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Bobby Despotovski: “COVID-19 was the best thing for Australian football going into the future”

Bobby Despotovski has what some may call the perfect balance of considered objectivity and passion for football in Australia.

Bobby Despotovski has what some may call the perfect balance of considered objectivity and passion for football in Australia. Having announced his decision to leave his role as head coach of Perth Glory’s W-League squad late last year, the 2005/06 Johnny Warren Medal winner has had a break from the pressures of the top job for a few months now.

A West Australian through and through, Despotovski is Perth Glory’s all-time leading goal scorer and second on their all-time appearances list. As coach of the club, he led Perth to two Grand Finals and was the recipient of the W-League Coach of the Year in season 2016/17.

Despotovski sat down with Soccerscene to discuss his love for West Australian football, his fondest memories from his time in the W-League, playing a hand in the development of Sam Kerr, Australian football’s future and the significance of the 2023 Women’s World Cup for Australia as a whole.

What was the reason for you calling an end to your time as a W-League coach for Perth Glory?

Bobby Despotovski: COVID-19. I would not be able to take weeks off to go into a hub as that would jeopardise my work. When COVID wasn’t present it was fine, but as soon as COVID-19 hit that was it. That was the reason I quit.

Through all of the challenges of COVID-19 there was a bright moment as it was revealed Australia would be hosting a World Cup with New Zealand. Being that you’re such a vocal champion of football down under, particularly in Western Australia, what was your reaction to seeing that Australia was set to host a Women’s World Cup?

Bobby Despotovski: Obviously I was happy for Australia

A tournament of that stage coming to Australia is great because it’s going to put football in the mainstream of the Australian public and they’re going to see how big football all over the world is.

To be quite honest, it is going to open eyes in the media and in the wider public in terms of getting them to appreciate the wider game of football and how big it is worldwide.

World Cup bid win

That’s a great point, it could be a really significant moment in terms of bringing football into the mainstream.

Bobby Despotovski: 100%. It happened in Japan and it happened in America. Specifically, America [is a good comparison], because the American and Australian [football] market is similar in terms of our football not being the mainstream game. And then all of a sudden as soon as they had their Men’s and Women’s World Cups it becomes a mainstream sport.

So that needs to happen here in Australia as well, so that people can appreciate the game and have their eyes open to something else.

Being that you were the Perth Glory W-League coach for five years, what do you believe have been the greatest improvements in the W-League from your start to now?

Bobby Despotovski: [When I came in] we put into place a five-year plan.

Because as soon as Europe started becoming stronger, I sort of knew that all of the best [W-League] players from the Australian market are not going to go anymore to America, they are going to go to Europe. It is very hard because the European leagues go for a lot longer than the American league.

So, I knew that we were going to lose all of the best players and that’s why we started a five-year plan. About four years ago we, the Glory, started up that all the local good footballers had a career path to go through. We were right in the thick of it and we had a good squad of young players coming through, in fact we had seven young players that had actually represented Australia in the younger levels.

So, we were in a good space to be knowing that none of the clubs will attract international players because Europe is the market now.

That’s great, you & the club actually set out to evolve the club and to give Western Australia a platform to have these players come up. It’s important that you put in place a strategic direction. But, have you seen that with the W-League as a whole?

Bobby Despotovski: Not really because [for example] we’ve seen Melbourne City struggle big time this year because they invested heavily in overseas players and the best Matildas players. And realistically, what happened in the A-League happened in the W-League.

What is going to happen to the Matildas has already happened to the Socceroos, unless we make changes.

Australian football, in general, is very good at watching what they develop without having a second plan to develop more players that need to come after. And that was evident in the Socceroos with the Golden Generation disappearing, or retiring, and there was nothing after.

I think that Australian football is the only nation in the world where you can be twenty-two years of age and have represented the Olyroos, but you haven’t played three games in the A-League. Which is unheard of in football terms across Europe, South America and wherever else.

Bobby Despotovski thinking

Where do you think Australian football as an industry is at in the present?

Bobby Despotovski: It’s in the crossroads to be honest. The A-League has obviously suffered because of COVID, which is evident. And obviously COVID is not a good thing to have happened to the world, but COVID-19 was the best thing for Australian football going into the future.

And why I’m thinking that is because we’re not going to be spending any more money on the 38- and 40-year-olds coming to Europe for their retirement funds here, we’re now going to invest in our kids here to start playing. Maybe in the short-term the league might suffer until these kids grow up to become footballers, but you’ll have a sustained program going forward for the long years ahead.

You can see with Australian football at the moment there’s a direction being taken towards alignment. Do you endorse this as the next step for Australian football?

Bobby Despotovski: Absolutely. We need a second division but who’s going to fund that?

People have to understand that you have a lot of regulations in the A-League. There is a collective bargaining agreement, which is a $72,000 minimum wage for the footballers and once you go into the second division, is that classified as a full-time professional? So, if you have a minimum squad of 23 its over $1.6 million. You tell me who has $1.6 million to pay their players in the second division? Or for that matter here in Perth.

We’re talking about our second division without our first division, the A-League, being sound. We [currently] don’t have a television deal [past July] and we’re talking about the second division being broadcast.

If you start the second division [in the next few years] it’s going to impact the A-League crowd wise. At the end of the day, you have to think about the longevity of the league. There’s no point in introducing a second league, because say South Melbourne, Sydney Croatia or Marconi Stallions want to go in there. We need to think about how its going to impact football around Australia.

Bobby Playing

Comparing the NSL era to now, are there major differences in terms of the standards at clubs?

Bobby Despotovski: The clubs are full-time, all of them are full-time, but playing wise it is not much different. When you look at it, the players that you used to have here now are your imports from overseas. Now you have a player like Diamanti whereas before we had Paul Trimboli. So, at the end of the day, you’re now paying for the quality and that in itself shows you where Australian football went.

What are some things you look back on fondly in your career as a player?

Bobby Despotovski: The whole lot. Especially when the clubs started and we were unknown and we would just have a good time. We could go and play football, have a couple of beers and go out and then jump on the flight back home. That’s what I look back on

I don’t remember many games and things like that, because that’s hazed. But you meet wonderful people along the journey and the friendships stay. And that’s the most important thing that you get out of the game.

What do you see as your greatest achievements in your time coaching at Perth Glory?

Bobby Despotovski: Putting the steps in for the club’s longevity and creating a right path for the girls. I could talk about a grand final or Sam Kerr, but even with that we only played a small part in Sam Kerr’s development.

Probably about 5-6 years ago there were a couple of interviews that I gave when I was calling that if she started scoring a few more goals that she was going to be one of the best players in the world and everybody laughed at me. That was our target to teach Sam Kerr to start scoring a lot more goals and we changed her position from winger to striker.

Now people are taking the credit for her development which is fine, I don’t care about that. I’m just happy [to] see Sam Kerr doing what Sam Kerr does, because she’s a wonderful human being.

Glory Celebrating

What have been your own most significant learnings about Australian football in your many years of contribution to the sport here?

Bobby Despotovski: I quickly learned what Australian football is and what the character of an Australian footballer is. They were very fit, could run, tackle, hassle and could do all of that, but they were not technically sort of gifted. So, the technical abilities of the players were neglected and the physical attributes were prioritised. Which is fine, I don’t dispute that but somewhere along the line we lost that hardness.

This is where the 4-3-3 system came into play and the technical people from Holland came and disregarded everything that categorised an Australian footballer. They took that all away and focused on developing skills.

So, what I’ve been saying for the last ten years is that nothing categorises an Australian footballer now. An Australian footballer is in between being hard and being half-fit with a new skill level. That’s why we see a lot of Australian footballers coming back from Europe because they are not gifted technically and the physical attributes have been taken away from them.

Is it then a case of the development of Australia’s footballers being a microcosm for the sport’s wider struggle to find its identity?

Bobby Despotovski: Put it this way, from the old NSL, a majority of the players who went overseas played in the Premier League and they didn’t come back.

The players who go there and come back claim to be homesick, how untrue. They are not good enough. Let’s admit that we are not good enough and then start working on that. The first step to solving a problem is admitting there is a problem. Let’s admit what we are not good at and then start fixing it, but don’t take away what we are good at.

We lost two generations of kids and that’s why the youth national teams are struggling. 20 and 21-year-olds are not playing competitive games.

Owners of clubs want instant results as well, and so there is not an emphasis on developing footballers for Australian football because it’s a private entity. And I am not blaming owners of the clubs as they have to put in the money and their hands in their own pockets, but there has to be an emphasis on developing young players and young players getting opportunities.

Is Australia ready for a two-year World Cup cycle?

Battle lines are being drawn between FIFA and key stakeholders, as it remains to be seen whether Australia will support the push for a two-year World Cup cycle.

FIFA’s minutes from the 71st Congress, where Saudi Arabia put forward the motion to study the viability of a two-year cycle, doesn’t include what member federations voted for in the motion.

Football Australia hasn’t stated publicly whether they were one of the 166 nations who voted for the motion, or whether they support the plans.

Football Australia is instead adopting a wait-and-see approach, to avoid taking a position before any proposal for changes are put forward after the viability study is completed.

Two-time A-League Coach of the Year Ernie Merrick believes the push from FIFA for a two-year World Cup cycle is because of business and money.

“It’s about profit and loss. It’s not about the people in the sport really, and FIFA are always competing with their confederations, of which there are six, and FIFA only have one event where they make substantial money from revenue and that’s every four years,” Merrick said.

“So in effect FIFA loses money for three years, and then the fourth year and makes massive profits mainly from broadcast, ticket sales, and sponsorship from a World Cup.”

The majority of FIFA’s $8.7 billion in revenue between 2015-2018 came from the 2018 Men’s tournament.

The commercial value of another World Cup every four years is incredibly attractive to the governing body as a way to boost its already full coffers.

Australian football will struggle to keep up with other countries if the World Cup is hosted every two years, according to Merrick.

“At the same time a lot of countries, including Asian countries, are spending an enormous amount of money on facilities and preparation setups for national competition. We all know of England’s setup, which is huge at St George’s Park, and here we don’t have a designated specific setup to prepare national teams,” he said.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure that will have to change to give Australia a chance to qualify on a regular basis. We certainly have good players and good coaches and we can compete with anyone regarding players, coaching and strategy but when it comes to the sort of money involved in preparing a national team, friendly games, and the amount of travel involved, Australia is really going to suffer.”

Michael Valkanis – former A-League coach, player and current Greece assistant coach – believes that without aligning with FIFA international dates, it means the A-League will struggle to adapt to a two-year World Cup cycle.

“We saw the effects of the Socceroos going away to play, and it always makes it difficult on A-League coaches and teams to support that.” Valkanis said.

“You can see the effects it can have on finals games, and we’ve been crying out for a long time that we become parallel with the rest of the world with international dates.”

Some of Australia’s biggest competitors in the AFC are showing ambivalence towards the concept.

“It would depend on how it would all be organised,” a Korean FA official told Deutsche Welle.

“If we want to have consistent success then we need to play as many competitive games against South American and European teams as possible. At the moment, we play one or two games every four years if we qualify. It’s not enough.”

While the viability of a two-year World Cup cycle is being studied, it is unclear how determined FIFA is to implement such a radical change to the football calendar against intense opposition from some of its members.

Merrick believes the end result could be FIFA demanding a portion of the confederation’s revenue.

“I think four years is probably a better situation at the moment – maybe three years down the track – but I think confederations will have to come to an arrangement with FIFA, and FIFA will want to take some of their revenue somehow through licensing,” Merrick said.

Those involved in international football already believe that the best model is the one we have currently, something that Valkanis is a strong fan of.

“I am a traditionalist. I think the World Cup is something special that stands out from any other competition in the world,” he said.

“The only other event that comes close is the Olympic Games, and to change the format so we see it every two years instead of four, I don’t think it leaves it the same. It is special the way it is.”

Football Australia CEO James Johnson will have a challenge on his hands navigating what a change in the World Cup’s schedule means for Australian football, as FIFA continues to push for increased revenue from the game.

Football Coaches Australia welcomes Sports Integrity Australia independent investigation

FCA

Football Coaches Australia (FCA) welcomed the broad independent investigative mandate provided by Football Australia to Sport Integrity Australia, encompassing four different areas – harassment, bullying, intimidation and discrimination.

FCA encourages current and former players, administrators, referees and coaches, as well as parents and others involved in football in Australia to come forward through this process to enhance the positive cultural development in our sport.

FCA President Phil Moss stated: “As an organisation we have sought transparency, due process and procedural fairness from day one, so we fully support an independent and wide-ranging investigation into the culture of football in Australia.

“We must, as a game, hold ourselves to the highest of standards.

“The culture we live every day, how we treat each other and ensuring we are setting up the next generation to enjoy our great game is of paramount importance and entirely non-negotiable.”

Newly elected FCA Vice President Sarah West endorsed Phil’s statement:

“Everyone in our sport, from professional players, coaches, referees, administrators and staff through to those involved at the grass roots, has the right to participate in a positive and safe environment and to be treated with respect and fairness.

“There is no place in our game for abuse or harassment of any kind. This unacceptable behaviour harms people and diminishes the game.

“As coaches we have a duty of care to those we are entrusted to work with and must endeavour to always create environments which provide safety, trust and inclusivity so that everyone can enjoy the beautiful game on and off the pitch.”

Media inquiries can be directed to FCA Chief Executive Officer, Glenn Warry, on +61 417 346 312

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