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.

Hanh Tran: “I have a passion for providing a voice for women in sport”

Hanh Tran is a familiar voice across Football Victoria, having served as the original Series Futsal women’s broadcaster. Hanh has become well intertwined within women’s football across the state.

An advocate for women’s football, she has effectively singlehandedly shone a spotlight upon women’s futsal.

Throughout her established commentary career, Hanh has had broadcast involvement in finals, cup competitions and League matches across both indoor and outdoor women’s and men’s football competitions.

Speaking to Soccerscene, she discussed topics including being a commentator, what her dream is as a commentator, and the changes she would like to see in Australian womens football.

Tell me about yourself as a commentator.

Hanh Tran: I have been commentating on women’s soccer for a little over 5 years.  I first began commentating on woman’s futsal for the Series Futsal Victoria Women’s league, played at Futsal Oz.

At the time the Men’s competition had weekly commentators calling their game and the women’s did not.  I was also a player for the women’s league at the time.

I felt that the woman needed a voice to help boost and build their game, so I then made the initiative to jump on the mic and give commentating a try with the encouragement from owner Peter Parthimos I was in the box commentating my first week after.

In the beginning, it was all voluntary work and was more than happy to provide my time each week as it was something that I loved doing and the players enjoyed watching the game with commentary on it.

In late 2019 Football Victoria held an information seminar for women in media. This opened a huge door for me to help bring my commentating to a new level and provide me with a new challenge.

I was invited to join the Football Victoria commentary team for the upcoming 2020 season of NPL and NPL Women’s.

Unfortunately, due to COVID, I couldn’t make my debut to call the NPLW games that year. Fast forward to 2021 and I have been on the roster for most of this season calling the NPLW games.

I have a passion for providing a voice for women in sport, where at times there has been a male broadcaster calling female games. I feel the industry is in the progression of providing opportunities for diversity.

Growing up, I played every sport that was provided to me and loved being part of the community of sport.

When I watch I hear sports on the TV or radio, I’m so intrigued by the commentators and the way they capture the audience and entertain us in their own unique way when calling the game. I’m always listening out to different techniques and phrases that they use.

I remember watching the Matilda’s vs Vietnam in the Olympic qualifying match and made myself a personal goal to one day commentate a Vietnamese vs Australia football game.

Being from a Vietnamese background, that would be a dream come true. To represent Vietnam, Australia and be the voice for women’s football.

I want to be the pioneer of a Asian background and be a role model for future generation of commentators and media personnel.

What is something with women’s football you’d like to see change?

Hanh Tran: I would love to see more promotion and increasing the exposure of women in the media and to boost diversity in the industry.

I found there was a lack of content to champion and showcase the female players; and most of these outlets were hosted mainly by men.

More games being streamed, especially VPLW. More podcast, reels, panel shows. Pre game and post game interviews.

Advertisement of the players and their clubs, introductory videos of the clubs and teams, similar to USA college basketball and NFL and side line reporters.

What are your thoughts on the Nike Cup competition?

Hanh Tran: Love to see a VPLW team to get to the finals. One of the best quality games we’ve seen in a long time. 2 penalty shoot outs and 3 games going to extra time. They’ve been very close games.

Great exposure to smaller clubs that normally don’t get much limelight. FV have invested time and energy this year to make the cup stand out for the womens game.

Where would you wish to see growth within football in Australia?

Hanh Tran: More investment in the A league and growing the women’s game. So much support goes to the Matilda’s, but then no huge return of money invested in the A league.

Need more growth and international players come to the A-league to grow the game internationally to make it more entertaining.

Similar to what cricket did with the Big bash. Try something fun and exciting to bring in new and young viewers.

90 minutes is a long time to concentrate on a game that is low scoring, something that can bring in new football fans to watch the game.

A more sense of community and excitement, or collaboration with the men’s games, more double headers. The All-Star game was a hit against Arsenal, that will draw in more viewers and spectators.

Jack Spring: The rising star in film directing with ‘All Town Aren’t We’ documentary

As a Grimsby Town fan at heart, Jack Spring’s career as a film director continues to grow through the ‘All Town Aren’t We’ documentary.

Born in London, Spring made his debut at the age of 19, with comedy film ‘Destination: Dewsbury’.

In 2021, he directed ‘Three Day Millionaire’ as his second feature film – starring Colm Meaney which drew critical acclaim and reached a #5 rating on Netflix in the UK.

Speaking to Soccerscene after the completion of ‘All Town Aren’t We’, Spring discusses his film directing journey to date, the origins of the documentary, key components of the editing process and his personal connection to Grimsby Town.

What led you into a directing career?

Jack Spring: My Dad and I made these little stop-motion animations such as David and Goliath and play figures that went on Windows Movie Maker, and we used the very early digital stills cameras.

When I was about 12 or 13, my friend at school got a Mac which had a digital video camera, and every weekend we’d make these small little clips.

From the age of 13, it really snowballed from there and I’m lucky that I knew what I wanted to do early on.

The harder part was learning all about the financial side and raising money in the notoriously unglamorous aspects that were involved.

I did go to university, but I found I was teaching myself more outside of that by making short films every weekend and I ended up making around 100 of those.

I made the decision to drop out of university because I needed to raise money, given investors were not keen on me as I was only 18 – it prompted me to figure out what to do next.

There was a startup company that I created, which taught me a whole lot about business – such as how to budget, how to schedule and to manage teams.

Off the back of that I went to those investors to show what I could do at a younger age, and I believe it helps to start young to get your foot in the door earlier.

Tell us about how the All Town Aren’t We documentary originated and what it was like creating it?

Jack Spring: All Town Aren’t We was the first series we’ve done; we did a couple pilots beforehand.

It was quite intimidating because we decided to do the documentary project after the story happened, literally walking down the steps after the final.

I’m a big Grimsby fan and my production company owns the Club, so it made sense to put the two together.

When it came to interviewing footballers, in top-flight competitions like the English Premier League or A-League in Australia you see the players as very media-trained and they don’t give the interviewer much.

However, at Grimsby Town they were brilliant, I was far more nervous interviewing my heroes in Grimsby than any other typical player.

Everyone was great in telling emotional stories and you see the players and staff more as actors rather than footballers with usual responses.

There were so many stories to be told and some of them didn’t even make the final cut. For example, parents that were disabled and the lengths that it took to get the game, or Harry Clifton – a homegrown player and cult hero – having to cope with his grandad dying just after getting relegated.

It’s a credit to the players for opening up as I’m sure it wasn’t easy.

How was the editing process and making those tough decisions on what to include or exclude?

Jack Spring: I deliberately worked with an editor who wasn’t a Grimsby fan supporter.

The reason behind that was he would work out which storylines only Grimsby Town fans would care about, and what general sports fans would pay attention to.

It was really helpful because the storylines that I thought would be worth it didn’t make the final cut as the editor did not think it was important enough.

If I didn’t have that, there would be far too many Grimsby Town-specific narratives like players getting dropped which the general person wouldn’t be drawn into.

What would you say to those who haven’t seen the documentary?

Jack Spring: The 12-month journey is genuinely the wildest sporting story to exist.

Grimsby Town has spent the last 20 years flirting between League 2 and non-league football, where the Club found itself in non-league for just the second time in its history.

There’s a massive difference in terms of the clubs that play there – as people are made redundant, there’s a lot less money involved and it genuinely affects an awful lot of people in the town.

Two local business owners bought the club as they were relegated, who are the best thing to have ever happened to Grimsby Town.

The documentary is the next 12 months since that change, which is bonkers.

Without giving away the ending, Grimsby Town’s whole season became very dramatic to see if they can even make the playoffs based on previous form.

The final episodes included possibly the best football game ever played against Wrexham AFC in a semi-final.

It’s one of the best sporting stories because it’s essentially a working-class town which used to have the world’s largest fishing port, but the industry died.

For a town that has been on a negative trajectory for a long time, to see them rise against the odds is something that will appeal to all sports lovers.

It’s highly emotional, highly gripping and an unbelievable sporting story that I was fortunate enough to capture.

All Town Aren’t We is now streaming exclusively on DocPlay in Australia and New Zealand.

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