By Kate Gill and Beau Busch | PFA Co-Chief Executives

The final whistle of today’s A-League Men’s Grand Final will trigger ecstasy and despair in equal measure. As the confetti settles and the champagne dries, a Champion is crowned and the loser laments, we are likely to move into a period of reflection of our domestic leagues.

Questions will be asked about fan engagement, the strategic direction of our competition, the identity of our sport in a competitive landscape and the seemingly endless discussion on what needs to be improved and what needs to change. It is only right that these questions are posed. If we are to improve as a sport, we can’t hide when we have missed the mark or fallen short.

Equally, we should acknowledge the immense challenges and sacrifices the players, coaches, staff and fans have had to endure in the past three seasons. These sacrifices have ensured we have a professional game to critique and examine, and whilst there remains a range of matters that require our collective attention, these sacrifices have also resulted in progress and a stronger industry.

Many of the stories of sacrifice have been well documented. Whether it is the story of Wellington Phoenix relocating countries for over two seasons, Perth Glory players regularly departing Western Australia unsure of when or how they would be able to return home, that over 300 players and coaches contracted COVID-19 and over 80 matches were rescheduled, there is no doubt this was one of the most disruptive seasons in Australian football history.

The individual stories are no less compelling. Neil Kilkenny has been separated from his four young children and wife for the entire season. When the pandemic first hit in 2020, Luke Devere hurriedly relocated his pregnant wife to Australia, driving 10 hours straight from New South Wales to cross the Queensland border before it closed to ensure he could be there for the birth of his second child. Most recently, Melbourne City and Sydney FC’s players traveled to South-East Asia to participate in the ACL where they faced unjustifiable scheduling – six matches in 16 days – numerous health scares and brutal heat. These are just scratching the surface of the myriad personal stories from the past three seasons.  

What perhaps will be less discussed is why this generation of players have been willing to endure so much? What compelled over 300 players to go into a hub on just 17 percent of their regular wage, topped up by JobKeeper, in 2020? Why have players continued to leave the country or their states unsure of how and when they would get home? Why were they willing to continue to make such sacrifices when certainty regarding the future was almost impossible to provide?

Preserving their livelihoods in a time of uncertainty was obviously important. But these challenges would have been almost impossible to endure if they were not in service of a higher objective.

What drove them above all else was their belief in Australian football. A belief in their profession, in the A-League and what the competition can become in the future and what impact it can have on this country and its people.

Without that belief, there would be no Australian domestic leagues.

Those sacrifices have ensured that Australia’s top national league has had its most stable decade in history all while surviving the existential threat of a pandemic. It is easy to outline the competition’s weaknesses, but these sacrifices from the players, coaches, staff and fans have delivered it strength and resilience in a time of turmoil.

The players’ belief was reflected in every difficult conversation we had to have with our members. It was reflected when Wellington Phoenix got on a plane to return to Australia, once again, ahead of this season. Despite the challenges, they knew it was in service of a bigger cause. It was clear again when they could not return home for Christmas or when several Perth Glory players were stranded in isolation – and when the AFC released a brutal draw for the ACL.

No matter the challenges the players faced, they kept showing up and did it without complaint and with remarkable dignity. The Phoenix players cast aside the challenges they were faced with and secured a spot in the finals. Melbourne Victory undertook a grueling trip to Japan to face a team where one player earns close to the collective player payments of the entire Australian league – and pushed them to the very edge.

City and Sydney FC were handed the most challenging ACL draw imaginable. The players’ reaction?  “This is not an excuse; we want to win the tournament and make the country proud.”

When the players fell short of their goals, they said they would keep getting back up and keep fighting for Australian football.

Each and every time, they knew the importance of their sacrifices – because it honored the players who came before them and ensured a better game for the generation that would follow.

Our game owes this generation of players, coaches, staff, and fans an enormous debt. It hasn’t been easy.

We should honour them and hold them up as an example of what can be achieved when they put belief in our game above all else. 

As the A-League analysis unfolds in the coming weeks, we should honour this generation by not getting stuck in an endless cycle of admiring our problems, lusting after what we don’t have, driving policies that are driven by ideology and nostalgia, and acting as if our significant participant base entitles us to anything. 

We must harness the power of belief displayed by our players, offer the country something beyond a football match, undertake the work required to develop comprehensive solutions to the challenges we face and critically develop an authentic Australian game in this great sporting nation.

Enjoy the final, which will be played by the people we are incredibly honoured to represent. 

Kate and Beau