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The end of any sporting season is generally a time of discovery. It can shock and upset, illuminate already-recognised truths and surprise with new narratives.
The same can be said for the A-League’s transition from regular campaign to finals, a period when Melbourne City stopped flattering to deceive and the resuscitated Central Coast Mariners lived on for the first time in an age. Where new side Macarthur FC made the cut at their first attempt and Wellington Phoenix, displaced for 433 days, hosted a record crowd at their homecoming match in New Zealand.
It has also been a time when Australian football learned – again – that scheduling domestic and international fixtures concurrently can cause a bit of a problem.
There is a reason neurologists believe multi-tasking is a myth. The human brain, they say, cannot really focus on more than one activity at once, and those who think they can are actually just switching rapidly between them.
Socceroos coach Graham Arnold is reminded of this fact every time a Fifa window rolls around and he encounters resistance when selecting A-League players. The coaches of said A-League players also know it to be true when they, in turn, attempt to plan games without members of their first XI.
This season, for reasons partly due to Covid-19 and partly broadcast commitments, clubs are dealing with such losses for the entirety of the finals series, during which Australia are contesting four World Cup qualifiers in an expanded break designed to break the back of a backlog from a virus-enforced hiatus.
“The fact that our season is still going on when the international season is, is crazy,” said City coach Patrick Kisnorbo, whose premiers are missing runaway top-scorer Jamie Maclaren, defender Curtis Good and midfielder Connor Metcalfe.
“We’ll have to find a solution … it is what it is. It’s Australian football. We’ve got international [players] leaving during our season. It only happens in this country.”
Maclaren scored five goals the last time his side played Melbourne Victory. He will never know how many he might have had in Sunday’s final Melbourne derby, a game for which Kisnorbo made several changes and Victory salvaged a 1-1 draw in stoppage-time.
Sydney FC are also without a large chunk of their league-best defence in goalkeeper Redmayne, centre-half Ryan McGowan and full-back Rhyan Grant. It proved but a scratch for the second-placed Sky Blues, who on Saturday demonstrated their depth with a final-round 2-0 win over Brisbane Roar to join leaders City in securing a home semi-final.
The Mariners, who beat Western United 2-0 on Saturday to finish in third and earn a home elimination final, are missing Ruon Tongyik, who was also called up along with Denis Genreau (Macarthur), Mitch Duke (Western Sydney Wanderers) and Chris Ikonomidis (Perth Glory) – the latter pair’s clubs did not make the top six.
“It wasn’t anyone’s fault that the finals are in this window,” Arnold said. “The border closures in Australia extended the competition in the A-League and we need our best team here, we need our best team for the Socceroos.”
A similar dance occurs most years, with the majority of complaints coming from the clubs most affected.
In 2018, the then-named Football Federation Australia briefly dabbled in the international break, falling in line with the world’s other major competitions. It was a short experiment lasting a single season, its axing encapsulated when the 2019-20 campaign kicked off 24 hours after the Socceroos’ World Cup qualifier against Nepal.
Next season’s domestic calendar could remain up in the air for some time yet as the Australian Professional Leagues, now independent from Football Australia, make the transition from long-time broadcast partner Fox Sports to Network 10. This is complicated by the FA still retaining some authority when it comes to the calendar. The governing body may well prefer to start the A-League season after November’s window has finished.
Last month, Perth Glory chief executive Tony Pignata made a “blood oath” that all players will have the opportunity to represent both club and country. “We have to,” Pignata tweeted. “This year was hard given the situation with Covid and the need to finish the season by June. Next year will be different.”
The APL’s managing director, Danny Townsend, was less emphatic. “You can’t say when or if you’ll stop for international windows without knowing when the beginning and the end of the season is,” he said. “Our intention would be to structure our season to ensure we don’t play during international windows, but one thing the pandemic has taught us is that we also need to be flexible. We still haven’t settled on the calendar yet and we are working with FA on that at the moment.”
However it pans out, there is a chance some of the Australian national team’s fatigue which inevitably accompanies trips to a Middle East hub may be alleviated, with a report FA has government support to bypass 14-day quarantine laws and host a third-round match later this year.
It is true that 2021 has presented a unique case of fixture congestion, further evidenced last week when Sydney, City and Brisbane Roar withdrew from the Asian Champions League starting later this month. But 2022 is likely to bring similar challenges – not just for Australia – given the World Cup’s move to December to allow for cooler temperatures in host nation Qatar.
How it comes to pass may depend on whether the game’s administrators attempt to multi-task or focus on doing one thing well at a time.