The A-League is the premier domestic Australian football (soccer) competition. Founded in 2004 and staging its inaugural season in 2005–06, the league is contested by nine teams covering Australia's major cities and regional centres, as well as one from New Zealand. The A-League was created in the wake of the disbandment of the National Soccer League as part of a restructure of association football in Australia, seeking to provide a more professional and more popular national club competition. The league is based on a "one team per city" model, and features a salary cap and maximum squad size for each team with provision for "marquee" and "guest" players in order to produce concentration of player talent within regions as well as equity across the competition, whilst still allowing for differentiability and marketability of the teams. Although still not as popular as the Australian Football League and National Rugby League in terms of attendance figures, it has typically proven more successful than its predecessor, attracting an average crowd of over 14,000 in its second season compared to less than 5,000 for the final season of the NSL.
The A-League consists of a 21-round regular season followed by a four-team finals series. The leading team at the end of the regular season is awarded the Premiership, and the winners of the end-of-season Grand Final are awarded the Championship. Melbourne Victory FC are the current Premiers and Champions, winning both titles in the 2008–09 season.
Prior to 2004, the National Soccer League had been Australia's leading national football competition. Founded in 1977, the league was beset by poor management and struggled for acceptance within the wider Australian community, a fact often attributed to the prominence of "ethnic-based" clubs in the competition. This viewpoint was highlighted by, among others, stakeholder Stephen Stacey, who said in the 2003 Crawford Report, "The major problem was and still is the inability of existing clubs, many of which are oriented around the specific ethnic communities, to appeal to the wider community." The lack of support for the NSL, especially in its latter years, became obvious in the fact that the league was without a sponsor or television coverage, with all of the thirteen clubs who contested the 2002–03 season losing money. The league average attendance figure for the 2002–03 season was slightly more than 4,000, with Perth Glory, described as one of the league's few "multi-ethnic" clubs, the only team to average over 5,000 per match. During the 2002–03 season, serious concerns about the viability of the NSL in the long term became prevalent, with chairman Remo Nogarotto describing the league's position as "five minutes to midnight", and the Professional Footballers' Association preparing a model for a new national competition.
The formation of the A-League was foreshadowed by the publication of the Crawford Report, a government-funded independent review of the state of football in Australia, in April 2003. The report concluded that the National Soccer League was "unsustainable" in its current form, whilst recommending an overhaul of the governance system of football in Australia, including the appointment of an interim board headed by Frank Lowy, one of the main backers for the establishment of the NSL nearly thirty years prior. A month after the release of the Crawford Report, both Nogarotto and Soccer Australia board member Bill Walker stepped down from their positions, and at 10:45am on July 19, 2003 the final three remaining directors were unanimously deposed and Lowy took over the reigns of the embattled organisation. With Soccer Australia officially declared bankrupt in September 2003 and replaced immediately by the Australian Soccer Association (now Football Federation Australia), the Australian Government provided $15 million in grants and funds to the new governing body in an attempt to revive the game. A taskforce to assess the future of the national competition was set up by Lowy, and reported back in December 2003, recommending a "fresh start for the way top-level soccer is to be organised and played in Australia". The initial structure suggested by the taskforce included that the new league consists of ten clubs, although this figure was reduced to eight when the final structure for the league was confirmed in March 2004.
On March 22, 2004 it was announced that the eight-team league would feature one club from each of Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Brisbane, Newcastle and New Zealand, with the final team to be selected from other expressions of interest. An initial twenty submissions were whittled down to twelve by late July, with a Central Coast bid being the only one outside the originally nominated cities. The formation of the A-League was officially announced on November 1, 2004, with the eight teams selected including five previously established clubs and three entirely new entities. The FFA announced "modest" expectations for crowd attendances, set at an average of 10,000 per game, with financial turnover forecasted to be $50 million for the first season.
The season launch was backed by a $3 million advertising campaign based on the slogan "It's Football. But not as you know it", referring to the common use of the word 'football' in Australia to describe any of Australian rules football, rugby league or rugby union, whilst also attempting to draw a clear distinction between this 'new football' and what soon became widely referred to as 'old soccer'.
The regular season of the A-League is played mainly during the Australian summer, from late August through to February of the following year. From 2009–10, it will be made up of 27 rounds, with each of the ten teams playing each of the others three times – twice at one team's home stadium and once at the other's. The winner of each match is awarded three competition points, or in the case of a draw, the competing teams gain one point each. At the end of the 27 rounds the teams are ranked by the number of competition points they have accumulated over the course of the season. If two or more teams have an equal amount of points, they are then ranked based on goal difference, total goals scored, head-to-head records between tying teams and finally on the number of cards each team received. The top-ranked club is awarded the title of "Premiers", and is entered into the following season's AFC Champions League.
The top teams (those who have been confirmed to have finished in the top six positions) at the end of the regular season are then entered into a finals series to determine the Champions. In the first three seasons, the series was played under the McIntyre final four system, with the top two teams playing off for a direct place in the Grand Final, whilst the third- and fourth-placed teams vie for a spot in the preliminary final against the loser of the major semi-final. The first round of matches were played over two legs, with the winner determined by goals scored over the two matches, and then, if equal, the away goals rule. If no winner emerges via this method, the tie progressed to extra time, and finally to a penalty shootout. The preliminary final was played at the home stadium of the losing team from the major semi-final, with the winning team progressing to the Grand Final. The winner of the Grand Final is declared "Champions", and gains qualification for the AFC Champions League. Where the same team wins both the Premiership and Championship, the Grand Final runner-up is awarded Australia's second position in the AFC Champions League.
The clubs participating in the A-League are determined via a licensing system, similar to franchising used in many major North American leagues. Upon the launch of the A-League, each of the eight foundation clubs were allotted guaranteed five-year tenures, along with territorial exclusivity for the same length of time. With the A-League as the only national football competition in Australia, there is no provision for the promotion and relegation of clubs to and from lower leagues, unlike the majority of European national systems. The original eight licenses were renewed for a further five years in June 2008, and on August 27, the FFA announced that two further teams — Gold Coast United FC and North Queensland Fury FC — would join the league in 2009–10.
Football Federation Australia does however retain control over the licences through a "Club Participation Agreement", a breach of which allows the FFA to revoke any holder's licence. This occurred during the 2006–07 season, where Octagon Sports Limited, owners of New Zealand Knights FC, were found to have breached an insolvency clause in the agreement. The licence was immediately returned to the FFA, who subsequently offered it to New Zealand Soccer in order to retain a New Zealand-based club in the competition.
Even at the first announcement of the A-League, the FFA signalled its intention to pursue an expansion plan in order to create a "truly national competition" — naming Canberra, Hobart, Wollongong and North Queensland as potential sites for future clubs. Having added two clubs for the 2009–10 season, chairman Frank Lowy confirmed that the FFA will continue this trend, saying that they hoped to have a twelve-team competition in 2010–11, but this proved optimistic. Among the consortia vying for a place in the expanded league are a second Melbourne team, provisionally named "Melbourne Heart", who have been granted exclusive negotiating rights with the FFA, as well as Canberra, Wollongong ("South Coast United"), Hobart ("Tasmania United"),, Geelong, Western Sydney and further Melbourne franchises.
Current A-League clubs
|Club||City||Region||Home ground||First season||Premierships||Championships|
|Adelaide United FC||Adelaide||SA||Hindmarsh Stadium||2005–06||1||0|
|Brisbane Roar FC||Brisbane||Qld||Suncorp Stadium||2005–06||1||2|
|Central Coast Mariners FC||Central Coast||NSW||Bluetongue Central Coast Stadium||2005–06||2||1|
|Melbourne Heart FC||Melbourne||Vic||AAMI Park||2010–11||0||0|
|Melbourne Victory FC||Melbourne||Vic||Etihad Stadium||2005–06||2||2|
|Newcastle United Jets FC||Newcastle||NSW||Hunter Stadium||2005–06||0||1|
|Perth Glory FC||Perth||WA||NIB Stadium||2005–06||0||0|
|Sydney FC||Sydney||NSW||Sydney Football Stadium||2005–06||1||2|
|Wellington Phoenix FC||Wellington||NZ||Westpac Stadium||2007–08||0||0|
|Western Sydney Wanderers FC||Sydney||NSW||Parramatta Stadium||2012–13||1||0|
Former A-League clubs
|Club||City||Region||Home ground||Seasons contested||Premierships||Championships|
|New Zealand Knights FC||Auckland||NZ||North Harbour Stadium||2005–06 – 2006–07||0||0|
|North Queensland Fury FC||Townsville||Qld||Dairy Farmers Stadium||2009–10 – 2010–11||0||0|
|Gold Coast United FC||Gold Coast||Qld||Skilled Park||2009–10 – 2011–12||0||0|
Premiers and Champions
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