Thursday, 15 March 2018

Summary of March 2018 AAFC roadshow Melbourne edition

Introductory remarks
Derisory as I am of the idea of promotion and relegation in Australia, attending the Association of Australian Football Clubs roadshow event in Melbourne last Thursday seemed like a no-brainer. This meeting was meant to be held in Sports House in Albert Park, but a text message received while I was on the train up there said that a burst water pipe had necessitated the relocation of the event to the South Melbourne FC social club.

Of course. What else could they have done at such short notice?

Nursing my gin and tonic I had not intended to tweet much about the event, but rather take some brief notes on my phone (I'd not bothered to bring pen and paper as I do for say, South Melbourne AGMs), but after getting a polite request and checking that I had enough battery left on my phone, I decided to give it a go. I did note that Shouty Mike was also in the room, and though long since blocked by him on Twitter, I guessed he would tweet at least some of what was happening on the night, so there's always that if anyone wants an alternative view of proceedings.

There were also summary notes taken by freelancer/interested onlooker Matthew Galea, if one cares to go back far enough in his time-line, and there has been a positive overview of the night by journalist Jonathan Howcroft on Football Nation Radio. Also on Football Nation Radio is an interview with Tom Kalas.

Through my limited internet trawling, there appears to have been very little comment made about any of the roadshow meetings outside the Melbourne event. I'm not sure why that is the case - was the roadshow not publicised well enough, or is there just inherently more interest in these matters in Melbourne? One thing which came across during the Melbourne meeting is that there were at least slightly different messages given to different AAFC constituencies. This makes sense because, as I'll reiterate later, each state's experience of the National Premier Leagues, let alone Australian soccer, is quite different from each other.

The crowd built up to about 40-50 people, mostly in casual (non-club) gear, with a few exceptions. I recognised (and learned over the course of the night) that there were representatives present from South Melbourne (Andrew Mesourouni and Leo Athanasakis), Northcote, Heidelberg, Goulburn Valley Suns, Bendigo City(!), and North Geelong, but not much more beyond that. There were some non-club representatives - that is ordinary fans, and one bloke from local Greek media who I see around a lot but don't know the name of nor who he works for - but otherwise the audience seemed to be mostly committee members of various NPL teams.

It is interesting that more ordinary fans didn't show up. That being said, AAFC only has a couple hundred more followers on Twitter than I do (I have no idea about their reach on Facebook), so maybe this was actually about as good a turnout as one could expect. Indeed, we were told on at least a couple of occasions that the Melbourne meeting had the biggest attendance of any of the AAFC roadshow sessions up until that point, with only Newcastle yet to come. Why was that the case? I suppose it helps that Victoria has one of the larger NPL setups in terms of numbers of clubs, at over 30, and more NPL teams means more people likely to turn up.

(As an aside, when AAFC representatives were asked who were the Victorian NPL teams not under the AAFC umbrella, it was noted that Whittlesea Ranges and Sunshine George Cross were among them. Ranges I could understand, I guess, from their Victory/sponsor connections - though Moreland Zebras/Victory man Joe Mirabella was in attendance on the night - but the Georgies one has me a bit stumped to be honest.)

There's also a continuity in recent times in terms of Victorian clubs getting together to fight the establishment, namely, the (mostly) united front by leading and aspirational clubs against Football Federation Victoria's original NPL framework. Indeed, two of the key figures in that campaign - Tom Kalas and Nick Galatas - are now key members of AAFC. There's probably other factors for the larger turnout too, like the more obvious seething antipathy in Victoria for Football Federation Australia compared to other states, which would extend to the general distrust of New South Wales' dominance of Australian soccer. Neither do Victorian clubs, even the powerful ones, have anything like the facilities (on field or off) of the wealthier New South Wales clubs. Add in existing under the Aussie rules hegemony, and I guess everyone feels a bit more vulnerable than they'd like to admit.

(As another aside, FFV president - and according to one source, also currently acting FFV CEO - Kimon Taliadoros was absent, due to a competing engagement. FFV had some representation at the meeting in the form of Gary Cole, recently hired by FFV as "Manager, Football Strategy and Special Projects". While an FFA representative attended AAFC's Queensland roadshow meeting, it was speculated out loud that FFA were not likely to attend a Victorian meeting due to the hostility they were likely to receive from members of the audience.)

Representing AAFC on the night on the front table/panel of sorts were Dean Hennessey, current Pascoe Vale technical director, ex-coach and TD of a few places; Tom Kalas, ex-South Melbourne board member, interim AAFC chairman during parts of 2017 and frequent spokesman for the group; Nick Galatas, South Melbourne chairman until very recently; and AAFC chairman Rabieh Krayem, one time Northern Fury chairman. Oddly, of those four only Krayem offered any significant contribution to the night's proceedings, with Krayem at times sharing the stage or delegating proceedings to AAFC treasurer Christo Patsan of Northern New South Wales.

From then to now
The evening began with an address by Rabieh Krayem, giving an overview of AAFC's progress and success up until now. He outlined the reasons for the establishment of AAFC, a summary of AAFC's rise to (relative) prominence, and noted the ongoing unity of AAFC member clubs. This theme of unity was returned to throughout the night, out of a certain degree of truth no doubt, but also in its own way acting as a polite reminder to AAFC member clubs that anything which would undermine that unity would be detrimental to their collective aims.

But as with so much of what AAFC is about, it's about adding a positive spin to everything that they do; thus extolling AAFC's ability to unite so many disparate soccer clubs, and celebrating an unprecedented collective effort in "putting football ahead of self-interest". This was reiterated by comments such as the unity of the AAFC clubs apparently confusing FFA. Added to the repetition of the need for continued unity were the virtues of focus and patience; not everything would happen at once, and the keenness for reform from NPL clubs needed to be properly directed.

Krayem went on to list the three broadest issues which the NPL clubs suffer under and which AAFC hopes to fix:
  1. Unsustainable NPL model. 
  2. The high costs of junior soccer. 
  3. The limitations on growth for NPL clubs under the current system.
Some of these issues were covered in relative brevity, either by the night's two main hosts, or during the workshop period of the meeting. As best as I can recall, no specific details were offered in terms of fixing points 1 and 2, but point 3 was addressed in detailing what AAFC hoped to achieve as part of its aim to help create a truly national second tier.

The Championship/Second Tier discussion
After announcing its initial framework for a second tier model (among other demands) last year (see my take here; or the guest point-counterpoint here), AAFC announced at the roadshow meeting that it is in the process of creating a working model group for the second development stage (out of three) for its second tier/Championship model. The intention is to finish this stage by June, and seeing as how AAFC met its own October 2017 deadline for releasing its original/stage one proposal, we can be optimistic that we'll see the results of stage two sometime in mid-year.

Sceptical as I am about many facets of this plan, one development (or the absence of) I was interested in seeing was whether other relevant Australian soccer parties - federations, players, etc - would become involved in trying to develop a second tier model. And this is where one of the more interesting - and as it turns out, also contentious - parts of the meeting took place. AAFC claimed that it would be working with FFV, Football New South Wales, and Professional Footballers Australia to develop the model; indeed, that those three groups would also provide funding for the necessary research. Apart from the (however vague) political vote of confidence that such a collaboration implies, the news that there would be pooled funding for the working model group caught the attention of a few onlookers both at the venue and among those observing online.

Later on though there emerged conflicting reports about whether FFV had actually agreed to provide funding for the working model group, as opposed to merely providing moral and/or logistical support. In communications I had with different people, from the AAFC side there was insistence that FFV (and even FFA) had committed to funding the working model group, while two sources from the FFV side insisted to me that no financial commitment had been made by FFV. Confusing things further, from the AAFC side I later received "clarification" that AAFC was still in discussions with the different groups about the possibility of funding the working model group.

When combined with the suggestion, made at the Adelaide meeting, that AAFC member clubs would be asked to contribute financially to the working model group, there seem to be mixed messages floating around about how the working model group will be funded.
So far, AAFC has apparently spent $90,000 on research - originating I assume from a mix of club donations, but principally from the generosity of some of its wealthier patrons. It's an expensive business getting together not just the conceptual framework for your new competition, but also putting together the mechanics of how you claim it will all work.

It's also necessary, not just from a "prove the doubters wrong" aspect, but also from a "putting in a competing framework to the only one that currently exists" aspect. When the NSL Taskforce Report was released many years ago (perhaps the most overlooked document in Australian soccer history, because everyone keeps focusing on the Crawford Report, the latter of which was related to governance, not the league), it had the added heft of being based on the research of the PFA, at the time "the most stable and cohesive institution within the game" according to Joe Gorman. The PFA model is what the A-League was born from, albeit not in its pure form; nothing is ever taken straight the shelf, much like the FFA governance model wasn't a direct lift from the Crawford Report.

The main point however is that long ago the one prominent organisation in Australian soccer that had not been sullied by Australian soccer's reputation of mismanagement and corruption was the only one that came up with a plan, funded by itself. In a moment when confidence in Australian soccer's leading institutions is once again at a low ebb, AAFC has the opportunity to do something similar to what the PFA did in the past, by transitioning from being a fledgling advocacy group to something which has its own intellectual property in the form of a firm plan - not just ideas - about how to improve the game in Australia. In an environment where the best ideas anyone else can come up with to rejuvenate the A-League and by extension Australian soccer are "maybe we should add a couple of teams, maybe..." and "all we really need to do is have an independent A-League" - as if either of those alone would be anything other than short term solutions - a bold, costed, detailed and logical plan would stand out.

If some observers of my Twitter feed were upset by the suggestion that FFV and/or FNSW would use "junior fees" to pursue the dreams of a collection of rebellious/ambitious/arrogant clubs, it wasn't just those people that had their jimmies rustled by information provided during this segment. When a slide was put up showing a comparison of current NPL club costs compared to possible Championship model costs, some in the audience were a bit stunned by the figures of current NPL costs, thinking them too high, especially in terms of wages.

The broad range offered by the AAFC's slide claimed that current player wage bills were up to $800,000 a season; the exclamation from some in the crowd was that most clubs would be paying, at best, half that amount. Along with questions about how AAFC got those figures, reasonable comment was made from the floor that this section of the presentation should have included "bands" of spending to more accurately reflect current spending trends. And I agree that there should have been more detailed information about how many clubs were in different wage spending bands, (as well as other costs) and that this data should have also included a breakdown of these details by state, so AAFC members and interested onlookers could see a more complete economic picture of Australian soccer at the second tier level.

Of course, this means more clubs opening themselves up to the kind of scrutiny that few clubs at this level would be comfortable with, but what price the greater good?

With costs, including wages, obviously rising across the board for a national second tier model, it felt to me for a moment that for some clubs the penny may have finally dropped about how realistic participation in a national second tier would actually be for them. But then the discussion moved on to whether second tier teams would be obliged to spend that much, or whether they'd be allowed to get away with spending a lot less. And therein lies one of the problems to be worked out among those arguing for a national second tier. There is a very broad spectrum of people discussing things like a second tier and associated reforms, ranging from a complete laissez-faire approach to something much more regulated, but which side of that ideological ledger will AAFC's second tier model prioritise?

Among those who criticise the A-League, much of that criticism centres around things like the salary cap, the salary floor, minimum player wages, and the assortment of other measures which see the A-League operate as a cartel like the top competitions of the other major Australian football codes. (This includes what might be called the Rolls Royce model around fan experience, stadiums, etc). Apart from disagreeing with that cartel approach from the position of "it's not how a real soccer economy or system works" or "it doesn't replicate the global standard", the argument also claims that the cartel approach entrenches mediocrity. Teams that struggle on the park have less incentive to immediately do better in order to secure their position in the league; successful teams have artificial barriers preventing them from actually putting out the best product that they can, because they must be kept in relative check with all the struggling teams

Cost is one thing, revenue quite another. Of course a lot of the doubters are wondering where the money will come from, especially as costs increase. While some potential national second tier clubs are reasonably well placed to cope with the wage increases (and some will have the benefit of less travel than potential competitors), there will still be significantly increased costs which will need to be covered. In the discussion which reiterated the preferred administrative model for the hypothetical national second tier, there was also some discussion about pooled revenue and profit sharing. Uneducated as I am about these matters, it nevertheless seems to imply a certain degree of cartel discipline, and thus a step removed from a no-holds-barred spending model. It also says something about the fact that AAFC believes that there will be profit to be shared.

But where someone like me sees problems, AAFC sees opportunities. AAFC is frequently on record with talking about how much money is generated by its member clubs for the Australian soccer ecosystem (some would counter that by claiming that it's mostly generated by the junior fees paid to NPL teams), but also about the limitations placed upon teams outside the A-League because of Australian topflight soccer's closed shop. Almost inevitably, AAFC expects that increased sponsorship opportunities will emerge for teams participating in a national second tier. But aside from that, AAFC believes there is an opportunity to take advantage of a changing media landscape, which for me is code for non-traditional (and non-terrestrial) broadcast media.

Previously, if not from AAFC itself than from people advocating for similar outcomes, the idea (or hope) was that SBS would be a partner of a national second tier, an idea which I never had much confidence would be realised. For starters, SBS's Australian soccer content - indeed its soccer content outside of its lone EPL game a week at midnight Saturday -  has now regressed to an almost negligible existence. What could possibly prompt them to spend the necessary funds to show a second tier competition with limited opportunities for recouping any investment? This suggestion, which goes back years before the existence of any tangible second tier movement - and which was originally formulated around showing live state premier league games - has always left me stumped.

Should this subtle rhetorical shift in emphasis - from securing a traditional and established broadcast media partner to a non-traditional equivalent - concern prospective members of a national second tier? It's something that certainly bothers me, but I'm already long gone on the prospects of this thing even working. For those more open-minded on these matters however, it should still be something that they keep an eye on - every cent that The Championship model doesn't get from a broadcast deal is that much more revenue that will need to be collected from other sources to make up for it.

In terms of player recruitment for The Championship, Krayem was adamant that it was "not designed as a retirement home", and that rules would be set up in order to promote younger Australian talent. This was clearly a riposte to the geriatric progression of the A-League, but also perhaps a critique of the NPL as it currently functions with regards to player recruitment. For example, does the luring of players from Queensland to Victoria help Queensland soccer? It may help those individual players by having them play in a higher standard competition, but it also weakens the standard of Queensland soccer. And what does the Victorian appetite for recruiting players from outside Victoria - previously British backpackers, currently Queenslanders and players from smaller states - say about the lack of opportunity given to Victorian players? And in the case of bringing in players from Tasmania, might this actually be much more justifiable? It's a lot to chew on.

Regarding questions from the floor about the transfer model to be used in The Championship, and Australian player transfer reform in general (as part of the now longstanding grievances state league clubs have about their players being poached by A-League teams, including the latter's designated NPL sides), the short and only answer given was that this was something that would be worked on.

The Championship would be a summer competition, with men's and women's components. I was not able to ascertain on the night whether successful applicants for The Championship would need to field both men's and women's teams as part of their participation. (update: see the comments section for clarification) This is an interesting point for how women's soccer exists in Australia. More often than not, the wealthiest soccer clubs in Australia (below the A-League level) are those which have a long tradition of successful male teams, with their female teams, where they exist, being an afterthought. Meanwhile those state league clubs which have historically been most successful at running female teams - often by women themselves and existing in the void left by the absence of a strong senior mens' program - would struggle to find the means to support a grandiose venture such as ongoing participation in a national second tier competition.

There was no elaboration on the matter of promotion and relegation to and from the A-League, or from and to the extant NPL competitions. While perhaps this meeting was neither the time nor the place for an explanation of how the different league layers would be formally linked together, it did leave a gaping hole in the area most casual onlookers (admittedly not in the room, but among those observing online) wanted to know. Krayem said that the NPL would persist; insofar as my understanding goes, this positions The Championship as the mechanism by which Australian soccer begins to achieve a necessary realignment of the its competition hierarchy.

Christo Patsan said that the founding principles and intent of the NPL and National Competitions Review were sound and largely still relevant and worth pursuing. I'm not sure that feeling is shared by everyone. If I was to summarise what I think AAFC want, it is a nationally consistent NPL approach (and eventually second tier) where clubs have the ability to control their identity and destinies. Are the ideals of a consistent framework and the freedom for clubs to do their own thing compatible concepts though?

That the NPL competitions would continue means that there needs to be a lot of work done to sort out how this is all going to come together. I mean, that much is obvious to everyone. Even among the advocates for a promotion-relegation regime however, there are a range of views of how this would work, ranging from a "quasi-cartel, necessary criteria to be met" model, to something much more cut-throat and free-market. At the moment. it also appears that apart from Victoria and New South Wales, most states are only paying lip service to AAFC's aim of a second division. Cue the NSL conspiracy again. Should the Championship become operational, AAFC says its administration would be based in Melbourne, a deliberate challenge to Sydney's dominance of Australian soccer administration.

(And while really not important from the fact of its obvious implausibility, it is worth noting that there was also the odd call from the floor - with slightly more than muted approval from the guests in attendance - that if FFA and everyone else didn't want to get a second tier up and running, that the clubs should just breakaway and form their own competition. This idea had cold water poured on it from AAFC panel members, but it does highlight that there are very diverse views and attitudes to Australian soccer matters within AAFC's constituency.)

The most left-field proposal on the night...
Was AAFC's desire to hold an annual junior tournament for AAFC member clubs. The age range would be 13-16, for both boys and girls teams, with the event held in a single location. The annual extravaganza would also include conferences and seminars. Aiming to start in April 2020 - one assumes over the Easter break - this is a logistically bold, perhaps even insane proposal. It would require accommodating thousands of travellers (kids, parents, coaches, support staff), would cost a lot of money to organise, would require a lot of grounds, and all sorts of other things which someone like me who has never organised or been involved in such an undertaking could possibly think of.

Credit for the scope of the idea, but its scale is such that I'd love to see how this would all come together. Reading online, this idea was a hit with the Canberra people in particular.

FFA Congress progress
Another one of the key issues was the status of reform to FFA's Congress. FIFA and the AFC representatives had recently been in the country and left again, and looking in from the outside it appears that not much has changed. Naturally those involved closer to the action have a better idea than us mere plebs. In terms of AAFC's hope of getting a seat on FFA's reformed Congress, it all seemed to depend on who was speaking for AAFC. Krayem said that Victoria was the only state federation which was for AAFC having a vote on FFA's Congress, while Queensland was happy for AAFC to have observer status.

(A non-AAFC source later told me that most state federations were happy to let AAFC have observer status, until such time as AAFC could "prove themselves", whatever that means. I assume it means in part holding itself together through what will be the much more difficult phase of actually getting some of its grand schemes up and running.)

Krayem was hopeful but cautious about whether AAFC would get its seat in the FFA Congress, but Nick Galatas, making one of his rare contributions during the evening, piped up to say with uncharacteristic confidence that AAFC will get there. This belief is based on the support that AAFC believes it is receiving from FIFA and the AFC; they certainly aren't being made to feel welcome by FFA and the A-League teams, and probably quite a few of the states. This international support gives AAFC a kind of leverage that forces their inclusion into discussions.

The issue of representation
Every state and region is going to be different when it comes to its soccer experience; in fact, this is a problem that cuts across almost every aspect of Australian sport, that rather than anything resembling a uniform and universal sporting culture, we are instead a nation of micro-sporting cultures. One thing I didn't note earlier on about the make up of the audience was how overwhelmingly male it was. I don't think there were any women present at all. Intentional or not, it is not a good look for an organisation that will need to argue that its attempts to reform Australian soccer also include the best interests of women and girls, and not just high level senior male players. Indeed female football was very much an afterthought to the entire evening's proceedings, with AAFC talking heads mentioning little about the topic, and the questions from the floor referencing nothing about women's soccer at all.

This is a serious issue, and I don't doubt for a second that those representing AAFC don't take it seriously. However, apart from the issue of optics - never mind female participation and professional pathways being the zeitgeist of Australian sport - the lack of any almost any reference to the female side of the game plays right into the hands of those who would oppose AAFC solely on the accusation that the group was merely a front for a collective of culturally regressive ethnic clubs who had been unable to keep up with the times. And to be fair, some of those accusations would not be too far off the mark. The room was made up of at least some clubs who represent conservative or traditional ideas of what soccer is about in Australia on this and other issues. Related to those clubs would be those who, like South Melbourne perhaps, espouse a cautious modernism in its approach to women's soccer.

(Albeit a modernism as yet untested by what happens when the female program's principle advocate, in South's case Gabrielle Giuliano, moves on. The matter of cultural and club continuity has always been at the forefront of women's soccer.)

At the same time, apart from your different flavours of ethnically derived conservatism and cautious modernism, you have clubs which exist outside those frameworks, and those which go across several demographics. So while there are clearly clubs in the AAFC movement with a chip on their shoulder about FFA's treatment of ethnicity, there are also those clubs for which ethnicity is not even close to being at the top of their list of complaints. Then there are the clubs from regional areas. The ambitious clubs who have no NSL history. The clubs from states and regions which have never had national representation of any sort, and no obvious development pathway for their talented kids. All of these groups are being presented by AAFC as a unified collective with a common purpose, and not as the motley collection of clubs that this group actually is.

And it's not all smooth sailing. There was some discomfort from the floor about some of the decision making and negotiating processes of AAFC, namely that it does not consult as much as it could or should with its member clubs about key issues.

(I'd also add in the strange and sometimes unprofessional social media antics of AAFC. I think they'd be better off sticking to a conservative online approach - discussing only their affairs, and avoiding clogging up their timeline with stuff outside their immediate remit of being a representative organisation for second tier clubs. At present their social media efforts lack focus - probably operating on the whim of whoever's in control of the relevant social media accounts - while also coming across at times as petty. They need to at the very least get an off-the-shelf social media policy.)

But for the time being, in those narrow schemes where people actually pay attention to any of this stuff, AAFC is winning. It's winning the ideological battle because it is presenting a positive outlook for Australian soccer (even while often talking down present day Australian soccer); it's winning because its opponents have been successfully portrayed as out of touch and stagnant. And whatever the flaws with its social media/PR game, AAFC has also succeeded in having its public face, its front office if you will, obscure whatever disquiet and misgivings clubs under the AAFC umbrella have.

We are all in this together, but for how long?
Unity and patience are the virtues preached, but old habits and attitudes die hard. The nature of soccer in Australia has been, at least since after the migrant lead boom, one of self-interest and self-preservation. (The A-League has been the notable exception to that.) The pursuit of excellence (in all its forms) applies first to your club, and good luck to the others trying to catch or keep up.

But at one point during the meeting Krayem made the salient point - the kind of comment that can deflate a room full of fighting optimists - that "what may be good for football may not be good for your club". Amid the positivity and reinforcement of what it is that AAFC is trying to achieve, it's a message that cuts through, and it's certainly a message that we will look back on if and when a second tier gets up and it's not to everyone's liking.

Of course what the common good is insofar as Australian football goes depends on who you ask, and I'm in no good position to answer that. To me it's at best a nebulous concept, one that's been tainted because more often than not it's been used as a weapon rather than as the vague ideal that it is. For whatever it's worth, I don't think Krayem used the "good of the game" argument here in any sort of malicious way, more as reiteration that even within this group of (for now) united clubs, there would be winners and (at least relative) losers from AAFC's plans.

A word on the "NSL conspiracy"
There are some few pushing the line that AAFC and all of its associated antics are merely a front for getting ethnic NSL clubs back into the national soccer system. At the most extreme end of that argument is the accusation that AAFC is a front specifically set up to get South Melbourne Hellas back into the Australian topflight.

Such thinking (whether directed at ethnic NSL clubs or South Melbourne more specifically) requires two pre-existing notions in order to get off the ground. First, it requires the ethnic NSL teams having the necessary political, financial and grassroots clout to re-emerge from their otherwise terminal decline and irrelevance to Australian soccer (a terminal decline and irrelevance diagnosed by their detractors no less). Second, that these clubs would have the capability and competence (again, both of which their detractors claim these clubs lack) to establish and sustain such a complicated and unwieldy campaign in order to get back into the national league system. Needless to say, I find such conspiracy thinking beyond laughable. Truly, it is at the level of the conspiracies cobbled together by the so-called "bitters" of Australian soccer over the past decade and more.

Whatever else AAFC's faults, or the disagreements one may have with the aims of AAFC, it has been established and managed to succeed beyond the limits placed upon it by its detractors and opponents for a number of reasons. We have already mentioned the support AAFC is receiving from FIFA and the AFC, however much that support may be overstated by AAFC representatives. It has also managed to keep its broad constituency together for longer and greater ends than many people expected. Just as importantly, in an Australian soccer situation which reeks of stagnation - especially with regards to FFA and the A-League - AAFC is putting forward the boldest and most optimistic view of what Australian soccer could become. Whether their approach has gained any traction with people outside those few interested in the narrow field of Australian soccer politicking is almost beside the point; within the demographic that does care about such things, they come off looking more often than not like the good guys.

Something rather obvious that gets missed however is that AAFC exists to represent clubs which exist in a rather strange and hitherto unprecedented "between space" in Australia's football chain of command. The NPL clubs play under the auspices and control of their respective state federations, while at the same time participating in a system largely designed by the national federation. While in cases like Victoria, NPL clubs are able to perhaps organise well enough to exert a measure of influence over the running of their state federation - and thus alter elements of their own NPL environment more to their liking - they have no ability to act as a collective to put pressure on the body which set up the NPL framework in the first place, that being FFA.

Because of this bizarre operating system, no state operates NPL in the same way. When one person from the floor of the Melbourne roadshow complained (fairly enough) about A-League teams having more visa players at their disposal when they play FFA Cup matches against Victorian NPL teams, Krayem noted that when Victorian teams played against Queensland teams in the same competition, that Victorian teams had a PPS cap of 200 compared to Queensland's 170. Meanwhile other states have no restrictions on visa players. Not all of this is FFA's fault, and the clubs themselves - certainly in the case of the Victorian NPL - are also to blame for the mess that NPL has become.

But the point is, while ethnic ex-NSL clubs may be best placed to push for national second tier participation, they are not the only ones doing so. Neither are all of the former ethnic powerhouse NSL clubs best placed to take advantage of any changes. The goal here clearly is to start a competition which adds value across the country, and not just in forgotten suburban pockets of Melbourne and Sydney.

But still, what is it that South Melbourne Hellas is trying to do?
(I included this section because Leo Athanasakis asked what I thought was an unusual question, on the matter of potential A-League expansion and NPL/second tier queue jumping. While this was directed at other A-League consortium bids, I felt the queue jumping element could have - and indeed already has - been directed at South itself. Also South of the Border is a South Melbourne blog, so you know...)

When the campaign against FFV's original NPL model was begun by Green Gully and Melbourne Knights, South Melbourne - represented on this issue by one Tom Kalas - notably took a different tack, preferring to remain what it called "in the tent", believing that it could effect change more effectively from within the system rather than fighting against it from the outside. Then, like magic, South gradually changed its position to the point where it (and to be fair, a whole bunch of other Greek clubs) somehow became the leader of the movement against FFV and its NPL model.

Among those clubs who care to remember that this happened at all, there is understandably distrust and resentment about how that all played out; that the more obnoxiously regressive clubs on all sorts of issues who stuck their necks out on principle (however misguided that principle may have been) only for a bunch of Greeks to come in and take all the credit for getting not just a solution to the NPL impasse, but credit as being the leaders of a re-found boldness for clubs to stand up to the post-Crawford federations for their rights.

Me, I liked the fanciful idea that I invented that it was all coordinated; that certain clubs that had a more uncompromising ethos when it came to rejecting forced modernity would do the initial head kicking and grunt work, allowing more palatable alternatives - ie, us - to come in and finish off the job.

But the truth is that ever since it was compelled to vacate its position in the Australian topflight by the forces which took over Australian soccer, as well because of its own decrepit state, South Melbourne has had one distant goal in its sights above all others: to get back into the big-time, as soon as possible, and by any means necessary. So we bid for the second Melbourne A-League licence under the Southern Cross gimmick, losing out to Melbourne Heart. We tried to buy out the then failing Central Coast Mariners, under a scheme which may have included keeping some games in Gosford for however long it took for people to realise it was a stupid idea and just have all our games in Melbourne. Then we tried buying out Melbourne Heart, and failed there too. Currently, we've thrown our hat in the ring for the zombie A-League expansion process which may not even have ever existed.

They say that you miss all the shots you don't take, and when it comes to failed attempts to get into the A-League, no one's taken more shots than South. And yet, for whatever reason, South has never been at the public forefront of AAFC, other than by proxy association. To its own members, South has played AAFC and promotion-relegation issues as low-key affairs, preferring to put up a wait and see approach. The emphasis has always been on first and foremost getting into the A-League under its own steam (even if details of those attempts provided to members are sparing), and not through wholesale reform of Australian soccer's league structures.

And yet in most recent times, those paying attention to the social media contributions of especially our president Leo Athanasakis indicate a shift in our prior reticence to openly support a promotion-relegation model. Such a shift leads easily to the allegation from within the AAFC tent and from promotion-relegation fellow travellers alike that South Melbourne is not really ideologically committed to the principle of promotion-relegation; rather, South Melbourne is only committed to whatever South Melbourne believes will get it back into the topflight soonest. And if that happens, the rest be damned.

While not serious enough to threaten the unity of the AAFC revolutionary project by itself, it's the kind of fissure that people will need to keep an eye on; when persistent calls are made about unity and its virtues, any deviation from that ideal invites the possibility of infighting and sniping.

The question of heart and soul
I tried to write and re-write this section a number of times, never to my own satisfaction. So I'm going to try to keep it short and sweet.

Community, authentic, grassroots, corporate, franchise, elite. Words like these and many others can be useful in describing the cultural schisms that afflict Australian soccer. Used carelessly however, instead of clarifying the ways in which Australian soccer is divided, these words serve mostly as an act of self-justification.

By any measure, FFA and the management of several A-League teams have treated NPL teams poorly. There are countless examples of this, some of which were given on the night. But it's possible also that NPL teams are seen in a similar light by teams far lower down the food chain.

Claiming the moral and ethical high ground is a dangerous business. Anyone making claims for their own purity of support of the game is on dangerous ground. Resorting to the kinds of rhetoric which filled up forums a decade ago, and which paints simplistic pictures of an "us and them" which does not actually exist, is a tactic fraught with issues.

The focus should be on the actual examples of disrespect given by the top tier towards everything below it. Emotive language which loses sight of that should be avoided.

Final thought
During the aftermath over the next few days, it was funny to see the same info I'd received from different parties via Twitter DMs and text messages - sometimes intended for clarification, sometimes intended for further dissemination - make its way out to the public domain via other trusted vessels. It was like a proxy social media battle in the broader war for hearts and minds, except that I don't think anyone but the already interested even noticed.


  1. I'd suggest interest in Melbourne was greater because the AAFC movement was spurred by a revolt at the FFV's attempt to supplant the current top tier when introducing the NPL.

  2. I applaud everyone's altruistic stance on wanting the best for the sport yet I also agree with you that "Anyone making claims for their own purity of support of the game is on dangerous ground" - spending any time on the internet wanting to read about "what's wrong with soccer in Australia?" leads to the most amazing spectrum of ramblings, from the sublime to the absolute ridiculous - but a great way to spend a few hours when bored at work :)

    My question to you is, am I wrong in only caring about the club I follow? I love soccer, I truly do, but my love is expressed tangibly through my club. I mean, I don't follow any league purely for the league's sake, nor do I have any reason to particularly care if my choice of passion is shared by the majority or minority of people in this country. Hellas brings me joy for my own reasons, as do my fellow South fans. Yes I would love it if soccer in Australia attracted more mainstream support, therefore increasing the funding going into it - more money, clubs, participants etc etc purely because it would give my team more opportunities to cover itself in glory -- Am I a selfish monster??

    Anyway, thoroughly excellent posting by you on AAFC proceedings Thanks for taking the time.

    BTW, your writing is gaining a bit of a following as per below, perhaps I can get an autograph at Paco tonight before you become too famous?

    1. Your post sums up why SMFC is only interested in self interest and the game of soccer can go to hell. Disgusting. Please stay banished for a few more generations

    2. So I guess you go to games and chant “yay soccer”? whatever makes you happy cretin. Btw my opinion is just that ... my opinion... a humble member of the mighty mighty Hellas but I don’t presume to speak on behalf of the club... As for being banished .... hahahahha the writing is on the wall, we may stay banished forever in npl hell but we endure .... how long do you think the plastic fantastics will last when pro/rel finally happens?

  3. Doing some further trawling on the net looking for info. On the matter of whether men's and women's teams would be run under a single licence, there was this comment made on the FourFourTwo forums

    "Don't know if the author of this reads here, but to answer one question Gary Marocchi on Perth radio stated that the intention is for the 2nd tier to have both men's and women's teams in parallel - ie clubs that nominate must have both, and the fixtures would be the same so that the two teams would travel together."

  4. On the matter of the AAFC's national tournament, again from FourFourTwo's forums:

    "Also in regards the proposed junior tournament for 2020, not all AAFC member clubs would be expected to compete - I think something like up to 4 from each state would be permitted (or an allocation akin to FFA cup) which would make the concept much more viable. Most importantly A League clubs would not be invited."

    1. Discussing the matter of the AAFC junior tournament with a friend yesterday, a couple of interesting points were brought up. First, that Easter may be one of those few times during a 40 weeks training/playing season that junior NPL players get to take a break.

      Second, that Easter is one of the most expensive times of year for travel and accommodation. I get that some junior NPL teams are already in the practice of going on trips overseas and such, but if one of the issues with the NPL is its high cost for participants, then week-long trips interstate won't reduce the financial burden for participants.

      Maybe AAFC will find sponsors willing to take on some of the cost burden? It also seems like the kind of thing that would need the establishment of a more permanent AAFC administrative base in order to organise the tournament, rather than rely on the volunteer efforts of the current AAFC board/committee.

      It's a great example of the AAFC's big thinking though, and the kind of thing that if they can pull off, will get them noticed in ways other than what they've done so far.

    2. The relevant FourFourTwo thread which discusses this blog post is:

  5. On the matter of wages, here's one interesting tidbit from the NSW/Sydney AAFC roadshow meeting

    "In regards to wages, Krayem claimed that some NPL teams don't pay their players any wages. This was challenged by a club official at the meeting given how NPL was established/structured but Krayem was adamant."

    1. In response to this tweet, I was sent a link to a 2014 article about Northern Fury, which states that Fury's players at the time were amateurs.

    2. There's also the added complication of some regional teams in NPL (at least in Victoria) being hamstrung by the situation where talented players would rather play locally due to either travel issues, or in some cases, because they're getting paid better locally.

      "While we were walking around a Wodonga shopping centre, a bloke working at a booth there saw our South gear and stopped us a for a bit of a chat. Turned out he was an ex-Southampton youth player playing in the local competition. Among his noteworthy comments were the fact that there were better players in Murray United's region, but that they could not offer up enough money to attract them away from their local clubs, who could afford to pay players more - as well as offering shorter commutes instead of fortnightly trips to Melbourne."

      But these are issues which affect second tier competitions from other sports as well. It's certainly something which effects the VFL, in terms of losing players to cashed up local leagues, and a similar thing seems to be happening with footy in north-west Tasmanian, where teams representing Burnie and Devonport in the state league have been losing players to local competitions.

      Of course, part of the point of footy's second tiers is that younger and more ambitious players will fill out the ranks in lieu of players chasing cash, and to some extent The Championship may end up having clubs with a similar outlook.

  6. Just a quick point on alternative/online broadcasting models. If people are seriously going to have this discussion - and I certainly think it's a worthwhile discussion to have - then people have to be honest about the way they use data in their propaganda missives.

    Last year we had the big hoopla about how many people "viewed" the online stream of the Bulleen-South Melbourne game; yesterday there was a variant on the same theme with a NSW NPL game. And yet at no point did the people pushing the alleged numbers as an example of the interest in the lower leagues declare what a "view" consists of.

    If you're going to ask clubs to jump into the deep end and join a national second tier, such gamesmanship and obfuscation really does no one any favours.

  7. These charlatans at the AAFC are having roadshows now ? Surely people have seen through all the smoke and mirrors no ?


A few notes on comments.

We've had a lot of fun over the years with my freewheeling comments policy, but all good things must come to an end. Therefore I will no longer be approving comments that contain personal abuse of any sort.

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