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George Vasilopoulos: How the NSL became a breeding ground for elite players, coaches, and administrators

The transition from the National Soccer League (NSL) to the Hyundai A-League marked a significant new chapter in Australian football. Among the many major changes, there was a shift from the traditional style of community-run clubs to a privatised system.

With a national second division now a genuine prospect and many hoping for an eventual relegation/promotion system, Australia’s top tier may one-day see the resurgence of community managed clubs. While the viability of this remains to be seen in today’s ecosystem, many NSL clubs during the 1990s managed to achieve considerable commercial success – arguably none more-so than South Melbourne FC.

Former President George Vasilopoulos (1989-2002) and former Board Member Peter Abraam spoke exclusively to Soccerscene to discuss how the club professionalised its off-field processes while becoming a breeding ground for elite players, coaches, and sporting and event administrators.

Vasilopoulos joined the club’s board in 1977, a year where South Melbourne FC along with 13 other clubs formed the first iteration of the National Soccer League – more than a decade before any of Australia’s other major sporting codes went national.

“We were the first sporting code in the country to go national. Why? Because of the calibre of people who would contribute to running of the clubs and the League. The industry was full of people who were highly passionate about football and were able to plan towards creating a better future,” he said.

“In everything you build there needs to be a strong foundation, something solid. South Melbourne became a community and social outlet for many Greek immigrants, but also a lot of other people who loved football. There were some fantastic people involved with the club and then from 1989 onwards there was a shift. More university students and young professionals started to become involved which led to a major turning point.”

1989 marked the year where South Melbourne began its transformation into a true juggernaut of Australia’s sporting landscape, starting with former Real Madrid and Hungary superstar Ferenc Puskás’ appointment as Manager.

Ange Postecoglou alongside Ferenc Puskás.

“We had a function scheduled with maybe 60 odd people scheduled to attend. Once Puskás was confirmed as manager we had more than 1000 buy tickets, he was an international legend. He was a great benefit for the players and future managers, like Frank Arok and Ange Postecoglou after him,” Vasilopoulos said.

As Puskás led South Melbourne to the championship in 1991, behind the scenes South Melbourne’s board took a progressive approach to refreshing its off-field team. Ex-President, Chris Christopher had pioneered tapping into the club’s young and educated community and the trend would continue.

“We wanted people from highly educated backgrounds to bring their fresh ideas into the club. People who specialised in accounting, marketing, architecture, law, and so on. The rest of the board and I thought this would help to bring a new perspective that would drive the club forward,” Vasilopoulos added.

The club’s existing leaders along with the new blood of young, passionate, and highly driven individuals helped to evolve South Melbourne FC into a commercial power.

Among the club’s new contingent was Peter Filopoulos, now Head of Marketing, Communications and Corporate Affairs at Football Federation Australia (FFA), and Peter Abraam, who has since served as CEO of Victorian Major Events Company and built a storied career as a senior executive and CEO of numerous domestic and international-scale organisations.

In his memoirs, Filopoulos reflects that by 1999 the club had announced a major sponsor deal worth $1 million over two years, a figure which at the time rivalled most AFL clubs. The ground-breaking deal, with Vivienne’s Collection, further paved the way for other lucrative sponsorships including NZI Insurance, Bob Jane, and Strathfield Radio Rentals.

To build the eventual success it reached, South Melbourne’s staff started by leveraging its fanbase as a marketing tool and professionalising its marketing processes.

SMFC in front of a full house at the newly built Bob Jane Stadium.

“A great team armed with skills, new ideas and compelling marketing presentations helped us achieve significant growth. We went from being a community club at the start to an extremely professionally run organisation,” said Peter Abraam, former South Melbourne FC Board and Hall of Fame Member.

“The board worked extremely hard to ensure our Sponsors and Government partners were not taken for granted. Sponsorship fulfilment documents exemplified that the benefits they were receiving were commensurate with their investment and expectations. We tried to find businesses that already supported the South Melbourne community and scale up their involvement and networking opportunities so they would feel valued.”

A prominent example of this ‘added value’ was through the TV series Acropolis Now, where South Melbourne FC was referenced during this prime time series and the team-shirt worn by lead characters, which helped to build the brand and give major sponsor Marathon Foods exposure to thousands of viewers.

The strong relationship the board built with the corporate world also spilled into community leadership. Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett was crowned the club’s number one ticket holder in 1994, a relationship which became pivotal to South Melbourne’s landmark move from Middle Park to Bob Jane Stadium.

“The planning process took immense community consultation. I remember the board walking the streets of South Melbourne, handing out leaflet. We were trying to obtain planning permits at the time to build a new Social Club House at Middle Park and with great support from the government, we received that approval just prior to the Grand Prix’s move to Victoria being announced,” Abraam said.

The excitement from the club’s approval to build a new social club grandstand and the fresh signing of a 21-year lease for Middle Park was temporarily halted, as the board entered negotiations with Victoria’s officials to relocate its home ground – along with its planning approvals – to Albert Park Lake, a period which Vasilopoulos fondly remembers.

“Jeff Kennett called me prior to the announcement telling me it was going to happen, but we had been at Middle Park for 50 years. There was a lot of legacy and a lot of people who considered Middle Park our home, so we ensured we could negotiate the best possible deal for the club,” he said.

“We ended up negotiating a far better outcome than many had expected. The move to Bob Jane Stadium included quadrupling our seat numbers, a new grandstand, lights, and modern amenities of the highest standard and that we could be proud of – it was a tremendous result for the community and the club,” Abraam added.

Bob Jane Stadium, now known as Lakeside Stadium, provided SMFC with far greater facilities to its old Middle Park home.

Following the negotiations and the agreed terms of relocation, Vasilopoulos laughingly reminisced that Ron Walker, at the time Chairman of Grand Prix Australia, was so impressed with South Melbourne’s board during negotiations, particularly Peter Abraam, that after the deal’s conclusion, when he applied for the event’s Operations Manager role, he immediately offered him the job.

“It just shows the calibre of people that were involved with the club, and that came from building a board full of passionate and highly intelligent community members.”

While South Melbourne’s off-field team determined the commercial success of the club, the players and coaching staff more than held up their end of the bargain, winning championship titles in 1991 under Ferenc Puskás and back to back titles in 1998-99 under Ange Postecoglou.

As a generalisation, there is usually an obvious correlation between on-field and off-field success in any sport – the more a club achieves, the more marketable it becomes as a brand. For South Melbourne, the most lucrative windfall arrived at the turn of the century at the 2000 FIFA Club World Championship.

Having won the 1999 Oceania Club Championship final 5-1 against Fijian side Nadi F.C. South Melbourne FC booked a ticket to Brazil to compete in Group B against Vasco da Gama, Necaxa, and Manchester United.

“We went to Brazil in October 1999 for the draw. Sep Blatter took us out for dinner and told me by the time I arrive back in Australia there’s going to be $4 million in the club’s bank account,” Vasilopoulos said.

“The tournament earned $1.7 million for Soccer Australia (Now FFA) and $4.2 million for the club. To date, no other football club has ever contributed such a figure to the game here in Australia.”

SMFC’s squad after being crowned champions of Oceania.

Fast-forwarding to today, South Melbourne FC currently compete in Victoria’s National Premier League (NPL) along with many other former NSL members.

The club still enjoys a passionate, albeit downsized fanbase, but is optimistic that the discussions surrounding a National Second Division could lead to an eventual resurgence to Australia’s national competition.

With the A-League taking a privatised approach to ownership since its inception, a potential National Second Division could lead to the rebirth of community models in Australian football. Clubs such as South Melbourne have shown during the NSL era that this could work, but whether it would be feasible in today’s day and age remains to be seen.

Marshall Soper – the Gifted Journeyman

When Marshall Soper, the former Socceroo great, witnessed the demise of Harry Souttar with his ACL injury in the recent Socceroo World Cup home clash against Saudi Arabia on November 11th, his thoughts flashed back to the 29th March, 1987 when he was playing with Sydney Olympic against Sydney City.

With one turn of his body early in the first half, Soper was writhing on the ground in agony after tearing the cruciate ligament in his right knee and was forced to sit out the season following a complete knee reconstruction.

It was ironic that Luke Brattan, the Sydney FC holding midfielder, also befell the same fate in the FA Cup clash against Sydney Olympic on 24th November.

A lot of water has fallen under the bridge since Soper captivated the football community after his first appearance for Apia-Leichhardt in the 1981 NSL season, followed by his rapid rise to Socceroo stardom in 1982.

Who could ever forget the matches against Juventus in 1984 when the Italian champions toured Downunder.

His performances, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne were simply mesmerising as he toyed with the Juventus defence, leading to the expulsion of Cabrini, the famous Italian left back, who had no answer to Soper’s skills in Sydney.

Yet Soper’s failure to capitalise on his huge talent was also exemplified after his outstanding display on the Socceroo’s tour match against Arsenal at Highbury in November, 1984. On the night he gave the England left back and captain, Kenny Samson, nightmares while scoring two goals for the Socceroos in a 3-2 loss to the Gunners.

In August, 1985, Red Star Belgrade, the Yugoslav champions toured Australia and the goal Soper scored at St George Stadium in the 4-1 win by the Socceroos was world class.

Beating two Red Star defenders at the half way mark, Soper sprinted to a position just outside the penalty area. The advancing keeper tried to narrow the angle but Soper pushed the ball with the outside of his right foot into the corner of the net.

First team players and coaches Marshall Soper front row, 6th from the right

 

It was at this time, people recognised that this man was no mere mortal as he made the big name Red Star players look ordinary that day.

Soper’s life has always been dedicated to the game he loves in his extraordinary playing career and for the many years he has spent in technical coaching roles in Australia and Asia.

He returned to Australia in March, 2020 from his three year stint as Technical Director at Yangon United in Myanmar due to Covid 19 and is currently weighing the options in his football life.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, Marshall Soper discusses his experiences in Myanmar, the standard of football in Australia and how it can be improved, reflects on his playing career and outlines his aspirations in football.

ROGER SLEEMAN

In your three years in Myanmar, what was your experience of facilities, youth development and football standards?

MARSHALL SOPER

Like the rest of Asia, the country is pouring money into football while the investment in Australia is at a standstill.

Yangon United has a full time professional setup for the 1st team, U 21’s and U/18’s. They own their stadium, have an accommodation facility adjacent to the stadium complex which has 120 rooms, full time chefs, restaurants, coffee shops, swimming pool and gymnasium and support staff.

I had my own driver and the players would walk from their accommodation to the training ground while the club has a fleet of buses to transport supporters to matches.

The club plays in the National League and in 2019 we played in the Asian Champions League and topped the group.

The first year I joined the club, they hadn’t won anything but in that same season, they captured the three domestic trophies.

It was a full on job for me and not without stress levels while working with coaches, adapting players to professionalism and training seven days a week, sometimes twice a day.

The youth teams played during the week and the 1st team at the weekend so I was either at a training session or a match.

It’s a country which is crying out for help and so committed to youth development which is sadly not the case in Australia.

Here, there’s not the push to develop youth because clubs want to win on the day, rather than having a long term plan. Hence the drop in standards of our national team and our resulting poorer ranking in Asia where we struggle to beat countries like Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia.

Marshall Soper addressing coaches & players regarding pre-season

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

You attended the Socceroos clash with Saudi Arabia on November 11th.

What were your impressions?

MARSHALL SOPER

If you look at the positions the players take up on the pitch, there seems to be a startling resemblance to what the National Curriculum espouses.

The game is still too basic as we use very wide players to cross the ball from three quarters of the pitch at best and there is no attempt to beat opponents, especially through the middle of the park.

On the night, Mitch Duke and Jamie McClaren should’ve started the match to attack the heart of the Saudi’s defence, particularly with the speed of Martin Boyle.

If it hadn’t been for that great block in the first half by Harry Souttar which precipitated his injury ,Australia would’ve probably lost the match but overall our tactics were negative, while the Saudis were perfectly prepared and played us out of our comfort zone.

They dominated the middle of the park and we failed to penetrate from the wide areas.

The truth is, the Saudis had enough of the ball and chances in front of goal to win the game easily.

ROGER SLEEMAN

I performed a basic statistical analysis of A-League players four years ago and discovered that only 10% of them were competent on both sides.

Can you explain this, and what responsibility do technical directors have to improve this situation?

MARSHALL SOPER

At the moment, there is a poor understanding of how to develop the complete player in both the A-League and at NPL level.

As I mentioned previously, the emphasis is on winning rather than developing and in the A-League we’re importing questionable overseas players who are earning easy cash, rather than producing youth players of high quality.

In terms of the youth policy, are we coaching the coaches correctly?

Also, are we appointing people in TD roles with the right knowledge and philosophy to develop players to their maximum potential?

Do these people understand the full spectrum e.g. do they know what it’s like to be injured, what is required of a technical player or a hard working player to be successful and can they develop two sided players.

I doubt if we have the right people in this country to accomplish these objectives.

ROGER SLEEMAN

While you have been back in Australia, have you been approached to coach?

MARSHALL SOPER

I’ve had a number of calls and conversations from A-League clubs who have talked about the position of striker or front third coach but I prefer to look at starting my own academy where I can determine the structure and provide a transparent pathway to European clubs.

Recently, I signed an agreement with 90.1.1 Management Agency which is located in Central Europe and my name is now on their website.

The organisation is a group of licensed football agents who carve a pathway for young players and suitable movement for established players.

I want to cater for quality European players to come to Australia and Asia and for young players from Australia to play in Europe and Asia.

Currently, Kusini Yengi from Adelaide United is managed by the group.

 

Team coaches together with Marshall Soper for weekly match review

 

ROGER SLEEMAN

Not a year goes by when football supporters ask the question as to why you withdrew from the 1985 World Cup qualifiers. It’s firmly believed, if you, Craig Johnston and Tony Dorigo had been available for the two home and away matches against Scotland, our chances to qualify for Mexico,1986 would have increased considerably.

Your comment.

MARSHALL SOPER

I have to carry this burden on my shoulders but we were receiving a very poor pay deal with the national team compared to what the clubs were paying us.

If we were injured for the Socceroos we would’ve received small compensation so we had to ask ourselves, was it worth playing when you were feeding a family?

The answer for me at the time was no and remember there was no PFA in existence at the time to support the players.

ROGER SLEEMAN

Your rejection of the Arsenal manager, Don Howe’s contract offer on the Socceroo world tour in November, 1984 after you scored two goals against the Gunners and played mind games with the England captain and left back, Kenny Samson, is still something your followers can’t understand .

Can you please explain?

MARSHALL SOPER

I had other offers from other clubs, apart from Arsenal and as I look back at what could’ve been, the matter becomes purely hypothetical.

Did I make a difference in Australian football? History records, I was the only player to win five National Cup competitions, two each with Sydney Olympic and Parramatta Eagles and one with Apia-Leichhardt.

MyRepublic announced as Official Internet Provider for Melbourne City

Melb City

Melbourne City FC has announced that MyRepublic will be the Official Internet Provider for the club going forward.

MyRepublic is a next generation internet service provider. They will have their logos feature on the sleeve and back of the City’s Liberty A-League jerseys and will also be displayed on the front of the A-League Men’s training kit.

This new partnership is set to help City extend the reach of their matches to a wider audience, while highlighting the club on various social media platforms and delivering incredible experiences for City fans.

MyRepublic Group Chief Marketing Officer and Country Manager for Australia, Ji Jing:

“We are extremely proud to be the exclusive Official Internet Provider of Melbourne City FC. As an ISP in Australia, we are also a champion for diversity and inclusion by breaking down the digital divide. MyRepublic has brought fast broadband connectivity into many households in Australia.

“It is thus befitting that the theme of speed is chosen for this sponsorship deal. We hope to bring the fans closer to the football action, as we line up a slew of marketing activities for our customers with money-cannot-buy type of experiences.”

Melbourne City FC CEO Brad Rowse:

“We are thrilled to partner with a business that is focused on becoming a market leader in the next generation of networks.

“Our fans want to see the fastest players on the pitch and I’m sure they want their club to partner with the best brands off the pitch. With MyRepublic we have opened a door for them to experience a genuinely trailblazing proposition and lightning speed internet connectivity.

“We look forward to partnering with MyRepublic in using football as a key platform to strengthen social and community bonding in Australia.”

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