We filed into a small auditorium, tucked away in a corner of a brand new, largely empty public library, in a brand new, largely empty portion of Melbourne’s Docklands.
The Association of Australian Football Clubs’ FFA Candidates forum was the first opportunity to give voice to those who might take control of a new era of football governance, and how fitting it was that it was held in the soulless archetype of failed development Melbourne calls the Docklands.
The Docklands is a suburb of the damned, dripping in commercialised yearning-in-vain, forced, hollow hipness, devoid of soul, a wasteland of plastic, concrete and glass. They’ve tried hauling in snazzy restaurants to coax in the nightlife; those now sit empty, and you can almost see the food spoiling in plastic tubs out the back.
They’ve tried weekly fireworks displays, that have driven many more local dogs mad with terror than they have attracted dazzled onlookers. It’s stocked with the exact kind of newly-assembled apartments that are, this very second, plummeting in value.
It hosted a robust discussion about Australian football establishing a genuine identity, a rich culture, about its history and its future, and how it might prosper by listening to the people involved; yes, this was the perfect place in which to convene, from which to take lessons, and, finally, depart.
All the candidates agreed that grassroots fees must be lower. All urged for expansion, done properly. All reiterated the need to move forward having learnt the lessons of the past.
First, a reminder of all the candidates who were present at the forum:
– Joseph Carrozzi – Managing partner at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, deputy chairman at Greater Western Sydney AFL club.
– Stephen Conroy – ex-Labor minister, ex-president of Volleyball Victoria.
– Craig Foster – SBS analyst, Football NSW coach, ex-PFA chairman and director, who is also involved with expansion hopefuls Southern Expansion.
– Daniel Moulis – Former Canberra City player, former Socceroo and lawyer, renominating after three years on the FFA board.
– Chris Nikou – Lawyer, current FFA board member, was the FFA representative on the Congress Review Working Group committee, former Melbourne Victory company secretary.
– Remo Nogarotto – Former Soccer Australia chairman, former Marconi Stallions board members, former Newcastle Jets board member.
– Mark Shield – Former NSL, A-League, and international referee, businessman, refereed at two World Cups.
Morry Bailes, Linda Norquay, Heather Reid and Mark Rendell were all absent from the forum.
After all the nominees stood up and spoke for a minute or three on their own visions, the meat of the occasion – the questions – began.
Firstly, the conflicts of interest: How would Joseph Carrozzi’s place on the GWS board affect his candidacy? Will he resign?
“I know the Twittersphere is interested in that as well,” Mr Carrozzi said – #SokkahTwitter’s reach, evidently, is wide and all-encompassing.
“The answer is yes, I would resign,” Mr Carrozzi said. Well, yes, confirmation, then, of what would have always had to happen; competing for funding, as Mr Carrozzi pointed out, is just one reason he couldn’t be involved at both an AFL club and the FFA.
Then to Craig Foster’s conflicts, with Football NSW, SBS, and with Southern Expansion. Would he give those up?
“Certainly two of them,” Mr Foster said.
“I immediately informed Southern Expansion that I would resign, of course, if elected,” Mr Foster said, before confirming he’d do the same for his Football NSW coaching role.
“The idea for SBS is, there is a potential conflict, we all know that,” Mr Foster went on. “The idea is to have an agreed-upon protocol, that’s published, that the FFA and SBS and, of course, myself are happy with.
“So that everyone is clear on what my responsibilities are, which are non-commercial, which of course as everyone knows is on-air commentary, so that everyone in the football community is absolutely clear on what I’m to be asked, what I’m able to comment on, and where that line is.”
Mr Foster’s position as PFA chairman has, in the past, forced him to give up his position as an SBS pundit, and he reasserted he was willing to take that risk again.
To Remo Nogarotto, and the rather well-worn and totally not gag-inducing phrase “old soccer v new football”. How would Mr Nogarotto fight the associations he has with the NSL, and the bad old days? Does he need to fight it?
“I am a person who is respectful, enormously respectful, of history, but not mired in nostalgia,” Mr Nogarotto said.
“Our game, the world over, is at its strongest when the roots of history are deep in the game.
“I thought at the time, and I still think, that the “old soccer, new football” tagline was wrong, and it’s proven to be wrong.
“We talk long and hard about business acumen [as key criteria for a board member] I remember at the time being lectured by the then-CEO of FFA about why I needed to support that particular line, which I refused to do at the time.
“And I said to him at the time “mate, the first rule in business is look after your base”. Look after your existing customers before you worry about building new customers. I thought we got it profoundly wrong,” Mr Nogarotto said.
“Football is not a business plan,” Mr Nogarotto added, before saying business plans were as common as confetti at an Italian wedding.
“Respecting history is a very different thing,” he said.
Talk of old soccer brings us neatly to the National Club Identity Policy, that fairly wretched piece of self-hating cultural bleaching that was this year taken to extraordinary lengths when Avondale were forced to cover up a tiny Italian flag on their kit with tape while appearing in the FFA Cup.
Mr Carrozzi was diplomatic, saying clubs defining themselves solely down ethnic lines would hurt inclusion, while saying the NCIP’s harsh cleansing was too much, and needed reviewing. Mr Foster was unequivocal:
“NCIP has no place in Australian society, has no place in Australian football,” Mr Foster said, a statement which prompted a loud round of applause.
“Our game is the most diverse game in the country, and that is our great strength that we have,” Mr Foster declared.
What of the two nominees who are already board members, who are tarnished, so to speak, by the brush of the old regime?
Daniel Moulis and Chris Nikou were asked a rather pointed question about whether they – as potential members of a new board – would be able to genuinely stage an investigation into the opaque and sinister finances involved in Australia’s bid for the 2022 World Cup. Moulis urged we all move on.
“There have been quite a number of investigations into the thing you’ve referred to, and I think you should refer to those, and you should leave it at that,” he said.
“These things happened many, many years ago, it has been admitted that there were mistakes made in the way that the monies were perhaps dealt with,” Mr Moulis added.
Chris Nikou agreed:
“The theme for tonight is about moving forward; we owe it to each other to get in the boat and row in the same direction,” Mr Nikou said.
Talk turned to A-League expansion, and promotion and relegation.
Mr Moulis had the mic, and talked about expansion first:
“What you’ve read in the papers in correct, the process is still ongoing,” he said.
“The current board – soon to be the previous board – put that on hold, in terms of final decision-making in deference to the fact that there was a new board coming into place, and that that new board, with the new voting structure, should be in a position to make those decisions.
“Personally, I think we are all in support of A-League expansion, I certainly am, and in fact I came onto the board on a platform of A-League expansion,” Mr Moulis said.
Promotion and relegation was an issue that all nominees were less willing to speak about without caveats; Mr Moulis and Mr Foster both mentioned how fragile and delicate an issue it was, and that clubs who had paid for A-League licenses – and had invested money into the top flight league – could not simply be put at risk of relegation were a two-tiered system suddenly implemented.
Mr Nogarotto said “expansion is key” to reversing the current decline in interest and attendance in the A-League.
Mr Foster mentioned multiple times how important it is that, in the course of discussions about an independent A-League – one of the CRWG’s recommendations, to bring Australian football into line with FIFA rules – that both a first and second division – even if the latter is, as of now, hypothetical – be considered, and their livelihoods protected.
Mark Shield, to whom we’ve made no reference as of yet, has not been left to this point of the recap because he was an unimpressive candidate; he was very impressive, and spoke well when asked about how the FFA and Australian football might relate better to the Asian Confederation.
“We’ve got a leading role to play in some respects, for the Asian football confederation, and in some parts I think we’ve done that reasonably well,” Mr Shield said.
“One of the things I think we are – at both AFC and FIFA level – I don’t think we’re represented enough yet in the committees and boardrooms that make decisions that have outcomes for Australian football. I don’t think we’re represented enough at any of those levels.
“And I think we need to do more to get on to those decision-making capabilities, because that’s where, ultimately, there are very important decisions made,” Mr Shield said.
Mr Nikou also spoke on Asia:
“We’ve enjoyed good relations with the ASEAN part of Asia; I think we’ve work to do to the west,” he said.
“And I think, philosophically, what we should be able to do is actually be net contributors to the AFC, not looking for “what’s in it for us?”,” Mr Nikou added.
The problem of a lack of football-specific facilities – purpose-built, club-owned football grounds, for instance – was raised, a valid issue, certainly at A-League level. Why does football still feel, as host Simon Hill put it, like we’re still squatting in other people’s houses?
Mr Carrozzi said football needed a national museum that “tells the history, tells the accomplishments, tells the great entrepreneurial and professional innate skill of football”, and that past footballing greats should be inducted into a hall of fame, moments of public ceremony and deference, like other codes do for their legends.
Mr Moulis talked about how A-League and NPL clubs might “work together” to somehow take advantage of the latter’s bricks-and-mortar assets. Mr Moulis went on:
“For those of you who were at Penrith [to see the Matildas play Chile on Saturday], I put a question to the mayor: I said “Who owns this stadium?”” Mr Moulis said, showing, for the first time in the evening, a bit of vigour as he spoke.
“Look around you and it’s badged with Penrith Panthers all over it … they’re run by the councils, but that ground, for all intents and purposes, looked as though it was Penrith’s home ground.
“So we [football] really needs to assert our position … our community, our participation rates are huge; we should also put our mark on these public facilities and take them as our own.”
Foster talked about how the game needs better, more widespread and more convincing advocacy groups, that can campaign for a bigger slice of the pie.
“Our funding model here is about the Olympics,” Mr Foster said. “But what the Socceroos and the Matildas do for this country is much stronger than the investments in some of those [Olympic] medals which, quite frankly, don’t have the penetration throughout the country that our wonderful national teams do.
“I’ve come to the realisation that we need an advocacy strategy at all levels of our game,” Mr Foster said, leaning forward, with the crowd mirroring the gesture back at him.
“We’re not at the table, we don’t tell our story well, and we’re not in those forums of decision-making.”
Then legendary football journalism titan Bonita Mersiades stood up, made a salient point about how few women there were in the room – and, for that matter, nominating as candidates – before asking where the nominees would like to see Australian football in 15 years’ time.
Mr Shield said he wanted his running buddies – who talk about football only when Shield brings it up, or when a World Cup is on – to have the latest A-League highlight on the tip of their tongues.
Mr Nogarotto was rather more all-encompassing:
“Look, 15 years hence, the Matildas and the Socceroos are vying for World Cup fame, should be an aspiration for us all,” he said.
“An A-League and a W-League which is commercially sustainable … a game at a community level which is not being priced out of the marketplace by unnecessary fees, a participation rate which is leveraged politically, and the power of that leverage applied in favour of the game … and, Bonita, at least four or five women on the board of the FFA.”
Mr Foster was typically grand:
“The future of this country will be shaped through us, through this game,” he said.
“We are the largest, we are the most participated, and we are the most diverse; those three pillars are what we need to achieve in the future.”
The forum ended with a closing address from AAFC chairman Rabieh Krayem.
“The AAFC was formed because the game stopped listening. And when the game stops listening, we lose the game,” he said.
There’s a way to go before we find it again, but at this forum, it feels as though we’ve picked up the scent.