Last week, Football Federation chairman Stephen Lowy the son of the previous chairman Frank Lowy, made some comments pertaining to promotion/relegation that grabbed some media and public attention. This system which is synonymous with football the world over including Australia, is something which the Aleague has been reticent to become a part of.
Periodical mentions of the open system by the powers that be seem to be akin to ritualistic sacrifices to appease the masses. The issue is one of the most divisive in our game with people being for or against it and there are also arguments of how and when it should be implemented. It is never far from the surface of any discussion about football growth in Australia and the FFA occasionally must broach the subject to calm the volcano gods.
“We all understand the importance of promotion and relegation,” Lowy told the press.
“The game is not mature enough here right now. I don’t know how long before it is.
“We’ve got structural issues, we’ve got 10 licenses out there and they’ve got licenses for 18 more years. But I wouldn’t suggest that just on its own would exclude the concept of pro/rel.”
Lowy follows the same non-committal, vague statements that has been the norm over the years from the FFA. He talked about “maturity” of the game which could be interpreted in whatever way suits. He also mentioned an obligation to current Aleague owners while acknowledging that this is not a legal obligation.
This apparent obligation was brought up by David Gallop in March of this year when he said;
“Promotion/relegation raises its own plusses and minuses, of course, because the investment that our owners make is critical to the Aleague’s development and for us to place uncertainty around that investment would not be the right thing to do.
“We want those investors to know that they’ve got some longevity with their licence.”
Interesting to hear Gallop and Lowy so concerned with the investment of the owners when they pocket all the proceeds from the finals and have for many years kept the majority of merchandise revenue. How many owners and clubs have fallen by the wayside by the FFA not being prepared to allow owners to retain their fair share of the revenue their clubs raised? He also implies that being relegated is the end which of course is not true at all. Relegation is often an opportunity for a club to regroup and work out how to fix their problems while surviving to fight another day.
Should the FFA who are charged with the guardianship of the game at all levels be beholden to a small group of millionaires and billionaires ahead of any other member of the football family? The investment from traditional clubs over the last 50 to 100 years would be immeasurable so where is the obligation to them? After all we are talking about a moral obligation not a legal one, the “right thing to do.”
As mentioned before, this is a dance often repeated where we go in circles and get nowhere. No questions are asked, no further explanation offered, nothing new learnt and we just go back to repeating the cycle.
It was only in February 2013 when Gallop was unveiling the revamped National Premier League system that he confirmed to Fox Sports that a report showed that promotion to the ALeague from the NPL could happen within 5 years.
“Having a more standardised approach to state football is going to allow us to look at promotion/relegation down the track,” Gallop admitted.
“But there is an appetite to do it and there’s already people at the FFA working on it. it means that our semi-pro state league clubs which have long been the engine room of our player development systems will have a fresh focus across the country.”
So here the meritocracy system of pro/rel is dangled in front of the football community at the same time an acknowledgement is made of how much the future of Australian football has been carried by the state league clubs. All positive and not much can be argued but fast forward to now and as seen above, Gallop and Lowy are still prioritising the interests of the select group of private owners of the FFA Aleague licenses.
Words without substance, empty promises and rhetoric seem to be the key ingredients in the football discussion in Australia.
The very next year in September 2014, Gallop again – at an announcement concerning Playstation 4 coming on board as the major sponsor of the NPL – dangled the pro/rel carrot.
“Ultimately we want to have that structure, it’s what the long term plan is.
“To have a big global brand attached to NPL is an important step. There’s obviously a lot of commercial considerations…and we haven’t quite jumped those hurdles yet.”
Here Gallop speaks about commercial interests as though this is the role purely of the FFA. This is an organisation that struggled to find a major sponsor of its most marketable brand before finally deciding on an oil company. In the open system, the hope would be for less FFA interference and the role of sustainability being that of the participating clubs. What the FFA and Gallop do here is try to paint a picture of problems that might exist in an environment that doesn’t exist for clubs not given any choices or options at the moment.
How do we know what revenue and commercial opportunities clubs would be able to rustle up when there is nothing in place, not even a firm commitment that this will ever happen? This is the type of flawed reasoning and unreasonable logic that saw Gallop the other day declare that Canberra would need around 10,000 to attend a fixture between Central Coast Mariners and Wellington Phoenix to put forward the case for a Canberra team.
Gallop and the FFA constantly release statements on how the game has never been in a better position, there’s more revenue coming into the game than ever before yet cry poor when pro/rel and a 2nd division is raised. If the clubs from the National Soccer League days survived for 3 decades in the financially bereft and poorly managed times of the Australian Soccer Federation and Soccer Australia then why is so difficult now in this land of milk and honey that the FFA have delivered us to?
The traditional NSL clubs survived being “permanently” relegated and all that came with it despite people foreseeing their eventual demise.
If we are to take the FFA’s word for it that they truly believe in pro/rel and want it to happen then we have to assume they have and are failing at their job. In 2008, Frank Lowy said pro/rel was a must and was going to happen.
“Promotion and relegation is the lifeblood of the game, so we can’t ignore it and we won’t ignore it. By the time of the 2018 World Cup there will be promotion/relegation.”
This is the clearest indication from the FFA of a specific deadline. Was this a statement of true intent or another albeit stronger string along of the Australian and international football community? These are the games the FFA have played for a long time now so it’s hard to know if there is a genuine interest for the pro/rel system or it’s no more a credible promise than a teenage boy’s promise to clean his room after one more game of FIFA .
About one year ago the FFA launched their Whole of Football Plan which was a twenty year action plan to make football the biggest game in Australia. One notable absentee was mention of instituting a system of pro/rel which seems odd given the length of time and one of the key long-term projections listed on the FFA website. This key objective was as follows:
National competitions that attract 75% of participants to support a Top Tier club.
“Today, much hard work has brought us to the point where we have the unity and sense of destiny that means the time is right to think big,” heralded a proud Gallop.
“It’s a bold idea, but now is the time for the Australian football community to bring it to life.”
All we can take from this is that Gallop and the FFA see the next 20 years as the time to entrench the existing Aleague teams in the football landscape by having the vast majority of fans attached to them. Currently around 15-20% of the football community (if the figures are to be believed) actively support an Aleague team. If the FFA are successful that would leave 25% of support for any future top tier or second division clubs to share. How is this good for the whole of football? Clubs must compete in all aspects on and off the field with the best run clubs prospering. This is how standards across the board will rise. Necessity is after all the mother of all invention.
There is good news for people wanting an inclusive and fair football landscape is that the decision does not lie with the FFA alone. In October 2014, Frank Lowy pointed out that ultimately and fortunately the decision will be taken out of their hands.
“Eventually we will have to have promotion and relegation. In my estimation, we will be made to do it,” Frank told the media.
Australia wants to be part of the global football community then they will have to accept the mandates of FIFA and the AFC. It’s important for the football community to not wait for an unmotivated and uninspiring governing body to start the process. Clubs at the state and NPL level must start doing the research, conducting surveys, preparing mission statements and work together to show how and when this critical aspect of football development is to happen.
The FFA can either get onboard and help or move aside and let football move forward with new leadership. The type of leadership that represents the whole of the football community, in Australia and abroad.