Is the A-League prepared for sportswashing?

With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

This month, Newcastle United became the richest club in world football – due solely to majority ownership by the Saudi Arabian Foreign Wealth Fund. With Premier League clubs being used to rehabilitate reputations for foreign entities, could the same happen in the A-League?

World football has a problem with ‘sportswashing’ – which the Macmillan dictionary defines as “when a corrupt or tyrannical regime uses sport to enhance its reputation” – as exemplified by the purchase of Newcastle United by the investment arm of the Saudi Arabian government.

This same government assassinated journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Turkish consul in 2019, and now they have been allowed to purchase a football club in the world’s most-watched sporting league to rehabilitate their reputation on the world stage.

The World Cup in Qatar might be the biggest sportswashing event of all. The host nation of the 2022 tournament has a horrid reputation with human rights abuse, and over 6,500 migrant workers have died in the country since the World Cup was announced, with the total number likely significantly higher.

Countries like Australia will have no qualms sending their national teams – helping legitimise Qatar on the world stage and sportswashing away the human rights abuse and death toll that the event has created.

Australian football – and the A-League – will face a reckoning with sportswashing in the future, the question is how can it be combated?

Australian football has fought its fights against possibly malicious owners, both domestically and foreign. Clive Palmer and Nathan Tinkler promised the world, but left the Gold Coast without a club – and the Newcastle Jets penniless respectively.

Clive Palmer left Gold Coast United in ruin.

Foreign owners have also done their damage. On January 4, 2021, Martin Lee’s ownership of the Jets was terminated after he failed to inject any money into the club since October 2019, while also failing to pay any of the club’s debts.

ABC’s Four Corners revealed a director – Joko Driyono – for the company that owns the Brisbane Roar with the Bakrie family – was jailed for 18 months for match-fixing Indonesian football matches.

According to Indonesian business records, he remains the president director of Pelita Jaya Cronus, the holding company for Brisbane Roar.

Joko Driyono, director of Brisbane Roar’s holding company, spent 18 months in jail for match-fixing.

Does the ownership model of the A-League create accountability for owners, and do Australia’s corporate regulators do enough to ensure that malicious owners can’t drive clubs into the ground for personal profit or gain?

Take the Martin Lee example. Under the current franchise model of the A-League, he has no personal liability for the debt accrued by his ownership, and faced no repercussions for running the club into the ground before the A-League took back the license.

Former Newcastle Jets owner Martin Lee was forced to hand back the club’s license.

He simply abandoned the club after it was no longer of use to his business interests in Australia, and returned to his home country.

The A-League must avoid this as an example, while also ensuring that promises of rich domestic benefactors are balanced against the likelihood that it could be too good to be true.

The current franchise model does have its advantages, in regards to the Australian Professional Leagues having the power to take back the license of a runaway club like in the case of Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United, or when an owner fails to inject money like Martin Lee.

Currently, the vast majority of NPL clubs are run by a board of directors who are personally liable if funds go missing, or the club goes into severe debt.

Melbourne Victory is the only publicly listed company in the A-League, and that ownership model brings responsibility to shareholders and liability for directors.

Foreign investment at the A-League is at an all-time high, with five of the 12 clubs being either foreign-owned or controlled.

One club, Adelaide United, has its ownership completely hidden from the public. The Australian footballing community currently has no idea who finances the only professional club in South Australia.

A transparent fit and fairness test must be implemented for A-League ownership, one that keeps potential malicious actors away from the game, while protecting fans and clubs.

One way to achieve this would be to ask corporate regulators to take a more hands-on approach with A-League entities during the purchasing of a license.

The downside of this approach would be that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) is capable of auditing companies’ finances, but foreign entities like Martin Lee’s businesses and Pelita Jaya Cronus can easily circumvent scrutiny.

Personal liability for owners and directors would force them to create sustainable businesses. While it might scare away some bad investors, those with good intentions will embrace the concept of a more stable A-League.

Another way to combat sportswashing would be to introduce the truly membership-based model championed by clubs in Germany.

The 50+1 model means that the majority of the club must be owned by local fans of the clubs, and if this was pursued in the A-League it would grant huge protections against owners who don’t act in the best intentions for the club long-term.

The Australian Professional Leagues need to ensure that those who want to invest in Australian football are doing so for the right reasons, instead of purely personal gain.

A true fit and fairness test, one that examines whether the owner is financially, ethically, and morally capable of owning an A-League team (or second division team) with the utmost accountability will be one of the best investment’s the APL can make for Australian football.

Without it, it will be a wild wasteland of Palmers, Tinklers, and Lees for years to come.

AAFC Chairman Nick Galatas: “I’m very gratified the A-Leagues are now supportive of us”

In the five years since their formation in March 2017, the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) have steadily carved out relationships and influence among Australian football’s key stakeholders. Initially derided by some as little more than the latest fanciful uprising looking to pull off the impossible task of implementing a National Second Division in Australia, they’ve progressed to a point where Football Australia CEO James Johnson has publicly acknowledged their consultation in driving towards that very concept. 

Following the February release of their ‘Final Report’ into a NSD, AAFC Chairman Nick Galatas spoke to Soccerscene about the organisation’s relationship with those key stakeholders, the preferred second-tier model of NPL clubs, and their future as a representative body should they achieve their aims. 

We’ve just moved past the fifth anniversary of the AAFC’s formation, and for much of that time your battle has been one of gaining public legitimacy. Football Australia clearly sees you as legitimate, as was evident when CEO James Johnson told ESPN in November that you had been consulted regarding a National Second Division that he said ‘will happen.’ Do you feel the last six months has seen a shift in the broader football community’s opinion of your legitimacy as an organisation?

Nick Galatas: Our original formation was in March 2017, and we moved to an elected board from an interim board that July. Rabieh Krayem was the chairman, and the state directors were all elected. Because there’s been a lot of focus and attention on the NSD element, which is understandable, some of the other things we’ve done and pressed for have been in the background in terms of the public’s perception. For example, we played a major role in the removal of the National Club Identity Policy, which has been implemented by Football Australia. 

What we are is a representative body for NPL clubs, and that’s our primary objective – to give them a voice. NPL clubs came together to form the AAFC precisely because they weren’t taken very seriously, in their view. The next step was to gain legitimacy, a voice, and progressively we’ve done that. 

We did that initially by responding to events out of our control. The first of those was the then-FFA’s congress review, and you might recall FIFA was invited to Australia to review it, which then had the nine member federations and the A-League as the ten members. That was one of our major initial involvements at the back end of 2017.

Since then we’ve responded to a number of events, and there’s been Covid in between. The NPL clubs were not being sufficiently considered, their ambition was perhaps not understood by the governing bodies back when we formed. It’s true that as we have advocated for a number of football issues, including the NSD, NPL reform, representing the clubs in licensing discussions, the Domestic Transfer System, Domestic Match Calendar. We have demonstrated to all governing bodies that we’re a serious organisation and that we legitimately represent the interests of NPL clubs.

That’s where I think we have gained ground. As the issues we’ve advocated for have gained importance, we have also, in responding to them responsibly and effectively, achieved the level of respect and legitimacy that we deserve.

Former Football NSW Chairman Anter Isaac has been employed by Football Australia to liaise with the AAFC and in your words: ‘bring this NSD to life.’ Could you please discuss that relationship and the work being done there?

Nick Galatas: Sports management consultants Klienmann Wang, through Anter, are the appointed resource by Football Australia to assist in bringing the existing FA management team in bringing the NSD to life. Anter’s been engaged by Football Australia to focus on its delivery. I’ve known Anter from those 2017 congress review discussions when he was with Football NSW. We’ve established a good relationship, I think there’s respect both ways. We’ve recently liaised as part of the NSD development process and our relationship is a good one, it’s robust.

What about the AAFC’s relationship with the APL? A-League clubs are theoretically the stakeholders with the most to lose if the NSD was to be implemented, so where does their involvement sit at present?

Nick Galatas: I disagree with the proposition that the A-League clubs have the most to lose, I think they’ve a lot to gain. I think they see it that way as well. Of course, there are many different club owners and I don’t know what each of their individual views are, I haven’t spoken to them all individually. But I have spoken to Danny Townsend, and my relationship with him is a good one. I think he recognises the value of what is being proposed, he supports it, and I don’t think for a moment the A-League has anything to lose, they have a lot to gain.

What’s emerging in the current football landscape is that these very substantial clubs that have existed for decades that we represent, that have survived a lot, are again coming to the forefront. They form a very important part of the football fabric in this country. They’re now being viewed as a potential source of A-League expansion and as the link to bridge the whole of our game, and the gap from top to bottom. I believe as soon as the start of the NSD is announced there will be great impetus for the game as a whole, and the A-League clubs stand to gain an enormous amount from that.

We’re keeping them informed with what we’re doing and with our thinking – we can’t control what they do, nor do we seek to, so in one sense what we do is independent. But in another sense it’s interlinked, and I’m very, very gratified that the A-Leagues are now supportive of us. They’re now engaging with us, and that’s what’s really changed in our relationships with everybody: we now speak to the APL and Football Australia regularly, and that’s a positive. The NSD will not operate in a vacuum, we see it as being an integral part of our football environment. I look forward to engaging with the APL, the PFA and others in developing our thinking and shaping our clubs as the NSD starts and develops.

Have you had any engagement with the PFA? They are one year into their five-year collective bargaining agreement with the APL, so if an NSD was to be functioning next year, is it assumed that you’d need their cooperation in some capacity?

Nick Galatas: It’s clear from our perspective that we can’t see how the commencement of a new competition will be one where players are full time professionals, and we’ve made this known to everyone. Given we haven’t had a NSD and given these NPL clubs have had their ability to perform to their potential restricted by rules outside of their control, it’s a bit much to now ask them to just step up to a professional division.

Our whole approach is to look at what’s achievable through the clubs that will comprise the NSD. We represent the resource for the NSD. We canvassed and researched that resource, assessed its capability and potential, and put it to Football Australia in our report. Stripped down to its essence, it says: ‘this is what you have available, this is what we think you can escalate it to to begin with, and this is the best the clubs can achieve.’ At this stage, that amounts to what is available and required for the competition to be financially stable and viable, and the clubs to be financially sustainable within it.

We’ve said: ‘let’s start as part-time professionals; we don’t expect players to step into a 40-hour a week environment from day one, most of them still have jobs, there needs to be a transition period. Our aim is to put the bones of a competition that is viable and can grow together, and then the players can move into a full-time professional environment as they go along. This is what we’ve told the PFA, and I think they understand and accept that.

We respect the fact that the players are a key part of our game and therefore the NSD, and if you don’t have a good relationship with the players you’ll have all sorts of problems. To that end, we see our relationship with the PFA as complementary, because they represent the players. It would be counterproductive not to; the better the relationship with the PFA, the better for everybody. 

You’ve mentioned the AAFC is no longer campaigning for the benefits of a second-tier, it’s now about advocating the specifics of a particular model. Your final report, released in February, states you favour a national tier with 12-16 clubs, while also considering the merits of a conference-style system, and a ‘Champions League’ model. Could you please discuss why you favour the national tier?

Nick Galatas: Anter Isaac, Klienmann Wang and James Johnson’s new management team will look at these things and potential variations in some detail, and they’ll come to a view with our input and that of others. We’re confident that ultimately, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve been ahead of the curve on this, we can reform the NPL by not having a national second tier comprised of 100+ clubs around the country, but to reform it and make it organic and have a more linear system involving clubs along a spectrum.

There’s loose talk about what certain models might look like or be considered, but I’m not actually aware of any other model having been formally proposed. They’ve not been fleshed out anywhere, so we’ve really adopted an approach that looked at clubs’ capability and asked them ‘where will you thrive best?’ Where we’ve landed, having considered various options, is the model we’ve identified.

Everyone has this knee jerk reaction: ‘Australia is a big place, and it’s not that populous, why don’t we look at a conference model?’ I think that’s in our consciousness because of the United States, and maybe Brazil, but these places are populous with stacks of clubs, and that doesn’t apply to Australia. The US can reasonably have east/west divides in their competitions, but in Australia what would you do? Is it north/south, east/west? We say, you lose more than you gain. You’ll save some travel time and cost if you do that, but you’ll end up splitting Melbourne and Sydney, and that’s where the great revenue driver would be.

So we see that as counterproductive in order to make a small saving. We know travel is a big expense, that’s life, and some of our ambitions of what we can achieve are tempered by that, but we just have to do it differently and sustainably.

Your report states your favoured model ‘provides for football professionalism to be attained, rather than unrealistically imposed’. Have you considered any growth policies to bridge the gap between semi-professional and professional clubs, or is this a matter for the clubs themselves?

Nick Galatas: It won’t be our direct responsibility, as we’re the representative body. But what we’re expecting is clubs not currently operating to capacity due to restrictions placed on them by the NPL will be able to grow to their potential. This, remember, was one of the clubs’ principal frustrations when we came together as the AAFC: some of the smaller clubs struggled with second tier obligations imposed on them, and some of the bigger clubs struggled with restrictions. Each state was slightly different, but there was an NPL structure rolled out across the country that didn’t cater to the specific challenges and realities of different regions properly. It also imposed a purpose on NPL clubs to serve the A-League level clubs, rather than letting them be the best they can be.

We’re saying this competition will be a platform and a home where they can thrive, as opposed to where they are now, not thriving. That’s ultimately what we’re for. There’s been all sorts of silos in this country: ‘You’re an A-League club, you’re an NPL club, a state league club…’. That designates the level of people you attract, fans and sponsorship, administrators, which is limiting instead of enabling.

If you’ve got an ambition and an avenue to realise it you’ll attract different people, you’ll tap different resources, and you’ll grow. As these clubs grow within this competition with national exposure there will be interest in it, and we expect broadcast interest, and that escalates and feeds back on itself. We just want to put the bones in place and encourage and enable it to grow, and if everybody works together for it to grow we’ll have a really good competition from where clubs can bolster the A-League, both by way of expansion initially, and beyond that to replenish the top tier with promotion/relegation.’

The A-Leagues are currently driven by their representative body in the APL. They are operating under a ‘rising tide lifts all ships’ mantra, as seen in the ownership structure of the Newcastle Jets.
The AAFC are shooting for a more organic means of operation, so if the NSD is up and running, do you see the AAFC as still having a role and a guiding hand in proceedings? Or is your ultimate goal to dissolve the body, given the successful implementation of the natural flow of clubs?

Nick Galatas: We are constantly reviewing our function and aims. The clubs established the AAFC as a representative body that wanted to seek a voice, to enable the clubs to better streamline the national second tier so they could all find and operate at their true level. In a sense, our role will evolve, and what it evolves to, I don’t know. But if the clubs gain voting rights within the member federations, which is currently indirect at best, then one might argue we’ve gained a voice at that level, and have been successful.

Secondly, if there’s a NSD and the clubs are in that and they’re represented there, then they’ve got their voice within that environment. So if you address those issues, then what we change into depends on what emerges, and what the new environment is. But we would be a failure if down the track clubs are still wandering about the place saying ‘we want a voice’. So, as we progress and establish a voice for the clubs, we will have genuinely achieved much, so we’d need to genuinely review what the NPL clubs would then want from us, and we’d then see ourselves as evolving over time.

Eastern Lions president Bronson Justus: “The top league has been an eye opener”

The Eastern Lions achieved promotion to the top division of NPL Victoria for the first time in 2020, but this is the first year they’ve truly been able to experience the realities of it.

No one has been more at the forefront of that than president Bronson Justus. Having gone from vice-president to being appointed president in February of 2022, he is at the helm trying to build the club to its full potential – in what remains a trying time.

The Lions are still riding high from winning NPL Victoria 2 East in 2019, but they’ve only managed five wins in their top flight career so far.

Soccerscene sat down with Justus to discuss the growing pains that come with such a rapid rise up the footballing pyramid.

What were the initial challenges in being promoted to the NPL for the first time?

Bronson Justus: It’s been a tumultuous couple of years with COVID. In 2019, we finished as NPL2 champions, got promoted for the 2020 season, then a handful of games and the season shut down. Same thing in 2021. This year is probably the first year that we’ve really been able to see basically where we sit in terms of NPL Victoria (NPL1). The top league has been an eye opener.

The teams that have been there for a long time are well established, and they have some really good structures and some absolutely sensational players as well. But it’s been great for our players, because we’ve kept a good core group of the players we had in 2019. It’s certainly been a step up for them. They’ve certainly risen to the challenge which has been good to see.

Eastern Lions Wins 2019 NPL2 East

What did you need to establish as club president coming in this year?

Bronson Justus: The step up from NPL2 to NPL1 is significant. The policies, the processes, the structures, the organisation that the club needs to have to comply with Football Victoria regulations for NPL1 clubs, it is a big step up for clubs. I wasn’t there in those first couple of years, and I’m not 100% sure if the club was ready for how much of an impact that was going to have.

In 2020, we did have a new president come onboard. He started that process of bringing the club up to that high standard, which is expected in NPL1. There was a lot of work to do. Unfortunately he had to resign at the beginning of this year, and I came in as vice last year. This year, the committee basically said that’s the role of the vice – to step up if the president steps down. I was lucky enough to be given the position.

In terms of what I have been looking at, it’s carrying on a lot of the work the previous president started, and also bringing my background in business and governance to the club. That modernisation of our policies and our processes is important, because there’s a big expectation of volunteers to commit more time. If we expect volunteers to commit more time, we need to be a lot clearer as to what the expectation is, of that time and when we need them.

If you go back a few years, it would be a call-out to say ‘could you turn up on Saturday and give us a hand?’ Whereas now, we basically have a list of tasks that need to be done every day. Whether it’s canteen, ground marshalling, ticket sales, getting the media box ready or preparing the rooms for the visiting teams – there is quite a lengthy list of tasks that need to be done. We just need to make sure we’ve got people ready to go for those tasks that need to be done. The modernisation of what we’ve previously done is just to be organised and structured.

What’s been the focus in a business sense?

Bronson Justus: The other thing that I’ve focused on since coming in is sponsorship as well. There’s a significant cost increase in competing in NPL1. Not only from a competition perspective, but also from a requirement of what is expected from NPL games. Increased security at games, medical staff, the level of coaches that you have for your squad. That all adds cost to the organisation.

Sponsorship is very important to that, and bringing in a bit of a corporate focus to our sponsorship. Making sure our sponsors are getting value for money, making sure there’s good opportunities for engagement with our network. Making sure we have a sustainable relationship. We prefer our sponsors to come on for a number of years – we don’t want people coming in and out, we want to build up relationships with people.

All of those things are important to us and something we focus on heavily because we need to maintain those really strong relationships. We’ve got some great sponsors on board. This year and last we’ve had some new sponsors come on board, and it’s about making sure there’s value to the sponsors when they get involved. We are going for that broader corporate sponsorship.

Does being a club that’s only just come up to the top level affect sponsorship?

Bronson Justus: There’s obviously much greater exposure in NPL1 with the televising of games. That elite level of football within the state attracts a different type of spectator as well. You’ll have spectators that on game day, a good number of people are not necessarily a supporter of either team, but they’ll come to watch a really good standard of football. It’s the increased eyes that you get at NPL1 level for our sponsors that if they do come on board, we give them the absolute best opportunity to get in front of the most eyes as possible.

What are the challenges facing the NPL across the country in 2022?

Having stability has been a challenge. We’ve noticed in our players – and I’m sure other clubs have had that similar experience – that haven’t come off the back of a full season. The last two seasons have both been interrupted, so the fitness of players have been affected by the COVID interruptions. The cost for clubs and the cost for players themselves can be a bit of a challenge.

In NPL1, there is a lot of cost involved in actually just being able to get a team onto the park in terms of not just physical dollars, but the time commitments and resource commitments that are required.

Everyone is busy, and coming out of COVID, the world is getting back to some form of normality. People are having to work twice as hard and have less time to commit to their hobbies and things like that. That challenge is going to be the same for all clubs across the state.

What were the aims of the Gippsland Cup?

Bronson Justus: The Gippsland Cup wasn’t a money-making exercise. It really was a long-term strategy for the club to build a broader support base. The end result of that will be that we’ll be a bigger club and have a wider audience. Ultimately, we would love to see that result in more members and attendances at games.

It was a partnership born between the club and the Gippsland region, and it’s about taking football to the regional communities that ordinarily wouldn’t get to see that level of football being played. Our initial intention certainly is to have an annual event, and Destination Gippsland and Latrobe City Council have been fantastic in supporting that. But we would also like to be able to play one or two home games during the season up in Morwell or the Gippsland area to build up that supporter base.

Gippsland Cup attracts soccer aces | Latrobe Valley Express

Coming back to the FV, they’ve got some fairly strict guidelines regarding the quality of surface and quality of playing surfaces. To organise the Cup was good, but to play games throughout the season, that’s something we’ll have to work closely with the Latrobe Valley Soccer League on. FV needs to ensure that the playing surface isn’t going to pose a risk to players of opposing clubs.

We just need to make sure we work closely with the Soccer League to make sure we have facilities that meet the standard. The Latrobe City Council is keen to have not only football come up to the region, but potentially other sports as well.

Does potential relegation change anything in your growth strategies?

Bronson Justus: Our number one goal is to remain in the top league. We’re extremely confident that we’ll be able to do that. In the unfortunate event that we did end up in that relegation zone, we would continue on the strategy that we have to build out that supporter base and continue to grow the club as we are.

How does social media help the club’s growth?

Bronson Justus: It’s something that we actively work on with our Instagram and Facebook, and we’re very active on that. We’re using that as an outlet for promotion of games, for highlights and player profiles. All of this is important for us to connect with the community. We’d like to broaden that out to platforms like TikTok as well, but we’re not quite there yet.

How are you investing in women’s football?

Bronson Justus: We will field our first female team in 2022 as well. We’ll have a girls under 11s team and that is one of the big focuses for the club – to build out our female participation. We’ve got some big plans to field women’s teams across all of the age groups, and even a senior team if we can build it out that far.

It is a long term strategy for the club, and something that we’re very keen to see happen. It will broaden out the club membership and make sure we have appeal to a diverse group of people, not just on men’s football. Particularly with the Women’s World Cup coming up, it’s something that we want to make sure we ride that wave of euphoria that will come with that.

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