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The Toll Sports Take on Mental Health

We, as sports fans don’t often realise just how seriously the players take themselves.

For us, sports are an escape. It’s a cause for us to get behind, because we love the game.

But for some of the players, their motivations stem from the opposite end of the spectrum.

They play because it’s their livelihoods. Many players join professional clubs straight out of high school.

We see it every year in the AFL, where the majority of players who are selected in the annual AFL Draft are 18 years old.

Many are then required to move away from their hometowns and families for an unknown period of time, without much if any prior notice.

As fans, we don’t truly understand how surreal that must be.

Imagine one day, you have to leave everything you know and love behind for a new job with people you’ve never met before, in a town you have never been to before.

It would be quite daunting.

Then, there are some who don’t even finish year 12 prior to starting their professional sporting careers.

For example, Richmond Football Club’s Jack Higgins decided against going through year 12 at school in his bid to become a professional player.

Higgins recently underwent brain surgery to repair a brain bleed and is on the road to recovery and hopefully, he’ll return to the field in 2020.

But so far, his career has been a success, establishing himself as a regular member of the Richmond seniors side. In time, he’ll become a seriously good player.

But let’s take a moment to think about what would happen if, for whatever reason, his career didn’t work out.

He has no VCE education and no university degree.

It would mean he’d have to go back to school or to university and almost start from scratch.

With that in mind, the pressure to consistently perform would be palpable. Completely unenviable.

One too many mistakes could be the end and for some, they would not know where to go. That kind of mammoth pressure would take its toll.

These players give their all to the sports they play. They live and breathe it. It’s their way of life. It’s their job.

When you’re at work, there’s always pressure to perform and get your duties done. You feel awful when you don’t do your job properly, knowing that there could be consequences.

When these players dip in form or succumb to injuries, they feel they are unable to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.

And that can seriously impact upon their confidence.

We’ve seen players take breaks away from sports to focus on restoring their mental health, which is both nice to see and also devastating.

We want to see them strutting their stuff at the highest level, but we also hope that, above all else, they stay healthy in both a physical and mental way.

In recent times, Victorian cricketers Nic Maddinson, Will Pucovski and Glenn Maxwell have taken breaks away from the sport to look after themselves.

Maddinson and Maxwell have both represented Australia at different forms of the game, while Pucovski has been touted as one of the highest potential players in the country.

But that is partly why they are taking these breaks.

They know what level they can play at or what level they will play at in the near future.

But under that pressure, combined with the minority of people on social media who lack any form of empathy, they lack the self-confidence they need to be able to play to the best of their abilities.

Speaking of social media, it can be a brutal place at times.

When players don’t perform at the standard they feel are required, some people are very quick to blast them from the safety of their keyboards.

They say these things without any thought to how a player is feeling off the field or how they may respond to those comments, whether that’s verbal or not.

A great soccer example is that of former Arsenal club captain Granit Xhaka.

Ever since his arrival at the club from German club Borussia Mochengladbach, the Swiss international has faced criticism from fans for what they see as a lack of ability to ‘make it in the Premier League’.

Those fans became irate when he was named club captain ahead of the 2019/2020 Premier League season.

His performances were still viewed upon as poor and many fans felt those on the substitutes bench would do a better job.

This all came to a head during Arsenal’s 2-2 draw at home to Crystal Palace on October 28.

Xhaka was substituted out in the 60th minute and the fans were quick to let him know how they felt.

He then told the fans where to stick it and quickly went down the race. He is yet to return to first team football nearly a month on from the incident. There are even rumours he may leave the club in the January transfer window.

Clearly, the Arsenal fans had struck a chord with Xhaka, forcing a reaction out of him that was extremely uncharacteristic.

Who knows how much of an impact this has had on him and his mental health?

Imagine a large contingent of people began berating and badmouthing you online because you were underperforming at your workplace.

You never know how a player is feeling deep down. You can make assumptions, but you never truly know.

Mental health a serious issue and way too many lives have been lost to it.

During times like these, when so many people need help for issues they can’t resolve on their own, we need to come together.

 

 

Caelum Ferrarese is a Senior journalist with Soccerscene. He reports widely on micro policy within Australasia and industry disruptions at grassroots level.

Why the FFA Cup is perfectly placed to kick-start a resurgent season for Australian football

FFA Cup

Fans of Australian football could not have predicted the tumultuous ride that the sport has taken over the past few years.

The recent acquisition of all domestic football products (including all A-Leagues, internationals, Asian Cup and FFA Cup matches) by 10 ViacomCBS has delivered an overdue confidence boost for even the most perpetually cynical of Australia’s football fandom. And rather than placate fans with gimmicks, 10 ViacomCBS have opted to embrace football for its greatest attributes – the stories and the fans, qualities that the FFA Cup possesses in abundance.

The FFA Cup is not just the often singularly represented storyline of the under-resourced semi-professional minnows taking it to the well-backed sides of the A-League. It’s the deeper footballing stories of club CEO John Boulous encouraging a festival of football atmosphere for Sydney Olympic’s resolute fanbase to enjoy in the upcoming clash against A-League giants Sydney FC; of Head Coach Stewart Montgomery taking an unfancied Mount Druitt Town Rangers to potential lofty heights; and of NBL Hall of Famer and now Blacktown City Executive Chairman Bob Turner working to establish the side as the pride of Blacktown.

Trophy

Each of these fragments in time correspond as mere moments in a competition wholeheartedly intended to enliven the Australian footballing public to latch on to these stories and to the players who shine in these fiercely competitive knockout tournaments.

“We are a big club, with a strong following and tradition in Australian football, and are still recognised nationally. In matches like this, Australians like to see underdogs; they like to see both the experienced and younger kids in our squad get that opportunity,” Boulous said.

“I think what’s important as a club is we need to give them that opportunity. You need to be given that opportunity to play against the best players in Australia. If you play against the best players in Australia, and you do well, you’re all of a sudden on the radar.”

Olympic

Traditionally, the FFA Cup is a curtain raiser to the A-League Men’s competition – but due to COVID-enforced extended lockdowns across Australia, the competition has experienced significant delays.

However, by remaining steadfast in ensuring that the competition is completed, Football Australia have stayed true to the timeline they committed to in the release of their Domestic Match Calendar that was outlined earlier this year.

Even if that means National Premier Leagues (NPL) clubs are handed less time to prepare, their excitement is still palpable.

The capacity for NPL clubs to be able to effectively match A-League sides well into their own pre-season is an obvious challenge befitting any gargantuan David versus Goliath monolith of an analogy that has been overcome by these same clubs for years. And it is certainly one the clubs are well aware of and eager to overcome.

“It just highlights that with extensive training, focus, application and resources being thrown at the NPL level in the lead-up to these games, the difference between a standard A-League player and your good NPL player is not that big. The difference is training and that continued exposure to professional full-time training,” Montgomery said.

“I’ve got no doubt that if we gave two thirds of the players in the NPL exactly that you’d see games being even closer.

“I think historically the A-League teams are coming into their pre-season when we are finishing our season but this will be interesting, because the A-League teams have been well and truly in their preparation for pre-season and are super fit.

“They’ve had the ability to train because of their professional status through the government giving them access to training, whereas the NPL clubs haven’t been able to do anything. It’ll be an interesting to see the outcome of these next three games.”

Rangers

This year’s iteration of the FFA Cup will offer NPL clubs a greater impetus to pursue a spot in the FFA Cup Final – due to the added incentive of a spot in the Asian Champions League’s preliminary round.

Whilst cup competitions are traditionally notable for facilitating matches typified by a dearth of free-flowing end-to-end football due to the added weight of expectations and the intuition for coaches to (understandably) invoke their innermost pragmatic instincts, they exist as a platform for unpredictable instances of magic and breath-taking nights of football. Blacktown City are no strangers to such occasions, having notched a remarkable 3-2 win over their upcoming Round of 32 opposition – Central Coast Mariners – in the 2017 edition of the tournament at the very same stage.

With the tie set to take place at Mudgee’s Glen Willow Regional Sports Stadium, there will be an undoubted added intensity to the game.

“The reason we took it to a regional area in Mudgee is that Central Coast and ourselves both thought that this would be a very positive move for football. For Mudgee it’s a great opportunity to see top-notch football and from what I understand, their ground is top-notch,” Turner said.

“We know that they’ll welcome us and we’re expecting a big crowd.

“Four years ago, we played the Mariners in the FFA Cup and we knocked them off. And then we played the Wanderers and had 5,000 people at the ground. It’s a great stimulus for us to be able to show our credibility as a team and bring some extra pride as a team.”

BCFC

The strength of the FFA Cup lies in not just how effectively it encapsulates Australian football as a microcosm, or in the way it emphatically engages the hardcore Australian football fandom, but in the way it unites and invigorates local communities. A notion all three club devotees are impressively aware of.

“We hope to be able to get a strong crowd here at Belmore. And it will be Olympic supporters and Sydney FC supporters, but we hope that it will be football supporters. Because people have been starved of opportunities to go and watch football matches, and now, they have the opportunity,” Boulous conveyed.

“We’ve got a ground that can hold, in today’s climate, a really strong and big crowd. And I think that that’s important to get people here and back into football. People here want to see it.”

For Sydney Kings legend Bob Turner, both the legacy of his time at Blacktown City and the impact of a potentially successful cup run is uncemented as of yet.

“Our goal is to become what the Panthers are for Penrith, we’re Blacktown City. There’s plenty of sport being played, but there’s nobody like us in town. For me that’s a huge plus. We have all of the ingredients, including one of the nicest stadiums in all of Sydney which we now control and we have history,” he said.

“The one thing I can say we’ve been a letdown in, from a marketing point of view, is how to tell Blacktown who we are. Within two years I think that we’ll be the toast of Blacktown. Blacktown has 188 different nationalities and arguably 80% of them grew up in a country where football is number one.”

Turner

For Montgomery, the occasion will be one to savour for a Rangers side representing a community with plenty to prove. Particularly in a winnable match against a Wollongong Wolves side they had beaten 3-0 prior to the NPL NSW season being interrupted.

“It can put an exclamation mark on a season that had unfulfilled expectations, so, it allows us to continue playing, stay together as a group and build the club’s profile which is really important for us,” he said.

“A lot of people are waiting for us to fall over and they’re expecting us to drop back down. So, every day we approach it in the same way where people expect us to not perform, and every time we do the opposite of that we send a message.

“We represent an area that doesn’t get the respect that it deserves and we take the park to represent the whole of the City of Blacktown area and the Western suburbs. We take a lot of pride in that and we’ve got a great, passionate vocal support that gets behind us. And Saturday night’s going to be a great night.”

Leading into the season there will be six FFA Cup Round of 32 games available to attend or to watch via Paramount+, with more to follow-up the beginning of the A-League Men’s season on Friday, November 19. All tickets to games can be accessed via the FFA Cup website here.

Is Australia ready for a two-year World Cup cycle?

Battle lines are being drawn between FIFA and key stakeholders, as it remains to be seen whether Australia will support the push for a two-year World Cup cycle.

FIFA’s minutes from the 71st Congress, where Saudi Arabia put forward the motion to study the viability of a two-year cycle, doesn’t include what member federations voted for in the motion.

Football Australia hasn’t stated publicly whether they were one of the 166 nations who voted for the motion, or whether they support the plans.

Football Australia is instead adopting a wait-and-see approach, to avoid taking a position before any proposal for changes are put forward after the viability study is completed.

Two-time A-League Coach of the Year Ernie Merrick believes the push from FIFA for a two-year World Cup cycle is because of business and money.

“It’s about profit and loss. It’s not about the people in the sport really, and FIFA are always competing with their confederations, of which there are six, and FIFA only have one event where they make substantial money from revenue and that’s every four years,” Merrick said.

“So in effect FIFA loses money for three years, and then the fourth year and makes massive profits mainly from broadcast, ticket sales, and sponsorship from a World Cup.”

The majority of FIFA’s $8.7 billion in revenue between 2015-2018 came from the 2018 Men’s tournament.

The commercial value of another World Cup every four years is incredibly attractive to the governing body as a way to boost its already full coffers.

Australian football will struggle to keep up with other countries if the World Cup is hosted every two years, according to Merrick.

“At the same time a lot of countries, including Asian countries, are spending an enormous amount of money on facilities and preparation setups for national competition. We all know of England’s setup, which is huge at St George’s Park, and here we don’t have a designated specific setup to prepare national teams,” he said.

“There’s a lot of infrastructure that will have to change to give Australia a chance to qualify on a regular basis. We certainly have good players and good coaches and we can compete with anyone regarding players, coaching and strategy but when it comes to the sort of money involved in preparing a national team, friendly games, and the amount of travel involved, Australia is really going to suffer.”

Michael Valkanis – former A-League coach, player and current Greece assistant coach – believes that without aligning with FIFA international dates, it means the A-League will struggle to adapt to a two-year World Cup cycle.

“We saw the effects of the Socceroos going away to play, and it always makes it difficult on A-League coaches and teams to support that.” Valkanis said.

“You can see the effects it can have on finals games, and we’ve been crying out for a long time that we become parallel with the rest of the world with international dates.”

Some of Australia’s biggest competitors in the AFC are showing ambivalence towards the concept.

“It would depend on how it would all be organised,” a Korean FA official told Deutsche Welle.

“If we want to have consistent success then we need to play as many competitive games against South American and European teams as possible. At the moment, we play one or two games every four years if we qualify. It’s not enough.”

While the viability of a two-year World Cup cycle is being studied, it is unclear how determined FIFA is to implement such a radical change to the football calendar against intense opposition from some of its members.

Merrick believes the end result could be FIFA demanding a portion of the confederation’s revenue.

“I think four years is probably a better situation at the moment – maybe three years down the track – but I think confederations will have to come to an arrangement with FIFA, and FIFA will want to take some of their revenue somehow through licensing,” Merrick said.

Those involved in international football already believe that the best model is the one we have currently, something that Valkanis is a strong fan of.

“I am a traditionalist. I think the World Cup is something special that stands out from any other competition in the world,” he said.

“The only other event that comes close is the Olympic Games, and to change the format so we see it every two years instead of four, I don’t think it leaves it the same. It is special the way it is.”

Football Australia CEO James Johnson will have a challenge on his hands navigating what a change in the World Cup’s schedule means for Australian football, as FIFA continues to push for increased revenue from the game.

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