Australian football legend Gary Cole: “This is a wonderful time for the Socceroos and the Matildas”

With the Socceroos having achieved a fifth straight FIFA World Cup qualification for the 2022 edition set to be held in Qatar, Soccerscene chatted with Australian football legend, Football Victoria Hall of Fame inductee, and Football Coaches Australia Executive Committee member Gary Cole to touch on the significance of the occasion and where Australian football goes from here.

Gary Cole

How momentous of an occasion is this qualification?

Gary Cole: It’s probably not quite as big as qualifying for the first time in ’74, and then going back in 2006. Because they were from huge periods of not going – this is the fifth time in a row now. I think given how tough this qualification has been on the coaching and playing staff – with COVID quarantine, isolation and playing 16 out of 20 games away from home – it’s a remarkable achievement. And all power to Graham Arnold, his coaching team and the playing group that’s been there over the journey. It’s been Australian Socceroos being proud to wear the green and gold and doing everything they could to get us to another World Cup.

With yourself being such a significant part of Australian football’s history and now being a part of Football Coaches Australia, what’s it like for you seeing Graham Arnold reach what appears to be a definitive moment in his journey so far?

Gary Cole: Arnie’s been a wonderful servant of Australian football for such a long time now as a player and then as a coach. In his role as Socceroos coach, he jumped in to get the group to the Olympics and was doing two jobs during COVID.

In his time as a coach, he’s been incredibly giving to not just other Australian coaches and Football Coaches Australia, but coaches in general. He’s been battered from pillar to post, because not every soccer fan in Australia is a Graham Arnold fan. To think there were some people talking about not wanting to see Australia qualify because Graham would get his just desserts, well the just desserts for Graham are the fact that the team did qualify.

You couldn’t wish for success on anyone more than Graham. It’s no different from Ange doing what he did the last qualifying campaign through essentially the same process, albeit without COVID. I just can’t speak highly enough of the man and the way he’s carried himself throughout all of this. Most people didn’t know that he spent time in quarantine in a hotel by himself and was the only guest at the hotel. He moved to the UK and stayed at his grandma’s place to be around the team when people were locked down. Then he got hung, drawn and quartered because he dared to take his dog out for a walk. It is just fantastic to see, and I know how much it’ll mean for Graham as well. There’s a great joy in it for every soccer fan in the country, I think.

Socceroos Vs Peru

It’s pretty remarkable that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will see the Asian Football Confederation represented by a record six national teams – Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Iran, South Korea and now, Australia. What do you think that signals about Asian football and where it’s at?

Gary Cole: I just think that there should be a red flashing light and a siren sounding the alarm if we needed that. We moved into Asia with the golden generation team and the region was in awe of our players playing in the Premier League. And even going further back than that in the 70s and 80s when I played, the Asian players have always been technically good but physically we were strong and could intimidate, and we won a lot of games in Asia that way.

Now of course the investment in Asian football, and not just the ‘big six’ but across the entire depth and breadth of Asia, has been heavy because in most of the countries it’s the number one sport. There’s been heavy investment into player development, coaching development and facility development, with a growth in players, coaches and administrators and because of where football is in Australia, we just haven’t seen that same level of investment and the truth is that they’ve caught us up. And many of them have gone by us.

Countries like Thailand and Vietnam have proved that on any given day they can beat us as well, because their investment in football is there. It’s fantastic for the region because we went into Asia and we wanted to have that regular contest, we didn’t actually think that would mean it would be harder for us to qualify. Because it’s not proved a whole bunch easier. But it is great that at all levels we get that regular competition and we can continue to grow our game and get better across all levels of it, if we’re going to be successful in Asia going forward.

With the Socceroos qualifying for the World Cup this year and the Matildas set to co-host a massive Women’s World Cup next year with New Zealand, it seems like there’s a lot of positivity in Australian football currently. How do you think the game’s leading stakeholders and authorities can capitalise on this moment?

Gary Cole: If you look back in our history, one of the most significant challenges we’ve had is that we’ve been divided. For some reason we find it incredibly difficult to get on the same page. This is a wonderful time for the Socceroos and the Matildas. We’ve got Trevor Morgan and our under 23s in a semi-final against Saudi Arabia in the AFC U-23 Asian Cup as well.

There’s so much happening with our national teams, men and women. If we can get more people on the same page then the game is going to be better for it. It will continue to grow and go up but we sort do that begrudgingly with an anchor around our neck. Watching the Socceroos game yesterday, how good were those Peru fans? And what you know is that’s a country where, I’m sure they don’t agree on everything, but when they come together and they put on that red and white it means so much. Wouldn’t it be immense in five or even 10-years’ time that’s the football culture that is developing here in Australia? That only comes from being on the same page.

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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