A-League top bosses contemplate disruption to season

A-League bosses have spoken about the implications of more disruption for the 2021-22 season, with over half the Australian population currently under lockdown or restrictions.

The English Premier League returned last weekend with packed stadiums full of ecstatic fans, for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible for supporters to attend.

Those pictures are a far cry from the current sporting climate in Australia. Across the East Coast, professional sporting games are being played behind closed doors, while the 2021 State League in New South Wales was abandoned last week.

Games during the 2020-21 season were played with reduced capacity for spectators, depending on government restrictions.

10 weeks out from the start of the 2021-22 season, the intersection of politics, health and sport will continue to decide whether the season can kick off without disruption.

Danny Townsend, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Sydney FC and Australian Professional Leagues (APL), believes that the APL has learned from running the A-League through the COVID pandemic.

“You’ve got to plan for everything. What we’ve learned from COVID so far is that you have to be nimble and make plans A, B, C, D, and E. So we will plan for all sorts of different outcomes,” he said.

Perth Glory FC CEO Tony Pignata is one of many in the role who have plenty of time to consider what is ahead until the new A-League season begins, despite the uncertainty.

“October 30 is the start of the season. You look at today, Melbourne has gone into curfew, Canberra has cases, Northern Territory has cases. So it’s not ideal or where we like to be,” he said.

“If the government is pushing vaccinations hopefully by then restrictions are easing a little bit and borders are opening.”

Perth Glory was able to play most of their home games of the 2020-21 season in front of their fans, albeit at a reduced capacity. They still felt the impacts through reduced income from members and sponsorship.

Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan last week signalled that the state’s border would stay shut until Australia reached at least 70% vaccination rate, and the state may remain closed off depending on the situation around the country.

Pignata is focusing on preparing for the season, despite these potential roadblocks.

“I’m not exactly sure what our premier said, I know he did say that even if we get to a certain percentage (of vaccination) and there were cases over there he would consider closing the borders still,” he said.

“But for now we are just focusing on getting the squad training, getting fit, and working through the fixtures. That’s what we are doing at the moment.”

Townsend explains the APL are watching the actions of state government closely, as they prepare for the A-League season to kick off on the October 30.

“We need to get clear on what the various states are doing and what their plans are. New South Wales has made its position on what it’s doing pretty clear, and as we get more clarity on the other states we will know what we are dealing with,” Townsend said.

“I still think you can’t sit and wait, you need to start scenario planning, which is what we are doing.”

A large part of the previous A-League season was played in the ‘hub’ format, with clubs based in New South Wales, away from their home grounds.

Both Pignata and Townsend agree there would be an impact on clubs if this were to happen again.

“Not only for the players, who are away from their families for so long, but also the financial impact on clubs, with memberships, corporate hospitality. All clubs had a massive financial hit last year, and it would disastrous if that happened again,” Pignata said.

“It’s not disastrous, but it isn’t ideal. Once again you have to think of ways to get the competition started and moving, and we will do whatever we have to do. But also we have a long way to go, we are still 2 and half months away from our first game, and what we’ve learned is a hell of a lot of changes in 2 and half months,” Townsend said.

“It would be premature for us to try to predict what we are going to do now, and irresponsible for us to do that publicly before we know what we are dealing with. We will continue to monitor the situation and plan accordingly.”

Pignata adds the clubs have yet to discuss any alternative plans for the beginning of the A-League season.

“It’s something that I supposed we will need to look at, but we haven’t had any of those discussions at club level yet,” he said.

A key metric for crowds to be present at games is the uptake in vaccination in Australia, according to Townsend.

“If we can get to a point where we’ve got vaccinations to the level where at least in New South Wales you can start to bring crowds back into stadiums, that’ll be a good thing for us,” he said.

“We will see, we live in interesting times.”

How the J.League rose from 10 clubs to 60 across Japan’s islands

Starting as a modest 10-team league, the J.League has expanded into a formidable three-tiered structure, boasting 60 professional clubs spread across Japan’s islands, stretching from the southern reaches of Okinawa to the northern city of Sapporo is an achievement to be proud of.

They adopted the traditional aspects of European football, envisioning a unified pyramid structure where any team could aspire to reach the pinnacle. Simultaneously, they excelled America’s emphasis on commercialism and merchandising, aiming to establish a football powerhouse in one of the world’s rapidly expanding economies.

In this interview with Soccerscene, J.League Media Officer, Hisao Shuto discusses the dream that Saburo Kawabuchi had envisioned in the early 1990s, the collaboration with Optus Sport, the approach for developing homegrown players and how the J-League promoted its community based-clubs in J2 and J3.

Japan Football Association General Secretary Saburo Kawabuchi had a dream of creating a “social revolution,” can you please explain to me what that involved?

Hisao Shuto: In order to improve the standard of football in Japan and to promote widely, it was thought that professionalisation was necessary. It was also considered necessary to establish sports clubs, following the example of European sports clubs, to create a culture in which all generations can enjoy their favourite sports, not only football, whenever they want, and to build a safe and comfortable sports environment with stadiums where they can experience top-level games and grass fields.

In addition, to contribute to friendship and exchange in the international community through football, which is played all over the world, these are the missions of the J.League.

What challenges did the J.League come across in that period of time?

Hisao Shuto: To make J clubs an indispensable presence in each hometown. To share the importance of social contribution in each hometown with the clubs and to expand their efforts. Another challenge was to stabilize the management of the clubs after the J.League’s inaugural boom had passed.

What do you think about the collaboration with Optus Sport? Has it been a success overall?

Hisao Shuto: Since 2020, Optus Sport has provided a valuable platform for the J.League to reach audiences in Australia, and we’ve appreciated the opportunity to engage with a new audience in the region and promoting the league outside of Japan. We are proud of our collaboration which has been beneficial for both parties and successful in driving new fans to the sport.

 

Can you please explain to me how the promotion and relegation setup is run across the three division? Has it been a success in your opinion?

Hisao Shuto: According to the annual ranking of J1, J2, and J3 (20 clubs each), three clubs in each category will be promoted or relegated. For promotion from J2 to J1 and J3 to J2, the top two clubs are automatically promoted, and the remaining one slot is decided in a playoff.

The promotion playoffs will make the league more exciting until the last day of the season, as many clubs will still have a chance to be promoted until the end of the season. The promotion playoffs have been a success with large spectators at each stadium.

One of Japan’s greatest successes in football has been its breeding ground for home grown players, what was the approach by becoming a hub for developing these kind of talented players?

Hisao Shuto: Prior to the start of the J-League, high schools were the primary training fields. The national high school championships, which attracted crowds of 50,000 for the finals, have long contributed to the strengthening and targeting of teenage football players.

After the establishment of the J.League, each club was required to have its own academy division for the purpose of raising the standard and promoting the spread of football. Academy players continued to compete in a selective environment, and the J.League has followed the European model by setting and managing standards for academy departments and allocating funds to support their activities to all clubs.

Each club academy created the position of academy director to clarify the role of development. In addition, many opportunities were provided for the academy generation to compete in cup competitions, league matches, and overseas tours.

Other measures included providing learning opportunities for coaches and subsidies (up to 4 million yen per club to promote the creation of opportunities for players and coaches to go overseas). We have also worked with the Japan Football Association (JFA) to invest in development activities, exchange information, and hold Elite Youth Course A coach training workshops.

We believe it is necessary to continue our development activities through ongoing learning for leaders such as academy directors and coaches, and by providing opportunities in the game environment.

What is Japan Professional Football League doing to increase the viewership so that more people from around the world tune in to watch the matches?

J.League recognises the importance of growing our global audience, and we are implementing various strategies to achieve this goal. These efforts include organizing friendly matches between J.League clubs and overseas clubs, activating on-ground promotions overseas, and actively engaging with fans on social media platforms in multiple languages. By enhancing accessibility and promoting the excitement of J.League football, we aim to attract more viewers from around the world.

Was there any type of barriers to overcome in creating J2 and J3? If so, what were they? if not, what did the Professional Football League do so well to not have any obstacles?

Hisao Shuto: There were no major barriers. The establishment of J2 was a natural step, as the creation of J.League clubs throughout Japan had been a goal from the beginning, and many clubs wanted to join the J. League after the establishment of J1. Many clubs thereafter wanted to be part of the J.League, and J3 was created to meet their needs.

How did the Japan Professional Football League promote the clubs in the J2 and J3 to the fans, considering a lot of clubs are community based? 

Hisao Shuto: J.League activities would not be possible without the support of each hometown. Therefore, since its inception, the J.League has emphasised social contribution activities in each hometown. These activities include not only the promotion of football, but also the promotion of other sports in the community, health promotion activities, and cooperation with government activities.

J.League also develops “Sharen!” program to address social issues (education, diversity, generational exchange, etc.) in cooperation with three or more parties, including companies and local governments in the hometown.

In addition, since last year, Club Support Division has been established within the league in charge of working with clubs to increase media exposure in their local communities to attract even more fans and supporters in each hometown.

What was the way for clubs to maintain their budget financially in the J2 and J3? Was it successful? Have any clubs been removed due to financial instability?

Hisao Shuto: J.League provides each J. League club with an equal allocation for each category.  In addition, a club license system has been in place since 2012 to ensure that clubs do not run beyond their scale of business and maintain sound management. This club licensing system aims to continuously improve the competitive and facility standards of football by setting standards in terms of competition and facilities, and to stabilize the management of clubs and improve their financial capacity and reliability by setting financial, personnel, legal, and other standards.

At the end of 1998, Yokohama Flugels was merged into Yokohama Marinos, which also has Yokohama as its hometown, due to the mismanagement and withdrawal of the investing company, but since then, no club has been removed due to financial instability.

Graham Arnold speaks at AFC National Coaches Conference

Socceroos’ Head Coach Graham Arnold addressed the 3rd Asian Football Confederation (AFC) National Coaches Conference on Thursday, 9 May in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The three-day conference reflects on insights gained from the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2023, while also considering the forthcoming expanded FIFA World Cup in 2026.

It gave Graham Arnold and other AFC associated coaches a chance to exchange ideas and share information in a bid to help improve and inspire each other as Round Three of World Cup Qualification approaches.

Arnold was selected by the AFC and spoke amongst other eminent coaches from across the Confederation including former Manchester City legend Yaya Toure.

After a memorable 2022 World Cup campaign and over three decades of coaching within the confederation, it’s no surprise that Graham Arnold is held in such high regard, and this represents a step forward for Football Australia.

Football Australia CEO, James Johnson spoke on how important it was for Graham Arnold to speak at such an event.

“Arnie’s record and reputation within international football speaks for itself, and his leadership of the Subway Socceroos has been exceptional over the last six years,” Johnson said in an statement for Football Australia.

“His contribution to Australian football as a player and coach extends almost three decades, and he possesses a wealth of knowledge that can help assist the development of our game throughout Asia.

“Arnie is held in high esteem not just here in Australia, but throughout the Confederation and we’re extremely proud to see him playing such a key role in a conference of this significance.”

Socceroos’ Head Coach, Graham Arnold spoke about how honoured he was to be involved in the AFC National Coaches Conference.

“It’s a privilege to be sharing the room with so many fantastic coaches and I’m looking forward to sharing some of my experience with the group,” Arnold said at the event.

“We’ve all taken different journeys into coaching and bring varied perspectives which I think can be really valuable to discuss in this type of environment.

“I’m sure we’ll all walk away with something to take back and share with our respective teams – it’s a great initiative from the AFC.”

It is always positive to see top Australian coaches share and learn critical ideas from other successful names within the Asian football space as the country continues to underscore is commitment to advancing coaching quality.

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