The great balancing act for football

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The issue of player development is one that is never far away from the thoughts of football fans, media, and administrators alike. And neither should it be as it is the number one issue, or at least should be, that determines the future of any sport.

It of course is not the only area of concern especially given the environment that Australian football exists within, still trying to establish the national competition. Subsequently the administrators, officials, fans, owners and even players often prioritise according to their own interests. Player development though is the issue which intrinsically links every group because it more than anything else can lead to success on every level.

This is what makes recent comments from Brisbane Roar chairman, Chris Fong, on the FFA plan to reduce the number of foreign players per team from five to four so troubling.

“We really don’t want the number dropped to four next season as the FFA intends and [we] are putting through a really strong case on that,” Fong said on behalf of the owners.

Fong continued by using the names of Besart Berisha and Thomas Broich as examples of the benefits of having foreign talent in the league. This is a very good point and would be great if the proposal was to have no foreign players in the league, but it’s not. We are talking about dropping the figure by one which if anything would mean clubs would be encouraged to use more due diligence when signing a visa player and that at least an extra spot per team will open up for a local player. How often have clubs signed five visa players where all five of them justify being picked ahead of a local?

Fong then went on to say he believed that other teams from Asia should be considered for A-League expansion ahead of Australian clubs.

“For me, that’s where the growth will come. We can’t just keep adding teams from Australia because they won’t survive,” said Fong.

“Maybe you could have another two teams from Australia, but that’s probably stretching it.

“Beyond that maybe one or two out of Asia might work. I think we need to look at it.”

This “growth” that Fong speaks of is obviously not the growth of the game in Australia. It is obviously not the growth of a talented player pool. The “A” in A-League should stand for “Australia”, not Asia. As the top league on the Australian football pyramid, the onus on the league should be developing the game in Australia.

Australian football icon Johnny Warren always believed that investing in our youth was the key to success and it’s what he wanted for the domestic competition.

“I don’t understand money for players who are not going to draw it back through the gates, who’ve had their careers and come back here to earn what three promising kids could earn. Investment in youth never fails. It’s just a matter of clubs having enough balls to see it through,” Johnny Warren forewarned back in 2004 as the A-League was being launched.

Having two more teams from outside of Australia certainly doesn’t offer anything as far opportunities for young Australian players. As Warren said back in 2004, any non-Australian club in the league would just be “denying youth” in Australia a chance to participate.

What Fong’s comments tell us is that the owners have more pressing issues than player development, such as increasing revenue and having a more marketable product. Neither of these things are bad and are just a reality of modern football. Expansion into Asia and more foreign players will also achieve these goals through TV and sponsorship revenue in the new markets, and theoretically in the short-term ensure a more attractive product with better quality players.

The owners of the licenses wanting to run a sustainable business is hardly something one can argue against and perhaps under the current constraints they have little choice but to look further afield to do so. A different structuring of the management of the A-league and allocation of revenue may indeed mean that owners could be more inclusive of player development in their business model. This is something that Fong and the other owners have also alluded to recently through greater independence between the league and FFA.

The 2003 Crawford Report, the 2003 Report of the NSL Taskforce, a 2002 league model proposed by the PFA, and the AFC all have recommended the separation of the sport’s governing body and the national competition in the best interests of the game. Under this system the FFA would be free to refocus its efforts to building the game from the grassroots up as opposed to the reverse pyramid which we now have.

One of Australia’s most gifted footballers, Mark Viduka recently appeared on Santo, Sam, and Ed’s Total Football where he weighed in on the development debate.

“We aren’t producing top quality players anymore,” Viduka said.

“With this A-League everything is great, we’ve got the showcase, but there’s a big gap from the juniors, and getting there.

“Before, all the NSL clubs had that set up.”

The former Australian captain highlighted the dichotomy which exists in Australian football between on-field progress and off-field success. The balancing act needed to run a successful competition on all fronts is something that still eludes those charged with the stewardship of the game.

The NSL, as Viduka pointed out, produced the players yet struggled to breakthrough into the mainstream as a marketable league. Conversely, the A-League has broken through to the mainstream but is not generating the players. Interestingly, neither competition has been particularly profitable for its participants.

We are so eager to shed the albatross of the NSL from around our necks that we also discarded the things which worked. It’s time now to move forward for the good of the game and incorporate the best of the old and the new. Player development is riding on it.

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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