Inclusivity – key to Australian football’s progression

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The Football Federation of Australia is the primary force in ensuring football works for everyone. It then falls to them to enable  systems that empower all levels of football by meeting their needs, shaping their future and achieving their potential.

So how can the exclusion of hundreds of clubs and thousands of players from meaningful participation opportunities be the answer to growing the game in Australia?

From the inception of the FFA in 2004, a more resilient and inclusive structure should’ve been the aim to position all clubs to better handle the highs and lows as well as have the ability to thrive. Why renovate the penthouse if the foundations are structurally compromised?

Competition and necessity are the agents of innovation and maximising performances of clubs, the domestic league, governing body, and the game, however, a closed or protected league does little to promote the fundamentals for growth.

We, the public, suffer too. We want to see the game played live and locally at it’s optimum potential yet this is severely restricted by treating the participants at the top as protected species.

An open competition would mean football becomes susceptible to external demands, which could weaken the position of the interests of those at the top of the game. A fear of relinquishing control, allowing the natural growth of the sport under global market conditions is inhibiting the growth of football in Australia.

The World Game is not a closed market, unlike Australian Rules football, subjecting it to closed market conditions is misguided and harmful.

Paradoxically it is good for the A-League to position few participants in a privileged positions, as rising attendances, viewership, and memberships all make for good copy.

Hiding the severe root rot setting in in the tiers below that are the lifeblood of the game, the lower tier clubs. Who shouldn’t just be treated as subsidiaries supporting the flagship but as valued members of the game with equal rights and opportunities.

The current structure not only offers no incentive, it is the antithesis of growth stunting every level from reaching it’s potential.

Limiting choices is also a way to dictate a market. The less options and participants means the privileged few clubs stay protected; and the governing body can implement archaic and legally-questionable policies with little to no opposition.

Germany is a great example of inclusivity in football. Their recent capture of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil has seen them praised Worldwide for the way they revolutionised their approach to football after a disastrous European Championship in 2000.

What should also be mentioned is the huge scale of participation and opportunities afforded clubs and players. Germany have around 33,633 teams across 2344 divisions with three professional leagues (56 teams) and all linked by a system of promotion and relegation.

Even SV Spielberg of the Oberliga Baden-Württemberg league, tier 5 on the German football pyramid, has a chance to rise up through the ranks to the very summit of football in its country.

Sure with their current capacity of 2000 at the Sportplatz Spielberg and average crowd of 387 they are unlikely to be able to compete in the Bundesliga tomorrow, but the opportunity and incentive to grow exists. A right every football club around the world should be entitled to, not just the privileged few.

Estonia, with the population of Adelaide and a GDP of 30 billion as opposed to Australia’s 1 trillion, has six tiers on their promotion and relegation pyramid, from the Meistriliiga to the IV Liiga.

The Meistriliiga has an average attendance of 215 with the highest average being 357 for JK Tammeka Tartu 1989. It has even been suggested on Estonian football forums that in the recent past the Estonian FA had to pay the local TV channel to broadcast some games. Clubs in the top flight run on budgets as high as a $1,000,000 to as little as under $80,000.

Where there’s a will there’s a way though and the Estonian FA with the clubs are working to build the game which has suffered from the negative image of initially being seen as a “Soviet” sport following their independence more than 20 years ago. The game also faces competition from basketball which has long been more widely supported locally than football.

No club outside the A-league  is ready to step into the top flight is a common argument put forward by those against the idea of promotion/relegation. This is a “chicken or egg” argument because without the option being there for participation at the highest level then how can we say for certain what a club can or can’t achieve?

Sydney Olympic FC spokesperson, George Mpliokas, argues that potentially “dozens of clubs” would be capable of making the step up.

“Many have largely dormant fan bases due to the lack of a second division,” explained Mpliokas.

“What people tend to avoid addressing is whether clubs at the top are capable of being relegated.

“And historically the concept of having in place a system of representation comes into conflict with one of fairness. This is reflective in changes to the NSL structure in the 80s to a conference system, in the A-League’s adoption, and in the FFA Cup today.

“Again on a second division, the idea of real competition, for risk and reward, appeals to clubs, fans and sponsors alike.”

Opponents to promotion/relegation also point to the United States and the MLS model as the path we should follow arguing that football in Australia like America is too far down the totem pole to be able to sustain an open system.

Major League Soccer president, Mark Abbott recently laid their cards on the table by stating that “soccer” in the United States will never have a system of promotion and relegation like the leagues of Europe and elsewhere. Abbott’s comments highlight the insular nature of the MLS and their main aim which is to ensure financial viability for their investors as opposed to building the game in the United States.

In contrast to the MLS stance, the NASL, which is the second tier of football in the US, advocate an inclusive model which emphasises building strong clubs within the global football market. A statement issued to SI.com in the wake of Abbott’s revelation reinforced this:

The NASL is focused on continuing to expand the global game in North America and remains open to any and all efforts to align our professional soccer league with the rest of the world. We remain open to the concept of promotion and relegation and many other concepts our great fans and partners associate with top level soccer around the world.

NASL president Bill Peterson believes in less interference from the top with the onus being on providing a platform on which the clubs themselves have the responsibility to ensure they are competitive on and off the field.

“We are completely de-centralised. Our owners are responsible for their own success on the field and off the field. Our technical staff are responsible for securing the best players they possibly can at the right value, so you won’t see us implementing any drafts or Designated Players or anything like that because we’re not a single entity system, so there’s no need to do that,” Peterson told SI.com.

“Our owners are competing with themselves to be competitive on the field. Again it goes back to that’s what the fans want and it’s really one of the reasons this league was started was that the founders believed that soccer should be organised in a similar fashion as the rest of the world.”

An important step for inclusion has taken place his year with the start of the FFA Cup. A nationwide cup competition that allows lower tier clubs to play against the A-League clubs similar to the FA Cup of England or the Emperor’s Cup of Japan. With it a sense of togetherness between the football community has been felt the like of which rarely is in the splintered world of Australian football, bar when the national teams play.

The Cup is in it’s early stages of existence and has so far seen modest attendance figures and TV ratings by regular A-League standards but the experience of the fans, players, and the clubs involved has been nothing but positive. If the continued goodwill and spirit is fostered it will see those all important crowd and ratings figures gradually grow along with the game itself.

The FFA, clubs, players, fans, media, and commercial partners must be all-in. Only by showing the utmost respect for the tournament can the integrity of the game and the competition be protected and lead us into a new and more inclusive era.

Football is here for the long haul yet it doesn’t mean we should be monolithic in nature when it comes to the evolution of the sport in Australia. If the introduction of a second division isn’t high on the agenda then it should be.

Instead of focusing on the reasons it can’t be done we need to be proactive and look at how we make it happen. It’s not about bringing back the NSL, or scrapping the A-League, it’s about building something new and for everyone.

Adam Howard

Adam is one of the founders of Football Central and the creator of OSAussies.com.  He has followed the career paths of Australian footballers playing in leagues all over the world.  Born in Adelaide and currently residing in Hiroshima, Adam brings a unique perspective to Australian football.  He is an ardent supporter of Australia's domestic competition and national team.

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