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Zlatan to the A-League – the Pros and the Cons

In recent times, rumours have begun circling that Swedish superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic could be making a move to the A-League.

At face value, ‘Ibra’ in the A-League sounds like a fantastic proposition.

He’s a living legend who has won titles just about everywhere he’s gone. AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Inter Milan, Ajax, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United are all huge clubs he has played for during his illustrious career.

Say what you will about his arrogance and ego, but it’s a part of why he’s so revered. He doesn’t put on a mask, he is unequivocally himself.

Zlatan would instantly become the biggest name in the league today and one of the biggest names to ever come Down Under.

The exposure that soccer in Australia would get as a result of his arrival in the country would be phenomenal. When Zlatan first arrived in Los Angeles as a part of his move to the MLS, it was the biggest soccer news story at the time. And the MLS is a much larger competition than the A-League.

People from across the globe would start watching A-League fixtures and stadiums would be packed to the rafters.

In a time where soccer in Australia could use a popularity boost, Zlatan would bring people across from other sports and be the star attraction in Australia.

Shirts sales would skyrocket. Fans from other clubs would buy shirts purely because it’s Zlatan.

I mean, you’d be silly not to.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the A-League could be the necessary sugar hit the A-League needs. But that could be all it is. A sugar hit. A flash in the pan.

David Villa was fantastic when he was loaned out to Melbourne City, albeit for the mere four games.

Ibra would probably play more than four matches, but the rumours are also stating that he could be in the country for as little as six weeks.

That’s nowhere near enough time.

Once Zlatan leaves, any overseas exposure that arose from his arrival in Australia would instantly dissipate. Fans from other sports would return to their sports of choice.

Basically, any and all interest garnered from Zlatan being in the league would go with Zlatan.

Australian-based soccer fans would understandably feel aggrieved by his departure. There are also many soccer fans based here that do not follow the A-League, instead preferring the European leagues.

After Zlatan leaves, where do you think they’ll go? Back to their Optus Sport subscriptions.

When you look at Zlatan’s playing career, you’ll notice one recurring theme.

At all but one club he’s played for, he’s never made more than 90 appearances.

He made 122 for Paris Saint-Germain during his four year stint in France’s capital, but he has never been one to stay the course with one club.

Four years is indeed his longest tenure at any club but even that’s lower than most players.

What does all this mean? He’s not a loyal player. He doesn’t play for the club. His character is such that he only ever sees what’s in it for him.

What would that mean for whichever A-League club would pick him up?

It would mean that it’s nothing more than a cash grab for him. It would almost be paid leave for someone like Zlatan.

He would train once or twice and play the weekend’s game. But he wouldn’t be giving it his all. His heart wouldn’t be in it.

Yes, he plays with passion and hunger unlike 99% of every player out there. But it’s not as if he’s playing for any reward other than money.

There wouldn’t be much motivation for him.

As a club, do you want your highest paid player to be someone who would be apathetic? I certainly wouldn’t, nor should any other club’s executives.

Zlatan would be a huge coup for the A-League. His name is enough to draw a crowd wherever he goes.

But if his rumoured stint in the A-League would be as little as six to eight weeks, would it be a worthwhile investment for the league and its stakeholders?

That’s for you to decide.

 

 

Senior Journalist

Will Australia now finally put football ahead of power and pettiness?

Ange Postecoglou’s comments on ABC’s Offsiders Program in regards to putting Australian football first, were compelling and accurate.

The former Socceroo mentor and now coach of Yokohama F Marinos in the J-League was explicit, precise and curt when commenting on the necessary response to the COVID-19 pandemic within the Australian game. For Postecoglou, it is an opportunity to do something rarely seen. That being, an active positioning of football well above all the vested interests and personalities that for decades appear to have thought themselves bigger than the game itself.

The former South Melbourne player stated, “Never forget what your prime product is and your product is the sport……..If you devalue the sport, you can save as much money as you want, eventually that devaluation is going to cost you.”

For Australian football, the reference to money is the hottest topic of conversation right now. Foxtel appears to have reneged on its most recent payment due to FFA, with A$12.5 million yet to hit the savings account of the governing body.

With three years to run on a broadcast deal that was signed in 2016 and valued at A$346 million, the media giant is within inches of walking away and leaving Australia’s elite professional league without a host broadcaster.

That deal was originally cheered home in 2016 by then Chief Executive David Gallop, yet in the years that followed, little was done to advance, promote and forward the game by the powers at be. Postecoglou was on the sidelines in a coaching capacity with the Socceroos for some of that time and his comments were no doubt directed towards those whom he sees as having failed to keep football as the focus.

No doubt FFA were jubilant each and every time the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup and the subsequent financial windfall that came their way. However, little effort was made to bring the domestic game together as one. Despite increased awareness of and interest in NPL competitions around the land, the governing body baulked time after time when it came to making the essential leap to full promotion and relegation across the country.

Essentially, Postecoglou’s words ring true to all those who have observed the first 15 years of the A-League competition. Efforts were made to expand the game from the elite level and little done to engage with the grass roots and the hundreds of thousands of Australians who showed little interest in the top tier competition.

By providing pathways for clubs to advance in league play and the ensuing incentive provided for players not directly involved in the rather limited junior and developmental systems of the ten A-League clubs, football in Australia has the potential to become interconnected and united; something of which Postecoglou is well aware.

Instead, the elite men’s competition had a few highs, many lows and ended up treading water over the last five years with little change, growth or development. High hopes were placed on expansion and Western United have made anything but a weak start to their existence. However, with the financial realities of COVID-19 hitting home, it is now likely we will see some A-League clubs fold or tread close to extinction.

A third Sydney team was looking shaky in its infancy and with the current climate now leading to seven of the eleven A-League clubs unable to pay players and staff, their birth seems unlikely; most probably postponed indefinitely until the football landscape becomes a little easier to read.

Postecoglou’s comments were almost certainly a less than cloaked attack on many Australian football relics whose failures of the past are common knowledge; the men involved in the failed final days of an NSL competition that fell victim to infighting and power struggles that served no purpose to the game.

They were also undoubtedly a direct attack on the lack of vision shown by the FFA in recent history; a governing body hampered by risk aversion and people possessing little knowledge of football.

Mark Schwarzer alluded to those power struggles when he called for the abolition of state federations on April 20, citing them as the “biggest problem in Australian football” due to a reluctance to relinquish power and influence.

Both Postecoglou and Schwarzer know the landscape all too well and have been to places that very few Australian footballers and/or managers have even dreamt. Something tells me that we should be listening to them as an industry and taking the advice of people with knowledge that extends far beyond our shores.

FFA boss James Johnson shares such knowledge and experience and it will be interesting to see how he incorporates their advice with that formed by the ‘Starting XI’ think tank he has assembled in an effort to guide the game through the problems created by the pandemic.

Mark Viduka, Josip Skoko, Clare Polkinghorne, Ron Smith, Mark Bosnich, Paul Okon, Frank Farina, Heather Garriock, Vicki Linton, Joey Peters, and Connie Selby will no doubt have strong opinions.

Whether they have the nous and vision to right what currently looks like a sinking A-League ship after Foxtel’s clear intention to walk away is unclear. Hoping they do should be the wish of each and every football fan in Australia.

No date set for A-League return

FFA have re-confirmed their intention to resume the current A-League season as soon as possible, however a firm date for the return of the competition is yet to be set.

In a statement on Thursday, the FFA identified four key points of criteria that need to be satisfied before a possible resumption.

Those criteria include:

· Player and staff health and safety threshold requirements

· State and Federal border restrictions being lifted

· Large gathering restrictions allowing for the required squads and support staff to gather

· Social distancing protocols being agreed with governments to allow the holding of professional games

FFA is continuing to speak with government health authorities about these elements and when it is suitable to return to play.

If the A-League season were to resume, clubs would have to undergo an initial period of training and conditioning to meet health and safety requirements and uphold the integrity of the competition.

FFA CEO James Johnson claimed there was agreement between the FFA and A-League clubs that this season would eventually be completed.

“Our goal is to deliver live, professional football and complete the Hyundai A-League 2019/20 season, and we have set a number of criteria that will define when this is going to be possible,” he said.

“Our priority remains the health and safety of all players and staff and we will need to be satisfied that appropriate measures are in place to ensure this. Secondly, we will need to meet all government restrictions in place at the time, including state/territory border controls. Finally, any decision to resume will be made in full alignment with Government and its medical advisors.

“We will resume play as soon as possible, and the first stage would see the players return to training. We would then schedule matches. It is difficult to see that process beginning before the end of May, but we will work with all stakeholders to achieve the earliest possible resumption.

“Football takes its responsibilities as a good corporate citizen very seriously, and remains committed to working in partnership with the Government to slow the spread of COVID-19. At the same time, we want to play our part in supporting the social and mental wellbeing of the Australian football family and all sports-loving Australians.

“Ultimately, the coronavirus will have the final say on when we can get the season started again, and completed.

“We want to thank the clubs and players who have been understanding of the current circumstances and worked collaboratively with us in relation to this matter throughout this period. I would also like to acknowledge our supporters, commercial partners and football community who continue to remain engaged and connected during this difficult time, and we thank them for their continued support.”

FFA will provide a further update in May 2020.

After COVID-19 Australian football should be returned to its base

As an industry, Australian football has the opportunity to pull off the most stunning and successful transformation in a post COVID-19 environment.

Whilst governments, business and other sporting organisations consistently speak of things eventually returning to normal, football as a whole should in fact be steering its ship on a completely new course. In fact, seeing the Australian version of the round ball game return to exactly what it was prior to the world pandemic, could in fact be fatal.

The fundamental contemporary problem in the Australian game has been the creation of the top-tier A-League, at the expense of maintaining connections with the past and those beneath. In essence, not enough people care about the new league and asking “Why should they?” is a reasonable and fair minded question.

Thousands of football fans across the country have little or no allegiance to the ten Australian based clubs in the A-League competition. Most prefer to remain active within and connected to their community based clubs and hence, the growing interest we have seen in NPL play around Australia.

A-League club membership numbers generally run at around 100,000 per season; an astonishingly low figure when near two million men, women and children play the game each year. Having just 5 per cent of active footballers as members of Australia’s fully professional clubs is an appalling ratio and remarkably different to other countries, where clubs engage far more effectively with fans and players.

A study by Statista.com found that between 2007 and 2016, of the 11 million footballers regularly playing the game in England, somewhere just short of 20 per cent were active members of football clubs. It ought to be noted that those figures are not only memberships of the big and powerful clubs but also smaller ones across all levels of England’s domestic game.

Even a doubling of Australia’s paltry percentage would bring the most stunning increases in revenue, attendance and corporate involvement. Getting an additional 100,000 active footballers to support and join an A-League club in Australia should not be a particularly difficult task.

The COVID-19 pandemic has rather fortuitously created a scenario that, if grasped correctly by a well informed and daring governing body, could re-connect many of the severed ties within the game. Football will no doubt be back and perhaps sooner than many people originally thought, as the curve begins to flatten and case levels drop. However, it must come back reformed and restructured.

When it does return, after what will hopefully be a stunning make-over, football has the potential to instantly re-establish connections between grass roots clubs, semi-professional play in the NPL and the game at an elite level.

Financially, the industry will be in ruin, most sports will be, with the financial bottom line in the corporate sector looking grim and making vast and new investment opportunities unlikely. As such, A-League salary caps may well be halved or even scrapped, yet that could in fact be the blessing in disguise required to truly nationalise the game and implement promotion and relegation across the country.

As things stood until recently, new licenses handed out by FFA were the only means by which a new club could enter the A-League. With the clubs now bound to be cash-strapped, NPL1 clubs that lacked the financial clout, stadium or infrastructure to demand promotion to the top-tier, would find that transition far easier.

FFA should announce that the 2020/21 season will see the current eleven clubs compete once again for the A-League Championship. Next winter, when NPL1 champions are confirmed around the country, promotion play-offs should be played. Two clubs would earn the right to play A-League football in 2021/22, at the expense of the two demoted from the top tier.

Some adjustments would need to be made to scheduling, with NPL1 needing to be completed in time for the promotion play-offs to take place and the newly promoted clubs given at least two months to prepare for a new season. Players would need to be signed prior to an A-League October kick-off, yet if NPL play was to be completed in July, rather than late August, as it is across much of the nation, there would be enough time for a club to prepare.

Once the initial incarnation of promotion/relegation is complete, all tiers of football would then move to a spring to autumn season. The machinations of promotion/relegation in the lower tiers of NPL play would take place as usual and uniformity within the game would finally be achieved.

Ironically, it would be a shattered and torn industry, one filled with unpaid players and staff in limbo that may well afford Australian football the greatest opportunity it has ever had. It would undoubtedly be difficult yet also rewarding in the long term. Taking a step back before taking two forward may well be the smartest thing the game ever does.

Attempting to build interest and growth in the game at the elite level has not worked, as the A-League continued to tread water. Perhaps, in the face of tragedy, the time is nigh to return the Australian game to the base, within a framework that takes everybody along for the ride.

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