Engaging the people makes the game even more beautiful

Man of the moment … Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder Shinji Ono greets fans at Parramatta Stadium.
Man of the moment … Western Sydney Wanderers midfielder Shinji Ono greets fans at Parramatta Stadium.

Recent FFA fan forums showed how far this great game has come in a very short space of time.

Just a few years ago, fans were screaming about a lack of involvement, their voices not being heard and a failure to engage or understand their concerns. Such was the hostility that FFA management had to be dragged kicking and screaming to any fan forum.

Today, FFA are not only willing participants, they create the environment for open dialogue between the governing body and football community and understand the power of gauging the mood and messages of their own family members. The value of speaking directly with the game's constituents cannot be underestimated and this form of market research is now being used right across the game, from top to bottom.

Open debate and collaboration is something football has not traditionally done well, given historical political problems, making present-day initiatives a tremendously powerful and welcome change. Now people have a voice and know it will be heard, and this collective accumulation of passion and knowledge can drive football to greater heights.

Large sections of central and western Sydney and Melbourne football communities participated in robust debate over the past week and seized the opportunity to be heard by David Gallop and Damien de Bohun on a wide range of issues.

But unlike in the past, when fans needed to get fundamental issues of trust and support off their chests, this was far from one-way traffic; in fact FFA management would have gained much more than they gave by better understanding what drives the choices and behaviour of those who support the game. And further, keep it healthy via messages that will inform future policy and ensure the grassroots receives the support it needs.

Active supporter groups took the chance to pose their concerns about security, and the relationship between themselves and head office. It had to have been immensely valuable for the game's senior executives to personally meet and listen to these groups and individuals while creating a line of communication to ensure everyone works together in the best interests of the collective.

The passion of the Wanderers fans for their players, their shirt and their club was evident throughout and listening to them talk of what the club means to them and how engaged they feel - a part of the club, not just a paying customer - gave an insight into just why the football revolution out west has become a beacon for the entire game.

The difference between last year and this, fundamentally, is that FFA are now in clear air with the league flying high, and rather than fielding accusations, they can now use the forums as a focus group to gauge the fans' opinions on a range of issues from club engagement to the cost of participation, the national curriculum, FFA Cup and indigenous football.

One issue stood out, however, and while representing a major challenge, it shows clearly how far the game has come. It is the Socceroos.

When John O'Neill inherited the top job, he called the Socceroos the ''rainmakers'', the main entity that brought in the funds needed for the game to operate. Back then, failure to qualify meant financial oblivion and everything hinged on what the boys did in green and gold.

But the whole point of the reorganisation of the game was to create an industry that is not reliant on one brand or qualification campaign, to broaden the commercial base and build other powerful brands with which fans can connect.

This has come to pass and feedback from the fans is that the main vehicle for their connection to the game is their A-League club. This is a pivotal step that wholly changes the dynamics of the landscape, and is what we'd hoped and prayed for, so long ago.

Now, the A-League has actually overtaken the Socceroos as the main point of football reference as fans increasingly develop intense emotional ties to their club.

The reasons are many and include regular engagement, the daily and weekly experience and the direct connection to their players, as well as one that is both a very welcome - and very challenging - atmosphere.

Active supporter groups around the country have turned A-League games into fantastic explosions of colour and noise that are addictive. Once you've experienced the passion, nothing else comes close.

But this presents a major challenge to FFA to ensure that the support at Socceroos matches also reflects how fans want to experience a game of football.

We now see a redirection of support and interest from the days when the Socceroos were the only story, the single reputable force in the game, to today when the A-League is the main focus and the Roos an additional joy.

This is not to suggest they are any less important or admirable. Rather that the growth of the professional league presents a different set of drivers for any fan that makes the Socceroos one important component of the whole football experience, rather than the main one. The meteoric rise of the A-League means that FFA need to revisit and restate the connection the Socceroos have with the fans and is also an indicator of the tremendous growth and maturity of the domestic game.

This story Engaging the people makes the game even more beautiful first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.