A spectre is haunting Australia: the spectre of football.
Rival codes acknowledge the round-ball game as a power.
It is high time that football should openly – in the face of the whole country – publish their views, their aims and their tendencies with a manifesto of football itself.
The notion that we, the football family, are the victims of a concerted effort by external voices to stop us from reaching our potential and our rightful place among the top echelons of the sporting landscape is an oft-mentioned theory as to why the sport faces the ills it does.
This convenient outlook, based in a historical truth, attempts to negate the real, horrifying truth about our beautiful game. There are those among us who would see the sport burn to the ground just so that they may be in charge of the ashes.
We say our enemies talk among themselves, plotting against our rise, fearful of our potential force. This is another lie of convenience. They don’t have to, as we are the masters of our own doom and have been achieving it efficiently for a long time.
We talk of false dawns and times of rebirth but we forget some essential truths. We are the most resilient sport in the country. We have gone through many changes and cycles, reflecting those of our society. Whether this was the advent of mass immigration, which shook the sport to the core and held a mirror up to the discrimination and bigotry of the time, or is was the shift away from the over-identification of the sport with ethnicity, we have only continued to thrive.
Over two million people play football in Australia, in the face of myriad issues. It is our inability to realise this potential, due to our egos and the weight of our past, that is our true enemy. Our only enemy is in the mirror.
I appreciate the weight of history of the sport in this country. The racism. The ignorance. The disrespect. I have felt it too, and grew up on stories of racism towards my grandparents as they attended football games. It is our past, and we deserve an apology. But living in this past only weighs us down further.
Once we confront these facts, maybe our cycles of rebirth and rebadging may be over and we can harness our innate strengths. To this end, I wish to address the media commentary about the sport at both the community and elite levels and critique some of the prevailing views that seem to be high on complaint, but lacking on solutions of any real substance.
It seems that disproportionate focus always goes to this relative miniscule side of the game and I appreciate why it does. The money for those whose opinions are quoted are not served by the rank and file of the game, but by big business who seeks to profit from the game. I wish to speak more to the community level as it is the majority of our game, so I will keep this brief as there is enough talk about this.
Firstly, I keep hearing that we have lost our way. The evidence for that references the lack of Australians playing in Europe’s top leagues. But this intentionally leaves out a few realities that are really important.
At the time of our golden generation, the amount of players from countries in Africa especially were much lower. Domestic players were always the majority, even in the big teams. Now, football at the professional level is truly global and it is only natural that we would see a decline in the representation of Australian players in light of this.
Further, the A-League is apparently dying. The biggest reason for that is the killing off of active support and the FFA needs to do a lot more work to re-engage those lost people.
As a Melbourne Victory fan, it started to die when people had to nominate for an active support seat rather than it being general admission. We had started with two or three of us, but because it was general admission by the time that measure was introduced we were upwards of 20 who sang all through the game. As soon as that measure was brought in, it all dropped off. That needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
Also, this pandemic has shown that sports players in general have been paid too much. The salary cap works to an extent, but the incentivised measures suggested by the FFA may be the start of a solution. We are not in the position of an AFL or NRL that can afford to trickle money down.
We need to play to our strengths. We need to play to the stories of Mat Ryan and Tom Rogic. Those players were born in the A-League and go overseas. We need to get out of the way of A-League clubs having academies, like Brisbane Roar’s, which is amazing.
We need to share in the stories of the players we watch grow up and take on the world. I still treasure watching the likes of Marco Bresciano, Vince Grella, Josh Kennedy, Archie Thompson and Simon Colosimo start at Carlton and go on to bigger things.
As a Victorian, I will speak to the Victorian context firstly because I live there, but also because it holds a lot of lessons for us as a football family.
Over ten years ago, power in the sport was in the hands of the few. The old NSL powers held disproportionate powers in the halls of the then-Victorian Soccer Federation as clubs’ voting power was based on the position of their men’s team. If you were a member of a junior-only club, or a womens-only senior club, you and your club were worth less than a member of a club that had a senior team.
If you were a member of a local community club, you and your club were worth less than clubs like South Melbourne and Melbourne Knights. You had to pay your money to the federation, but you had no say about where that money went or any voice to ask for accountability.
However, this all changed. Those clubs, after a period of pressure, voted away their rights and became equals with other clubs. These clubs, which sometimes deservedly get a bad rap, showed the potential for the sport when we work together. Many measures from the Crawford Report were put into place and all clubs had the right to vote for who they wished to represent them. But this hold its own issues.
If you go to the Football Victoria website, you can see who the people are that represent football clubs in Victoria and elect the board. You would think that people would be jumping at the opportunity to be a part of this. I am disheartened to tell you that it is not the case.
Some positions go unfilled. There are a disproportionate amount of representatives who hold ties to NPL and higher level clubs, which is not to say that they exclusively represent those clubs. But this is not a failing of the federation, but a failing of us.
We can have people like Josip Skoko comment on Optus Sport about the ills of the community game, and he is involved in a level of community sport, although the North Geelong Warriors are an NPL club and by that tag are an elite group in the state.
But we do not see the people who come out and criticise the federations put their hands up for service. If they say they are not being heard, put your hand up. History shows you will run unopposed anyway.
There has been talk from people, such as Jack Reilly, to scrap the federations. This is folly. The state federations are those best placed to achieve outcomes for the football family. The truth is, and again taking Victoria as an example, we are terrible at espousing our own success and using our numbers to great effect.
Football Victoria completed a review recently into the amount of government funding it received compared to other community sports and it makes for sobering reading. I completely understand why we are treated this way from governments, though. It is because we are not willing to bury the hatchet and work together. We present as a squabbling family, at the ready to tear out each other’s throats.
What the federations have lacked is the support to push governments to be accountable for looking after us at a community level. That is where we – the football family and the FFA – have failed them. It is not enough for the members of a community club to get into the local newspaper, decrying that they are bursting at the seams and trying to run a club in an old, leaking building while the local AFL club, which has not grown in 20 years, has seen its pavilions upgraded twice in that time.
That is what I have seen in my local area as football has only gotten bigger. Our facilities have stayed idle for two decades while we have gone from a club of 12 teams to over 30. But we have seen no money, while the local AFL club across the road has seen millions in state dollars.
If anyone in Australia gets the chance, go and have a look at Strathmore Football Club. Those facilities are beyond amazing and play host to a real community. Every time I have played there, the music is pumping and there is amazing food waiting for us to buy after the game. Those conditions are what every club deserves and we need help pushing for those.
Equip the federations with the staff and the training for clubs to use our numbers to get outcomes. More people in Victoria play football than AFL, yet we see a fraction of the funding. This is where the FFA needs to help federations organise the members of the football family to hold our governments accountable to us.
We cannot abandon the federations, who I – like many others – have had their disagreements with. But I have the right to change the federations by putting my hand up. I will not be able to do that under Jack Reilly’s model and that is dangerous. We do not need central governance.
There are a few simple proposals that may help the sport that I wish to propose.
One is to replicate Victoria’s federation model across the country. Allow all of us who pay into the sport a right to have a say in it. But make voting mandatory for all those who have to.
Second, tell parents where their fees are going. We heard quoted on this same Optus Sport chat that fees were too high, but also that the FFA and the federations take only a small amount. Help clubs make an estimated breakdown of costs to their members so they can see where their money is going. Then those clubs who use junior money to pay seniors can be rooted out. Or parents may be able to see that training three or four nights a week for 30 weeks at a cost of $2000 is actually value for money. Before people start saying what about those who can’t afford it, provisions are made for clubs to offer scholarships and they are actively encouraged to do so.
Next, prioritise the link between the A-League and community clubs and give incentives to players to do more community work through remuneration. Our enemy is not the AFL or NRL. It is those kids at training sessions running around in Manchester United tops rather than Western Sydney Wanderers tops.
And finally, outline a vision for the game and everyone get behind it, even if you don’t agree. Allow us our say and then go ahead with it. Use us, the two million strong football family that everyone keeps talking about, to act together to put the right pressure on the right people to get our rightful share of funding.
What we need is a consistent, united front where we drop our vendettas and act for the good of the game. We do not need a strongman like Frank Lowy who wrestles the game into a way forward. We need to embrace our past, but not be prisoners to it.
We do have a unique opportunity to reposition the game. But we are repositioning from a stance of strength. We just need to link the parts of our game together and help us help ourselves.