ALW’s final stand furore overshadows the celebration of women’s soccer

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Following the Australian Professional Leagues decision to sell off its Finals at Destination NSW for the next three years, this year’s A-League Women’s decision was never going to be all about the game. The deal has dominated talk of dwindling Australian football ever since it was announced, and the Premier League knew the hard feelings witnessed during this week’s match were something to be borne, rather than dismissed.

The bitter irony is that, according to the Premier League’s plans, the ALW grand finale shouldn’t be all about the game, however. Part of the justification for selling the hosting rights was that a fixed staging post would explicitly allow the match to evolve into a select event extending beyond the match. With a World Cup on the way, women’s youth participation exploding and the competition expanding to offer more top-flight opportunities, this new paradigm would seemingly see the competition become the centerpiece of a wider celebration of women’s football.

Related: Sydney FC win the Melbourne Victory and reach the grand final of the ALW

That was the theory, at least. And in the years to come, with a little more time to plan and some changes to the championship calendar, it has to be recognized that such a scenario could happen. But right now, administrators are faced with a hostile fan base whose confidence in their ability to serve as gatekeepers to the league is almost completely eroded. Those fans feel less valued and respected partners than itinerant cash registers whose passion and traditions have become just another product.

The circumstances of this week’s grand finale provided a lightning rod for the anger.

Western United will “host” Sydney FC at Parramatta Stadium on Sunday. The reward for United and their supporters after defying the odds in the club’s first season is not a match in western Melbourne, but one in Sydney. The Sky Blues, who despite winning the premiership nominally lost their right to home advantage when they were defeated in a qualifying final, will sleep in their beds and make their way to the game, as will their fans.

One can understand why the Premier League is forced to persevere; there is no real way to justify this logic in the short term and they can only work to show that the benefits of a fixed hosting location justify everything in the long run.

For fans of other Aussie codes, such a scenario probably doesn’t raise eyebrows; a Melbourne team has regularly faced these problems and emerged victorious in the NRL, for example. It’s also worth noting that a cohort of soccer fans begrudgingly accept the funds or potential benefits associated with the move. Another piece just wants to enjoy watching their team play and probably feels alienated by the furor.

But for a large swathe of the game’s fans – a nucleus that was raised on a tradition of grand finals awarded on some form of sporting merit – Sunday represents justifiable anathema.

Calls for a boycott – of the entire Finals series or just the Finals – have increased in volume. But those calls have also faced pushback from fans who don’t see all finals, especially a home final, as a grand final on a neutral venue. For others, the Melbourne derby pitch invasion in December sapped much enthusiasm. Football fans have no designated spokesperson or leader; anger binds this collective to a common enemy, but any counter-action is the subject of fierce debate and shifting consensus.

Compounding this, the ALW grand finale exposed further schisms as this group seeks to channel their frustration and anger at the already crowded intersection of challenges and movements that exist within the women’s game.

Related: A-Leagues final grand furor: Football’s latest act of self-sabotage goes beyond parody | Joey Lynch

Supporters of the ALW are more likely to identify with the league as a whole as well as their own team, or simply classify themselves as supporters of women’s sports in general. For them, boycotting major matches on the national calendar sends a message to broadcasters and sponsors that they will only see empty seats and a lack of passion and support, with little regard for the underlying reasoning. This, in their view, ultimately punishes the players and the growth of the game. Sydney FC supporters’ group The Cove recently announced a boycott of the men’s finals, for example, but have encouraged support from women.

That these conversations have to take place is regrettable. Counter-arguments have been advanced that any break in solidarity represents acquiescence and self-indulgence; have your own cake and eat it too. It’s hardly a unified celebration of women’s football.

It’s a shame, because there will be a football match on Sunday. It will probably be good too.

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