Can ‘The Championship’ bring promotion and relegation to Australia?

What do you do when your national football association is locked in a dirty legal stoush with its own stakeholders, you are institutionally locked out of the elite level of the game, any fair compensation for the production of its players and the sport has come to an administrative stand-still?

You take matters into your own hands.

Only time will tell if today’s announcement of a model for a national second division in Australia, dubbed “The Championship” and fronted by the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC), will be a success and no doubt there will be endless debate on the format, feasibility and entry criteria to follow.

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However, it is much better to have a debate around action than it is to have one about inaction.

Whatever one thinks of the AAFC and its whirlwind formation and entry in to the Australian football domain, it would be hard to deny that they are an actions-driven organisation.

Things have moved quickly – some might say too quickly – since the fateful meeting of several National Premier Leagues Victoria clubs at Heidelberg United’s clubrooms to discuss the potential of forming an association of NPL clubs on March 7.

Since then, the founding members have signed up over 100 clubs from around the country, who between them represent over 30,000 playing members.

At its Inaugural General Meeting it elected a board of six members, one from every represented state and territory within the Association and settled on six objectives:

  1. Pursue representation at the FFA Congress;
  2. Develop a model for a Second Division to be implemented by the earliest in the 2018-2019 season, with a timeline and plan for its full integration with the A-League including eventual promotion and relegation;
  3. Investigate opportunities for reductions to operating costs and increases to revenue and revenue streams to ensure financial viability while reducing the cost of junior participation at this level;
  4. Review and propose changes to the finance model and competition structure to unlock revenue streams and ensure compensation for players it develops is fair and readily secured;
  5. Build relationships at national, state and local levels in respect of facilities, sponsorship, grants and commercial opportunities; and
  6. Facilitate knowledge-sharing among its members through networking and sharing of information.

Points one and two have been pursued aggressively since day dot. The AAFC has been among the most vocal critics of the current FFA Congress set-up.

Despite its relative youth, the Association was successful in getting some airtime with both FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation during their recent visits to the country in the hopes of helping all stakeholders find some middle ground in the never-ending Congress debate.

Today’s announcement sees the first serious steps to accomplishing step two while the entry criteria for The Championship is clearly pointed towards helping its member clubs achieve points three-six.

Of course, without the approval of Football Federation Australia which – despite all their faults – remains the power broker of the game in Australia and a FIFA member, the announcement could be argued to be little more than grandstanding. An attempt to prove to the FFA that the appetite and the willingness from clubs, players, administrators and fans is there for a national second division.

The FFA for their part told the Australian Associated Press there had been “no meaningful contact” between the AAFC and themselves.

Of course, it’s hard for there to be meaningful contact when the door has long been closed on any notion of a truly national second division from the FFA. The fact that the national governing body holds such a position is in itself enough of a reason to question how seriously they take the growth of the game in Australia.

By now, there is no denying that the production line of talented footballers in Australia is attributable to the lack of professional opportunities, and the closed shop the A-League has become – in which players play for club after club and relatively few opportunities are given to new, younger players coming through the lower leagues.

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A national second division is the first step to increasing the number of competitions and fulfilling a basic right of football clubs all across the lands to aspire to playing the country’s top-flight, the A-League.

Expansion of the A-League in its current format will provide more opportunities, but it is not the long-term fix a national second division could eventually be.

The model put forward by the AAFC is far from perfect. It marries the brilliant – forcing prospective clubs to build and develop their own infrastructure and end the game’s reliance on absurdly expensive stadium hire for stadiums which are seldom full – with the absurd –the notion that the winner of The Championship should be granted qualification to the Asian Champions League.

However, at its heart it remains an important statement of the ambition and hunger of the nation’s football community.

You only have to glance at the AAFC’s timeline for implementation of The Championship to know that this is a hugely ambitious attempt to launch a national second division. For instance, the need for FFA endorsement by March 2018 already seems highly unlikely.

Regardless, it is the statement of ambition Australian football desperately needs in a year where the disgusting lack of leadership from the FFA has allowed a football civil war to brew.

If we are going to have a civil war, then perhaps this is the revolution Australian football needs.

Author Details

Matthew Galea

A former full-time journalist who crossed to the dark side of media and communications. Fortunately, football, Manchester United and freelance writing keeps me sane.

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