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Football Australia CEO defends against Hadley’s Multicultural remarks

Ray Hadley’s stoush with CEO of Football Australia James Johnson represents the ongoing media bias against football that is present within the Australian broadcasting world. In the wake of a violent brawl that erupted at a New South Wales National Premier League game between Sydney United 58 and Rockdale Ilinden FC, Hadley seems to believe that “You can’t be representing people who come from Croatia or Macedonia”.

He uses anecdotal evidence of a football fan supporting Western Sydney Wanderers over Sydney United, and takes this as a gospel, uniform opinion of all football fans in the country, going as far as saying that any changes to the Club Identity policy are “a step back in the eyes of most football fans” based on this testimony. What is clear however is that Hadley is no fan of football, and has very little knowledge of the game or its history. The Crawford report that he cites in his rant against the FA, who he says is now subservient to the clubs, recommended that the NSL should be “allowed to operate as a stand-alone body with its own board and constitution, and able to set its own rules and regulations, with the NSL clubs as members”, something Mr. Lowy, a businessman “with acumen and connections”, never allowed in his tenure at Football Federation Australia.

The Crawford report, commissioned by the federal government, doesn’t suggest that ethnicity is a major issue within the game and instead focuses on the governance issues that had plagued football in Australia before the creation of the A-league. To cite the Crawford report as supportive of his views regarding ethnic names within football contributing to violence is intellectually dishonest and factually incorrect. The Report argued that an Australian professional football league should be independently run with representation from the clubs, something that hadn’t been achieved until last year. While Frank Lowy did a lot for the game, ignoring this recommendation has set the league back by a decade. Steven Lowy, his son who succeeded at the FFA, wasn’t torpedoed from the job like Hadley claims, instead he resigned when it became clear that the clubs would take control of the A-league in 2018.

Johnston held strong in his belief that this violence had nothing to do with an ethnic influence, a view supported currently by New South Wales police. Hadley however won’t be able to see that, as he has already decided that the changes to the Club Identity Policy are to blame. It is easier to blame the ethnic narrative that has been presented by those in the media for decades. As Johnson pointed out in an interview with Stephen Cenatiempo on 2CC, there are no ethnic tensions between Macedonia and Croatia. The brawl that occurred was caused by anti-social behaviour by a small minority of fans, rather than any greater ethnic issue. Hadley would like to blame the ethnicity of the clubs instead of recognising the issues that are present within all codes of the game, including his own rugby league.

Multiculturalism is a strength of Australian football. It is part of the identity of the game, allowing us to speak a common language and unite us through the love of the sport. When media personalities regurgitate talking points that are reminiscent of xenophobia, we should defend the game as the uniting force between different cultures it represents. The brawl at the Sydney United vs Rockdale Ilinden FC wasn’t the work of some race war between Macedonians and Croatians, but instead the work of a small minority of attendees who partake in anti-social behaviour at the disadvantage of the clubs and their fans.

The easily debunked arguments made by Hadley are nothing new to those storied to the history of the game in Australia. They are a damaging force that attempts to separate us on our differences, instead of uniting through our passion and love for the game that we share.

Does the A-League need a Big Bash style experiment?

The fans roar as the fireworks explode – with music blasting a Mexican wave engulfs the stadium. Cricket Australia’s Big Bash League (BBL) has succeeded in attracting families to their sport, which is something that the A-League could look to replicate.

The A-League could learn from both the failures and successes of the Big Bash League to rejuvenate football in Australia, with a BBL style concept to attract consumers and fans to the A-League in a unique manner.

However, an approach into a BBL style experiment would have to be taken carefully as there is a fine line between creating a product that is viewed as a serious competition and creating a product that is looked down upon such as AFLX.

The BBL’s peak was on January 2, in 2016 when 80,883 fans packed into the MCG to watch a match between the Melbourne Stars and the Melbourne Renegades.

While the Big Bash has been in a supposed decline in popularity since, the league has still been able to produce some large attendances.

54,478 people attended a Melbourne Derby on January 4 earlier this year – the third highest crowd for a BBL game in the league’s history.

Meanwhile the A-League’s highest crowd before COVID-19 interrupted the 2019/20 season was 33,523 people at October’s draw between Melbourne Victory and Melbourne City.

Cricket Australia’s success with the BBL came from creating an experience geared towards families and children – with pump up music, fireworks and flamethrowers that were suited to T20 cricket with its high scoring, exciting and shorter format.

Former Liverpool star Craig Johnston has suggested an idea of what an A-League version of the BBL would look like.

“Four quarters, 15 minutes each, rotating substitutes, sin bins, all the things you’re not allowed to do in soccer,” he told The Daily Football Show in 2019.

“So effectively in midfield, you could take a touch, get past a player and you could shoot for goal. Then the goalkeeper’s either saving that shot or it’s a goal.”

“We’re utilising the same players but we’re taking out their midfield and we’re giving the players and the consumers four times more of what they want in the quarter of the time.”

Johnston believes that a Big Bash style format should be adapted by Australian football with A-League teams.

“The big idea is the Big Bash of soccer, but then the kids copy it at their training grounds,” he said.

“It is professional six-a-side with A-League teams. The A-League teams split in half, red versus blue, they play against each other.”

“The Big Bash and the One Day series is the best thing that ever happened to cricket in terms of engaging young minds and future minds.”

If the A-League was to try BBL style product it would need to make sure the best players are available – a weakness of the Big Bash has been that some of the biggest names in Australian cricket do not play regularly in the competition as the league clashes with international fixtures.

An A-League Big Bash competition would also be taken more seriously if the best players were playing regularly.

Perhaps the naming rights sponsor of the competition could provide a cash prize to the winning club, to entice clubs to field their best players.

One lesson that the A-League could learn from the Big Bash is that it has been made too long, something that even stars of the competition like Glen Maxwell have admitted.

“I think the length of the tournament when it was 10 games, I think we all really enjoyed that. I think it was the perfect amount,” Maxwell told SEN in early 2020.

“I just think 14 games is just a little bit much. It just makes for a very long tournament and probably goes for a touch too long.

“With school starting again it makes it a bit more difficult to keep the interest levels going until the end (of the season).”

The Big Bash was at its best when there was a limited number of games played predominantly in the school holidays.

If each A-League team played each other once in a new competition it could have an 11 game season plus a short finals series.

Ideally the A-League Big Bash concept would need to have as many games broadcast on free-to-air as possible – in order to easily accessible to fans.

There seems to be a lack of momentum coming into the 2020/21 A-League season, which is just under a week away. An Australian football version of the BBL could potentially be played as a lead in tournament to the A-League season, bringing attention and hype to the beginning of the competition.

The FFA Cup should be renamed the Australia Cup in a nod to the game’s history

This past Wednesday, Football Federation Australia held its seventeenth Annual General Meeting.

One of the agenda items included a proposal which would change the governing body’s name from ‘Football Federation Australia’ to ‘Football Australia’.

FFA’s members unanimously approved the proposal and will go ahead with the plan to change its company name to ‘Football Australia’.

“Today we took another significant step on this new journey we have embarked upon when the FFA Congress unanimously resolved to change the organisation’s name from Football Federation Australia to ‘Football Australia’,” FFA CEO James Johnson said on Wednesday.

“This new name – which we will transition to over the coming months – signifies a fresh and exciting start for the game under the new strategic agenda, and a return to the roots of football in Australia.”

“I firmly believe that the opportunity for further change and positive transformation in Australian football burns brighter than ever, and with the foundations that we have set in 2020 there is much to be optimistic about,” he concluded.

What exact specifics Johnson is talking about when he refers to returning to the roots of the game in Australia is unclear, however one of the organisation’s touted changes is to re-brand the FFA Cup to the Australia Cup.

It’s a move that does make sense, as the governing body moves itself and its assets away from the “FFA” moniker.

Johnson told the SMH: “We’ll be announcing in the coming weeks a revamped FFA Cup – of course, the name change will be a part of that thinking.”

“But it will go a lot broader than just the name change … we’re looking at a different format which will be more open, a format that would allow more opportunities for clubs across the country to participate in national-level competitions.”

Putting aside possible tweaks in the format of the competition, if the change in name of the tournament does go ahead, it would be the right move.

FFA Chairman Chris Nikou inspecting the original Australia Cup. Credit: FOX SPORTS

The Australia Cup was the country’s first nationwide knockout football competition, beginning in 1962.

Yugal defeated St George Budapest 8-1 at Sydney’s Wentworth Park in the competition’s inaugural final.

Four-time NSL champions Sydney Hakoah were the only team to win the Australia Cup on two occasions.

Other winners of the tournament included George Cross, APIA Leichardt and Port Melbourne Slavia.

The cup ran until 1968, with administrators deciding the competition would be abolished due to various difficulties including interstate travel problems.

Since the cup competition was a national event, it did open up the doors for the idea of a long-term National Soccer League, which was ultimately introduced nine years later in 1977.

This is just a snippet of the game’s rich history and the return of the Australia Cup in modern day would celebrate and recognise the days of old.

It would be in unique contrast to some of the previous administrators of the game who have treated Australian football’s past with the utmost contempt.

In what could be seen as an extremely symbolic event of the way Australian football has ignored its history, the Australia Cup trophy was found in a rubbish bin in 2011 by builders who were carrying out renovations at the Hakoah Club.

Embarrassing events like this may have given James Johnson and his administration team the impetus to address these failures, with resources such as the ‘XI Principles’ document, drafted earlier this year, acting as a catalyst.

One of the principles, titled “Reset the narrative of Australian football”, has the following point as a proposed measure of change.

“Create a narrative which is contemporary, genuine, and acknowledges Australian football’s multicultural origins, its rich history and diverse football community today. It must foster unity, be football-focused and capitalise on football’s global nature for the benefit of the Australian game.”

The appropriate acknowledgment of the Australia Cup as the name of the country’s knockout cup competition, will be a small step in respecting the broader history of Australian football.

Fixing Australia’s youth development starts with revamping the Y-League

A lack of consistent talent-production has cast the spotlight over Australia’s youth pathways in recent years, a topic that has generated robust discussion in football circles.

With many in the industry calling for change, it was a welcome sight when in July, Football Federation Australia (FFA) released its ‘XI Principles’ discussion paper. The document was generally well-received and among the key issues James Johnson and his team addressed was the requirement for a systematic revamp of Australia’s youth system.

According to principle five, FFA will seek to ‘Create a world class environment for youth development / production by increasing match minutes for youth players and streamlining the player pathway.’

Reinvigorating Australia’s youth football pathways will require a long-term, systematic approach to be successful but one thing is certain – young players simply need more competitive minutes.

And that starts by revamping the Y-League. As it stands, 10 clubs make up Australia’s national developmental and under-23 reserve league, forming two conferences.

In principle, the league fits a purpose, but in practice the system is not providing anywhere near enough high-level football for youngsters, certainly not since structural changes were made that hamstring the progress of Australia’s youth prospects..

Gary van Egmond was appointed Young Socceroos manager after the team failed to qualify for three consecutive Under-20 World Cups.

The 2015-16 season saw a new format introduced whereby the Y-League’s regular season was reduced from 18 games per team to a meagre eight (with potential for nine including a grand final).

Part of this reduction in games was due to budget cuts, another part due to FFA’s desire for players to use the NPL system as a developmental tool. On paper this seemed reasonable, but it has proved counterproductive, as talented youngsters are often torn between multiple commitments, causing a severe lack of continuity.

Although A-League clubs can enter their academy teams into their respective state’s NPL competition, elite players are playing a mixture of Y-League, NPL and the A-League games, the latter usually in a substitute or benchwarmer capacity.

This lack of consistency is creating a massive void in player development during what are some of their most critical years.

Earlier this year, Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) published an extensive report reviewing the national youth competition through historical analysis and player surveys. In an interview with pfa.com.au regarding the report, Guinean born Australian youth-level star John Roberts had the following to say.

“The Y-League is only eight games, and sometimes you don’t play eight, maybe it’s just four or five because you’re trialling with the first team or you’re the 17th or 18th man and you don’t get to play. In my opinion, for young players I think the youth league needs to go to a full season because I just think it will benefit us young players, it will give us more opportunity when we’re not playing.”

“But after the youth league finishes, you have to wait a while and then play NPL1 or NPL2 or just wait for your opportunity in the A-League.”

“You have to play regularly in higher competitions. If you’re playing NPL1 or NPL2 and you get called up into the A-League, the intensity of the game is too different because you’re not used to that and you don’t play in a high enough competition.”

The full interview with Roberts can be found here.

Striker John Roberts spoke about the limitations of the Y-League.

Among the notable results published in the report were that 90% of players believe the Y-League season should be extended and that only 20% of players who have graduated from the Y-League over the past five years went on to make an A-League appearance.

The findings led PFA Chief Executive John Didulica to state “In its current format the Y-League does not meet the needs of the players, A-League clubs or Australian football.”

The lack of youth production has predictably influenced the national setup, with Australia’s Under-20 team failing to qualify for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup for a record third consecutive time.

With the Y-League’s structural changes in 2016 clearly not having their intended impacts and FFA’s 2017 closure of the AIS, changes need to be made.

The solution may simply involve favouring the decentralized, academy-first approach which FFA has created but designing an environment which complements it. Something akin to the National Youth League of 1981-2004.

Extending the Y-League to run parallel to the A-League as a genuine reserve grade competition would allow players to fully commit to their academy side. This would mean ample minutes, plus a guarantee of continuity that does not currently exist for players who are forced to rebound between Y-League, NPL and occasionally A-League clubs.

While in theory this could harm NPL teams if their talented youngsters are poached by academies, it could create a perfect opportunity for FFA to implement new rules and regulations surrounding player transfers and compensation that would form part of an improved transfer system.

This is something the federation has stated it wishes to achieve through principle number three, in which FFA states in intention ‘To establish an integrated and thriving football ecosystem driven by a modern domestic transfer system’.

Designing a formal compensation system to parallel a legitimate under-23’s full season competition would kill two birds with one stone, rewarding grassroots clubs for producing talent while giving young players the consistent exposure to competitive football

There are undoubtedly factors, mainly commercial, which would dictate the validity of these ideas, but the game’s top administrators do need to act, or Australia will face the risk of losing its next generation and fading from international football relevance.

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