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James Johnson on how the Club Licensing System is critical to progress of Second Division

On Thursday, Football Australia released their reformed Club Licensing System Regulations that will increase standards at clubs across the top three tiers of Australian football – as a key part of broader structural reform they are engineering to take the game forward.

Reforming the Club Licensing System was an agreed responsibility Football Australia took on during its unbundling of the A-Leagues to the Australian Professional Leagues in December 2020, and is something Football Australia CEO James Johnson sees as critical to unlocking standstill issues facing the game, such as the proposed National Second Division (NSD) and Domestic Transfer System (DTS).

“We have challenges in the sport, namely around player development at the moment, and right at the very heart of the Club Licensing System are standards and requirements that really need to be reviewed on an annual basis. So we’ll continue to lift the standards in club football with a particular focus on youth development,” Johnson, who oversaw the Global Club Licensing Program while at FIFA, told Soccerscene

“That’s going to align very well with some of our other initiatives, like a Domestic Transfer System that has player development at its very core. It’s something we need to fix now; it’s something I don’t think is an opinion, it’s a fact.

“These measures – Club Licensing, a transfer system, the second tier competition – are all designed to improve the level of our players, the benefit of which we will see in the years to come.”

Club Licensing has historically been managed by the Asian Football Confederation as a means of ensuring minimum standards for clubs to compete in Asian club competitions. By taking it into their own hands, Football Australia can now raise and specify standards for clubs at not just the professional level, but the levels below it.

The regulations include certain criteria that must be met to compete and continue to compete in certain competitions, broken into five categories: Sporting, infrastructure, personnel and administrative, legal, and financial – with variations in each to reflect multiple levels of the pyramid. 

“First and foremost, this new Club Licensing System will be a set of criteria that needs to be fulfilled in order for all clubs to participate in Asian club competition, but also for all clubs in the A-Leagues to continue their ability to participate in that competition,” Johnson said. 

“The second part, the more strategic football development angle, is that it is designed to become a strategic plan for club development and enhanced governance of clubs throughout the country. It really sits right at the heart of key decisions clubs would take, and how they operate on a day-to-day basis.”

The new system is designed to cater for clubs at the professional (A-Leagues), semi-professional (NSD) and state-league (NPL) levels, providing an overarching set of standards to promote uniformity between clubs and divisions. Theoretically, it could also prepare clubs for movement between divisions if promotion and relegation were to come into effect.

Johnson sees that uniformity as vital to the game moving forward, given the three tiers will be administered by three different organisations: The A-Leagues by the Australian Professional Leagues, the mooted NSD by Football Australia, and the NPL competitions by their respective Member Federations. 

“You have to set different standards for different levels of football. As we roll out the second tier competition in the coming years, Football Australia would licence clubs to participate in that competition because it would be the competition administrator,” he said.

“The next step would be to go down the pyramid. There’d be a continual evolution of the Club Licensing System where we’d set a strategic framework that the competition administrators, the Member Federations, would ultimately work under, in order to create their own criteria for participation and access to the state level competitions.

“That framework that the Member Federations would operate under would give each region across the country a good level of specificity to develop their own criteria to access their own region.”

Concerning the level of football not currently in place – the proposed  second tier – Johnson stated the Federation had the backing of the AAFC, the representative body of the clubs looking to step from the NPL into the second tier of competition, over the new Club Licensing System.

“The AAFC are very much aligned with the direction Football Australia are wanting to go. Their interest in licensing is concerning the NSD, and I don’t think there would be any issues there provided we set the criteria as the right levels,” Johnson said.

“What we’ll get once the system is implemented is the ability to analyse clubs all around the country. We’ll be able to benchmark how clubs in Victoria are performing on and off the pitch, against teams in Brisbane or Hobart or Perth.

“One of the big values of a CLS is it’s a measuring stick that helps us understand which areas clubs around the country are strong in, and which areas they need more focus on. Ultimately, that’s how we grow club football.”

Tasked with overseeing the licensing reform is Natalie Lutz, who Football Australia hired as their Club Licensing Manager in January. Lutz has considerable experience in the field, having previously overseen the rollout of club licensing across the CONCACAF Federation. 

“Natalie knows what she’s doing, she’s very experienced, she was responsible for the roll out of a Club Licensing System in 40-odd countries in the Americas. We have her in the business now, which is why this project is evolving,” Johnson said.

PFA maintains faith in collective bargaining over Domestic Transfer System stand-off

Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) remain steadfast in their view Football Australia cannot impose a Domestic Transfer System (DTS) on the local game without consensus among all parties, and that if it is to come into effect, it must be at the expense of the A-Leagues salary cap.

Last month, Football Australia moved a step closer to their favoured DTS by removing the longstanding cap on transfer fees for contracted players between Australian clubs, edging the game closer to the free market system that underpins player movement globally. 

In February, CEO James Johnson told ESPN failure to reach consensus over the DTS could lead to his organisation making ‘aggressive decisions’ towards its implementation. PFA co-chief executive Kathryn Gill told Soccerscene such a move would be undemocratic, and may no longer be appropriate in any case, post-Covid 19.

“Ultimately the transfer system acts as a tax on the employment of players. This would have a significant impact on their employment opportunities, and therefore it is a matter that requires the agreement of the players, not just consultation,” Gill said.

“We currently have a five-year CBA with the Australian Professional Leagues, signed September 2021 that is showing some encouraging signs regarding the investment in player payments, youth development and improving contractual stability.  If we are to shift towards a different strategy, we need to understand the problem we are trying to solve. 

“We’ve just undertaken a comprehensive labour market analysis of the A-Leagues and what our data tells us is that the problems we now need to solve are different from the ones we were confronted with before the pandemic.”

Gill’s PFA co-chief, Beau Busch, believes that for Football Australia to move away from the consultative nature that has served the game well through the pandemic, and for years prior, it would be damaging to the ecosystem. 

Matters that impact the employment of players are matters that require agreement through collective bargaining. In the absence of collective bargaining, we can’t create the conditions for collaboration and shared purpose and run the risk of creating regulations that are at odds with each other,” Busch said. 

“We’ve seen increasing moves from organisations like FIFA for example, trying to introduce biennial World Cups without consultation and European clubs going off to build new Super Leagues without considering the players or the fans. 

“That type of unilateral action is not in the best interests of the game and so these issues, that fundamentally affect the employment conditions of players, should be done in partnership with the players.”

Busch also pointed to FIFA’s intention to reform their global transfer system as an indicator that increased alignment may not be in Australian football’s best interests. World football’s free market has led to a chronically lopsided distribution of wealth towards those at the pointy end, while nobody could argue the trophy cabinets of clubs in Europe’s top five leagues reflect competitive balance. 

This season, Bayern Munich won their 10th consecutive German Bundesliga title; Juventus enjoyed a similar stretch of nine Serie A titles between 2011/12 to 2019/20, while PSG have lifted eight of the past 10 Ligue 1 crowns in France. Even the English Premier League, upheld by some as a bastion of competitiveness for European leagues, has seen 26 of its 29 titles shared by four clubs. 

“Globally, the justification for a transfer system is that it redistributes revenue, supports competitive balance, and encourages investment in the training and development of players. These are objectives that are obviously important to the sport, however the global transfer system has been unable to achieve them and this is illustrated through FIFA’s commitment to reforming it,” Busch said. 

“We absolutely agree that Australian football needs more players playing at the highest possible level and that whatever system is in place needs to be aligned to that aim. But with any regulatory change, research and evidence and a sound business case that underpins it is vital. 

“To date, we haven’t been presented with any modelling on what outcomes a domestic transfer system will produce, either in terms of player development, or stimulating the Australian market and football economy.”

The removal of the cap on transfer payments between clubs and potential DTS will help clubs earn their full reward for the development and on-sale of players. But if the theory is sound, it’s the opinion of the PFA that increased costs will in effect stymie player movement and force clubs to look inwards for talent, restricting the ease with which players can move between employment opportunities.

Gill is adamant that if a transfer system is to succeed, it must come in conjunction with the removal of the salary cap, which already restricts clubs from investing what they might otherwise be willing to on their squad. Aimed at maintaining competitive balance across the A-Leagues, it is not conducive to the growth of players’ value. 

“The transfer system and salary cap are trying to achieve different objectives, and attempting to impose both restraints at the same time is likely to not only be illegal but self-defeating for the game. That is why no league around the world operates with both,” Gill said.

“From a players’ perspective, having both would act as a double restraint with players having a cap on their earnings and a tax on their employment via a transfer system. Ultimately, this would not help clubs attract and retain talent.”

Despite Johnson stating ‘aggressive decisions’ may be required, and the parties seemingly gridlocked over the DTS, Gill remains hopeful that collective bargaining and goodwill can see the game forward in a unified manner.

She feels the game is a long way from requiring an independent regulator, which is set to be ratified by the UK Government to oversee football in England, off the back of the fan-led Crouch Report into the state of their game.

The Crouch Report also advocates for a reformed ‘owners and directors test’, and ‘shadow boards’ made up of fans to represent their interests and hold a golden share in legacy decisions regarding stadia, colours and crests.

“Since 1995 the PFA has been able to reach agreements with clubs and the governing body, so what history shows is that collective bargaining has been an effective vehicle for progress. We need to examine our own context, and we can certainly learn from what has occurred around the world and what led to the push for an independent regulator in the English game,” Gill said.

“What is clear is the governance framework in that country and measures such as the transfer system have failed to drive progress for the entire sport and this drastic government intervention has been a direct result of this.”

Wheelchair football’s Victorian return comes with challenges still to face

Football Victoria’s Wheelchair Football Volunteer Coordinator Daniel Levy admits that the onset of the pandemic was more than a challenge for all abilities football.

Across 2020 and 2021, the wheelchair competition barely played a handful of games. But that didn’t deter Levy or FV, who he says are now more supportive than ever.

Both wheelchair and powerchair football competitions have gotten underway after a very successful All Abilities April. The month saw come and try days held across the country as well as initiatives like Football West’s ‘Football for all’.

More than anything though, the return of wheelchair football in the state meant the most to the players.

“Everyone was frustrated for the past two years, because a lot of our players had other activities cancelled,” Levy told Soccerscene.

“They were just over the moon to be back and life getting back to normal. We had a good turnout and everyone was really rapt to be out.

“The first couple of weeks are always really tough because they’re not in the routine and some of them turned up late, but it’s all good.

“They have to rely on maxi taxis which often pick up more than one person at a time and drop people off on the way and things like that. Something always goes wrong at the last minute, but we’re pretty flexible.”

While the return is a major positive for the competition and inclusive football as a whole, the next stage for the organisers is to continue to grow the competition to a point where it can sustain itself better.

Victoria’s wheelchair football competition is run out of just one location in Keysborough currently, as there isn’t a high enough participation level to justify more.

“It’s a long haul for a lot of our players. One is in Chum Creek, near Healesville, we’ve got some that are out near the airport,” Levy explained.

“They have to come a long way, and that’s not cheap. If we were able to grow the competition, we could have a north and south competition so that people didn’t have so far to travel.”

Initiatives like All Abilities April will give wheelchair football and other inclusive competitions the chance to continue that growth.

“The All Abilities Month is an additional opportunity to get the word out there,” Levy continued.

“FV’s helping us with a marketing campaign, printing out posters that we can put up in leisure centres and things like that.

“It’s been a great initiative for us, and two of our players wrote their stories and that got published by FV as part of their social media campaign. We’re getting the word out there, but we certainly need to do more work to attract more players.”

For the players, who Levy says he’s ‘grown up with’ after being involved with wheelchair football for 17 years, the process provides them with more opportunities as well.

“To be honest for most of the players, it’s not that much about the competition, it’s mostly social,” he said.

“It’s being able to get out and be with people, spending time with them and having fun. Are all of our players diehard sportspeople? No they’re not.

“They want to get out and have some exercise, but most of their enjoyment comes from the social interaction.”

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