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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.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S2 Ep 8 with Gary Cole interviewing Jeff Hopkins

Jeff Hopkins

Jeff Hopkins is currently the W-League Championship winning Head Coach of Melbourne Victory.

Jeff was born in Wales and played over 400 games for both club and country. He started in Fulham’s Academy before playing over 200 games in the first team before heading to Crystal Palace and Reading. Jeff also played for Wales at U21 and Senior level.

His coaching career began by working with young players in the UK, where he started his coaching licences before heading to Gippsland Falcons as a player and then for a year as Head Coach.

As a former professional player Jeff, like so many of us, thought he had a good grasp of football until he began his coaching journey and learned he didn’t know, what he didn’t know!

With over 20 years’ experience as coach at youth, assistant and head coach level Jeff is very aware of the changes he has made to his coaching over the journey. He has a number of premierships and championships to his name with Queensland and Brisbane Roar Women and both a Premiership and Championship with Melbourne Victory, which he is very proud of, but he also finds a great deal of satisfaction in seeing his players and teams grow and develop.

Jeff was honest and open discussing his journey and believes that finding a mentor in the beginning would have helped him make fewer mistakes on his journey. In fact, in answering the ‘one piece of wisdom’ question he had two pieces for developing coaches! Firstly, find a mentor early on in your coaching career and secondly keep growing and learning as a coach and create a learning environment for your players.

Please join Gary Cole in sharing Jeff Hopkins’ Football Coaching Life.

W-League big winners in new CBA, as greater contract freedom for A-League clubs beckons

A new collective bargaining agreement has been struck between Professional Football Australia and the Australian Professional Leagues.

Equity in high-performance standards in the A-League and W-League, a 32% increase in the W-League salary cap floor and an increase in the A-League salary cap floor are the highlights of the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) struck between Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) and the Australian Professional Leagues (APL).

The new five-year deal was described as “ground-breaking” by a joint statement between the two bodies, in an announcement that highlights the newfound confidence in the economic environment for professional football in Australia.

Much of that confidence can be linked to the new five-year broadcast agreement with ViacomCBS and Network 10 and it is no surprise that this new CBA has been deliberately linked in length to the broadcast deal.

PFA Co-Chief Executive Kathryn Gill explained that being able to achieve this agreement was a huge milestone for the professional game in Australia, after such a long period of uncertainty in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of the previous broadcasting deal with Fox Sports.

“The players’ vision for the negotiations was economic security and stability for the clubs, the leagues and the players. This agreement is a foundational step towards this objective and our leagues will be stronger as a result,” she said via the joint statement.

“It has been an incredibly challenging time for our game; however, we believe the CBA will provide a platform for our leagues to be re-launched and for a genuine partnership between the clubs and the players to be forged.

“I would like to acknowledge the work of Greg O’Rourke, Danny Townsend, Tracey Scott, Chris Pehlivanis and John Tsatsimas for their efforts and commitment during the negotiations and especially the players who participated so actively throughout.”

PFA President Alex Wilkinson noted the immense sacrifice made by many players to usher the game through the COVID-19 pandemic, which he says helped pave the way for this agreement.

“This generation of players, club owners and staff have been asked to make immense sacrifices to preserve our sport during unprecedented times,” he said.

“As a result of these sacrifices we have been able to take an important step forward and provide greater certainty for the clubs and players and make important progress in areas such as our high-performance environment, player welfare whilst further embedding our commitment to gender equity.”

Under the new CBA, genuine equity in high-performance standards in the A-League and W-League have been entrenched in order to create a “world-class workplace” for all of the country’s footballers.

This CBA will be the first to deliver common standards across higher performance and medical departments across both the W-League and the A-League.

Increases to minimum and maximum player payments are also factored in during the course of the five-year CBA with a particular focus on an increase to the W-League salary floor, providing another massive boost on the back of the recently announced expansion of the competition to also include Central Coast Mariners, Wellington Phoenix and Western United.

There will also be a reformed contracting model that allows for greater capacity in squad investment for clubs, with an allowance for up to two “Designated Player” spots, which will allow clubs to invest between $300,000 and $600,000 in players whose salaries will be excluded from the A-League salary cap.

These “Designated Players” will be in addition to the current exemptions, such as “Marquee Players”.

Furthermore, there will also be greater capacity for clubs to contract youth players with an increase in the cap on scholarship players.

The CBA also provides for guaranteed funding for player welfare and development programs, as well as greater support for the PFA Past Players Program.

APL Managing Director Danny Townsend said the deal was proof that the APL was living up to its promise of greater investment since taking control of Australia’s professional leagues.

“When APL took control of the leagues, we promised it would herald a new era of investment and this agreement shows the progress that has already been made,” he said in a statement.

“This is a clear example of what can be achieved when we work together with a common vision to realise the potential of Australian football.”

APL Leagues Commissioner Greg O’Rourke added the investments would help clubs deliver a much-improved on-field product.

“Players are partners with us in the game and central to its growth. Having all of our partners on-board with the re-imagined future of the game is vital, and this agreement marks an important milestone in our new relationship,” he said.

“There will be immediate improvements across the men’s and women’s leagues, most notably for women’s football, all of which will flow through into improved experiences for players, and ultimately into growing and improving our game.”

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