Don’t Stuff It Up

Today, the Association of Australian Football Clubs released their blueprint for a new league that they hope will act as second division in line with the current A-League being the first division. The competition will be known as The Championship. It’s as ambitious as it is overdue. After making strides in certain areas over the last decade, in other areas. the game has lagged.

When the AAFC formed, they set out a list of objectives that revolved around building a more inclusive and viable system for all, with a big part of that being a creation of a second division. We now have an initial proposal with requirements, criteria and other areas covered that will allow people to see more clearly what their vision is. It’s a watershed moment in the game and could lead to the game being unified like never before.

With anything like this, there will be a variety of reactions and opinions both for and against. Some people are excited, some skeptical. It’s good to be a little bit of both. If this works it could take the game to the next level but if it doesn’t, it will be added to the long list of setbacks the game has experienced over the years.

Currently, the FFA and A-League owners are still at war. The threat of a FIFA normalisation committee coming in is still there, so the future of the current competition and the board is up in the air. The AAFC have made it clear that they’d prefer to be the second division and work with the FFA and A-League, however, this may not be an option depending on how the ongoing discussions play out.

This leads to arguably the most controversial part of today’s release which has lit up social media. The statement claimed that they would be applying for an Asian Champions League spot for the winner of the Championship. Initially, the correct response would be to scoff at this. It’s unheard of to have a second division awarded a spot in continental competition based on league results. Reading between the lines, it is a shrewd play by the Championship.

Application for a division 1 status could be an option for the organisation in a worst-case scenario. If the FFA rejected their proposal of being a second division, their hand would be forced. Branding the league as “The Championship” as opposed to “B-League” or “A2″ or any other moniker denoting a second or lower tier is again shrewd thinking. Naming the league The Championship leaves it open to any status change that may be necessary. It’s part of what appears to be “a prepare for the worst, hope for the best” strategy by this group.

soccer stadium for the grand game

The initial plan seems to do a good job of covering all the bases and making sure that every stake holder has a voice. FIFA will be excited by the proposal of an independent body to run the league while the AFC will be excited by the commitment towards Asian players and furthering links between Australia and Asia. Clubs will be given a more viable market too work within, fans will have more games and teams to watch, players will get more opportunities, sponsors will have more eyes on their branding, broadcasters will get more content.

Women and the smaller states will have a bigger voice in the game than they currently do. Looking at the make up of the current AAFC board gives an insight into the diversity and inclusion they are promoting. Every National Premier League is represented taken from clubs with various backgrounds and histories. Chairman Rabieh Kryam is from North Queensland, Deputy Chairperson Victoria Morton is from South Hobart, Treasurer Christo Patsan is from Hamilton in Northern NSW which should put to bed some criticisms of this being a ploy by traditional ethnic clubs to get back in to the top flight.

The independent Championship committee will be even more diversified with a focus on having more women involved with a proposed 50/50 representation of men and women. Also every club will be required to field a woman’s side. Early signs that The Championship will be committed to creating opportunities for both sexes.

The group have stated that player development is a priority. They have proposed that half of the 20-man squad be under 25. This will not only give more opportunities to youth players but it will also keep wage costs down. However, having such requirements can be counter-productive to the initial goal. A former professional player once stated that what helped him was having to force his way into the side, nothing was given to him. This is the exact reason why a second division with promotion and relegation is needed, competition. Competition is what drives innovation and development. Players and clubs should have to work for their positions.

This leads to one of the more exciting aspects which is that the bidding will be open to all and sundry. There’s no hidden agenda, no cloudy criteria, every club or consortium will have an opportunity to apply with clear and transparent criteria. The eventual introduction of promotion and relegation will further bring the focus back to sporting meritocracy.

Visa players will be limited to two and initially only from Asia or Oceania. This will be welcomed by the AFC who have wanted the A-League to adopt the 3 plus 1 rule in line with many other Asian leagues. It will also satisfy FIFA – who have, since they let us join Asia – wanted us to continue to help develop Oceania. Again noble intentions which may miss the mark. There should be at least 1 Asian/Oceania spot but another spot open to a visa from anywhere else. It’s the world game and I think that principle should be represented in the playing roster as well. Two or three visa spots is a good number to ensure there isn’t an over-reliance on visa signings.

Ground requirements, ownership of intellectual property, squad limits and membership-based ownership are all excellent ways to keep costs down and increase revenue. A salary cap is something that will prevent clubs from overspending but t will also prevent the organic growth that is a crucial part of their plan. Financial relegation seen in leagues in Japan and Germany is an excellent way to keep clubs honest while not limiting the potential of individual clubs.

Overall, the release of a plan is exciting for the game. It is also terrifying because anyone who has followed the game for decades knows that the game has a way of breaking your heart. Done right, it could be the tonic that the game has needed for decades. The closed National Soccer League and the A-League served the sport well but it’s time for us to take the next step and really become a football nation. October 2019 has been the suggested kick off date and between now and then a lot can happen, amendments made, targets changed. The most important message for the men and women of the AAFC is “Don’t Stuff it up”.