Joe Spiteri: “If you have players dribbling a lot in our curriculum, it seems they are being coached out of it”

Joe Spiteri is a name well known around Australian football circles and for good reason.

The former Australian international gritted his teeth for clubs in the National Soccer League, including being an influential part of a Melbourne Knights side in the mid 90’s – which is widely regarded as one of the best teams Australia has ever seen.

His exploits in the domestic competition eventually got him a move overseas, where he played for Sturm Graz in Austria, Lierse in Belgium and IFK Norrkoping in Sweden.

In a wide-ranging chat with Soccerscene, the 48-year-old reflected on his playing career, explaining the differences at the time between plying his trade overseas and in Australia.

“The NSL level overall, don’t get me wrong, was pretty high,” he said.

“Back in the Melbourne Knights days we had one of the best teams at that time and is comparable to nowadays with the ability that was in that team. The number of national players who were playing for us were fantastic and they would be a hard team to beat (nowadays).

“But overseas the fitness level was completely above the Australian level at the time, it was considerably better.”

“I think the overseas setup took training to a whole new level; we were training all day every day.

“They had doctors, pediatrists, dietitians, everything over there and that was 25 years ago now.

“The science involved – we had heart rate monitors back then, our levels of training were monitored, our supplements program were monitored, our blood oxygen levels were monitored, we had to maintain a certain weight for our playing style and position, it was all next level and basically nothing was left to chance.

“Whereas in Australia at that time, there was nothing of that scientific level that there is now here.”

After coming back to Australia in the final years of his playing career, Spiteri would eventually begin his own academy, Soccer Pro Academy, to help further develop the next generation of footballers.

“I eventually moved to Werribee City when I was finishing up my playing career and there, they offered me the position of junior coaching director,” he said.

“From there, I eventually progressed into starting my own academy at the club and then after starting that, the level of interest increased and I further developed the idea.

“I started branching out to different areas, with different clubs and schools – before Covid we had over 450 kids across 8 venues in the west of Melbourne.

“Coaching kids is something that I’ve always done, even as a professional player I was sent out to schools and so forth. The enjoyment you get from seeing an under 5’s kid come to your academy bawling his out because he doesn’t know or want to play the game and then go on to play at a higher level and push up through the ranks is something very rewarding.”

Spiteri believes that at a junior development level, promising young players are being priced out of the game which is a significant issue.

“The NPL program and the restriction of being able to play at the highest level due to financial standings is concerning to myself,” he said.

“Back in the day you were either good or bad, the fees were pretty much standard across every club and every league.

“If you were good enough, you’d play in the higher leagues and get into the super league teams, if you weren’t you’d play at the lower clubs.

“Nowadays if you want to play at the highest level, there’s huge a gap in the fees you have to pay.

“Anytime you’re restricted on financial standings, you’re always missing out on some really good players.

“Back in the day, there wasn’t the academy system there is now, the professionalism, there’s a lot of different opportunities and competition.  Players don’t always have to join a club per say, they can join an academy and play in an academy team and they can still have the same, if not better, development as a footballer.”

Overall, the former NSL striker has some concerns around the national program and the way coaches are told to implement a certain style of play.

“In regards to the national curriculum and how coaches are asked to develop their players, I think we focus too much on maintaining possession and not enough on going around players, dribbling and creating goal scoring opportunities.

“I think we are falling behind in that factor and it’s highlighted in our national teams.

“Our national teams seem to maintain possession a lot, but not score or have the attacking flair that you see from European or South American nations.

“If you have players dribbling a lot in our curriculum, it seems they are being coached out of it, which I think is an issue.”

Philip Panas is a sports journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on football policy and industry matters, drawing on his knowledge and passion of the game.

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.

Ivan Franjic: “I’m thankful and grateful that I was able to live my dream”

Socceroos Ivan Franjic

Ivan Franjic’s arrival at historic National Premier Leagues Victoria side Heidelberg United has come via an unconventional journey to say the least.

From his early beginnings in the then-named Victorian Premier League with the likes of St Albans Saints and Melbourne Knights, to playing for Russian side FC Torpedo Moscow, to playing in the third-largest urban agglomeration in Korea with Daegu FC, Franjic’s career has certainly been one to savour.

Whilst his career has seen injury setbacks, a blocked loan and unpaid wages with Torpedo Moscow – and the discovery of a potentially career-threatening rare inflammatory condition known as myocarditis in 2016 – Franjic is grateful to be where he is today and to have had the footballing experiences he’s had.

“I’ve been very fortunate with the success I’ve had over my travels, and I’ve experienced some different countries,” he said.

“It’s been a great journey and I’m thankful and grateful that I was able to live my dream and play for the Socceroos at a World Cup. Some Championships as well, so, can’t complain at all.”

Torpedo Moscow

And as for why Franjic opted to return to the NPL Victoria to take up an opportunity with Heidelberg United, a family connection and the quality of the league spoke for itself.

“My brother has played in the NPL for a fair bit and I’ve watched a few of his games. If you look at the FFA Cup you’ve always got a Victorian team in the semi-finals, so it must be saying something about how good the standard of the league is,” he said.

“I know the coach George Katsakis and he called me and my brother and said he was interested in signing us. And obviously Heidelberg have had success over the last few years where they’ve won a lot of trophies, so, they’re wanting to build a great team to have another successful year once again.

“Whenever you go to Heidelberg you see that they have a decent following and that everyone gets behind them, so it’ll be good. I’m looking forward to playing in the NPL this year and to finally be playing with my brother after all these years.”

Heidelberg United

Next year’s Victorian NPL season will mark 13 years since Franjic departed his then-Victorian Premier League side Oakleigh Cannons to take up an injury-replacement contract offer with Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar.

It was under the now-Celtic FC coach where Franjic impressed the Roar faithful and built a platform to launch himself into a regular starting berth with the Socceroos at right-back.

As a three-time A-League Men’s Championship winner with Brisbane, three-time Premiership winner with the Roar (twice) and Perth Glory (once), as well as an Asian Cup winner, Franjic has certainly been a key cog in some of Australian football’s most historic sides.

“Obviously, winning the Asian Cup is a massive achievement, it’s similar to someone winning the Euros or the Copa America. But I think in Australia, with soccer not being the number one sport, it’s always hard to get the media buzz of AFL and NRL because they’ve got a huge following,” he said.

“But when you look back on it you don’t realise how high of an achievement it actually was against Asia’s best.

“I’d had Ange as a coach for a few years and he’s no doubt one of the best managers I’d ever worked under. The whole buzz of being in Brazil, with security all around the hotel and obviously Brazil is a football-mad nation, so, everywhere you went people were following you.

“It was exciting, and I thought Australia gave a good account of themselves without getting results in that tournament.”

Each of these remarkable honours were earnt between globetrotting stints with Torpedo Moscow, Melbourne City and Daegu. But before returning to the National Premier Leagues Victoria, Franjic made one final stopover with newly-joined A-League Men’s expansion side Macarthur FC. He gave credit to the side that he helped in their foundation.

“It was no doubt a challenge starting up a new club from fresh and giving it a go. Credit has to go out to all of the staff and the owners; they did an amazing job for a club in their first year in terms of facilities and the stadium. Compared to other clubs that have come into the A-League they were very good,” he said.

Macarthur FC

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