Ange Koutos calls for removal of FV Emerging from women’s NPL

The Victorian women’s National Premier League season will breathe a rejuvenated sigh of relief when it kicks off in early April after two seasons lost to Covid-19. However, former NSL/Greek First Division Professional and past South Melbourne senior women’s premiership coach Ange Koutos believes the competition remains shackled by Football Victoria’s insertion of their Emerging Matildas side.

‘FV Emerging’ are one of just eight sides that contest the league, providing an opportunity for those within the full-time National Training Centre program to experience the graft and grind of weekly senior football, with an eye to higher honours.

If the theory is sound, Koutos believes the reality is of significant detriment to the other seven clubs. It’s a lesson he thinks the game has already learned, evident through the discontinuation of the male equivalent after 2011. 

“Here in Victoria the talent pool is so small, and the Emerging Matildas program is actually detrimental to growing the talent pool,” Koutos told Soccerscene.

“The Victorian Federation goes out and gets the most talented girls and puts them in their program that goes down to junior ranks as well.

“Instead of these girls being in a club environment and then selected to go and represent Victoria, they’re invited to the Federation program, and we’re starved of them. It says ‘if you’re not in this program, you will never, ever become a Matilda.’ So for me, it’s like all the other girls that are at South Melbourne, Heidelberg, Box Hill and all the other clubs are just cannon fodder.”

Koutos coaching for South Melbourne FC.

Koutos believes the channelling of talent into one side means a lack of competitive tension which is, counterintuitively – what Football Victoria hopes players in their program are exposed to by playing in the competition. It also means players who fall out of the program see the other clubs as unfit to provide them a pathway to the professional ranks.

“When girls trial for the Federation Program, and the ones that don’t get selected come back to their clubs, the parents demand they play a higher age group to be challenged and prepare to return the following year to try again,” Koutos said.

“They’re using the clubs as intermediaries, when it should be the clubs developing players with an eye to the long term and their senior teams.

“There’s a lot of girls in Victoria who are what we term ‘institutionalised’ – they’re not focused on results, they’re focused on the pathway. They train without the added pressure of going out on the weekend to try to win points. If they lose 5-0 it feels like ‘that’s alright, just go back to training, keep developing.’

“The same thing happened with the boys program. It produced players with no emotion. It said ‘win, draw, loss, it doesn’t matter.’ It should, and when all the boys came out and went back to clubland or overseas there was all this pressure, which was new to them.”

Koutos has seen a great deal across his 30 years in the professional game. Following his career as one of the first Australians to ply his trade abroad that wrapped up with a denouement in the NSL, he’s coached men’s football, women’s football, junior boys and girls, both in Australia and abroad. Of all the hats he feels junior development fits best, and this winter he’ll coach South Melbourne’s Under 17 girls and Manningham’s Under 14 boys.

“If junior coaches are not there, you’re not going to get the players to filter up. For me it’s about growing the talent pool and passing on my knowledge, whether it be football related or physiological. It’s a whole package,” Koutos said.

Koutos’ life in football began in the same manner as many Greek-Australians of his generation, following the migration of his father Peter from Greece in 1954.

“My father started off as all Greek immigrants did, as a South Melbourne supporter. In Greece there’s a cultural difference between the north and the south, and my father happened to be at a game – South Melbourne against Heidelberg – where some South supporters were throwing derogatory remarks at the Heidelberg fans.

Koutos heading clear for Pierikos against Panathinaikos in the Greek Cup, 1992. He was one of four Australians on the pitch this day. The Panathinaikos side featured Louis Christodoulou, Jason Polak and Chris Kalantzis.

“My father thought ‘well, you’re effectively swearing at me there’, so he changed allegiances and went for Heidelberg.”

Without knowing it, Peter’s switch reflected how his son’s career would play out, criss-crossing between Melbourne’s two strongholds of Greek football: starting with South Melbourne’s juniors in 1975, and ending his career with Heidelberg in 1994 – fleetingly managing their seniors the next year, and returning to South in 2018.

In between were two defining periods in Greece, firstly as a player with S.F.K. Pierikos between 1986-1994, and secondly as a coach of their junior academy from 2008 – when the game grabbed him again after a period of disillusionment.

“I had interest from Heidelberg and South Melbourne aged 20 but was looking for my next challenge so went overseas. I thought if nothing eventuated, at least I had one of the two big Greek clubs in Melbourne to fall back on. I ended up staying for eight years,” Koutos said.

“When going to Europe from Australia at that time, going to the moon was probably closer! Only Eddie Krncevic was a recognised Australian playing, and then there was a big influx of players into the Greek league: myself, Jimmy Patikas, Chris Kalantzis, Louis Christodoulou and Johnny Anastasiadis. Frank Farina was also starting his career at the time, so there were a dozen of us in the mid-to-late 80’s.”

It was at Pierikos that Koutos’ views on the game were challenged, primarily under managers John Mantzourakis and Dimitrias Liapis, who exposed him to a level of management then non-existent in Australia.

“Mantzourakis was young and ambitious, and a very strict disciplinarian and tactician. I learnt about looking at the game from a tactical point of view – when here in Australia the coaches just put the starting eleven out and said, ‘go out and play,’ Koutos said.

Suddenly I came across this coach who gave me something to think about. When we came up against the bigger clubs we took up different conservative tactics, then when we played clubs at our own level we might attack a little more.

“The one that really influenced me completely was Liapis – who was a lecturer at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. He majored in football! At that stage football was changing from that technical, romantic style that we all want to see to a more robust, athletic, ‘German-style’ game.

The establishment of the Collingwood Warriors alongside Lou Richards.

“We were robots, athletes, but he kept his training around the ball rather than running, and he’s probably the major influence on my coaching.”

Further influence came while working as an assistant to Zoran Matic at Heidelberg in 1997, with the club at the time operating as the Collingwood Warriors following their expulsion from the National Soccer League in 1995. A six-game stint in charge of Heidelberg, existing separately to the Warriors in the Victorian Premier League, would also follow.

“The two candidates for the Warriors job were Krncevic and Matic. Eddie had a chat with me and said if he was given the nod I’d be playing. Zoran didn’t say anything, and didn’t endear himself to the existing Heidelberg players; I think he had a bleak view of the standard of players that were at the Bergers, and even let Bobby Despotovski slip through his fingers.

“I thought if Zoran got the nod it would be a good opportunity to go into coaching, which was the natural progression for a player. I thought, ‘who better to learn under?’ He got the nod, I put in the application, and we worked together for a good eight months before it fell apart.”

Koutos makes no secret of his disappointment in the way his first stint in Australian management concluded, and it was only after a chance meeting with a former teammate while living in Greece that the wheels of his second-coming as a coach began to turn. 

“After the Heidelberg stint as senior coach I was just despondent with the game, and the way things had happened,” Koutos said.

“When you’ve got like minded people, you can work – but once the committee changes with a different outlook on things, you clash. I was pretty hurt by that and walked away from the game.

“Then I went overseas, and just out of the blue a former teammate of mine at Pierikos approached me and said, ‘how about coming over to our academy?’ I ummed and ahhed but after a couple of weeks gave in, found my niche and that’s where the junior development all started.”

Koutos’ vast experiences have given him a worldly view on the game, and also the opportunity to test ideas and theories in a range of environments. But like Ange Postecoglou – who he first crossed paths with as a South Melbourne junior – his views on the game remain shaped by his formative years.

“My key principles are always the same, whether it be boys, girls, senior men, senior women,” Koutos said.

“Whether I’m playing a different system, it’s about aggressiveness, keeping the ball on the deck, and the stuff you read from Ange’s autobiography. Our fathers saw the game the same way.”

Despite years of public consternation around National Technical Directors and Coaching Curriculums, he sees unity of purpose as the greatest challenge facing development in the men’s game, and that the lack of it hinders any chance of NPL pathways stitching together with the professional level consistently. 

“Even though Football Australia have come out with their National Coaching Curriculum to streamline everything and get everyone to think the same way, unfortunately each state has their own way of playing the game,” Koutos said.

“If you look at the Victorian NPL, it’s a very aggressive style of football with not much on the tactical side, which is the legacy of the English and Scottish influence in Victorian football. If you go to South Australia, New South Wales or Queensland, it’s more possession based, and thinking about the game.

“It is healthy to a certain point, but what do A-League teams want? Do they want someone who will run, chase and be aggressive, or someone who can think about the game? We need to find some sort of uniformity in the way we all play.”

PFA maintains faith in collective bargaining over Domestic Transfer System stand-off

Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) remain steadfast in their view Football Australia cannot impose a Domestic Transfer System (DTS) on the local game without consensus among all parties, and that if it is to come into effect, it must be at the expense of the A-Leagues salary cap.

Last month, Football Australia moved a step closer to their favoured DTS by removing the longstanding cap on transfer fees for contracted players between Australian clubs, edging the game closer to the free market system that underpins player movement globally. 

In February, CEO James Johnson told ESPN failure to reach consensus over the DTS could lead to his organisation making ‘aggressive decisions’ towards its implementation. PFA co-chief executive Kathryn Gill told Soccerscene such a move would be undemocratic, and may no longer be appropriate in any case, post-Covid 19.

“Ultimately the transfer system acts as a tax on the employment of players. This would have a significant impact on their employment opportunities, and therefore it is a matter that requires the agreement of the players, not just consultation,” Gill said.

“We currently have a five-year CBA with the Australian Professional Leagues, signed September 2021 that is showing some encouraging signs regarding the investment in player payments, youth development and improving contractual stability.  If we are to shift towards a different strategy, we need to understand the problem we are trying to solve. 

“We’ve just undertaken a comprehensive labour market analysis of the A-Leagues and what our data tells us is that the problems we now need to solve are different from the ones we were confronted with before the pandemic.”

Gill’s PFA co-chief, Beau Busch, believes that for Football Australia to move away from the consultative nature that has served the game well through the pandemic, and for years prior, it would be damaging to the ecosystem. 

Matters that impact the employment of players are matters that require agreement through collective bargaining. In the absence of collective bargaining, we can’t create the conditions for collaboration and shared purpose and run the risk of creating regulations that are at odds with each other,” Busch said. 

“We’ve seen increasing moves from organisations like FIFA for example, trying to introduce biennial World Cups without consultation and European clubs going off to build new Super Leagues without considering the players or the fans. 

“That type of unilateral action is not in the best interests of the game and so these issues, that fundamentally affect the employment conditions of players, should be done in partnership with the players.”

Busch also pointed to FIFA’s intention to reform their global transfer system as an indicator that increased alignment may not be in Australian football’s best interests. World football’s free market has led to a chronically lopsided distribution of wealth towards those at the pointy end, while nobody could argue the trophy cabinets of clubs in Europe’s top five leagues reflect competitive balance. 

This season, Bayern Munich won their 10th consecutive German Bundesliga title; Juventus enjoyed a similar stretch of nine Serie A titles between 2011/12 to 2019/20, while PSG have lifted eight of the past 10 Ligue 1 crowns in France. Even the English Premier League, upheld by some as a bastion of competitiveness for European leagues, has seen 26 of its 29 titles shared by four clubs. 

“Globally, the justification for a transfer system is that it redistributes revenue, supports competitive balance, and encourages investment in the training and development of players. These are objectives that are obviously important to the sport, however the global transfer system has been unable to achieve them and this is illustrated through FIFA’s commitment to reforming it,” Busch said. 

“We absolutely agree that Australian football needs more players playing at the highest possible level and that whatever system is in place needs to be aligned to that aim. But with any regulatory change, research and evidence and a sound business case that underpins it is vital. 

“To date, we haven’t been presented with any modelling on what outcomes a domestic transfer system will produce, either in terms of player development, or stimulating the Australian market and football economy.”

The removal of the cap on transfer payments between clubs and potential DTS will help clubs earn their full reward for the development and on-sale of players. But if the theory is sound, it’s the opinion of the PFA that increased costs will in effect stymie player movement and force clubs to look inwards for talent, restricting the ease with which players can move between employment opportunities.

Gill is adamant that if a transfer system is to succeed, it must come in conjunction with the removal of the salary cap, which already restricts clubs from investing what they might otherwise be willing to on their squad. Aimed at maintaining competitive balance across the A-Leagues, it is not conducive to the growth of players’ value. 

“The transfer system and salary cap are trying to achieve different objectives, and attempting to impose both restraints at the same time is likely to not only be illegal but self-defeating for the game. That is why no league around the world operates with both,” Gill said.

“From a players’ perspective, having both would act as a double restraint with players having a cap on their earnings and a tax on their employment via a transfer system. Ultimately, this would not help clubs attract and retain talent.”

Despite Johnson stating ‘aggressive decisions’ may be required, and the parties seemingly gridlocked over the DTS, Gill remains hopeful that collective bargaining and goodwill can see the game forward in a unified manner.

She feels the game is a long way from requiring an independent regulator, which is set to be ratified by the UK Government to oversee football in England, off the back of the fan-led Crouch Report into the state of their game.

The Crouch Report also advocates for a reformed ‘owners and directors test’, and ‘shadow boards’ made up of fans to represent their interests and hold a golden share in legacy decisions regarding stadia, colours and crests.

“Since 1995 the PFA has been able to reach agreements with clubs and the governing body, so what history shows is that collective bargaining has been an effective vehicle for progress. We need to examine our own context, and we can certainly learn from what has occurred around the world and what led to the push for an independent regulator in the English game,” Gill said.

“What is clear is the governance framework in that country and measures such as the transfer system have failed to drive progress for the entire sport and this drastic government intervention has been a direct result of this.”

Wheelchair football’s Victorian return comes with challenges still to face

Football Victoria’s Wheelchair Football Volunteer Coordinator Daniel Levy admits that the onset of the pandemic was more than a challenge for all abilities football.

Across 2020 and 2021, the wheelchair competition barely played a handful of games. But that didn’t deter Levy or FV, who he says are now more supportive than ever.

Both wheelchair and powerchair football competitions have gotten underway after a very successful All Abilities April. The month saw come and try days held across the country as well as initiatives like Football West’s ‘Football for all’.

More than anything though, the return of wheelchair football in the state meant the most to the players.

“Everyone was frustrated for the past two years, because a lot of our players had other activities cancelled,” Levy told Soccerscene.

“They were just over the moon to be back and life getting back to normal. We had a good turnout and everyone was really rapt to be out.

“The first couple of weeks are always really tough because they’re not in the routine and some of them turned up late, but it’s all good.

“They have to rely on maxi taxis which often pick up more than one person at a time and drop people off on the way and things like that. Something always goes wrong at the last minute, but we’re pretty flexible.”

While the return is a major positive for the competition and inclusive football as a whole, the next stage for the organisers is to continue to grow the competition to a point where it can sustain itself better.

Victoria’s wheelchair football competition is run out of just one location in Keysborough currently, as there isn’t a high enough participation level to justify more.

“It’s a long haul for a lot of our players. One is in Chum Creek, near Healesville, we’ve got some that are out near the airport,” Levy explained.

“They have to come a long way, and that’s not cheap. If we were able to grow the competition, we could have a north and south competition so that people didn’t have so far to travel.”

Initiatives like All Abilities April will give wheelchair football and other inclusive competitions the chance to continue that growth.

“The All Abilities Month is an additional opportunity to get the word out there,” Levy continued.

“FV’s helping us with a marketing campaign, printing out posters that we can put up in leisure centres and things like that.

“It’s been a great initiative for us, and two of our players wrote their stories and that got published by FV as part of their social media campaign. We’re getting the word out there, but we certainly need to do more work to attract more players.”

For the players, who Levy says he’s ‘grown up with’ after being involved with wheelchair football for 17 years, the process provides them with more opportunities as well.

“To be honest for most of the players, it’s not that much about the competition, it’s mostly social,” he said.

“It’s being able to get out and be with people, spending time with them and having fun. Are all of our players diehard sportspeople? No they’re not.

“They want to get out and have some exercise, but most of their enjoyment comes from the social interaction.”

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