Dark clouds continue to hover above the present and future of the national championship that appears to have lost its way.
Crowd and viewer numbers are not what they used to be due no doubt to the negative effects of extreme weather conditions, poor scheduling, the dilution of active support, declining playing standards, even worse refereeing and that exercise in sporting masochism called VAR.
As if this is not enough to dampen the enthusiasm of even the most ardent fans, there are serious suggestions that car manufacturer Hyundai and broadcaster Foxtel will sever or substantially curtail their ties with the game they played such a vital part to build.
Hyundai’s $5m-a-year contract with the A-League expires in four months.
The clubs will always try to paint a positive picture of the league but the grim reality is it may be forced to find a new naming rights holder for next season.
Fox, which bankrolls the league to the tune of $58m a year, is also rumoured to be keen on walking away from the game after 2023.
The broadcaster’s dissatisfaction with the league’s appeal that reflects on its ratings is well known, maybe more so than its refusal to entertain the notion of covering a winter alternative to the summer competition because it simply is not interested in any more ‘football’ content, having its hands full with Australian Rules and rugby league.
No wonder the fans at large have become disillusioned with the way the competition has slumped since its heydays of five or six years ago.
But not all is lost. Which is why the derby at Kogarah on Saturday night is seen as a golden opportunity for our game to showcase the qualities that make the A-League such a unique competition. As far as Australian sport is concerned, anyway.
The Sky Blues and Red and Blacks have a long history of epic contests that caught the imagination of the public and vindicated Football Federation Australia’s decision to give western Sydney a team to cherish.
Ever since the two clubs faced each other for the first time in front of 19,126 passionate fans at Parramatta Stadium on October 20, 2012, when Sydney won 1-0, this crosstown fixture has grown into a colossal confrontation between two organisations representing Sydney’s cultural and economic divide.
The 61,800 crowd that watched the Sky Blues beat their bitter rivals 4-0 at ANZ Stadium on October 8, 2017, is still the largest to watch an A-League match.
The derby’s reciprocal antagonism is real, fierce and certainly not manufactured by some marketing gurus who keep trying to talk up rivalries that barely exist.
Players, officials and particularly fans from both clubs have often expressed their dislike of their counterparts from the other side of town. Only rarely has the banter gone too far.
Most importantly, the two clubs over the years have shown a level of mutual respect that is a credit to their maturity.
The capacity for the weekend game at Kogarah’s suburban ground will be limited to 18,000 due to fan segregation at the hill area behind one of the goals.
One hopes that both sets of supporters will enhance the occasion by showing the colour, passion and vocal support that have become part and parcel of one of the biggest events in Australia’s domestic sporting calendar, even more appealing than its Melbourne version between Victory and City, who play at AAMI Park on Friday.
However the two sets of fans also should remember that they have a huge responsibility to be on their best behaviour because all eyes will be on Kogarah.
You would think that with so much riding on the match and the league’s image the supporters will put the game’s interests above all else.
The last thing the A-League needs at the moment is an opportunity for the anti-soccer mafia in the media to vent their spleen at a game they clearly dislike and barely tolerate.
Hyundai and Foxtel will be very interested in how the evening goes.
Sydney are flying high and would be keen to avenge their only defeat of the season when they fell 1-0 to the Wanderers at a buzzing Bankwest Stadium on match day three.
The Wanderers showed signs in last week’s 3-1 win at Central Coast Mariners that they may have turned the corner after a dismal first half of the season that saw the sacking of coach Markus Babbel.
The portents are strong for yet another mesmerising derby but this time, even more so than ever, it is the league itself that is gunning for the greater glory not the two clubs.
The competition has its strengths and weaknesses but a high-quality derby to remember would go a long way towards lifting the doom and gloom surrounding our game and show prospective sponsors and broadcasters that, hey, football is not dead and worth persevering with.
Over to you, Sydney FC and Western Sydney Wanderers.