After COVID-19 Australian football should be returned to its base

As an industry, Australian football has the opportunity to pull off the most stunning and successful transformation in a post COVID-19 environment.

Whilst governments, business and other sporting organisations consistently speak of things eventually returning to normal, football as a whole should in fact be steering its ship on a completely new course. In fact, seeing the Australian version of the round ball game return to exactly what it was prior to the world pandemic, could in fact be fatal.

The fundamental contemporary problem in the Australian game has been the creation of the top-tier A-League, at the expense of maintaining connections with the past and those beneath. In essence, not enough people care about the new league and asking “Why should they?” is a reasonable and fair minded question.

Thousands of football fans across the country have little or no allegiance to the ten Australian based clubs in the A-League competition. Most prefer to remain active within and connected to their community based clubs and hence, the growing interest we have seen in NPL play around Australia.

A-League club membership numbers generally run at around 100,000 per season; an astonishingly low figure when near two million men, women and children play the game each year. Having just 5 per cent of active footballers as members of Australia’s fully professional clubs is an appalling ratio and remarkably different to other countries, where clubs engage far more effectively with fans and players.

A study by Statista.com found that between 2007 and 2016, of the 11 million footballers regularly playing the game in England, somewhere just short of 20 per cent were active members of football clubs. It ought to be noted that those figures are not only memberships of the big and powerful clubs but also smaller ones across all levels of England’s domestic game.

Even a doubling of Australia’s paltry percentage would bring the most stunning increases in revenue, attendance and corporate involvement. Getting an additional 100,000 active footballers to support and join an A-League club in Australia should not be a particularly difficult task.

The COVID-19 pandemic has rather fortuitously created a scenario that, if grasped correctly by a well informed and daring governing body, could re-connect many of the severed ties within the game. Football will no doubt be back and perhaps sooner than many people originally thought, as the curve begins to flatten and case levels drop. However, it must come back reformed and restructured.

When it does return, after what will hopefully be a stunning make-over, football has the potential to instantly re-establish connections between grass roots clubs, semi-professional play in the NPL and the game at an elite level.

Financially, the industry will be in ruin, most sports will be, with the financial bottom line in the corporate sector looking grim and making vast and new investment opportunities unlikely. As such, A-League salary caps may well be halved or even scrapped, yet that could in fact be the blessing in disguise required to truly nationalise the game and implement promotion and relegation across the country.

As things stood until recently, new licenses handed out by FFA were the only means by which a new club could enter the A-League. With the clubs now bound to be cash-strapped, NPL1 clubs that lacked the financial clout, stadium or infrastructure to demand promotion to the top-tier, would find that transition far easier.

FFA should announce that the 2020/21 season will see the current eleven clubs compete once again for the A-League Championship. Next winter, when NPL1 champions are confirmed around the country, promotion play-offs should be played. Two clubs would earn the right to play A-League football in 2021/22, at the expense of the two demoted from the top tier.

Some adjustments would need to be made to scheduling, with NPL1 needing to be completed in time for the promotion play-offs to take place and the newly promoted clubs given at least two months to prepare for a new season. Players would need to be signed prior to an A-League October kick-off, yet if NPL play was to be completed in July, rather than late August, as it is across much of the nation, there would be enough time for a club to prepare.

Once the initial incarnation of promotion/relegation is complete, all tiers of football would then move to a spring to autumn season. The machinations of promotion/relegation in the lower tiers of NPL play would take place as usual and uniformity within the game would finally be achieved.

Ironically, it would be a shattered and torn industry, one filled with unpaid players and staff in limbo that may well afford Australian football the greatest opportunity it has ever had. It would undoubtedly be difficult yet also rewarding in the long term. Taking a step back before taking two forward may well be the smartest thing the game ever does.

Attempting to build interest and growth in the game at the elite level has not worked, as the A-League continued to tread water. Perhaps, in the face of tragedy, the time is nigh to return the Australian game to the base, within a framework that takes everybody along for the ride.

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AFC reveals logo for the 2023 Asian Cup tournament

Asian Cup

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), together with the Local Organising Committee (LOC), have confirmed the logo for the AFC Asian Cup China 2023.

The logo was revealed via a dazzling and immersive display that showcased the vibrant new design through projection mapping and Augmented Reality, as well as being projected on select iconic buildings across Shanghai’s skyline.

The launch, which was staged at the competition’s first completed stadium – Shanghai Pudong Football Stadium – also revealed the Host City logos in the first on-ground milestone event of the tournament, which will be held from June 16 to July 16, 2023.

The 18th edition of the tournament will see the Socceroos hoping to improve on their quarter-final loss to the United Arab Emirates in 2019.

In a special video message presented during the event, the AFC President Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa made the following statement:

“Over the years, each host nation has left a significant mark on Asian football, and we know that China PR will stage our greatest ever tournament in 2023.

“The AFC is pleased to mark our latest milestones and, on behalf of the Asian football family, I would like to congratulate the Local Organising Committee and the Venue Organising Committees of the 10 host cities for their commitment and efforts.

“The LOC continues to make great progress with the preparations to stage a memorable event, and I wish the Chinese Football Association, the LOC, the VOCs and all our stakeholders the very best of success in staging a truly world-class event.”

The 10 dynamic beams in the logo, which emanate from the bottom to form the image of the sun rising from the East, symbolise all the host cities of the AFC Asian Cup China 2023™ – underlining the ever-growing scale and future legacy of the tournament, which will be held in 10 different cities in one nation for the first time in Asian football history.

The process of localising the design and concept, in line with the master brands, was further influenced by the LOC’s proposal to embody ‘Light’ as a symbol and beacon of hope to overcome adversity, particularly pertinent during these challenging times and aptly emphasising the unifying force of Asia’s flagship men’s tournament in rallying together passionate fans and teams from the world’s most diverse continent.

Is the A-League prepared for sportswashing?

With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

This month, Newcastle United became the richest club in world football – due solely to majority ownership by the Saudi Arabian Foreign Wealth Fund. With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

World football has a problem with ‘sportswashing’ – which the Macmillan dictionary defines as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation” – as exemplified by the purchase of Newcastle United by the investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government.

This same government assassinated journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish consul in 2019, and now they have been allowed to purchase a football club in the world’s most-watched sporting league to rehabilitate their reputation on the world stage.

The World Cup in Qatar might be the biggest sportswashing event of all. The host nation of the 2022 tournament has a horrid reputation with human rights abuse, and over 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country since the World Cup was announced, with the total number likely significantly higher.

Countries like Australia will have no qualms sending their national teams – helping legitimise Qatar on the world stage and sportswashing away the human rights abuse and death toll that the event has created.

Australian football – and the A-League – will face a reckoning with sportswashing in the future, the question is how can it be combated?

Australian football has fought its fights against possibly malicious owners, both domestically and foreign. Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler promised the world, but left the Gold Coast without a club – and the Newcastle Jets penniless respectively.

Clive Palmer left Gold Coast United in ruin.

Foreign owners have also done their damage. On January 4, 2021, Martin Lee’s ownership of the Jets was terminated after he failed to inject any money into the club since October 2019, while also failing to pay any of the club’s debts.

ABC’s Four Corners revealed a director – Joko Driyono – for the company that owns the Brisbane Roar with the Bakrie family – was jailed for 18 months for match-fixing Indonesian football matches.

According to Indonesian business records, he remains the president director of Pelita Jaya Cronus, the holding company for Brisbane Roar.

Joko Driyono, director of Brisbane Roar’s holding company, spent 18 months in jail for match-fixing.

Does the ownership model of the A-League create accountability for owners, and do Australia’s corporate regulators do enough to ensure that malicious owners can’t drive clubs into the ground for personal profit or gain?

Take the Martin Lee example. Under the current franchise model of the A-League, he has no personal liability for the debt accrued by his ownership, and faced no repercussions for running the club into the ground before the A-League took back the license.

Former Newcastle Jets owner Martin Lee was forced to hand back the club’s license.

He simply abandoned the club after it was no longer of use to his business interests in Australia, and returned to his home country.

The A-League must avoid this as an example, while also ensuring that promises of rich domestic benefactors are balanced against the likelihood that it could be too good to be true.

The current franchise model does have its advantages, in regards to the Australian Professional Leagues having the power to take back the license of a runaway club like in the case of Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United, or when an owner fails to inject money like Martin Lee.

Currently, the vast majority of NPL clubs are run by a board of directors who are personally liable if funds go missing, or the club goes into severe debt.

Melbourne Victory is the only publicly listed company in the A-League, and that ownership model brings responsibility to shareholders and liability for directors.

Foreign investment at the A-League is at an all-time high, with five of the 12 clubs being either foreign-owned or controlled.

One club, Adelaide United, has its ownership completely hidden from the public. The Australian footballing community currently has no idea who finances the only professional club in South Australia.

A transparent fit and fairness test must be implemented for A-League ownership, one that keeps potential malicious actors away from the game, while protecting fans and clubs.

One way to achieve this would be to ask corporate regulators to take a more hands-on approach with A-League entities during the purchasing of a license.

The downside of this approach would be that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) is capable of auditing companies’ finances, but foreign entities like Martin Lee’s businesses and Pelita Jaya Cronus can easily circumvent scrutiny.

Personal liability for owners and directors would force them to create sustainable businesses. While it might scare away some bad investors, those with good intentions will embrace the concept of a more stable A-League.

Another way to combat sportswashing would be to introduce the truly membership-based model championed by clubs in Germany.

The 50+1 model means that the majority of the club must be owned by local fans of the clubs, and if this was pursued in the A-League it would grant huge protections against owners who don’t act in the best intentions for the club long-term.

The Australian Professional Leagues need to ensure that those who want to invest in Australian football are doing so for the right reasons, instead of purely personal gain.

A true fit and fairness test, one that examines whether the owner is financially, ethically, and morally capable of owning an A-League team (or second division team) with the utmost accountability will be one of the best investment’s the APL can make for Australian football.

Without it, it will be a wild wasteland of Palmers, Tinklers, and Lees for years to come.

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