The World Cup is no panacea for Australian soccer

It's easy to criticise, and even feel betrayed by, Ange Postecoglou, until you realise the man owes you nothing and may well be biting his tongue until he can tell the tribes of Australian soccer to go get knotted.

The Socceroos coach refuses to repudiate reports that he plans to leave his position before the World Cup, whether his team qualifies or not. This is taken as confirmation that they will either be playing in Russia, or watching on TV, without him. From the body language on display after Australia's tense win over Syria in Sydney last month, the relief upon separation will be mutual. This is a shame for those of us who have been fans of Postecoglou, but faced with a choice between fulfilling his coaching ambitions and satisfying our yearnings, the pleasure of giving his critics a poke in the eye will outweigh the homilies from the loyalists.

The fact that Postecoglou's future is even at issue shows how much the conversation has changed since the days when Australians longed for World Cup qualification so desperately, and suffered such conflicting emotions, that mentioning "1997" and a scoreline of "two-nil" can still reduce grown men to tears.

World Cup qualification was meant to awake the sleeping giant. It didn't. (Was there a giant? Was it ever asleep?) The Socceroos qualified in 2006, 2010 and 2014 and acquitted themselves well each time, outstandingly in the first. For a team whose world ranking shoved them into the lowest pot for the draw, meaning they had to play teams rated far above them, they always exceeded the sum of their parts.

Yet where has the domestic game gone? A-League crowds and TV ratings are back in the doldrums. Sydney FC are the anti-Winx: the longer they go on undefeated, the less curiosity in their matches. Maybe fans don't like domination by one club. Maybe they don't like Sydney. Money remains excruciatingly tight for the national competition, as it always has. FIFA is poised to intervene in Football Federation Australia's discussions over a new governance model. Interests within the game are fighting like cats in a sack. As ever, the code is labouring to convert its massive number of participants into spectators. You would say soccer is at a crossroads, but the game in Australia has been at more crossroads than Pac-Man. When it is not emerging from one intersection, it is headed for the next.

This week I have been reading the fascinating The Death & Life of Australian Soccer by Joe Gorman, which certainly puts present events into perspective. It is as even-handed as you could hope from a walk through the code's history, a dramatic narrative engrossingly told. Former Socceroo Francis Awaritefe compares the book to "reading the history of Australia through football", and the story it tells of this country since World War II is more interesting and revealing about Australia than a history of any other sport could hope to be.

The poles between which the story bounces are those of multiculturalism: a code that has battled with its ethnic diversity, going through phases of embrace and rejection. Soccer has loved and hated its multicultural roots with counterbalancing passion. Today's A-League represents a high point of the drive away from clubs based on cultural communities towards those based on cities, and yet the stagnation of that league is again giving rise to the question of whether striving for the "mainstream" has taken the game too far from its heartland.

It's a story of shoestring budgets. A truly national competition always entailed horrendous travel expenses, but the temporary split of the old National Soccer League into localised conferences with lower costs was doomed to failure. Caught between one extreme and the other, soccer's history in Australia is one of constant circularity, the same arguments going back and forth, back and forth, in Gorman's estimation going full circle twice per decade. Nobody has yet found the answers. Massively resourced and committed sugar daddies, individuals like Frank Lowy and corporations such as Philips, have only provided temporary respite for a professional game that has to battle each day to break even.

As in the USA - the soccer country that shares much in common with Australia - the game is in competition with two juggernauts: strong domestic codes and televised international soccer. Let's put forward a simple proposition: that sports audiences are interested, above all else, in watching the best that the world has to offer. Here in Australia, they are hooked on the AFL and NRL, whose worlds are tiny and insular, but in which we present the best there is to see (just as Americans have their world's best NFL, MLB and NBA leagues). These same fans, given the marvel of television, can also watch the best that soccer has to offer from the comfort of their living rooms, and follow devoutly their teams in the Spanish, Italian, German and English leagues. On two fronts, domestic soccer has competitors that can't help making it seem second-rate. These rivals are extrinsic, but, as Gorman's book details, the vested interests in Australian domestic soccer have tended to turn inwards and quarrel among themselves.

World Cup qualification is necessarily absent from much of that history, but until 2006, it was hoped that a successful Socceroos team would unify the factions and "Australianise" the game under a glorious cloak of gold. Before we got there, the World Cup was a promised land. Once we arrived, it was revealed as just another step in an arduous journey. The despair of 1998 and 2002 was as illusory as the euphoria of 2006. Missing the World Cup was never going to crush the game, and nor was qualification going to cure its every ill.

With all of that said, the current Socceroos deserve a better press than they have been getting. Tim Cahill is in Honduras with a bung ankle, putting to rest any queries about his commitment, if there were any. Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic are as gifted and entertaining footballers as have worn the shirt, and Massimo Luongo might still get a chance to sprinkle the fairy dust that lit up the Asian Cup. They're as likeable a team as the country they are playing in (that is, more than reports would have you think). World Cup qualification isn't going to solve every problem and nor is missing out going to be the end of the world. Australia's campaign has been a struggle for never-guaranteed survival, and in this at least they reflect the code and people they represent. It's far from over and greatness may still lie ahead. You just don't know. As Gorman concludes, quoting Sophocles, "One must wait until the evening to see how splendid the day has been".

This story The World Cup is no panacea for Australian soccer first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.