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Pararoos captain Ben Roche: “Football has the ability to start important conversations”

Ben Roche has played 54 times for the Pararoos – Australia’s only national team for people with cerebral palsy – and captained the team around the world. He spoke to Soccerscene about what the Pararoos have done for him, the future of the team after the exclusion of the sport from the Paralympic Games, and how the footballing community can further embrace the squad. 

Q: How has the exclusion of 7-aside football from the Paralympic games impacted the Pararoos?

Ben Roche: For us, it almost instantly had an impact. Obviously, for the young kids pushing to want to play for the Pararoos, their attention has turned to other sports, and for Pararoos players who are in the program who had the ambition to be Paralympians have chosen other paths, which means you can lose key players and things like that. We’ve had to work hard to grow the game and we are probably in a stronger position than we’ve ever been in, in ensuring that we qualify for the World Cup.


Q: Funding has been an issue for the Pararoos, where does most of it come from?

Ben Roche: We don’t actually receive government funding anymore, we used to get a little bit from the Australian Sports Commission, which was cut in 2015 because of their winning edge policy, which means if they don’t think you’ll win a medal funding will be cut or limited. Since then we have survived off donations through the Australian Sports Foundation. With the work of Football Australia, they set a fundraising page and we try to raise $200,000 plus each year to go towards getting a team to a tournament, a couple of camps, and hopefully a national championship to identify the next generation. Unfortunately, there isn’t really any sustainability for us, we are always pushing to raise those funds and take the program to the next level. 

Q: It is a pretty horrific way to fund Paralympic sport, isn’t it?

Ben Roche: Yeah, it came to light this week that the Paralympians don’t get any funding if they win a medal, like the Olympians who win do. The Paralympians don’t get anything for doing the exact same amount of work if not more, and that isn’t the way it should be.

Q: What brought about the change in funding?

Ben Roche: The Australian Sports Commission at the time, they have to allocate across sports, and they probably saw that the sports might be better allocated to individual sports which they thought could secure more medals, whether that is athletics or swimming, I don’t know. For me I am a big believer in football being the game played around the world, and cerebral palsy is the most common physical disability for children in Australia. For me that is perfect, you’ve got the world game and the most common physical disability, what a perfect format. We’ve worked really hard to get that message out there and show what the power of football can do. It doesn’t matter whether it’s coming from poverty, or having a disability, or having a different background, football has the ability to start important conversations. For us that is where our messaging comes into it, our goal is to create inclusive opportunities for people across the country. Not just for cerebral palsy and things like that, we want to lead the way for inclusive football in all versions of the game. 

Q: How Important has football been to you?

Ben Roche: It has shaped everything I’ve done. I joined the Pararoos when I was 12 years old, and it has taken me around the world. It’s been really eye-opening in terms of that, but it has also put me in front of role models with cerebral palsy and other disabilities who have successful careers, families, social lives, and all those kinds of things. Being able to see that at a young age really shaped who am I today, and gave me the confidence to go and do the things I’m doing. I love football so much that I’ve been working in it, I was working for Football Australia as a team manager because I wanted to be in and around football, and it’s something I am extremely passionate about.

Ben at his first tournament with the Pararoos in Argentina.

Q: How important is it to have visible role models like these growing up?

Ben Roche: It’s massive, for me it was meeting those role models that shaped me. I launched a few programs across the country for people with disabilities, and the conversations I get to have with kids, and the conversations I get to have with the parents as well, the amount the community means to them is huge. For me to see someone who has faced similar challenges doing great things is the best thing I could have come across. By us having a successful Pararoos program we can hopefully empower and not only support these young kids that may want to play football but support them in their careers and everyday lives.

Q: Could the wider football community better embrace the Pararoos? 

Ben Roche: I don’t blame them for not doing so, we weren’t really a common name and still aren’t among the football community, which has been a big push for us to put emphasis through social media and get our messaging out there, to include us in conversation along with the Socceroos and Matildas. I hope that when people do get to see it, it’s something they can get behind. The game is quite fast-paced, it can be high scoring, really physical and we don’t hold back. I’d love to see the Australian football community embrace it more – and I’m not saying they don’t – but the more we can get them behind us the bigger reach we can have.

Q: What is the future of the Pararoos program in Australia?

Ben Roche: COVID has made the last couple of years tricky, just in terms of being able to fundraise for the program. For us we are really interested in taking it to the next level, to not only further develop the men’s program but a women’s program too, which more information will come out for in the next couple of months. We are looking to really create more opportunities throughout Australia, not only have our state teams which are filtering into nationals but also launching academies and programs that will feed into inclusive opportunities. On top of that hopefully we can keep having important conversations around disability.

If you want to help support the Pararoos you can donate through their website.

John Didulica: “Football can help Australia to navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation”

John Didulica

John Didulica’s insight into Australian football is entrenched in a broad and intimate exposure to the game from all areas of the pitch and beyond across many years of playing and working in the game.

His long-standing involvement in football has seen him take on a variety of roles including helping to usher in the Melbourne Heart in their inaugural years as Director of Football Operations, leading Professional Footballers Australia as their Chief Executive Officer and now as Director of Football for a Melbourne Victory side looking to rebuild in the A-League.

His chat with Soccerscene saw a whole range of topics covered, namely his efforts to help push the Victory into a new era, his impactful learnings from his time at the Heart and his recent efforts in helping to produce the ‘Football Belongs’ series with Optus Sport.

Didulica Photo

Obviously, it’s been a very challenging few years for Melbourne Victory’s A-League side with underwhelming performances on the pitch and difficulties off it, how was it for you coming into a club off the back of some difficult seasons?

John Didulica: I think it’s been an exciting time for me personally to be back involved with football. Melbourne Victory has had such a proud history in its own right, but equally the club has played such a big role in shaping modern Australian football. To be given an opportunity to work here is a great honour and privilege, like anybody who gets to work in football.

The fact that they’ve had a couple of lean years on the pitch doesn’t detract from all the great things they’ve done over the best part of two decades. Coming into the club, with that in mind, it’s not about re-engineering everything or discarding a couple of decades of history. It’s just about trying to more deeply understand what’s worked, what hasn’t worked and where we need to get better to ensure that we’ve got the right standards across not only the team but also all the other areas of the club.

And making sure that we start, day-by-day through our actions, showing that we want to be better. There’s nobody in the world who can come in with a magic wand and say “If you do ‘A, B and C’, you’re going to get a better performance on the park”. The key thing for us is, through our actions, to everyday try and be a little bit better. That’s certainly led by Tony Popovic – that’s the way he approaches his preparation of the team and I think as a staff that’s what we’re adopting.

Hopefully the results on the pitch will in-time reflect that, and restore the confidence of the team, the members and the club which has been tested in recent seasons and we need to show them that we can be trusted with their club.

For you, was it about coming into the club knowing exactly what needed changing or was it about listening and learning?

John Didulica: I think it always has to be about listening and learning. Absolutely that has to be the starting point. I’ve got some models and framework which I like to operate within, but populating that and identifying what needs to be done sequentially is very much about listening and learning.

It’s about seeing where we’re at now, what the acute areas that required immediate attention were, and in our case, it was pretty obvious. We had a brand-new coaching team that we needed to bed down; we had a lot of squad reconstruction that needed to happen; we had to reboot the entire medical department, so, there were a whole of things facing us right from the outset.

Counterintuitively, that’s helped us to build a lot of momentum as it’s forced us to get things done pretty quickly and in a really decisive way. And with a lot of new people on board there’s a lot of really good ideas being shared and I think overtime we’ll start bedding those things down.

But it’s certainly not about disregarding what’s happened over the best part of two decades just because of a couple of lean seasons. I think if anything, the lessons from 3-5 years ago are a lot louder because Victory’s lost its way in the last couple of seasons.

We’re still lucky to have people like Carl Valeri around who has been a great servant at the club for many years and who works in the role of Player Operations Manager. It can just remind us of what we’ve done well in the past and can ensure that we’re continuing to bottle the great things that Victory has done in the past rather than reinvent the wheel.

MVFC

With the acquisitions of Tony Popovic and numerous proven A-League talents, what are Victory’s objectives for the coming season on the pitch?

John Didulica: Our aspirations are absolutely to challenge for trophies, that’s our expectations internally and I’m sure they’re shared by the members as well. They want to see a team that’s challenging for Honours – that’s certainly Tony’s mindset.

We’re strategically focused on bringing elite Australian talent into the squad and that’s been our absolute priority. Chris Ikonomidis, Josh Brillante, Jason Davidson, Jason Geria, to name a few, are all highly regarded elite proven international level players. So, to have those guys come in it’s a really powerful core and foundation for the club.

And, we might not get everything right in season one because we have so much to do, but I’m really confident that we’ve got a super strong core that will ensure we have a successful season and will only get better in the years to come.

There’s a seduction to going for a couple of big-name players and bringing them in and hoping that they can be a sugar hit, but I just don’t think that’s sustainable and I don’t think that’s what we need at the moment. Because we’re going through so many changes, we need to be able to make as many sure bets as possible. I think with a lot of the players and coaching staff we know exactly what we’re going to get, and we know their history is decorated.

There has been a drive at the club to re-engage the Victory faithful who have ridden through the tough recent history. For Victory fans, what do you believe are the key values off the pitch that need to be reflected on the pitch?

John Didulica: The number one thing I think is for the administration team to match the ambition that the fans have for their club. Our fans at Melbourne Victory are hugely ambitious for what Melbourne Victory can be. Games like we had against Liverpool, that was a magical moment for a lot of people.

Building AAMI Park, something like that doesn’t happen without Melbourne Victory being a success. There’s huge moments and huge steps forward for the sport that are a consequence of Victory doing well. So, the fans see that and are proud to be associated with this club.

Where we need to get back to now is matching the ambition that the fans have for this club. And that’s what we’re committed to doing and I think the board’s demonstrated that by signing Tony Popovic, who’s one of the best Australian coaches and players that are very ambitious, so we know we’re going to get people who are just as ambitious as we want to be.

And I think that sits at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve – matching the fans’ ambition and energy for our club. And if we do that, I know we’re going to be successful. Because we’ve got fans who live and breathe the club and if we reciprocate that then I know we’ll be successful.

Popovic

You’re now coming into an A-League side that has been around since the beginning of the league’s creation, but taking it back over 10 years ago you spent a few years at the Melbourne Heart from their inauguration. What did you learn from your time at the side in their early years?

John Didulica: One of the things I’ve often learnt on a personal level is to be resourceful and resilient. We didn’t have huge budgets and we ran incredibly lean. We were up against Melbourne Victory who had had such great success as a club.

From my perspective it was great to add to the tapestry of football in Melbourne. The pressure of the Melbourne Derby was, for me, one of the real highlights in A-League history. Those nights have been fantastic regardless of whether you were on the red side of the fence or the dark blue side of the fence, they were great nights.

In terms of that experience [at Melbourne Heart], resourcefulness and resilience were key. What resonated with me during that period was getting a more acute understanding of what the implication taking shortcuts were. When you’re at a club that’s resource-poor, sometimes you have to do that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s not sustainable.

So, very much coming into Victory it’s key that we’re not going to take shortcuts. We’re going to make sure, to the extent possible, remove as much risk from what we do. That means bringing in high calibre people, servicing them effectively and having the right support around people. Even in those days at Heart we still managed to produce some incredible players; Aziz Behich, Eli Babalj, Curtis Good – these guys were all capped because of the opportunity they were given.

There’s a lot of lessons that I’ve taken with me about the capacity to run youth effectively and hopefully that can be something we can continue to build on here at Victory.

Melbourne Heart

A challenge for Australian football throughout its history has been its search for an identity in the midst of such a diverse sporting landscape. From doing such a deep dive with ‘Football Belongs’, what was confirmed about Australian football for you and what surprised you?

John Didulica: Ultimately, what I was investigating through that series was why is it that we’re not comfortable in our own skin. As football fans we’re always looking for some sort of external validation for who we are. And the more you unwrap football the more you understand the way Australia’s evolved, and therefore the role played by football in shaping modern day Australia and how deeply embedded football is in all of these key themes of Australian life.

And that’s something to be so proud of as a code. We don’t need external validation for what we are as football supporters, I think we should be incredibly proud of what we’ve done. Projecting that forward, I think football has the power to help Australia become a far more progressive nation in the decades ahead.

In the same way football helped Australia navigate the influx of migrants has shown, with the likes of John Moriarty and Charles Perkins, it showed a genuine way of respecting Indigenous footballers. There’s a lot football can do about helping Australia navigate the challenges that we’re going to face as a nation in the generations ahead.

As a sport, we need to take a leadership role in those areas. Anyone who is passionate about football knows it is more than just a sport. Nobody follows football for the ninety minutes on the pitch, as beautiful as that is, we’re all in it because it touches us far deeper. It’s about connecting to your ancestry and the broader community and being able to explore the broader world.

How many football fans would know the capital cities and flags of the world by virtue of their passion for football? Football is an incredible portal to the world and we need to celebrate that more. And it’s about having confidence in celebrating.

A club like Victory is a great segue in regards to ‘Football Belongs’, because Victory’s got a lot of opportunity to lead in a lot of those areas. We’re the biggest football club in the sporting capital of the world in the world’s biggest sport. If you bring those three things together, Victory is uniquely positioned to lead in an incredibly compelling and exciting way.

Asian Cup 2015

Creating upside: Four lessons for Australian football from US investors in Europe

It is often said that the United States has the biggest and best sporting market in the world.

According to the latest number from Forbes, the average value of a franchise in the National Football League (NFL) is $3.48 billion USD, a 14% increase on 2020.

In the NBA, the average franchise value is $2.202 billion USD, having steadily risen year-on-year since 2015 which was the first year that the average value crept over the $1 billion USD mark.

Even in the much-maligned MLS, the average franchise value is a cool $550 million USD up from $319 million USD in 2019 – a remarkable 72% increase.

So, with such a booming sports economy on their own doorstep, why are American investors turning to European football?

That was the question The Athletic Football Podcast hosts, Mark Chapman and Matt Slater, sought to answer in the latest episode of their podcast.

In two revealing conversations with US sports investors Michael Kalt and Brett Johnson, there were some potentially interesting lessons for Australian football to learn.

Kalt, who rose to sporting fame as part of the investment group that helped transform the fortunes of the Tampa Bay Rays in the MLB, now leads consortiums investing in European football clubs with current investments in AS Nancy in France and Oostende in Belgium.

Johnson is co-owner of Ipswich Town and also the owner and director of Phoenix Rising Football Club, which plays in the second tier of US football.

So, what do they like about European football?

Why don’t they invest the same sizeable funds into MLS teams?

What can Australian football learn?

Below we highlight four key lessons.

Upside Counts

The majority of clubs that Kalt and his consortiums look at investing in are loss-making businesses.

They don’t make money.

So why, when you have significant investment capital and can invest in a booming domestic sports market, do you choose to take your money to Europe and put it in loss-making clubs?

For Kalt, there are three things a club has to have to prove its investment value.

  1. Asymmetric Upside via promotion or European qualification
  2. Room for commercial improvement
  3. Training profits (EG: Player Transfers)

On the first point, Kalt explains the uniqueness of promotion and relegation and continental competition created pockets of value in Europe that offered much lower costs of entry in Europe.

“Can you buy them when you’re up underlying your downsize risk, meaning you’re not paying full price for a club that is recently promoted or in the top league or coming off European competition and you’re paying full price,” he said.

“If you look at the clubs we bought, we’ve bought clubs like Nancy, historically a club that has been in Ligue 1 and bounced back and forth. It has the infrastructure of a Ligue 1 team. It should be a first division, mid-table club, so there’s headroom there and not a lot of downside risk.

“That’s the sort of situation we look for, where there is an asymmetric upside, either through promotion or European qualification in a smaller club where we think we can compete in the top four or five teams.

On what he termed, “Training Profits”, which most readers would refer to as player transfers, Kalt thinks it’s incredible that a club could generate a sizeable portion of its overall value simply by trading players.

“This is a massive mover in this,” he said.

“When you create that value in American sports, the only way to really monetize it on the player basis is to make like exchanges. To say, I have a player that has demonstrated his worth and the market will pay way more for him. He’s got three or four years left of club control … your only path to monetization is to keep that player and hope the club plays better and people show up and you generate more revenue in the stadium.

“Or you go and try and trade the player for younger, more controllable talent and hope that that talent does the same thing.

“In Europe, you create value, and the market comes to you and says ‘okay, today we’re willing to pay ‘x’ for that player, and, by the way, that ‘x’ might be some significant portion of what you played for the club!’

“That system, combined with analytics to create that value, which is how we started looking at this … is why it’s so intriguing.

“You reinvest some of that back into the club and you can reduce your downside.”

Europe’s football culture and ecosystem are, obviously, significantly more developed than that of Australia or the United States.

But what is interesting to take from the conversation is the factors that make for a worthwhile investment for Kalt and his ilk.

They want to invest in clubs that have room to grow.

None of this is to suggest that the incorporation of promotion and relegation in Australia is going to send a flood of overseas investors ready to throw their money at ‘B-League’ or National Premier Leagues clubs.

But it does inherently create potential upside in investing in the secondary tiers of Australian football, particularly for local investors.

We have already seen in the most recent round of A-League expansions that there was potentially a lot of money left on the table by unsuccessful bidders looking for a way into Australia’s top flight.

The implementation of promotion and relegation could unlock similar pockets of value in Australia.

The addition of a domestic transfer market will also go a long way to increasing the upside of clubs in the A-League and potentially below.

Franchises Limit Upside

When discussing MLS specifically, Kalt believes one of the major obstacles facing the growth of MLS was to be the American attitude of, generally, not being as interested in watching sports that are not “the best”.

But perhaps the most interesting thing Kalt had to say about the investment value of MLS franchises is that their value was largely being grown by the expansion of the competition and the prices being paid for new licenses, dragging the value of the existing licenses up by association.

“Valuations five, six, seven years ago you had a 50 or 60 million cost of entry, which – candidly – still seems a little high given the economics of these clubs,” he said.

“But when you see these club trading at 200, 300, 400-million-dollar valuations, it’s hard for me to get my head around and I know it’s hard for a lot of people in the business to get their head around.

“I think a lot of it, historically, was justified on, ‘well, you buy in now because the next expansion franchise is going to be worth ‘y’’.

“But you’re not going to have a league with 60 clubs, so you’re running out of the ability to do that.”

This sounds alarmingly similar to the A-League, where hopes for the growth of the sport are so consistently pinned on expansion.

They might equate to growth for the value of A-League licenses and the value for the investors who own them, but it’s not enough alone to drive true value in football.

MLS’ One Big Tick

It wasn’t all bad for the MLS. Kalt had to give credit to the MLS for at least one thing.

Infrastructure.

“The amazing thing that they’ve done is that they’ve created the infrastructure for soccer in the United States that never existed before.

“They’re not just sticking teams in and hiring a bunch of over the hill stars and having them play in football (NFL) stadiums and hoping they can sustain it.

“They’re doing the right thing and the league is sustainable, whether at half-billion-dollar franchise valuations is a more debatable proposition.”

This is a crucial lesson for the A-League.

Over 15 years into this journey and there remains embarrassingly little football-specific infrastructure.

There has been some good ground made in recent years by some clubs, but overall, after 15 years one gets the feeling there is very little to show for all the investment made in the A-League.

We’ve had some great seasons, some great matches and some great players grace the league…but if the league collapsed tomorrow, what proof would there be that the A-League and its clubs actually existed?

This has to be urgently addressed.

Gratification Bonus

Another reason cited as key for both Kalt and Johnson in their investment in European football was the sense of gratification of investment in clubs and their surrounding communities.

Now let’s not get carried away. No one is suggesting for a second that these investors aren’t backing in European football for humanitarian reasons.

They’re in it because they see value in their investment.

But can they make themselves feel good about making money in the process?

Well, that’s a bonus. The benefits for the community, however, can be very real and tangible.

Research from 2019 shows Manchester City’s involvement in the title chase with Liverpool was worth £220 million to Manchester’s economy.

According to the think tank Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR), spending on match-day tickets, merchandise, and hospitality can boost a city’s economic growth by 1.1 percentage points.

At the lower level, Ipswich Town co-owner Johnson felt there was a great sense of satisfaction to be taken from investing in the surrounding community.

“It’s critical to be engaged with the community,” he said.

“I view [these clubs] as beacons. In England, these communities live and die by the success of these clubs and it’s been painful for these fans have been watching this beautiful asset punch below its weight class.

“It’s not just enough to win, you have to try and make improvements broadly.”

A big part of Kalt’s model was being able to choose clubs with room for improvement because it would be easier to keep the fans onside as things improved.

“Coming into a club that is perfectly run as the next owner is not a situation I would ever want to be in,” he said.

“You want to come into a situation where there’s headroom … you want to have some goodwill built in.

“We’re going to stabilise this, and you know your club is going to be around in a year.”

The question for Australian football is, how do we create value and the feel-good factor around our clubs that encourage the investment they require?

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