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Heidelberg United: An infrastructure for the future

With Australia’s ‘Golden Generation’ long retired and a lack of stars emerging to take their place, the debate around the nation’s footballing infrastructure has reached fever pitch. Although many blame a lack of investment, some clubs are managing to secure funding to support the development of the next generation and at a state level, few are doing it on the scale of Heidelberg United FC.

The ‘Bergers’ have enjoyed a period of sustained success, topping Victoria’s NPL for three consecutive seasons and lifted the trophy in 2018. Now, Heidelberg’s on-field ambitions are finally being matched off the park, with a multimillion-dollar redevelopment of its Olympic Park precinct.

“One thing Heidelberg has lacked for a while is state-of-the-art, modern facilities. But now, thanks to investment and government assistance we are working towards creating that,” says Steven Tsalikidis, President of Heidelberg United FC.

Olympic Park was built to accommodate athletes competing at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. The ground has hosted many notable events throughout its existence, most recently in 2015 when 11,372 people – the second largest FFA Cup crowd in history – flocked to see Heidelberg’s semi-final clash against Melbourne City.

But despite the stadium’s rich history and the team’s roaring success, the 64-year old complex was approaching a state of decay.

This led Heidelberg United’s board to work alongside the Banyule City Council to form the Olympic Park Master Plan, a four-step proposal designed to reinvigorate the precinct and establish Olympic Park as the premiere sports hub in Melbourne’s North-East. The plan fits FFV’s State Football Facilities Strategy to increase the quantity and quality of pitches across the state.

“We handed the ground over late last year so we could start the facility upgrade. Stage one was reconstructing the main pitch which includes four new LED light tower that are suitable for even A-League standards,” Tsalikidis says.

“We wanted to create facilities that allow us to potentially host A-League games. Also, in preparation for the B-League, if that ever comes about, we want to be in a position where we can be ready to compete from the get-go.”

Fundraising for the redevelopment includes a $2 million injection from the Andrews-led state government and $3.1 million from Banyule City Council.

While additional funding is required to complete the later stages of the plan, the government’s willingness to invest should strongly encourage football fans and those in the industry, many who have grown frustrated over recent years.

The frustration peaked in 2017 when Football Federation Australia closed its AIS Centre of Excellence Program, a pathway which famously produced many of Australia’s footballing icons. The program ultimately fell victim to funding cuts, running costs, and the desire to decentralise the youth development process through the growing influence of A-League Academies.

Since then, influential figures in Australian football have been outspoken on the issue, demanding more investment into the sport to aid the future of the sport. Only months ago Graham Arnold called on Scott Morrison and the Australian Sports Commission to step in, while last year former CEO of the FFA David Gallop stated that local clubs were capping numbers as there simply weren’t enough pitches to facilitate growing participation in the sport.

The growth Gallop referenced was quantified by official surveys. A recent AusPlay study revealed the world game had more than 1.76 million active participants in 2019 – officially making it the most popular organised sport in Australia.

With Australia’s youth increasingly turning to football, it is important for clubs at all levels to follow Heidelberg’s persistence and dedication to seek investment, particularly to help develop the next generation.

Creating more pitches gives more children the opportunity to play, raising the level of youth competition and cultivating more interest in the game. Furthermore, higher quality pitches and general facilities lead to a better standard of football. This is important as it can assist to create a long-term cycle where the overall standard of football improves, attracting more viewership, interest, and sponsorship for the sport.

The latter stages of the Olympic Park Master Plan comprise of proposals to feed this cycle. Stages three and four involve the construction of two additional high-grade soccer pitches to be furnished with drainage, irrigation, fencing and lighting as well futsal courts, cricket nets, basketball courts, and more. All of these improvements will filter down to the lower levels, encouraging participation and enriching the grassroots of the game.

While the club and council work together to raise funding for the final stages of the plan, talks that Victoria’s NPL may recommence shortly are beginning to gather momentum. After three consecutive top place finishes Heidelberg United is in a strong position on-the-pitch and nothing would please the club’s fans and personnel more than to celebrate the opening of their new stadium with another title charge.

No overnight success: The slow transformation of women’s football in Australia

While the jury is still out on Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson following the performances in the two-game friendly series against reigning World Cup champions, the United States, there’s one thing for certain – women’s football has never been more popular.

A total of 56,604 people turned out to the two games against the US in Sydney and Newcastle, including a record-breaking 36,109 at Stadium Australia on November 27.

A further 457,000 people tuned into the game on Channel 10’s free-to-air coverage, highlighting the incredible rise in accessibility for Australia’s flagship national football teams to the mainstream audience.

With a Women’s World Cup on the ever-approaching horizon, the outlook for women’s football has rarely looked better.

However, the so-called overnight success of women’s football has been 50 years in the making.

And for some of the pioneers who helped champion the game’s cause in the face of countless doubters, the delight of seeing the women’s game reach the incredible heights of recent years leaves many thinking, where would we be if women’s football had been backed since day dot?

It’s a question that long-time football administrator Maggie Koumi has, who currently sits on Football Victoria’s Historical Committee and Women’s Committee. She was also recently featured in the Fair Play Publishing title, Dedicated Lives – Stories of Pioneers of Women’s Football in Australia by Greg Downes.

“If people had believed in us at the start, it could have been 50,000 people per game this time,” Koumi told Soccerscene, reflecting on her earlier days in the sport.

“But it is what it is. We can’t worry too much about the past now, although I do feel for the friends of mine, the former Matildas, who had to go through a hard slog and used to have to ry and pay their way to play.

“The good thing is that we’ve come a long way since then, and the difference between what my friends had and what the Matildas get now is amazing.”

In a mark of just how quickly the women’s game has propelled forward, it was not even 25 years ago that women’s football in Victoria was administered completely, and separately from the rest of the game.

Koumi, who played a key role in the amalgamation of the Victorian Women’s Soccer Association and the Victorian Soccer Federation in the late 1990s, explained that when change did eventually come for the women’s game, it came quickly.

However, it was a long, hard slog before those changes took place.

“For a long time, I think we were just a pain in the ass to most people in the game,” she said.

“We were just sort of tacked on without any real support. There was no money for the women’s game and no one seemed to care about it. There was just an assumption that no one was interested in it and that attitude pretty much floated around football in Victoria.

“For the most part, they just made women’s football mirror the men’s game and was really hard to get people to understand that that approach didn’t work. Trying to get people to understand that you can’t just mirror whatever the men do, because the women don’t have the resources that the men do was always very challenging.”

Koumi believes changes at the top of the game – in particular at Football Australia and Football Victoria – as well as the findings of the Crawford Report, were massive institutional changes that helped set the scene for the gigantic strides forward taken in such a short space of time.

“Football Australia started to take note of the women’s game and they had people come and talk to the different federations to try and start the conversation around changing things in football,” Koumi said.

“The changes to the Football Victoria constitution [in 2006, when FV was known as the Victorian Soccer Federation], was another big catalyst.

“It changed the voting system allowing clubs to vote for zone reps and the zone reps would vote for the board and from there the face of Football Victoria changed a lot.”

The groundswell of young girls looking to play the game opened the eyes of many grassroots clubs to better.

“Brighton Junior soccer club was one of the really, really big clubs that managed to get lots and lots of people playing good a great promotion on women’s football and it all started to change,” Koumi added.

“The numbers crept up and the club’s suddenly realised that they can have a whole stack of girls playing and increase their membership and revenue, which helped.

“It didn’t necessarily change the attitude towards women’s football, but at least we started to get some serious numbers of girls playing football.”

Further efforts to provide access to education at clubs about how to run a successful women’s program – as well as greater funding for high-performances teams in women’s football – further propelled the trajectory of women’s football in Australia as a new generation of brilliant women’s footballers emerged and helped the Matildas to become a genuine force in the game.

Of course, there is still work to be done.

Koumi argues greater media recognition of women’s football, a more professional A-League Women competition and a further improvement of attitude and embracement of women’s football at grassroots clubs are crucial to the ongoing success and improvement of the game in Australia.

“A lot of clubs still do things like putting their women’s team on the back paddock while junior boys are playing on the main pitch, so there’s still work to do,” she said.

“That attitude is changing, but in some places, it still exists.

“The World Cup coming to Australia is great and I think it’s a fantastic opportunity to promote women’s football and improve the facilities we have.

“We produce good players but they have to go overseas to prove themselves or to play with the best and improve and I’d like to see that be able to happen here one day.”

You can read more about Koumi’s journey and experiences in Australian football – and those of 17 other people who pioneered the women’s game in this country – in the new book titled Dedicated Lives – Stories of Pioneers of Women’s Football in Australia.

Football Coaches Australia presents ‘The Football Coaching Life Podcast’ S3 Ep 4 with Gary Cole interviewing Belinda Wilson

Gary Cole

Belinda Wilson began her football journey in Byron Bay on the far north coast of NSW. She is currently enjoying autumn in Zurich, Switzerland where she is the Senior Technical Development Manager, Women’s Football with FIFA. A remarkable achievement for a young Australian Coach and Administrator.

After falling in love with the game on a family holiday to the UK, Belinda returned to Byron Bay unable to play as she was a girl. At the time there were no girls’ competitions and girls weren’t allowed to play with boys. She was eventually allowed to play as a twelve-year-old in the senior women’s team.

Her coaching journey began as a teenager coaching her younger brothers’ team from U6 through to U13’s. Her talent saw her be rewarded as coach of FFNC U14 girls’ representative team.

Belinda has worked as the Coach Education Manager for AFC, been in fulltime club roles in Sweden and Denmark. She returned to Australia to work with FNSW, NSWIS and Head Coach of the Australian U17 team, also winning a Premiership with Brisbane Roar in 2013.

She was appointed as Head Coach of the Guam Women’s National Team and National Technical Director in 2017 and has also been on the FIFA Technical Panel for World Cups in 2007 and 2011 and the 2008 Olympic Games.

Belinda’s ‘One Piece of Wisdom’ was: “Don’t be afraid to take a risk. Go out there and challenge yourself to see who you are as a person but also as a coach. Take the opportunities and take a risk, the worst that can happen is you end up where you started, and sometimes that’s not a bad place to be.”

Please join us in sharing Belinda Wilson’s Football Coaching Life.

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