Forward Planning Upward Movement

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I recently posted a report I put together back in March of this year. The premise of it was Australian interests investing in a lower league Japanese club. The report took quite a few weeks to put together, requiring a lot of translation, correspondence with the JFA as well as perusing numerous websites. What struck me most about what I found was the existence of a vision that had a method and plan behind it to make it achievable.

Australian football’s governing body – Football Federation Australia – launched a Whole of Football Plan back in May of this year. It was claimed to be an “ambitious” plan with the main objective to become the number one sport, not just in participation but also audience. Twenty years was the timeframe to achieve this goal but besides a lot of bravado and buzzwords there was little in the ‘how to achieve’ column.

The JFA have – through their 100 Year Plan and accompanying criteria for clubs – put in place a clear blue print to achieve their goals. Goals not too dissimilar to the FFA’s or really any sporting organisation interested in growing their sport to it’s highest possible level. The most striking difference though is Japan’s community emphasis on creating a healthier population through the promotion of sport as opposed to the commercial metrics focus of the FFA.

When one thinks of a Whole of Football Plan, one would assume that the interests of the whole of football were being considered. Yet, the FFA seem to think that anything done below the Aleague should be done with the expressed purpose of building the Aleague as shown in one of the key points below from the WOFP:

National competitions that attract 75% of participants to support a Top Tier club.

This from an article David Gallop wrote earlier this year:

In FFA’s Whole of Football Plan, we’ve set an aspirational target of having 1 million Australians directly connected to the A-League clubs by 2034.

A closed league with the hope of having optimistically around 12 to 14 teams in the next 20 years seems far from ambitious but more short-sighted protectionism where we look after the few at the expense of the many. To achieve Gallop’s vision is easy, open the league. Immediately you have everyone connected to clubs below interested because they are now actively involved. It might not translate into memberships but interest will definitely rise as it does around the world when your team is in the third tier you usually keep an eye on what’s happening above.

The priority of the FFA like their Japanese counterparts has to be towards the game and not just one league or a select few teams. Making the focus the game and the who,e football family will benefit the top flight. Building from the bottom up with realistic targets should’ve been the way forward but as Frank Lowy says below they didn’t have the foresight.

Ten years ago at the outset of Football’s new beginning, publishing a Whole of Football Plan for the decades ahead would have appeared premature and overly optimistic,” said Lowy. “We first had to rebuild the foundations and restore credibility to our game.”

This statement shows how haphazardly the approach was by the FFA and quite odd considering the success Frank Lowy has had in his other businesses. Given that the FFA’s responsibility is to be the stewards of football at all levels you’d think it would be prudent to have a plan in place outlining the direction and destination you want to take for the years ahead. A clear objective for everyone to aim for and achieve.

When the JFA started the J League they had a time frame of around 5 years to introduce a second division which allowed time for J1 teams to establish themselves and prospective teams to build themselves towards professional football. There was no relegation for the J2 teams and to get promoted you had to meet criteria previously set out. Everyone knew where they stood and promotion and relegation wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Over the course of the professional era there have been changes and additions to the leagues and clubs as well as the make up of the promotion and relegation system.

Adaption to the environment while maintaining the principles of promotion and relegation has been key to the success in Japan where football has at club level enjoyed relatively modest success. Japanese football authorities have remained true to the sporting principles as possible even amongst the demands of the modern commercialism of sport. The J League now stands as a fine example of how you can balance both sporting and corporate world without the need for salary caps, closed leagues, and league sponsored marquees. Planning and structure have shown to have longer lasting benefits than gimmicks and fads.

Even today players in the three time champions Sanfrecce are unknown amongst the Hiroshima locals except by diehard fans. However this hasn’t stopped the success of the small club who played in J2 only five seasons ago from winning three of the last four championships on a modest budget with little coverage. It has been able to establish itself through the ups and downs because the club is ultimately responsible for their own fate.

Australian authorities need to adopt this approach of sink or swim but everyone gets a chance to jump in the pool. A good start would be speak to the clubs and see where they stand. In 2006, the JFA canvassed amateur clubs as to how many would be interested in becoming professional clubs in the pyramid. Affirmative responses from around 60 clubs in the national amateur league JFL as well as clubs from regional leagues gave the JFA and idea of where to aim. All they had to do was give these clubs criteria to meet and time to meet it.

Long story short, seven years later there were eleven teams plus a J League select team of U23 players from J1 & J2 clubs in a newly-formed J3. Next season there will be thirteen teams and no J League select. There is no plans for relegation back to the JFL presumably to allow for expansion within J3 first. Also clubs are only eligible for promotion to J2 if they meet the criteria and have the subsequent eligibility licence on top of finishing in the top two of the league.

Every step up the ladder requires a step up in the criteria and no one is given exceptions. This helps to ensure clubs are responsible for their own infrastructure and growth without being burdens on the league or football association. It also protects them from ambition outweighing their ability.

There is no reason that the FFA can’t replicate this and throw open the invitation to all the clubs of Australia to participate in a professional environment. At the end of the day it costs nothing to have an action plan because ultimately it is up to the individual club to decide whether they can participate and then go about meeting the criteria.

Giving clubs with ambition something to aim for will only serve to strengthen football in Australia. It will make teams at the top be more vigilant in staying there and those below more motivated to grow. If our leaders are unable to find and adopt a system and criteria that works or are unwilling to then it might be time they step aside for those who are motivated to see growth. The question shouldn’t be “will promotion and relegation work in Australia?” but “how do we make it work?”

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