officials, supporters or international footy media like ourselves, all agree that the event was clearly a great success and a major step forward from 2002. The only two significant issues arising would be the cost of countries getting there, and the lack of crowds.

2008

We'll try to find out a bit more about the AFL's plans for the 2008 International Cup. It was stated some time ago that the Cups would be held every three years to 2008, then most likely swap to four years. There have been some hints that 2008 will be bigger again, but no major details as yet.

One wonders whether a shift in the tournament should occur. Unless the AFL can dramatically increase promotion of it, maybe it wouldn't hurt to continue to experiment. The timing is one issue. Being played in August in Melbourne, cold and wet weather is almost guaranteed. Plus with AFL matches on and finals just 2 to 3 weeks away, gaining media and public attention for an amateur tournament is virtually impossible. What about a shift to around March, perhaps in the gap between the pre-season Cup Grand Final and the first round of the season? The media and public are starved of football and have been on a slower diet (apologies to fans) of golf, horse racing, cricket and tennis over summer (all quite popular but quickly pushed aside by an Australian football story). The weather is much warmer and grounds in good condition.

The first of two major problems would be that many countries are not in season. This could be too difficult to overcome. But as the national squad programs become more developed, the issue may decrease in importance, as players are generally already in ongoing national team systems, and don't necessarily need half a season under their belts. And not all countries are in this situation, e.g. the 2005 champions New Zealand start their domestic competitions after the Cup. The other issue is players wanting to see AFL matches. While some are more concerned about the good of the International Cup, some would be very unhappy to miss AFL games (which is fair enough since in many cases the players have shelled out their own money for a trip of a lifetime). Again, as players become more "professional" this may be less of an issue. It would be interesting to know how many games most players saw this time. I know of at least one group who chose not to attend one match they had access to and rather relaxed away from footy. Timing it at the end of the pre-season could reduce the number of games seen, but if most players arrived for the pre-season Grand Final and then saw the first round of regular season matches two weeks later before flying out, they would still take in plenty of big matches. And bear in mind they play every second day so have plenty on their minds during the series anyway. All this is just a thought, putting the idea out there. It would certainly improve the chances of major media coverage and crowds, with the potential to charge a modest entry fee and use that to subsidise travel costs, and bigger crowds also means more merchandise sales. If this change occurred the march past of players could be held at halftime of the pre-season final.

Another idea is to spread the event out geographically. Although there is the risk of increasing the logistics, the Wangaratta experience was clearly worthwhile. Traditional Aussie Rules cities like Perth, Hobart and Adelaide would embrace the concept, as would numerous Victorian country towns (including Wangaratta again). If there is a pool system in place, as was originally planned for this year, then one pool could be staged for a period in another capital city. It would give countries the opportunity to raise their league's profile in a new city, with the potential for larger crowds, more networking with local clubs and the travel costs would be a small fraction of what teams spend overall (booked in advance, Adelaide to Melbourne on a budget carrier is only around AU$60 - even two ways that is only around AU$4000 for an average travelling party, which is not huge when most are spending around AU$120,000 overall and there would be potential benefits). Such a move done in conjunction with a state league such as the SANFL or WAFL could be very successful. Players would still go to Melbourne for the second half of the tournament with the ultimate goal of playing in the Grand Final at the MCG as per 2002 and 2005.

A final thought is that if many more teams attend, a move to two divisions may be required, to prevent lopsided games, especially as junior development races ahead in some countries but not others. Whatever occurs, 2008 is likely to be bigger and better than the successful 2005 Cup, and will quite possibly be heavily tied in with the AFL's planned celebrations for the nominal 150 year anniversary of the beginning of Australian football. 2008 is almost cetain to be much bigger and better than what was already a successful 2005.

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