By Lewis Wiseman, Student Ambassador

Fifteen years ago, Australian football rebranded from the then stagnant National Soccer League to what is now known around the world as the Hyundai A-League.

It was a Football Federation of Australia (FFA) decision that sparked a newfound love for the sport of football in the country. Since then Australia has gone on to qualify for four back-to-back World Cup’s and sustained a reputable domestic league, all of which has gradually increased the popularity of football Down Under.

However, questions still remain over the way the A-League is setup, with its strict salary cap rules and a no promotion, no relegation system. The question that is regularly asked is: does the league need to rethink its rules and regulations in order to develop further?

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To start, you need to understand the makeup of the league a bit better. There are currently 11 teams in the competition. One of them – Western United – are brand new this season. They weren’t promoted into the league; they made it through a bidding process after the FFA announced there would be an expansion for the 2019/20 season.

For an outsider looking at Australian football for the first time, it must appear nearly impossible to get into the A-League. This is because the FFA want to ensure teams can sustain themselves financially and learn from the mistakes of previous sides who’ve had to withdraw over the years due to bankruptcy. The FFA are learning from prior mistakes.

Luckily for the teams in the league now they cannot get relegated, ever. The team that finishes bottom of the table will be embarrassed and disappointed, but not relegated.

Now to the really interesting part. Every team in the league is under strict salary cap rules. Currently, the salary cap is $3.2million (Australian) for the 23-man roster for an entire season. For context, there are players in Europe who earn more than that in one season alone!

The Hyundai A-League says on its website that the salary cap keeps clubs economically viable and instils a balance across the league. It states: “The salary cap facilitates competitive balance and parity between clubs by ensuring that the playing talent is distributed amongst the Hyundai A-League clubs. In doing so, this increases the attraction of the competition to fans, sponsors and broadcast partners.”

Outside of the salary cap, each club can sign two designated/marquee players, whose wages are measured separately to the cap. Usually, these players are their team’s most talented players. Some notable examples of designated and marquee players of the past include David Villa, Alessandro Del Piero, Robbie Fowler, Harry Kewell and Dwight Yorke.

One trait that all of these players have in common is that they were in the twilight of their careers when they moved to Australia. That is one thing Australian clubs have struggled to do, attract marquee players at the peak of their career. However, this doesn’t mean that players who have come to Australia in the past were worthless, in fact they helped improved the football industry Down Under tenfold.

To see how the A-League and its timeline of marquee players has had an effect on Australian football, you need to take a look at youth level. A recent survey by the Roy Morgan Research Association states that 48% of children aged 6-13 play football. Ultimately, this means that football is the most played team sport across all age groups in Australia, according to the Australian Government.

The salary cap encourages teams to promote from within and give more Australian youngsters a chance to play professional football, which is something that isn’t seen as much in bigger and more established leagues.

A lot of critics say that the rules imposed on the A-League have stunted the growth of the league, meaning that the league falls behind big European counterparts. That may be true in terms of the quality of players who play in the league, and that Australian clubs cannot afford to attract the best talent, but why is that an issue? The A-League isn’t trying to be the English Premier League.

Former Socceroo and Australian football pundit Robbie Slater previously said on Fox Sports Australia that it’s unfair to compare the A-League to the likes of the Premier League or La Liga, as few leagues worldwide even come to close to them.

He said: “Domestically, it’s important to remember the A-League is up there with the world’s best. The numbers are actually pleasantly surprising, and our crowds are up there in the top 20 football leagues in the world. That is extraordinary when you think of football as the most popular sport on earth by a country mile.”

Slater makes a very valid point. The A-League has solid crowd numbers, has great coverage, and clearly the sport has a massive interest across Australia and maybe most importantly, unlike some leagues across the world, there is a clear competitive balance.

I think that rather than saying the A-League isn’t as good as other competitions around the world, we should be happy that football in Australia has come such a long way. Yes, the salary cap may restrict the league’s future development, but promoting opportunities for youth and in turn improving the standard of Australian footballers is a sign of development in itself.