Friday, 5 December 2014

FFA's Whole of Football extravaganza - Melbourne edition

So FFA had decided to do some old fashioned box ticking public consultation about the future of the Australian game. Part of that includes a survey, and the other part a traveling roadshow of heavy hitters ready to face the Australian soccer public - well, at least those who bothered to apply and get selected for entry.

I had put in my application for the meeting, and was pleased to receive the metaphorical golden ticket to attend. It's easy to be cynical about these affairs, especially if you come to it with an obviously partisan point of view; but self-perpetuating cynicism shouldn't be the only outcome possible, only one of many possible outcomes.

A small audience in a large auditorium, it made me wonder if the FFA were being selective with who they allowed into the meeting, or whether there just wasn't that much interest from the general soccer public. There have been similar meetings in the past, which I have not attended, and which reputedly turned into farcical, partisan affairs. The Melbourne event on Thursday did not turn out that way. Most of the few people attending managed to ask sensible questions and make reasonable commentary, no matter how much I disagreed with their position. Apart from myself, the most rambling, elusive effort was by someone going on about the quality of referees, especially 'home team' refs who have dudded his team.

More problematic perhaps than partisan commentary, is apathy. The small crowd was one thing, but the follow through of discussion across the net appears to be negligible. Where I would have expected various soccer forums and bulletin boards to at least have a topic on the several meetings taking place across the country as part of this project, there appears to be next to no interest.

The meeting was chaired by Kyle Patterson, who steered the two hour long meeting from one animated slide to the next. A panel made up of John Aloisi, Damien De Bohun (head of the A-League), Emma Highwood (FFA head of community football and women's football) and FFA CEO David Gallop was also on hand. Gallop also provided a speech outlining... well, I don't know what exactly. He droned on for what seemed like a while (though it was probably only about ten minutes), saying as far as I can tell nothing of any importance and doing it in the most boring, soul sucking way possible. And thus in one fell swoop my desire to avoid being cynical was crushed.
It wasn't helped when they brought out the 1.9 million participant number, a hokey tactic straight out of the AFL, NRL and cricket playbooks.
That was just one of several things that would come up to which I felt there was not a satisfactory answer given, More on how the FFA see that number later on.

Of those people involved in a non-administrative role (that is, not within a Federation or other paid interest group), many seemed to come from the east and the south-east. Skye, Brighton, Ashburton were all represented, but rarely did there seem to be a northern or western voice, or an 'old soccer' voice heard. For mine, there was also not much discussed on women's soccer, at least not as much as I thought there would be, considering that's one of the Australian game's unambiguously brighter spots. Nothing at all that I can recall on futsal, some on disabled soccer.

The issue of representation came up every now and again. Jack Reilly (former FFA board member, and one time South goalkeeper) made the point that we have too many representative bodies, and that it'd be better to stop the doubling up of services and administrative bodies - but to me that came across as code for 'let's abolish the states, bring it all under FFA's command, and let's have no recourse to any sort of representation as recommended by the Crawford Report'. I wonder how the several FFV personnel in attendance, including FFV president Nick Monteleone, felt about that, especially when there was talk of too much political self-interest. But more on that later.
There was much discussion on the accessibility of football in terms of price, once again focusing primarily on the elite pathways. While all sorts of reasons were given as to why the costs were so high, there was one observation made that leaped out at me. When Patterson brought up the costs of his kids' violin lessons as a comparison to elite junior soccer training, I was taken back to 2012, when Tom Kalas made a similar point (which I noted in the comments section) when trying to explain or justify the proposed $3,500 cost of that original version of South's academy approach. In a nutshell, the point was that we had to stop comparing the costs of elite junior soccer to other sports, especially other football codes, and instead think about other expensive activities that kids might partake in, such as music, dance or karate.

The conclusions that I've drawn from those observations is that when it comes to the FFA and administrators within clubs who hold the same ideology, is that soccer is now a middle class aspirational pursuit. Whatever the social or fun aspects may be of violin, karate or dance, there's also quite clearly a bourgeois (both petite and haute) element to it. Soccer is no longer a game played at that level because of, or even primarily due to the fact that the kids enjoy it - it's now enmeshed in the same aspirational, civilising, networking, status seeking culture of the elite private school system.

No amount of scholarships - and really, considering the costs involved, and the lack of top down funding, how many scholarships can there be? - can resolve the inherent inequity in the system. And it's a system that's unequal in part because of the willingness of people to pay the outrageous fees to both the NPL sides and the academies promising the world, but possibly delivering more run of the mill players without any distinguishing features, except for an unearned sense of entitlement.

Though I was satisfied in my own curmudgeonly way to produce cynical tweets, throughout the night I was still wondering what question I would ask, because in all likelihood I'd only get to ask one. Sitting two seats to the left of me, Sydney FC fan and Australian soccer historian Les Street had the microphone in his hand twice, and didn't get to ask either of his questions.
Eventually the opening presented itself, when Patterson asked the audience about who felt engaged with the A-League, both as a supporter and in terms of whether they felt their community involvement, whether at a school or club had a genuine connection. It was interesting that there didn't seem to be this overwhelming feeling of connection to the A-League on a personal level, but that could just be a willfully pointed observation from me. Whatever that number for the supporter connection, far fewer people in the audience felt that their club, school or community engagement with the A-League was in any way satisfactory (ignoring the old soccer council of doom in my vicinity).

With only two A-League teams, it's of course difficult to spread those resources out - but with such a long off-season, surely there's more time to engage in these kinds of events? It does remind me however of comments on this matter that Melbourne Heart CEO Scott Munn once made at a local sports academic conference back in late 2012. From a marketing point of view, he seemed to see little value in terms of converting kids into fans from such one off visits.

And this is where the issue of leverage mentioned comes into it. The FFA, and Emma Highwood in particular who used that word, seemed to think that things like school visits and absurdly inflated participation numbers - which included intangibles like kids playing street soccer - were all about converting kids into being A-League fans. The difference with those of the community club sector was the community club representatives were showing annoyance at the lack of school visits not because of the missed opportunity of getting kids to follow the A-League, but to get them involved with the game of soccer as opposed to other sports. The example given to counter the FFA and Scott Munn approach was that Essendon and Melbourne Storm would make trips out to the relevant far more regularly, and that there was evidence to suggest that their efforts had more impact, because kids were taking up those sports.

Patterson then asked the audience for a show of hands of who didn't have a connection to the A-League, and I made a motion for the microphone. After I bumbled my way through a self introduction, including forgetting to give the blog a plug, I started off with making the obvious comment that I didn't feel connected to the A-League because my team wasn't in it, which presents one with a conundrum.
While in the majority of the rest of the soccer world, not having your team in the top-flight is reason enough not to take an interest, the peculiar situation of Australian soccer means that this position makes you come across as a recalcitrant. So how do you separate the appearance of selfishness from the driving principles which also underpin that disconnect? And how do you make an argument that can carry any sort of weight against the relatively overwhelming commercial and popular success of the A-League, Socceroos and FFA in the eyes of the backers of the new dawn?

It's a persistent problem, which is in some ways related to the issues of governance and accountability. If you're getting everything your own way, especially with regards to public relations and the lack of being able to be turfed out, why should you even care what some nobody from Altona North has to say?

What I did have to say is why did the FFA feel the need to bring in the NCIP, which threw off most of the panelists in part because they didn't seem to understand what was meant by NCIP - a classic Railpage Australia forums faux pas, whereby you should always remember to avoid abbreviations - and partly because I don't think people were expecting the issue to be brought up.

As has been made clear in my other writings and interviews on the matter of the National Club Identity Policy, I don't like it. I don't like it because regardless of whatever piecemeal regulations have been brought in over the course of Australian soccer's history, it's an irrelevancy. The A-League has superseded the ethnic bickering (such as it was) of the NSL. At state league level, with a couple of exceptions, no one is fooled about where each club's loyalties lie in terms of the game's ethnic mosaic, and there's little to no prospect of positive change being gained if you de-ethnicised the clubs at this level, regardless of what Roy Hay says.

And apart from all that, we're still a multicultural society and it should not be up to the FFA to decide how different groups are categorised. That's where my sense of oppression regarding this matter comes from. De Bohun got annoyed by this, and brought up the case of Bentleigh Greens and their moment in the FFA Cup limelight. Never mind that Bentleigh spend most of their existence being lucky to pull a hundred punters through the gates, nor the patronising Fox Sports commentary which, as several people have noted, reduced Bentleigh to the status of a late night kebab joint.

Patterson asserted that the push for the NCIP roll out - and really, who cares if it's not retrospective, that's nothing to do with anything - came from the grassroots. Patterson then brought up the absurd idea that the introduction of the NCIP so close to the launch of the FFA Cup, that tournament designed to bring together soccer's estranged factions, was entirely coincidental. Suffice to say, I'm not buying that, and neither did a lot of people when that came out.

Not wanting to deal with the issue, Patterson decided that the matter was best ended then and there, to be discussed with me personally after the meeting. (and I'm sorry Ian, even though you weren't there, for saying 'right' too many times again). To be fair, this wasn't out of step with the rest of the meeting. Topics sped by at a rate of knots for the most part, and I was clearly the most fired up person in the audience. The rest of the meeting then became a bit of a blur for me, as I sat seething in my seat.

 After the official parts of the meeting were concluded, I finally got to meet Evan Binos, an interesting character on Twitter. Binos' particular bugbear of late, an entirely valid one, is how can we ensure that community clubs are able to entice enough young and talented people to volunteer and run their committees? This is an especially important issue when looking at clubs designated as development clubs, whose responsibility is to create elite players. The paradigm being set up in these clubs is that of inherent self-interest, with the inevitable outcome seeming to me to be that loyalty under these conditions is almost impossible. How can the loyalty of a player be sustained, when the club is only keeping them there so long as they think that no other player can replace them? How can loyalty be built if a player is at a club only so long as they think their development couldn't be better served at another club? It creates a poisonous self-interested symbiotic relationship. And no, I don't think the zone system originally proposed by the FFV would have been any better.

 It finally came time to talk to Patterson on the side. This informal post-meeting gathering also included several South people, as well as Melbourne Knights vice-president Pave Jusup. Quite why Patterson felt he had to bring up the NSL only he knows. He began by comparing crowds, and mentioning his own pedigree with regards to involvement in the NSL, as if he was the only one involved, or as if we were petulant children too young to remember what the NSL was like. But the issue was not about back then, it's about the system as it is now. For all the talk that 'bitters' are hung up about the past, and willing to bring it up at any opportunity, those on the other side of the ledger are just as likely to bring it up, if not more so, because they see it as a useful stick to beat up anyone who disagrees with the current regime.

Of course, Jusup then got stuck into the NCIP topic, especially with his club's issue with their sponsorship being banned by FFA, after initially being approved. Patterson accused the Knights of trying to subvert the rule to make a political point, to which the answer was obvious - so what if they did? And how did Broadmeadow Magic get away with its ethnic sponsor? And who were these people from down below that suggested to FFA to bring in the NCIP? 'I can't tell you that' was the response. That's accountability right there. Never mind the fact that, when the policy was announced, it not only caught members of the new dawn online commentariat by surprise, but also saw significant opposition from them - because they thought that ten years on, the idea was utterly unnecessary and deliberately provocative. 


The reasoning used by Patterson that there were ethnic issues in junior soccer was almost laughable. I say almost because I could never be sure if he was trolling us. Surely bad behaviour by parents at junior games, as well as racial abuse and angst, is already covered by a plethora of other laws and statutes? What's the NCIP going to do to stop those kinds of people? Since when did dickhead parents at the soccer become an ethnic issue and not a dickhead parents issue the way that it is in other sports? Why focus on the symptom but not the disease?

The discussion then became a tit-for-tat about the way that the changeover to the new era happened, and whether it could have been done better. Where Jusup made the assertion that if Frank Lowy had simply made the call, that Knights and South could have been let into the VPL in 2004. Patterson pulled a Pontius Pilate on that one, absolving the FFA of any sort of responsibility, which quickly became a core theme. 

Whether accidentally or on purpose, Patterson admitted that the FFA were like FIFA - in other words, a self-styled benevolent dictatorship. How we even got to that stage is illuminating in itself. I made the point at one stage to Patterson that local representation was a crock, when someone like Jusup (also an FFV zone representative) could not even call an EGM. Patterson's reply was 'why would you call an EGM?' Maybe because you're concerned with the way the federation is being run, losing money hand over fist and becoming increasingly out of touch with its constituents? Because under a democratic system - the one the Crawford Report promised us - we should have the right to do so?

It was, really, the most disheartening part of the whole evening. Forget whatever hang ups I have about the NCIP, or my customary and safe cynicism. The fact the FFA can admit that it's a dictatorship, without shame because it knows it can't be touched, is deeply distressing - and I'm saying this even within the context of years of conspiracy building, and super hyper backs against the wall nonsense to make ourselves feel righteous. Earlier in the evening, I'd tweeted about feeling as if I'd walked into a meeting of the Politburo, the decisions already made and the audience being there merely to clap and agree with the secretariat's already made decision. And then you more or less get it confirmed.

Right at the end of the discussion, I noticed that Patterson had a 'we are football' sticker or badge on his jacket. It reminded me of the time I went to an FFV life members Christmas function several years ago, which I attended courtesy of my being on the FFV's historical committee. After Rale Rasic had given his speech as special guest, Nick Monteleone went about making a big deal about the slogan handing out badges and the like. While the new dawn run around with their slogan, those of us not entirely on board are branded with the ethnic soccer
Mark of Cain, a curse forever separating us from the chosen people. How's that for melodrama?

The next day, while going through an online debrief with several like minded people, the FFA's version of events was put up. All that managed to get included were Reilly's governance remarks, Aloisi's idea that we need to focus on funding better coaching and talent identification, and that there was lively debate. What's that line about never starting a royal commission unless you know what the result will be in advance?
Then again, all this is only one point of view. Others probably thought the affair was well worth the effort.

11 comments:

  1. That's one of the best things you've written Paul, brilliant stuff. Can't say I'm surprised by Kyle's antics, when watching him back in the day on SBS he always came across as a massive dickhead. Nice job on refraining from punching him in the face.

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    1. I guess what's annoying is that in the past, Kyle would have been the one to be getting pissed off by the anrics of soccer's administrators. But maybe, as other people have noted, this model is what the SBS people demanding reform back then would have wanted - and if thats the case, why would they complain about this regime? The ends justify the means rears its head again.

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  2. The fact that their version of what happened at the Forum could have been written and put on their website before it was held says it all. Stage managed spin.

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    1. They got Jack Reilly to start the agenda they are looking to push, anything raised on the night they didn't like was not given a mention.

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    2. http://www.fourfourtwo.com/au/news/former-socceroo-urges-ffa-dump-state-federations?utm_source=www.footballtoday.com.au&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=www.footballtoday.com.au

      And it begins...

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  3. The thing is - and it takes forever for me to cotton on to things and join the dots, so don't be hard on me - an issue like the NCIP is an issue for everyone involved in Australian soccer, regardless if you're old soccer, new football, a bit of both or entirely indifferent to the matter. And it's important because the NCIP is about control. It's about FFA controlling as much as they possibly can.

    Now some may see this kind of paternalism as regrettable, but necessary; others as something worth having, after the relative chaos of the era before this one; but to me it's a deeply troubling phenomenon that FFA can't trust anybody other than themselves to make decisions in the game, and this is an issue that goes beyond what some suburban wog club wants to do with its logo. The Arabs from Melbourne Heart flying the A-League owners to Dubai is based upon the same issue. It's about who's controlling the game and who's controlling the message. And FFA possibly won't be happy until every decision about the game is made in a Sydney office.

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  4. Fark! Would've applied for this, but sat on the survey for a week and missed the boat completely.

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  5. A hell of a read this one, Paul!

    However, what intrigued more, were a couple of the links you put up to an old piece about the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief, and an even older piece by Supermercado.

    Due to being a very strong NSL critic at the time, which partly explained why I stopped going to the NSL, and therefore not being immersed in the demise of the NSL and South's 'exclusion' from the A league, I never experienced the 5 stages (particularly the first one of Denial). I did, however, experience Anger when the A League started to belittle everything that preceded it. And, since returning to South, I am always looking at Bargaining our way back, through the unsuccessful takeover of the Heartless licence, and, as I will explain later, via the 3rd team strategy.(I was not supporting South during the second licence period that was given to Heartless)

    But ultimately, Acceptance is always there, whenever the bargaining falls through. Yet NEVER depressed.

    The issue with a 3rd team was mentioned by me in a comment to your previous post the other day. Perversely, I put forward reasons that the FFA should NOT allow this. I then read this current post of yours, and the link to the Supermercado story from back in 2005 where he/she made the exact same observations about the regionals teams not deserving/warranting or being able to finance a team, and that the big two cities should have THREE teams.

    The A League has been able to get away with the formula, but, like the AFL is starting to find out, the gap between the haves and have nots is increasing.

    Interesting times ahead.

    Savvas Tzionis

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    1. Am always pleased when people who follow through on the links I include in my posts. With regards to third teams in Melbourne and Sydney, and the implications of that paradigm for us, I'll be dealing with that in some way in this month's digest piece, so you'll have to wait for a little while.

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  6. And to think that Uncle Frank's succession plan wasn't covered at all.

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While I like people commenting on the blog, it would be useful if different posters could at least leave some sort of nickname to make it easier to sort through all the different 'anonymous' posters. If your post doesn't get approved straight away, it's probably because I haven't seen it yet. Lastly, just because I approve a comment for publication does not mean that I endorse its content.