Who do we sing for? We sing for Sydney. It is the famous chant, but is it for Sydney FC or Western Sydney Wanderers that your vocal chords rise to the challenge?
The last twelve months has provided Sydney with its newest sporting derby.
Hot on the heels of the AFL’s battle of the bridge, and Rugby League’s famous Fibro’s versus Sivertails battles of yesteryear, the drearily named Sydney Derby is the newest attraction in town.
It is an attraction that depicts the traditional East versus West rivalry, rich versus poor, good versus evil.
Whilst it’s a simplistic argument to make that the rivalry is built on the east west divide in Sydney, Sydney Morning Herald Chief Football Correspondent, Sebastian Hassett, believes it’s apt.
“No (it’s not too simple) – because that’s what it is based on. Geography is the source of most rivalries. However, what gives this extra flavour is how the west has historically been looked upon as a poorer cousin in almost every sense. That’s now changing and the rivalry reflects this,” Hassett said.
Evoking memories of the great Manly versus Wests rivalry in rugby league, the A-League has built the rivalry on the cultural divide of the supporter bases.
Sydney FC, known as ‘Bling FC’ fulfils the Silvertail persona; If you don’t love them you hate them.
Contrastingly the Wanderers act like Robin Hood; stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.
This humble model is no new genius-marketing manoeuvre by the A-League, but it is still genius nonetheless.
Many of the world greatest sporting rivalries are built on this principle.
In Scotland, the Old Firm derby pits Catholicism and Protestantism against each other. The Sydney Derby parts the waters with the same intensity.
Hassett believes this cultural divide is a key element in building the success of the rivalry.
“While there’s poor parts of the eastern half of the city and rich parts of the west, Sydney is a city divided by wealth and status and it would be foolish to think any different,” said Hassett.
“This is an important part of the narrative because teams should reflect the areas they purport to represent.”
Even in its infant stages the rivalry has surpassed even the wildest of expectations of Hassett.
“I think it’s a rivalry that’s exceeded all expectations. It’s already on track to be the A-League’s biggest rivalry within another year or two. It has the potential to be even bigger than the Melbourne derby because of the relative strengths of the two teams,” Hassett said.
The relative strength of the Sydney teams for the season was the unforseen variable that has given the A-League’s marketing team a free-kick.
It was expected that one of these teams would struggle and one would play deep into the finals, however as it panned out, it was not the teams that pundits were predicting.
Western Sydney were meant to be the whipping boys in their first season. Being announced as a franchise only 181 days before season 8 of the A-League commenced, the wooden spoon was their most likely ‘success’.
So when they played off in the grand final and won the Premiers Plate, servings of humble pie were being passed around in droves.
It was at Sydney FC, where instability and excruciatingly bad performances led to the fat lady pulling down the curtains of their season before the turn of the year.
Sydney’s poor recent on-field fortunes, whilst pleasing to rival supporters, is bad for the competition.
The A-League needs viable teams out of Sydney and Melbourne to keep its media profile high.
Despite the poor performances, Sydney FC secured its highest ever average season attendance in the past season of 18, 837.
This, almost certainly, due to the clubs signing of Alessandro Del Piero, another jewel to ‘Bling FC’s crown’.
The brand and market strength of Western Sydney Wanderers and the Sydney Derby has been supported involuntarily by the National Rugby League and AFL.
All three teams from these codes in Sydney’s West, the basin for the Wanderers supporters base, produced poor on field performances.
AFL’s newest franchise The Giants came last, whilst Penrith and Parramatta also held the NRL table up.
In the fickle Sydney market, this provided Western Sydney with a great opportunity to establish a supporter base on the back of their on-field success. An opportunity Hassett believes they grabbed with both hands.
“Sydney – both in the east and west – loves a winner. Penrith and Parramatta attendances weren’t great last year and GWS will always struggle to draw crowds until they start being competitive.”
“I can see the Giants having real appeal when they begin winning games, but that won’t be for three or four more years. In that time, the Wanderers are laying a great foundation to build a genuine supporter base. These are exciting times for football, and especially so in Sydney’s west.”
The raw figures back up his claims. Season 2012 saw the Penrith Panthers average 10,298 supporters for their home games.
The Giants in their inaugural season averaged 10, 825 whilst Parramatta in their nine games at Parramatta Stadium averaged 12, 594.
All fell well below the 14, 749 average that the Wanderers claimed.
Whilst these raw figures are promising, and a sign that football has found the right algorithm to entrench the world game in the competitive Sydney market, Hassett believes football can’t yet claim to be in nirvana.
“I’d say it’s certainly reached out to a part of the population who don’t identify with rugby league and haven’t yet connected with AFL. I would be wary of hailing a “new dawn” for football, because there’s been so many false starts”, said Hassett.
Rugby league has strong local popularity and AFL has extraordinary financial means, which will mean both are major players in the city’s west for years to come. But football is doing it on the strength of a grassroots movement and rising popularity, both of which are fundamental to long-term success.”
The multicultural melting pot that is Western Sydney has recently caused tensions to boil over between the codes.
Giants Coach Kevin Sheedy made comments that led to a swift retort from football analyst Craig Foster and a caused media circus.
After a paltry crowd at a Giants home game against the Adelaide Crows, Sheedy said the following at his media conference.
“We don’t have the recruiting officer called the immigration department, recruiting fans for Western Sydney Wanderers. We don’t have that on our side,” Sheedy said.
“We’ve got to actually start a whole new ballpark and go and find fans.
“Because that’s what happens when you bring a lot of people through, channel into a country and put them in the west of Sydney and all of a sudden they build a club like that in one year and all of a sudden they’ve got probably 10,000 fans and 20,000 going to a game.”
The comments provide a harsh reality of the landscape that the AFL faces.
A reality that has helped football secure such rich multicultural support.
Past incarnations of the football in New South Wales and Australia, such as the defunct NSL, have divided and isolated different backgrounds.
The A-League has embraced and united these groups through football.
Hassett believes that this move has allowed the Wanderers to become a natural fit in the sporting landscape of Western Sydney’s hearts and minds.
“Football has tremendous appeal across the world and western Sydney has a diverse population base – many hailing from where football is popular. Football is the world game, and there’s so much of the “world” in western Sydney,” Hassett said.
So whilst the Sydney Derby is only in its infancy, the footprint it has left has adult sizing.
All rival codes have had to reach into their war chests to fight the rise of the world game.
The fact that the likes of Kevin Sheedy have been blown into the war is a win for the A-League.
The free kicks given to the Wanderers won’t be made again. No more will other codes leave the heartland of Australian sport open to an invasion.
War chests will be emptied, teams will be strengthened and supporters will be turned, as the battle turns into a full-blown war.
But the real war occurs inside football itself. Inside Sydney, where the battlelines are drawn, scarves are worn and families are split.
Whilst it may seem simplistic that the A-League conjured up a rivalry based on location and cultural differences, it’s important to remember, these differences account for some of the best rivalries we know today.
For the rivalry to continue to work it is imperative that both teams embrace these differences and their personas. This is an exciting time for football, so strap yourself in, pick a team and SING FOR SYDNEY.