Is grassroots soccer more important than the elite level?

It’s easy to live in the present, to enjoy the moment, the times that you live in. It’s even easier to keep your concentration solely on your priorities in the present. 

But what the great businesses and organisations do differently is what sets them apart from everyone else. Their ability to adapt and look forward to the future, to those who will define their business/organisation when they’re long gone. 

In the case of soccer clubs and the FFA, to keep a sustained and vested interest in grassroots is what is going to hold them in good stead in the next 20-30 years. Planning for the long term, strategically, is critical to the success of anything. 

And it all starts at that level, grassroots. Junior soccer participation numbers are at optimum levels and soccer, as a sport, has never been more popular. The A-League, for all its divisiveness, has grown exponentially and has begun attracting attention from across the world. The NPL, the second division of Australian soccer, has grown in recent years and has risen from the ashes of the NSL. 

Combine this with the fact that the Socceroos haven’t missed a World Cup since 2006, Australian soccer is in a perfect position to capitalise on youth. To motivate them to want to play soccer in the future. To try and turn Australia into a soccer powerhouse. 

It all begins at the grassroots level. Why? First impressions. It’s always about the first impressions, especially with children. The soccer ability of children needs to be nurtured at a young age, in a way that helps develop them as a player, but more importantly as a person. If done successfully and in a way that doesn’t demotivate them, the sky is the limit. 

Take for example, Paris-Saint Germain wonderkid Kylian Mbappe. At 19 years old, he won the FIFA World Cup with France, had played Champions League football, became one of the world’s most expensive players and had comparisons to the great Thierry Henry. How many 19 year old boys can say that they had a net worth of seven plus figures at the same age?  

I certainly can’t say that. And I’m 367 days older than Kylian. But what most likely differentiates him from everyone else is that he had the talent as a junior. That talent was then nurtured correctly, allowing him to unlock his potential as a soccer player. His career would be nothing without the hard work he puts in, obviously. But at a young age, his ability was recognised and then allowed the blossom under the guidance of the right people. 

And sure, meeting Thierry Henry at a young age would’ve motived him to no end. It would motivate anyone, really. But all that motivation would culminate in him understanding how hard he needed to work to get to the top. Nothing comes without hard work, that’s a fact. But through his upbringing, coaching and talent, he has been able to do what very few can. 

On the flip side of all that, we have those who had the talent, but not the work ethic. Casual fans refer to these players as ‘flops’. It’s a very harsh word to use, but they’re on the right track. 

Take Ravel Morrison. I’m sure Manchester United fans know this name all too well. Once described by Rio Ferdinand and Sir Alex Ferguson as the next big thing, Morrison always had the talent. Plus, playing for Manchester United and under Ferguson would’ve been the dream for a young player wanting to make a name for themselves. 

But Morrison, as the soccer world has come to know, didn’t have the desire to work hard. Loaned out more times than we could count, sold off to different clubs, Morrison saw his career go from hero to zero. 

After being sent out on loan by Italian club Lazio to Mexican club Atlas, Morrison decided to permanently move closer to home, signing a contract with Swedish club Ostersunds. But to say it’s a huge fall from grace would be the understatement of the year. And it’s barely March. 

Morrison could’ve been anything. An England great, a United great, a Champions League winner. He had the soccer world at his feet. But he lacked the one thing he needed most to attain all those accolades. 

The desire to work hard. 

And here we are. He’s 26, supposed to be in the prime of his career. Yet, he couldn’t be further from it. And for how much people will say he’s the definition of a ‘flop’, it’s actually quite sad. He would’ve had dreams, wanting to be the next superstar, just like any other young star. But it hasn’t come to fruition. He still has time to turn it around, but we’ve been saying it for so long now, it’s almost like beating a dead horse. One can hope. 

But he does show one thing, if nothing else. The grassroots level is critical to the development of soccer players, mentally and physically. If a player has the talent, it needs to be nurtured. If nurtured properly, it becomes a case of wanting to do the hard yards all day, every day. Some will turn out to be Mbappes, some will turn out to be Morrisons.  

But everything has a beginning. And the beginning is the most integral part of the entire process. 

Staff Writer
Soccerscene is committed to promoting, enhancing and growing the soccer industry in Australia. We believe soccer news has captured the attention of grassroots soccer clubs, apparel and equipment suppliers – which extends to governing bodies, club administrators and industry decision makers. Many of the auxiliary products and services support the growth of the soccer industry in Australia and Asia, a passion we also share and want to express through our work.

FA Wales takes action with Facility & Investment Vision

The Football Association of Wales (FAW), in collaboration with the Cymru Football Foundation (CFF), released the Facility and Investment Vision to improve the national football experience.

In a report published on its website, FAW and the CFF provide a detailed, statistical overview of Wales’ current football facilities, demonstrating the need for more investment, and the positive impact this could have on Welsh communities.

Football is the largest participation team sport in Wales, reporting over 87,000 active players across 811 registered clubs.

Moreover, football participation is a huge driver within the Welsh economy. FAW reports that the current overall return from football participation is over £550 million ($1.07 billion AUD), split across social, economic, and health sectors.

The association believes that further investment into the sport will generate an additional £1 million ($1.9 million AUD).

At the elite level, the Welsh men’s national team has progressed significantly in the last 10 years, performing well in the past two European Championships, and qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 1958.

These achievements place a microscope on how the association maintains this success, but more importantly, how it can elevate pathways for juniors and women’s football.

The current situation

The statistics regarding current facilities in the FAW’s report illustrate a dire situation for Welsh football.

Pitch demand continually exceeds supply in Wales with a reported average number of five teams sharing one pitch, despite 60% of clubs advising a need for at least two pitches to operate effectively.

Pitch overuse explains why just 21% of Welsh football pitches are reported to be in “good” condition, whilst 1 in 5 games are cancelled due to wet weather and localised flooding. FAW believes these figures will increase if action is not taken now.

The delivery of artificial surfaces in the United Kingdom is the primary solution to combatting natural elements, yet, 54% of participants in a Welsh national survey state that access to those pitches is difficult.

Off the pitch, changerooms facilities are subject to similar negative feedback, with only 23% of participants saying their changerooms are in “good” condition.

This feedback takes on greater significance given the increased popularity of women’s football, and the subsequent need for more female-friendly changerooms.

A combination of poor pitch quality and changeroom facilities reduces an individual’s enjoyment in football, and this threatens participation and sustainability at all levels of the game.

Addressing the current situation

The purpose of the Facility and Investment Vision report is to show investors exactly what is required for football in Wales to move forward.

In particular, FAW has created a club model that uses the size of football clubs to determine the quantity of facilities required for them to run effectively.

To use an Australian comparison, an NPL club like Sydney Olympic would be considered large because it has over 20 teams at senior and junior level. Whereas a community club, that competes at amateur level (e.g Melbourne State Leagues), would be considered small.

 

The club model plan represents a smart and effective way to show potential investors what they can do for Welsh football.

 

Regarding current investment, the CFF has contributed over £9 million ($17.4 million AUD) as part of its mission to strengthen Welsh communities through football.

It is succeeding in its mission, with 98% of people reporting an improved experience when using facilities supported by the CFF.

FAW wants to improve its relationships with county councils and schools so that action plans can be drawn. This will help secure investment for better football facilities and smoother community access.

Objectives for the facilities vision

The overarching objective for FAW and CFF is to deliver a wider range of high-quality football facilities that stakeholders can access year-round.

The economic impact of future investment has been mentioned here already, but environmental sustainability is also at the forefront of the organisation’s plans.

FAW recognises the importance of future-proofing facilities to avoid early re-construction, thereby reducing its carbon footprint.

From an elite pathway perspective, FAW wants to build world-leading facilities to better support future generations of international players and coaches.

This goes beyond the provision of high-quality pitches and changerooms, with FAW insisting that technology, media, and commercial sectors must be improved.

FAW Chief Executive Noel Mooney explained the honest appraisal of football facilities in Wales is motivation for delivering a high-quality football experience.

“We know that facilities in Wales are not where they need to be, and this vision gives us a clear plan to bring facilities across Wales at all levels into the present day,” he told the FAW website.

Mooney elaborated further on the yearly target figure for investment, set by FAW and the CFF.

“We want to be able to invest at least £10 million a year into improving facilities in communities across Wales to bring them up to standard. This investment will continue to support the work that the Cymru Football Foundation is already doing and allow us to grow football in Wales on and off the pitch.

The Facility and Investment Vision demonstrates a commitment to Welsh football stakeholders by FAW and the CFF, and signifies an important moment in the future development of football in the country.

Regional stakeholders deliver their feedback in Football Victoria’s Regional Review

Football Victoria (FV) released their Regional Football Review, aimed at giving regional football stakeholders the platform to voice their feedback about the delivery of football in their local community.

FV’s overarching aim for the review is to assess the current health of regional football, and determine its future influence in areas of the regional game, such as governance, participation, infrastructure, and pathways.

These sporting communities battle a unique set of challenges to operate sustainably, but the ultimate goal for FV – like any governing sports body – is to bridge gaps between regional and metropolitan areas.

412 participants took part in the report, including parents, coaches, players and association members (paid and voluntary). In addition, 24 in-depth interviews took place with “key identified” stakeholders.

FV sought the assistance of consultancy company Solucio to independently facilitate the review.

Governance and Administration

Regional Victoria’s football landscape includes 12 associations and leagues, and 130 clubs. Some of these clubs do compete in metropolitan competitions run by FV, but remain based in regional locations.

The governance of most regional associations follow a club representative model, which the report describes as “not in line with current best industry practice,” and leads to inconsistencies in football delivery.

The model is favoured because of the primitive nature of clubs within regional associations, and the assistance associations can guarantee from club members.

However, stakeholders believe that areas such as competition management and future project planning suffer as clubs place their own interests ahead of others.

Administration is also considered a problem area, with paid staff members at regional associations stating that a lack of additional support from volunteers increases their workload into overtime.

When volunteers were surveyed about the health of regional football, 25% of them believed the game to be in ‘very poor’ health.

Yet, over 50% of team managers, association board members and staff, and club committee members say the game is in a ‘fair’ or ‘very good’ state.

A lack of strategic planning, and clear assignment of roles between paid staff and volunteers, is likely causing this disconnect between regional football stakeholders.

Contradictory though it may seem, stakeholders continue to support the club representative model.

Participation and Infrastructure

Participation in regional football is slowly growing again, returning closer to levels of growth prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

A reduced player registration fee for regional areas helps this growth, though, FV asserts that a levelling of regional player registration fees with metropolitan rates would create an extra $1.36 million in revenue.

This could be spent on improvements to the regional game, but a rise in registration fees is not in the best interests of growing football in regional communities.

Regarding female participation in football, there was negative but constructive feedback from stakeholders. Regional associations believe there is a lack of funding and resources to help them lead programs built for growing female participation.

FV is in the midst of its ambitious ‘FootballHerWay’ plan that aims to achieve 50/50 gender participation by 2027. Therefore, it makes sense for the organisation to consider more involvement in the delivery of female football programs to regional areas.

Regional school participation represents an area for improvement for FV, admitting in the report that the Australian Rules model (Auskick) is outperforming its efforts in terms of clinics and programs.

Recent investment in up-to-date football infrastructure, though, has been well-received, with most stakeholders considering future developments in infrastructure to be of less importance, despite the high satisfaction it provides communities.

The report acknowledges, though, that a gap exists between clubs and associations that have received upgrades, and those who have not.

According to regional NPL clubs, this gap is illuminated when visiting the facilities of metro NPL clubs.

Coaches

Coaches represent the most disgruntled stakeholder demographic, with 43% of those interviewed believing the health of regional football to be ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

There was negative feedback about pathways for coaches – particularly first-timers – who either do not have the capacity to attend accreditation courses, or are unmotivated to attain their licenses.

Some participants believe the approach to coach education is too metro-centric, citing additional expenses such as travel, food, and accommodation, just to attend a coaching accreditation course.

A wider problem exists in the marketing and promotion of coaching courses, with many regional associations lamenting the fact that courses are often cancelled due to small numbers.

One stakeholder floated a recommendation to subsidise Melbourne-based coaches to partake in regional-based courses to improve numbers.

This issue transcends into school participation, where stakeholders believe opportunities to grow participation are being neglected.

There is an over-reliance on unqualified parents or teachers passionate about the game to pioneer clinics or programs, and whilst participation is higher when this occurs, it is not sustainable in the long-term.

Players

A lack of motivated or accredited coaches inevitably impacts the morale of players, and this trend is consistent with the review’s findings, where 39% of players consider the health of regional football to be poor or very poor.

The pathway to elite football for junior players in regional areas, which is well-documented as being an all-encompassing, often sacrificial experience, that asks players and parents to spend large amounts of time and money.

Most stakeholders surveyed recognise the provision of elite-level football education within their communities as a key area for improvement. This helps to keep players grounded, and less susceptible to burnout at younger ages.

Further to this, Football Australia’s recent unveiling of the National Talent Development Scheme (NTDS) should provide a more level-playing field for players in regional areas to access elite pathways.

Again, better conditions and resources for coaches is recommended to help regional players. Some stakeholders recommend the provision of more metro-based coaches to deliver training to players in regional areas.

For senior players, there is a greater level of satisfaction among regional NPL clubs based closer to Melbourne than those playing in regional competitions.

Short season length (due to a small number of clubs) for regional competitions is cited as an issue in the review, which is likely to dissatisfy players.

Stakeholders suggest alternative competitions could be organised to lengthen the season and further engagement, but this could exasperate association staff members and volunteers.

Referees

Referees are a more satisfied demographic than players and coaches, and this is reflected by an increase in numbers across regional Victoria.

The review acknowledges that whilst this is positive, it stretches association resources for referee development.

Similarly to players and coaches, there is an expectation that more accessible pathways be provided to referees to upskill.

Specifically, existing referees desire more practical education in the form of officiating more metropolitan NPL games. Not only would this improve their ability, it provides more opportunities for mentoring and promotion to the elite.

Beyond the Review

The qualitative feedback provided by participants will be considered for FV’s regional football plan from 2025 onwards. Head of Growth & Development at FV, Lachlan Cole, reflected further on this.

“The engagement and contributions from Regional Victorians have been invaluable in putting the needs of Regional Football at the forefront of this project,” he told the FV website.

“The Discussion Paper and Survey Results provide a real snapshot of our current landscape, from several different perspectives, and will guide the formulation of really positive and meaningful recommendations.”

The Regional Football Review’s assessment of the health of football in rural Victoria shines a light on the difficulties regional football faces across the country.

There is a growing desire for better pathways and programs for players, coaches, and referees, as well as a greater provision of resources to maintain the standard of football delivery for the future.

Whether FV as an organisation chooses to involve themselves more in the governance and administration of regional football associations will be a topic for discussion in the near future.

The Regional Football Review Discussion Paper can be viewed in full here.

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