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Australian football has been historically divided, the moment of change is here

NSL

One of the fundamental and historical challenges faced by Australian football has been connectivity.

From as far back as 1880 when Wanderers, the first official Australian football club was birthed in Sydney, the game has struggled to form a unified face.

For near on 100 years, just like Australia’s more traditionally favoured pastimes of cricket, AFL and rugby league, the game existed as a predominately amateur endeavour. As that changed football lacked a cohesive and overarching structure that allowed the game to flourish in the way we still hope it can.

At the core of that division was race, culture and ethnicity. It would be nice to think that we have moved beyond that scenario in the 21st Century, yet the game still struggles to see itself as an all-encompassing beast, as opposed to a collection of individual components.

With post World War II immigration providing the driving force, the beautiful game exploded in Australia during the 1950’s and 60’s. Clubs built around the idea of community support networks became the norm and by the mid 70’s, the demand for a more formalised, organised and national competition had well and truly been born.

The Italian, Maltese, Greek, Yugoslav, Arabic and English communities longed for football to become a more significant part of their lives; just as it had been in their homelands.

That longing and demand was met casually on Saturday afternoons in amateur play before it finally began to take shape as a semi-professional league in the late 1970’s.

Founded in 1977, the National Soccer League gave voice and presence to the world game on Australian shores and as a five-year-old boy at the time, still remains something of a hazy and distant memory.

With a myriad of political issues existing between many of the clubs, some ethnic hostility and clear inter club tensions, division became the norm. So much so that as a little and pasty white Anglo-Saxon kid I was banned from attending NSL matches in the 1980’s.

My father felt I might get hurt and preferred to watch highlight packages of English football than risk life and limb at an NSL match. How wrong he was about so many things, including football.

We should all probably excuse him considering the negative media coverage the game received at the time; racist and inflammatory, the images and copy gave the game little chance to thrive.

Such coverage kept the game well and truly divided from the potential main stream interest of a keen and enthusiastic Australian sporting public. For nearly 30 years, football battled through re-incarnation after re-incarnation; desperately seeking acceptance that was not forthcoming thanks to internal division and external bias.

By the late 1990’s the game was hamstrung. Despite phenomenal growth in junior participation rates, division had led to stagnation. At the eleventh hour, the A-League was born. It was an attempt to bridge the divides, yet one that appears to have had little impact in drawing football together as one and may in fact have widened the chasm between the past and present.

There is no doubt that culture and community can indeed interact with professionalism, modernity and corporate football in Australia. However, the A-League has not proven to be the answer. Finding that answer is key.

Now, after 15 years of A-league play and a strengthening NPL competition that continues to highlight the lessening gap between the two, football may finally be on the cusp of morphing into one entity.

With the FFA Cup showcasing traditional and community based clubs and a newly independent A-league, the domestic game stands at the dawning of a new financial and collaborative football age.

If Perth Glory owner Tony Sage is correct and there is indeed an extra A$80 million to allocate towards the advancement of Australian football, one of the keys will be corporate connectivity. Moreover, a broad vision, driven by people with not just knowledge of football but knowledge of football in Australia and all its foibles, is paramount.

The game stands at a crucial juncture where vision and reality must combine in order to fund and develop the game at all levels. The women’s game requires investment, as do the immensely talented youth leagues from where our next generation will emerge.

Building clear connections between the traditional history of the NPL, women’s football and the now independent top tier is paramount.

The visionary decisions that need to be made require clear, corporate and unbiased minds; capable of picturing the long term future of the game, perhaps at the cost of some short term disappointment.

For decades, the game has been divided, a hodgepodge if you will. The moment has now arrived, where an independent top tier can take the lead and drive change. Change towards true promotion/relegation across the country, a transfer fee system that reflects the realities of world football and a connection to the women’s game that acknowledges the changing face of the sport.

If done well, the corporate interest in the game would increase, with the financial sector excited by a truly united and inter-connected game with immense promise and potential.

Both spiritual and financial connectivity are required. Let’s hope football has the vision to put the right people in place to achieve such a goal.

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Sydney Olympic CEO John Boulous: “You don’t realise the passion that’s in these clubs until you actually get here”

NPL 2018

As CEO of historic Australian footballing side Sydney Olympic, John Boulous has experienced first-hand the passion and dedication that is engrained in these traditional clubs.

Having spent time at the then-named Football Federation Australia and Football Federation Tasmania, Boulous’ intimate exposure to football across the professional and semi-professional tiers has been vast.

Boulous sat down with Soccerscene to speak about leading Sydney Olympic through successive lockdowns, the importance of connecting the professional and semi-professional tiers in Australian football, and Olympic’s upcoming Round of 32 FFA Cup clash against A-League Men’s powerhouse Sydney FC.

With promises of souvlaki at the ground on gameday enough to attract any ardent football fan or person in general, Boulous is looking forward to experiencing the festival atmosphere that Olympic’s clash against Sydney FC will undoubtedly bring.

Just to start off, are you able to provide some insight into your own footballing background and what’s led you to where you are now as the CEO of such an iconic side in Sydney Olympic?

John Boulous: I’ve been in sport since I started my working life. I worked my way through cricket and from there I went to Football Australia, which is where I was for five years from 2005 to 2010. I then left for a position as CEO at Football Federation Tasmania with my family for over three years.

From there, after a stint in Rugby League, I met Damon Hanlin, who had just become a Director at Sydney Olympic and the opportunity came up to undertake the CEO role at Sydney Olympic. Obviously, as a club at NPL level, it was a really good opportunity to get back involved and work with someone like Damon who was committed to taking the club forward.

Obviously, Sydney Olympic are a historically successful and well-supported footballing side, what’s it been like leading the club over the last few seasons?

John Boulous: What you always hear about working in these types of traditional, iconic clubs that were NSL powerhouses and are now in the NPL environment is that they had to find their identity as clubs in that transition period.

Your identity potentially changes slightly in that you want to have a strong and thriving pathway for young players to come through. But you’ve got to realise that they’re going to come to your club and potentially move on.

When you’re at Football Australia you hear of these clubs, but you don’t actually realise the passion, and the involvement, and the excitement that’s in the fans of these clubs until you actually get here. And we’ve got a very strong following and lots of numbers in terms of supporters, and the crowds don’t really reflect that until you get a big game.

The best example of that was when we played APIA Leichardt in the NPL Grand Final in 2018. All of a sudden people saw that Olympic is strong, and there are people that support them. They may not turn up for the games week-in week-out, but they support and they follow, and I think that’s important.

NPL Crowd 2018

What has it been like for you steering Sydney Olympic through successive extensive lockdowns in NSW?

John Boulous: There was constant change, but we’re not the only industry that’s been affected. There’s lots of people that are struggling. Football is something that gives everyone a bit of hope; it gives everyone a sense of enjoyment and a weekend activity to spend with your family. And I think people miss that.

Now you’re seeing the excitement building with kids being back to training and an FFA Cup game to come – you can feel a bit of a buzz. Because people are just looking to get back into the football environment. And if our club can play some part in that then I think it’s a really good thing to get the community back.

What do you believe makes Australian football unique in comparison with football around the world? Do you believe its found its identity yet?

John Boulous: I think it’s finding its identity. The one thing that stands out when you see footage of the NSL days is the passion in the crowds. And that’s been built up in clubs over 50 to 60 years and that passion doesn’t just happen overnight.

You see A-League teams are now starting to get it. Their fans are starting to identify with the club, you’ve got generations that are born as supporters. At Olympic and other clubs like ours, you’ve got grandfathers and sons that grew up following Olympic. Here you’ve got kids that are starting to follow A-Leagues clubs and in turn their kids will do the same.

It takes a while to build that momentum up, but I think it’s there. I think Australia is very unique because you’ve got three or four dominant sporting codes that are vying for interest and support. Not a lot of countries where football is their leading sport have those sorts of issues to deal with.

As well as that, the best players are encouraged to go overseas as well. So, our leagues tend to be up-and-coming players and players that are coming back. And that’s okay too, that’s where our game’s at. In saying that, there are lots of young players that are looking for professional opportunities and if our game can facilitate more of those players getting an opportunity, then I think we’re doing the right thing.

Olympic Madonis

As someone with an intimate understanding of the day-to-day challenges of running an NPL club, what do you believe are the next steps to ensure the growth of the NPL across Australia?

John Boulous: I think the next steps are certainly some kind of National Second Division with a greater national presence or footprint than what we currently have. There are clubs that play and participate within NPL competitions and that’s where they want to be, and that’s a very good place to be. There’s also clubs that still have a burning desire and supporters that want to see them play higher.

Certainly, in the short-term, there is definitely an opportunity for a second tier in whatever format that turns out to be. There are clubs that are interested and there’s lots of clubs with good pathways, structures and infrastructure in place to be able to take that step. It won’t be for everyone but it will be for the ones that aspire to do it. And I think that’s logically the next step.

The growth of the FFA Cup is important. Anything that links A-League with semi-professional football is essential. I think the link between the semi-professional level and the community is good and strong because people know where the pathways exist. But I believe that anything that continues to unite the game from the professional to the semi-professional level is a good step.

Australian football is experiencing a significant shift at the moment towards ensuring alignment across the whole game. Where do you see Sydney Olympic fitting into these prospective plans for a National Second Division?

John Boulous: We’re definitely interested. But you need to see what model exists and if its viable first. We have the interest and desire firstly which is important, but there’s many things that come with it.

I think what’s important for us – with having such a strong tradition and background with football in Australia – is we should be aspiring to be in whatever that era of football is.

Olympic Stadium

Each season we’ve seen National Premier League sides from across Australia competing against and pushing A-League teams outside of their comfort zones. Why do you feel the FFA Cup competition is so important for Australian football?

John Boulous: We are a big club, with a strong following and tradition in Australian football, and are still recognised nationally. In matches like this, Australians like to see underdogs – they like to see both the experienced and younger kids in our squad get that opportunity.

I think what’s important as a club is we need to give them that opportunity. You need to play against the best players in Australia. If you do that well, all of a sudden you’re on the radar.

You can’t take that desire away from players. They need to have that burn to be able to know if they can get to that next level. And these opportunities give you the perfect platform to do that.

The FFA Cup game against Sydney FC presents a brilliant opportunity for both clubs to come together for a truly special night of football. What’s the build-up been like leading up to the match?

John Boulous: We hope to be able to get a strong crowd here at Belmore. And it will be Olympic supporters and Sydney FC supporters, but we hope that it will be football supporters. Because people have been starved of opportunities to go and watch football matches, and now, they have the opportunity.

We’ve got a ground that can hold a really strong and big crowd in today’s climate. And I think that’s important to get people here and back into football. People here want to see it.

The A-League will be back in full swing and our boys will be training for four to five weeks and that’s okay too. Because they’ve got desire and they’re keen to have this match.

We’re always asked by Football Australia if we want to play this match and our answer from the very start was yes. Regardless of where teams are at in their preparation and their season, our players are very keen to play not just against the best players, but for their club and our supporters.

Tickets for Sydney Olympic’s clash with Sydney FC can be accessed HERE.

SFC

Joe Spiteri: “If you have players dribbling a lot in our curriculum, it seems they are being coached out of it”

Joe Spiteri is a name well known around Australian football circles and for good reason.

The former Australian international gritted his teeth for clubs in the National Soccer League, including being an influential part of a Melbourne Knights side in the mid 90’s – which is widely regarded as one of the best teams Australia has ever seen.

His exploits in the domestic competition eventually got him a move overseas, where he played for Sturm Graz in Austria, Lierse in Belgium and IFK Norrkoping in Sweden.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, the 48-year-old reflected on his playing career, explaining the differences at the time between plying his trade overseas and in Australia.

“The NSL level overall, don’t get me wrong, was pretty high,” he said.

“Back in the Melbourne Knights days we had one of the best teams at that time and is comparable to nowadays with the ability that was in that team. The number of national players who were playing for us were fantastic and they would be a hard team to beat (nowadays).

“But overseas the fitness level was completely above the Australian level at the time, it was considerably better.”

“I think the overseas setup took training to a whole new level; we were training all day every day.

“They had doctors, pediatrists, dietitians, everything over there and that was 25 years ago now.

“The science involved – we had heart rate monitors back then, our levels of training were monitored, our supplements program were monitored, our blood oxygen levels were monitored, we had to maintain a certain weight for our playing style and position, it was all next level and basically nothing was left to chance.

“Whereas in Australia at that time, there was nothing of that scientific level that there is now here.”

After coming back to Australia in the final years of his playing career, Spiteri would eventually begin his own academy, Soccer Pro Academy, to help further develop the next generation of footballers.

“I eventually moved to Werribee City when I was finishing up my playing career and there, they offered me the position of junior coaching director,” he said.

“From there, I eventually progressed into starting my own academy at the club and then after starting that, the level of interest increased and I further developed the idea.

“I started branching out to different areas, with different clubs and schools – before Covid we had over 450 kids across 8 venues in the west of Melbourne.

“Coaching kids is something that I’ve always done, even as a professional player I was sent out to schools and so forth. The enjoyment you get from seeing an under 5’s kid come to your academy bawling his out because he doesn’t know or want to play the game and then go on to play at a higher level and push up through the ranks is something very rewarding.”

Spiteri believes that at a junior development level, promising young players are being priced out of the game which is a significant issue.

“The NPL program and the restriction of being able to play at the highest level due to financial standings is concerning to myself,” he said.

“Back in the day you were either good or bad, the fees were pretty much standard across every club and every league.

“If you were good enough, you’d play in the higher leagues and get into the super league teams, if you weren’t you’d play at the lower clubs.

“Nowadays if you want to play at the highest level, there’s huge a gap in the fees you have to pay.

“Anytime you’re restricted on financial standings, you’re always missing out on some really good players.

“Back in the day, there wasn’t the academy system there is now, the professionalism, there’s a lot of different opportunities and competition.  Players don’t always have to join a club per say, they can join an academy and play in an academy team and they can still have the same, if not better, development as a footballer.”

Overall, the former NSL striker has some concerns around the national program and the way coaches are told to implement a certain style of play.

“In regards to the national curriculum and how coaches are asked to develop their players, I think we focus too much on maintaining possession and not enough on going around players, dribbling and creating goal scoring opportunities.

“I think we are falling behind in that factor and it’s highlighted in our national teams.

“Our national teams seem to maintain possession a lot, but not score or have the attacking flair that you see from European or South American nations.

“If you have players dribbling a lot in our curriculum, it seems they are being coached out of it, which I think is an issue.”

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