APIA Leichhardt FC: 70 years on & still counting

On 18th April, APIA Leichhardt FC – one of the most successful football clubs in Australia – will be celebrating its 70th year with a glamorous gala event at La Montage Function Centre.

The names of the former players who wore the maroon and sky blue colours of the club just roll off the tongue – including Stan Ackerley, Leo Baumgartner, Col Bennett, Arno Bertogna, Archie Blue, George Blues, Fillipo Bottalico, Mark Brown, Rod Brown, Alex Bundalo, Terry Butler, Ricard Campana, Ernie Campbell, Paul Carter, John Doyle, Stan Foster, Johnny Giacometti, Sebastian Giampolo, Joey Gibbs, Terry Greedy, Pat Hughes, Audauto Iglesias, Karl Jaros, Peter Katholos, George Keith, Billy Kerklaan, Lawrie McKinna, Danny McKinnon, Graham McKinnon, David McQuire, Ross Maiorana, Brad Maloney, Jean-Paul de Marigny, Joe Marston, Bruce Morrow, Tony Morsello, David Muir, George Nuttall, Phil O’Connor, Peter Ollerton, Franco Parisi, Tony Pezzano, Mark Pullen, Nick Rizzo, John Roberts, Billy Rogers, Jim Rooney, Bill Rorke, John Russell, Jim Sambrook, Marshall Soper, Darren Stewart, Brian Taylor, Cliff Van Blerk, Jason Van Blerk, Walter Valeri, Willie Wallace, John Watkiss,  Vernon Wentzel, Peter Wilson, Johnny Wong and Charlie Yankos.

The significance of this milestone is not lost on long serving President, Tony Raciti, who has been associated with the club since 1977 and is leading the charge for  APIA’s participation in the National Second Tier Competition commencing in March, 2025.

Although there is a lot of work to be done before next March, Raciti goes about his work with his usual determination to ensure the club is fully prepared for the task ahead.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Tony Raciti discusses the significance of APIA’s longevity in Australian football, the state of play for the Club’s National Second Tier effort and conveys his thoughts about all things football in Australia.

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

On the 70th anniversary of the club, what feelings are evoked?

TONY RACITI

The club has shown incredible stability in this time and we’re on target to enjoy another 70 years of prosperity.

The function on 18th April will be recognition of the club’s achievements over the 70 years and the large assembly of former and current players, supporters and sponsors will be a testimony to the continuing success and ambition of the club, particularly with the start of the National Second Tier.

R.S.

Is the original reason for the club’s formation still relevant today?

T.R.

It was originally formed as a sporting social club but obviously football was centre stage.

Today, the social aspect is not so evident as we’re a football club first and foremost providing a focus for the sport in the inner west for thousands of people, including players and supporters.

It’s now a firm fabric in local society.

Although the club has a strong Italian heritage, especially dating back to the 50’s and 60’s, there was also a strong Scottish and English influence which is still prevalent today.

Interestingly, if you examine the data base of registered players at the club, there are roughly 75% of Anglo Saxon and others of non Italian background which confirms we’ve fully integrated into the local community.

R.S.

You’ve been with the club since 1977.

What changes have you seen in this period?

T.R.

The fact we were incurring substantial losses in previous years, despite always meeting our debt, was not ideal. However, we are no longer incurring annual losses but breaking even or making small surpluses.

Lambert Park had never been subsidized by the local council until 2014 when the club was granted a $2.4 million government grant to upgrade the facility, the clubrooms and playing surface.

The club currently has an asset register which exceeds $6 million dollars and fortunately the local council is to provide funds to upgrade our synthetic surface and drainage. They will contribute $1.8 million dollars with the club funding  $500,000.

Fortunately, we’ll be playing at Leichhardt Oval next year in the N.S.T. and we have seven other grounds available in the area as registrations are growing rapidly.

To  meet the demand, we’re hiring school grounds for training  , including Concord High School four nights a week which has been funded by  the junior and women’s section of the club  who have banded together to raise $45,000 for lighting at the school.

R.S

Does Football NSW do enough to support your club and NPL Clubs in general?

T.R.

Unfortunately, the landscape has changed in the last decade or two and the makeup of the board requires more people with a football background.

Currently, there are a number who don’t have the knowledge of football history and club operations.

Nevertheless, Football NSW are a governing body with a strong management structure in a game which is bursting at the seams in N.S.W.

R.S.

Can the National Second Tier be a natural progression from the NPL?

T.R.

Absolutely.

It will support and underpin the A-League and provide advancement for clubs who want to grow further on a national stage.

In recent years, there’s been a deterioration in criteria observed for the NPL so the NST will provide an opportunity for clubs with ambition to achieve a higher position in the game and to evolve further in a much stronger competition with better training and playing facilities.

R.S.

Can the clubs raise sufficient capital to fund their place in the N.S.T.?

T.R.

I’ve been personally impressed with the clubs involved in the process and have no doubt the clubs will be financially stable, particularly with their fund raising activities.

From an APIA standpoint, we’ll be the first sporting club in Australia to be owned by the community via public shareholding.

This process hasn’t been launched yet because we haven’t finalised our prospectus which has to be approved by ASIC.

Initially, we are limited by law to twenty shareholders who have committed $500,000 so we can submit our bank guarantee to the F.A. to play in the N.S.T.

Beyond the approval of the prospectus, we’re confident we can increase our shareholding to 1000 by the end of 2024.

We also have strong corporate sponsorship to the tune of $800,000 per annum and with the move to Leichhardt Oval next year, the 2,500 under cover seats will be sold by end of January, 2025 which will give the club an injection of $1,000,000, adding to other revenue streams.

R.S.

Are all your supporters and sponsors fully behind the N.S.T. ?

T.R.

Very much so and they see the club is well managed with a strong board.

For the past decade, the club has been a powerhouse in first grade as well as juniors, SAP, women’s and girls.

Currently, there are twelve other clubs knocking on the door to be included beyond the initial eight accepted, so this speaks volumes for the interest in the N.S.T.

Obviously, only four of those clubs will be accepted in  the 2025 competition because there can’t be a 20-team League in the first season.

The FA  have been totally co-operative as a governing body which will guarantee the League has direction, stability, and good management, providing better marketing opportunities for the clubs, especially blanket television broadcasting.

Regrettably, in the initial stages there will be no money for the N.S.T. flowing from the broadcast deal.

R.S.

In view of the troubled A-League, will the football public warm to the NST?

T.R.

I believe they will and when promotion and relegation is introduced both Leagues will boom.

With the cost of licences in the A-League, it was premature to introduce promotion and relegation immediately.

Critically, there will be a higher level of competition on view in the NST.

R.S.

Can the A-League overcome its current problems to ensure there is no delay in the start of the NST?

T.R.

The NST will definitely commence next year.

It should be remembered there are thriving clubs like Sydney FC, Wanderers and Melbourne Victory and the remainder are working hard to improve their lot.

I wish I had $15 million to purchase Newcastle Jets because it’s a strong football area.

The purchase of Perth Glory by the Pellegra Group is also a perfect example of the willingness of substantial investors to support the game.

R.S.

Currently NPL playing times vary greatly.

Do you expect there will be uniformity in the NST whereby all games start at 3pm on the weekend?

T.R.

There is only one time to play these matches which should be at 3 or 3.30 pm on a Sunday afternoon.

You’re looking for trouble playing outside these times when you’re playing in winter so APIA will be abiding by these times.

Nick Galatas on addressing the link between National Second Tier with promotion and relegation

The National Second Tier (NST) competition is building towards its expected start date of March/April 2025, but its final structure has not been settled.

While eight teams were initially announced with representation from Victoria and New South Wales, we are still yet to find out who will make up the rest of the ‘national’ component.

We will at least have an update on this around June 2024, as the Request for Proposal (RFP), Assessment & Review and Completion Phases are all completed.

Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) Chairman Nick Galatas has been a vocal advocate and involved in establishing the NST from its inception, but despite the previously announced foundation clubs, there is still work to do to ensure the NST starts in the best possible shape.

At this stage, eight foundation clubs have been confirmed, but there is a push to increase the number to at least 12.

Despite 26 clubs advancing to the RFP phase, only 8 foundation clubs proved to be a major drop off from what appeared a healthy pool of teams to choose from.

“There were 26 clubs that looked to be in a great position to be selected to start in the new NST,” Galatas told Soccerscene.

“From those, it would be expected to get 12 for a kick-off in 2024 but didn’t pan out that way.”

A lack of structure around how promotion and relegation will work with the NPL does leave some uncertainty for the clubs left out of the NST. Many clubs remain eager to be part of the expected four additional teams to be added for the competition’s commencement early in 2025.

For Football Australia, consistency will need to be applied across the board about how clubs go up and down between the NST and NPL when promotion and relegation commences. Football Queensland has made rules that a Queensland coming into the NST will revert to the competition it was in before it joined the NST. That is inconsistent with the approach of other member federations.

For example, with Preston Lions FC competing in Victoria Premier League 1 in 2024 prior to the commencement of NST, if they get relegated is it one step below to NPL Victoria or the original league they are in now?

Galatas outlined how everyone must be on the same page to form a unified system.

“As a scenario, we can think ahead to, say, 2027 and it’s the third year of competition, which is may also have expanded by then and include Queensland teams,” he said.

“For example, if, say, Preston Lions from Victoria and Sunshine Coast Fire FC from Queensland are relegation candidates in that season, it’s untenable that those teams would face different predicaments if relegated with Preston to the NPL and Sunshine Coast to oblivion.

“Hypothetically if we talk about relegation, everyone agrees that a Victorian-based club would be relegated to NPL Victoria even if originally from a lower league.

“However, when you compare it to a Queensland club, getting relegated means that they go into oblivion, which doesn’t add up. It’s fundamental and accepted practice that a relegated team goes down one rung and it has the chance to come up again.

“Football Australia needs to discuss a relegation scenario with all of the member federations and ensure there is a consistent approach. It will run the competition and must ensure the member federations work together with it and the clubs to achieve this outcome.”

Galatas outlined what he hopes to see out of the upcoming application process, moving one step closer to an Australia-wide competition.

“Instead of the eight confirmed teams we see now, it should be 12 teams from hopefully at least four states or territories to achieve the best competition,” he said.

“I would have liked to have seen a 2024 start date with 12 teams and have all the big players ready to go, but instead we’ve had a delay. But so long as we use the additional time to start strongly, the extra year to wait is not important in the overall picture.

“Having Queensland plus at least one of South Australia, Tasmania and Canberra to include four states from the get-go is the ideal platform to build on.

“Then we can look at Western Australia and the remaining areas as we build – we are just starting. We can grow the competition without rushing into it too much from a logistical point of view.”

The story of Kamal Ibrahim: An inspiration to young migrants

The founder of One Ball, Kamal Ibrahim, understands that football is a beacon of light for him and the people that experience adversity and hardship in their countries.

Along with his family, Ibrahim migrated from Ethiopia in 2003 for a new life in Australia at the age of 12 to flee the civil war.

By not understanding a word of English along with the difficulties of settling into the cultural ways of life in Australia, that’s when he turned his passion for football as a form of expressing himself and communicating with his new community.

His football career began for his local team, Port Melbourne Soccer Club, the noble act from the NPL club to pay for his membership, providing him with his uniform and most significantly making him feel welcome instantly the moment that he had arrived was an admirable act of generosity.

Looking back on his playing career, Ibrahim talked about the life skills football gave him, not only on the pitch but also off it.

“Through football I learnt skills that helped me on and off the field. I looked forward to my games each week, my team was my ‘family’, I had a sense of acceptance and a way of communicating without having to speak, I learnt how to work as a team, improve myself as an individual, I was supported in a fun and safe environment.

“Football has given me opportunities that I never expected. Football gave me the opportunity to represent Australia and Victoria on a national level and I was given the opportunity to travel the world. It gave me that sense of encouragement to do more with my life and that with hard work anything can be achieved.”

He has gone on to make appearances for Melbourne Heart (now known as Melbourne City) in 2010-2012 and representing the youth team of Australia, but his career was at an all-time high when playing for Port Melbourne Sharks, which is where he won the 2015 NPL’s best and fairest award.

Now Ibrahim has decided to show his admiration for the sport, by starting a program designed for children and adolescences between the ages of 5-17 year olds.

The program is open to all people, especially those from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) nationalities from all over Melbourne to play football in a social and friendly environment, no matter their religion, culture or gender.

The mission of this program is to encourage children to be fit and active, as well as supporting their physical and psychological health and well-being, One Ball also aims to guide and empower young individuals to develop personal qualities such as cooperation, self-control, respect and integrity by playing football with others along with the mentoring they receive from their coaches.

Ibrahim explains why he started One Ball.

“I started One Ball trying to not only help the best players, but the overall community. Kids who have never played soccer before, kids who have the passion but they can’t play for a soccer club because they will be told they aren’t good forward or who aren’t good enough to play for an NPL club or a community club, so One Ball was established for that reason,” he said.

“As human beings when we realise belong in the community, we feel a part of the society, then we can achieve things. Every kid who comes to our program gets a uniform just like they are part of their soccer club, they feel like they can belong at that club.”

The PFA’s Footballers Trust supports One Ball and other similar organisations, giving an opportunity for players to give back to their communities in a positive and impactful way.

It was established by former footballer Mark Milligan prior to the 2019 Asian Cup, ever since then it has grown remarkably to the extent where they have partnered with over 10 various player-driven charity initiatives.

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