Another month, another backwards step from Football Federation Australia (FFA).
The A-League expansion that was promised time and time again for the beginning of next season has now officially been pushed back until the 2018/19 season at the earliest.
Not only has expansion been pushed back, the FFA has declared that any expansion under the current A-League model would be “disastrous”!
But this is nothing new. I have already discussed the FFA’s tendency to backtrack on promises, and the mainstream media has also taken to holding the national governing body to account in recent days.
— Matthew Galea (@mg91) March 6, 2017
Despite the FFA’s hesitation, bids for expansion have continued to pop-up. A Chinese-consortium-backed South Sydney bid was launched in early March, much to the irritation of former National Soccer League club Wollongong Wolves who are desperate to return to the national stage.
In Victoria, the bid from the regional town of Geelong launched a masterplan for a soccer-specific facility. One must almost admire the persistence of the concerned consortiums in the face of ever-shifting deadlines and false horizons from the powers that be.
This battle for expansion licenses, which continue to allude all parties interested in them, is set against the backdrop of a historic political struggle in a FIFA-forced review of the FFA’s constitution, board structure and voting rights.
Once again, however, it is what is bubbling away under the surface that should grab the attention.
On Monday, March 7, 2017, representatives from at least 18 National Premier Leagues (NPL) Victoria clubs, as well as representatives from the state governing body, Football Federation Victoria, sat down at Heidelberg United’s clubrooms to discuss the formation of a national association of NPL clubs.
The discussion itself varied from the sensible to the wildly ambitious as the representatives explored their various concerns with the state of the game and its future in Australia.
Conscious of the re-structure taking place at an FFA level, the first major goal for the new association was to earn a seat at the highest table.
Another point of general agreeance was that a long-term ambition should be the creation of a truly national second division, even if such an ambition is years in the making.
The common denominator, however, was the concern every club shared for the future of the game in Australia, the lack of resources afforded to them from the top down to properly fulfil their role in the game and the potential for that role to evolve and become fully integrated with the A-League model.
A committee of five was formed at the meeting with the task of setting up a meeting on Monday, March 20, 2017 to consult with and sign up as many clubs as possible.
While those present all represented Victorian clubs, at least another nine Victorian clubs expressed support for the idea to the organisers, while at least five New South Wales clubs – all former NSL clubs – were also backing the formation of a national body to represent the interests of NPL clubs.
That takes the rough number of clubs seeking involvement in the association to 31.
It is far too early in the piece to tell the significance of this meeting, but if the representatives present and the committee formed are successful in signing up the vast majority of the near 100 NPL clubs around Australia, they will have a united force that even the FFA will struggle to ignore.
If this association, still in its infancy, can succeed in finding and capitalising on the aligned interests of NPL clubs across Australia, perhaps then this meeting will eventually be viewed as one of historic significance for Australian football.
This association must transcend state interests and must avoid being driven by individual club agendas to have any chance of being successful.
Truth be told, it is only with a united front that NPL clubs – many of which formed the lifeblood of Australian football long before the concept of the A-League and the franchises it birthed even existed – can protect their interests and push for the integration it desperately needs with the top of the football pyramid.
When the NPL was introduced, it was under the idea that the clubs that formed it would become the pathway for elite junior development. That was why they had to pay grossly expensive license fees to participate, follow strict guidelines on the coaches they could employ and cut their junior programs to one team per age group.
Since, these clubs have played without the potential prize of promotion to Australia’s top-flight, making the pursuit of senior glory about pride more than anything else.
While the lack of transfer fees or compensation for producing players who are taken away by A-League clubs disincentives a focus on youth development.
The fact that so few of those players go onto play senior football in the A-League, after years of playing in the National Youth League – essentially an under-21 competition in which talented kids play other talented kids without any exposure to senior football – is of further concern.
Beyond that, the cost of participation has been passed onto the parents, who pay eye-watering fees, sometimes in excess of $2000 for their child to play football.
Not enough of that money is leftover, after paying for license fees and coaches (and admittedly in some instances, senior players) to reinvest into the club’s various facilities and other needs to keep up with rates of participation.
The FFA is too busy sorting out its own governance mess to focus on the ongoing struggles of NPL clubs caused by their complete disconnection from the top of the football pyramid, and the A-League clubs’ attempts to wrestle control of the league and licenses from the FFA could be a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire for the future of the NPL and a potential national second division.
It is left, therefore, to the NPL clubs to organise themselves and have a considerable, united say on the future of Australian football and the vital role they have played and continue to play in it.
If they can succeed in presenting a united front, they might just change the course of the game in Australia.