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.

Oakleigh Cannons well-placed to build on its competitive foundations

The Oakleigh Cannons are a club who are a staple of the top tier of Victorian football.

The Cannons have competed in the Victorian National Premier League consecutively for the past 17 years, gaining promotion when they lifted the State League One Championship in 2003.

Since then, the senior men’s team have won one minor premiership in 2006, however have fallen to three grand final defeats in 2011, 2012 and 2016.

After eight games this season, the club currently sits in fifth place in NPL Victoria and are well placed to once again be up there at season’s end.

General Manager at Oakleigh, Aki Ionnas, believes the club can finally break their grand final hoodoo this year.

“I do believe that we can win it,” he told Soccerscene.

“Chris Taylor has put a very good squad together; all the boys are fantastic. We’re confident these boys can take us all the way.”

If it eventuates it will be a great reward for the club, based on the events of the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Like any other club, it was obviously hard,” Ionnas said.

“For players, kids, juniors, the committee…it was a hard season with no football.

“Kids are used to going to training and playing soccer, your supporters, your sponsors, your members are used to going down to the club, and before you know it, you’re at home in a lockdown.

“So, it was very hard mentally for a lot of people.”

The club was established in 1972 and currently plays its home games at Jack Edwards Reserve, a facility which seems like a perfect setup for a club who plays in the top level in Victoria.

The venue has a capacity of 4,000-5,000 people with upgrades over the years continuing to lift the overall standard of the facility.

“About six years ago our facilities got upgraded with a brand-new synthetic ground as well as a junior pavilion. That was done all through hard work from our chairman Kon Kavalakis, who was responsible in liaising with council and other key parties to get these facilities.

“We’ve recently had a state-of-the art scoreboard that’s gone up last year and started using it this year.

“There’s always work going into the improvement of facilities. Even though the synthetic ground was done six years, we’ve resurfaced it again only a year and a half ago to reach top FIFA standards.”

Ionnas revealed that the club was in the progress of talking to council in regards to further developing the ground, something that the AAFC partner club sees as a priority in the future.

Oakleigh’s General Manager is relatively confident that the club is ready to take the next step and enter a national second division when it eventuates.

“Look, it all depends once we see the final model that it’s financially viable,” he said.

“If it’s financially viable, then yes.

“It all depends on what the model is going to look like and what it’s going to cost. Speaking to a lot of clubs, that’s what they are all waiting for.

“We are an ambitious club, we would always like to compete at the highest level, we’ve got very good sponsors, very good backers, a very strong board who are all business minded and great infrastructure which we will eventually develop further.”

According to Ionnas, the strong affiliation the club has with the local Greek community has positively impacted the fortunes and finances of the club over their history.

“We’ve got very strong support obviously in the Greek community,” he said.

“We’ve had strong support for a long, long time. We’ve had a major supporter in Delphi Bank who has been our sponsor for 15 years I believe. It’s a massive thing for that to happen continuously.”

Ionnas hopes the club continues to be consistently competitive in the near future, across all aspects of the sport.

“Obviously, we want the club to be a strong club irrespective where it is playing, we want to be up there both on and off the park.

“Our chairman and president Stan Papayianneris have done enormous work, each in their own way, to get the club to where it is now. Oakleigh should remain a strong club because it’s got enormous support away from the field.

“We can’t thank everyone enough for supporting the club.”

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.

Sekulovski hits the ground running in Preston Sponsorship Management role

Naum Sekulovski might be in the twilight of his playing career, but he won’t be finishing up with football or his beloved Preston Lions anytime soon.

The former Perth Glory star has taken on the role of Sponsorship Manager for the 2021 season.

Preston has always been a club that has enjoyed enormous support from its community and its playing members.

The chants of “Ma-ke-don-ia” on game day bring goosebumps to all in attendance at BT Connor Reserve.

Even whilst playing at the relative depths of State League 1 for this former National Soccer League heavyweight, Preston has been able to rely on the incredible support of its fans who vote with their feet year in, year out.

However, it is the ability of the club to mobilise the support of the business network within its community that is truly impressive.

In recent years, the Preston Lions committee has enjoyed enormous success in mobilising the support of the business community within its ranks, signing on an extraordinary amount of sponsors a trend that has well and truly continued into 2021.

“At the top end of this year, back end of 2020, [Preston Lions President] Zak [Gruevski] approached me about taking on the role of Sponsorship Manager,” Sekulovski said.

“I’m coming to the twilight of my career as a player, so I’ve always wanted to understand how I can get more involved behind the scenes.

“I’m always going to have that football attachment and I’m interested in the business side of running a football club, so I jumped on board.”

Outside of football, Sekulovski works in pharmaceutical sales, meaning he felt he had a skillset that would allow him to hit the ground running in the role.

A cursory glance at the club’s social media feed over the last few months would demonstrate that Preston’s support goes far beyond boots on terraces and that Sekulovski has certainly gotten off to a fast start.

Since taking on the role, the Preston mainstay said he has been blown away by the business support afforded to the Lions.

“It’s been a really big eye-opener for me and one that I’ve really tried to translate over to the players and the people at a junior level,” he said.

“To be honest, the level of support has been a bit overwhelming.

“At last count, we’ve ticked over 100 sponsors for the year. We’re in a really, privileged position, but we’re here because of the hard work of all the people that have been on the committee over the last few years.”

Preston has kicked off its own “Preston in Business” program of business events for sponsors and is providing corporate hospitality on gameday, which started with a historic night of football at BT Connor Reserve when the club took on Melbourne City in it’s season opening match of the NPL3 Vic season, attracting a bumper crowd on the night.

The club saw another massive turnout last Friday night for their NPL3 Vic clash with Melbourne Victory, showing the Round 1 turnout was no flash in the pan.

“To have that many businesses and invited guests attend our first President’s Club function for 2021, it just made sense to have a program like “Preston In Business” that we could use to help those sponsors engage with and leverage off one another.

“We’ve got so many diverse businesses in our group.”

Following 2019’s State League 1-winning season, not even the loss of the 2020 year could slow Preston down.

“I think success breeds success,” Sekulovski said.

“And it’s not just about the men’s program. We are striving to get to the heights of Victorian football at all levels and we are firmly in the frame of mind that when a national second division presents itself, we want to be a part of that discussion.

“We’re a united front across our men’s, women’s and junior programs and everything is coming together.”

Facilities have also been a major agenda item for the club and redevelopment of BT Connor Reserve, which has been aided by the City of Darebin Council, as well as the generous donation of money and services from the Preston business community has been crucial to the club’s drive forward.

“I think we’re really only just scratching the surface of what’s possible in terms of our partnership with Council and Government,” he said.

“The administration of the club has been working so hard over the last six or seven years and it’s thanks to a passionate group of volunteers which makes the progress we’ve made extraordinary.

“To see that pay off with the night we had against Melbourne City and our new partnership with them, it was incredible.

“I grew up watching Preston. That Friday night I left the sponsorship stand to go and see some of the game with the rank and file and sitting there with so many people in the industrial back streets of Reservoir at our first official night game was something special.”

Preston remains on the lookout for businesses looking to support their charge forward.

Anyone interested in supporting the club or joining as a sponsor/partner should contact Sekulovski or Preston via their Facebook page or club website.

Image Credit: Preston Lions Football Club

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