FFA released a discussion paper on 2 July setting out the principles it considers are fundamental for the growth and development of football in Australia, entitled
XI Principles for the future of Australian Football (“the XI Principles”). There has been much public reaction to it already, in both social and mainstream media. As the acknowledged representative of NPL Clubs, AAFC provides its initial response while conscious it is responding to a “living” document.
First, AAFC welcomes FFA’s initiative in starting an inclusive conversation and engaging all football people in its quest to remedy the problems our game continues to experience, and to secure a bright future for it. In recognition of the detailed work FFA has put into the preparation of what is an extensive document, we will take the time to carefully analyse it and consult our member clubs before formulating our comprehensive response and proposed courses of action. We appreciate FFA’s invitation to AAFC to contribute to the development of the “living” document into its final blueprint.
Although AAFC is a relatively new body, we are a Member of FFA Congress and we represent clubs which have been in existence many decades – some for well over a century. Collectively, they are a treasure trove of football knowledge, wisdom and experience. In our short history, we have consulted them and produced our May 2018 report, 5 Years of the NPL: A Clubs’ Perspective. Our philosophy can be found in the report which we distributed at the time.
In our view, the central building block of the game is the club. From strong, vibrant, inclusive clubs emerge players of all abilities and achievement. From Matildas and Socceroos to committed club footballers - all with an abiding and enduring love for the game. It is from such clubs that supporters are nurtured and inculcated for life, and then the lives of their children. Embedded generational support is the result. That is the hallmark of the strongest clubs around the world, whatever the football code or sport.
The potential of any club should never be curtailed. Clubs should not be conscripted to a purpose. It is natural that they will be mined for the treasure they produce. Enabling all clubs to participate in a linked football hierarchy best affords them the freedom to express their ambition and aspiration and to achieve their potential. Achieving the optimum collective outcome the clubs can provide ultimately lays the foundation for successful national teams. Players reaching their potential and supporters enjoying the game they love, watching the teams with which their lives are enmeshed as one.
In the search for an identity for our game, what is better than looking in the mirror and seeing inclusive clubs of all standards, run by their members under a strong governance model, participating directly in the governance of the game and free to express their aspiration and ambition to the best of their ability?
Football people shaping their clubs and their clubs providing enjoyment, satisfaction and pride to their people is the simple foundation of our game and we lose sight of it to our peril. In any search for an identity it is important to be true to oneself, to be who you are and to be content with it while trying to be the best you can be at all times. We are pleased FFA is now pursuing an identity which reflects our game rather than what it is not. An identity which does not depend upon reacting to the needs or wishes of others. We welcome the long overdue approach of adopting our own identity; being confident in who and what we are and where we have come from. We hope to help shape that identity.
We agree with FFA that the state of our game requires a re-think and a re-set. We are pleased FFA has felt the need to develop the XI Principles because the game is not in the place it should be. Certainly, it is not where we were promised it would be at the time of the last great change. It is only 17 years ago since we had the ‘Lowy revolution’, introducing a newly created top-tier for our domestic game. The A-League was at once privatised and isolated from the thousands of clubs around the country, many large, historic, ambitious, aspirational, successful and much-loved clubs among them.
These are clubs built by volunteers. Most of them were newly-arrived migrants, beginning with the British coalminers in the 1880s and continuing with people who arrived from all parts of the world who have all culturally enriched our country. As the FFA CEO, James Johnson, reflected in his introduction when referring to his own junior club in Rockhampton, the clubs they established became pillars of our community - a shared Australian experience and identity. In short, these clubs were and remain, cultural institutions.
While they form a crucial part of the fabric of Australian society, until recently, many were subjected to the misguided and retrograde National Club Identity Policy (NCIP), a policy which was consistent with the model for the game leading to its present state which the current FFA administration seeks to fix. At AAFC’s instigation, FFA thankfully repealed the NCIP last year.
It is now time to go further and remove all shackles, burdens and restrictions imposed upon these clubs. To allow them to reach their potential. Australia, at its best, is a meritocracy. Exclusivity is not the Australian way. Its limitations have been laid bare by the worsening problems experienced by the A-League. We aim to be a part of the resurgence of the A-League within a linked, season-aligned league structure, which is ultimately merit-based.
It is the continuation of these clubs - as strong, vital and ambitious football clubs - which is critical to the development and organic growth of our game. The Whole of Football Plan of the former FFA adminisration envisioned at least 75% of the supporters of our existing clubs becoming supporters of the newly-created A-League teams. This aim of the Whole of Football Plan, evident in the Yoshi and similar campaigns, has not succeeded and would likely have had the unintended consequence of weakening our clubs and therefore the underlying strength of our game. It is surely much better to ensure the ongoing strength of our A-League teams by growing the whole of our game? A rising tide lifts all ships.
Growing our base, which the XI Principles seek to do, is what our clubs have continued to do in recent years. Their continued strength in the face of the challenges posed to them by recent governance policies (now under review), has ensured the success of our much-loved FFA Cup and enabled the expansion of the A-League. In its XI Principles, FFA sees the opportunity for growth and aspiration which the FFA Cup affords our clubs, but it stops there. Why? That is the beginning of growth and aspiration, not the end. If it is good in such a small dose, within a cup competition, imagine how good it would be when applied to a comprehensive league competition? Why the reticence? Why a tentative approach to unleashing the potential our clubs offer the game?
We all want to see our top tier thrive. Unleashing the potential of our clubs, providing a linked structure, offers the best chance for our struggling A-League to be re-energised and become the top-tier we all want it to be, at the top of a linked, inclusive, fluid football pyramid. This part of the “living” document must be enlivened. We will work to ensure it happens.
Our member clubs - comprising large and small ones alike - have not only been consigned to perpetual exclusion from realising their true potential but they have been saddled with the burden of NPL obligations and restrictions. They have been, together, and across the country in numbers totalling over 200, mischaracterised as constituting the second tier of football. Part two of the Lowy revolution was the consigning of the Member Federations as clients of FFA and removing clubs from being members of their own federation. The Member Federations are bodies originally formed by clubs to serve them, not the other way around. The clubs were members for well over a century.
The new governance model enacted by the Lowy administration culminated in the introduction of the NPL. This turned our clubs into ‘NPL clubs’, effectively licenced by their member federation to participate in the highest state tier as though the federation enjoys an ‘ownership’ right over the game, enabling it to licence the game. AAFC is pleased that a new governance structure is under consideration as one of the XI Principles. Clubs must be reinstated as members of their federation. A democratic governance model providing for clubs to have a direct say should be enacted.
AAFC has fought for the introduction of a true National Second Division, to be drawn primarily from our member our clubs. In achieving this, the rest of our member clubs will be simultaneously freed from carrying burdens they should not. It will also ensure the reduction in the cost of participation for our young players and lay the foundation for the long-awaited and necessary linking of our game, from top to bottom. This is the best way to create the competitive tension referred to in the XI Principles. The suspended national NPL review must be reconvened as soon as possible. Clubs should not be branded NPL clubs or at all. Clubs should be allowed to be the most and best they can be. It is not the sole function of clubs below the A-League to produce players. That is one of the consequences of what they do. Their primary purpose should revert to serving the aspirations of their members and community. In that way, they reflect what football people want and promote democratic outcomes. That is a worthy component of our identity, we say.
The XI Principles calls for ‘unity of vision’. Unity is not something which can be asked, procured or demanded. It is earnt through unification. Let us unify the game by linking it and embracing all its elements, inviting all within it to contest their position and station – football is, after all, a competitive pursuit by its nature – and ‘unity of vision’ will follow, as night follows day.
Our member clubs and their members love our national teams. They have populated them with their players over so many years. Their supporters are those who have woken up at all hours to follow our national teams in their battle to stake our claim in the world game in all parts of the globe. They have cried with pride when following their successes and almost successes (because they were never failures), as they were made up of players who grew up in their clubs; were OF their clubs. We don’t need to be persuaded of their value. But we do need to remind people who easily forget or who maybe get impatient for us to succeed on the world stage that success is earnt not created. Successful national teams are the culmination of a strong local game not the source of it. We need to build the game from below if success is to be achieved and sustained. If it is to reflect a strong local game when it happens. It is pointless otherwise.
We have a chance to start that now. The World Cup to be hosted here in 2023 is a fantastic opportunity to leave a lasting legacy for all our players, not just our Matildas. By legacy, we mean more than just facilities, critical though they are, and increased participation. We mean places for women to play, at their level, in front of crowds, properly rewarded. To be appreciated as equal footballers and equal representatives of their club. To do that we need to implement many destinations along the pathway to be embarked upon by young players. That pathway doesn’t have just one stop – at the end. It has clubs occupying numerous stations along the way, from bottom to top and everywhere in between. Somewhere for every player to be retained, not lost to the game as happens too often now.
We already know almost every child who starts to play today will not become elite and represent our national, or play professionally, even if she or he might hope to when they set out. She might, however, stay in the game playing at her level for her nurturing club where she might one day return to give back – as a sponsor, volunteer, board member, supporter or parent if a club which meets her needs and capabilities is there for her now. She might thereby one day return to contribute to the virtuous feedback loop which generates and sustains strong clubs, not just at community level, as the volunteers who built our game here have done for many decades. Break the cycle and we break the game. We will leave it teetering as a top-heavy, unsupported structure, bound to crash. We will work to avoid that.
The tiers between the top and ‘community’ are critical to the whole structure and the sustainability of our top tier. We need as many strong clubs as we can accommodate. Lots of them is the defining feature of strong football nations, populating the various stations along the pathway(s). They provide competitive tension and homes for football people wherever they are. We should not be afraid of their development, nor inhibit it. Let sporting merit decide their place in our linked hierarchy. Let it be fluid. Let it reward ambition, aspiration, merit.
We need to set the foundations now for that ideal to happen sooner rather than later. Crucially, too, strong clubs are best able to garner the facilities our game sorely lacks. More such clubs means more such facilities.
We expected the linking of the game, the nurturing of all clubs, the enablement of clubs to achieve their potential, the recognition of the crucial contribution of volunteers to feature more prominently in the XI Principles. After all, the problems it seeks to address, which arose from the most recent reformation of the game during what seems like only yesterday, will not be fixed by the reinforcement of the separation of the game between the exclusive top tiers and the rest – the so-called participants.
There’s a whole world of critical importance in between. The missing link.
It is not enough that the widely supported and much awaited National Second Division be ‘relegated’ to the status of something to be “considered”, as it is in the XI Principles. FFA has resolved to introduce it. Board members, executive officers and congress members alike have all endorsed it. There is no reason it should not be a key part of the document when it matures from “living” document to fully formed policy. We will work to ensure it is so.
The XI Principles is a good-faith start from a new, football-focused, Board and a new CEO, who has won our respect and appreciation for the way he has handled, with much success, the many problems which have confronted him in his first six months at the helm. Together with Chris Nikou and his new Board, James and his team have instilled hope and excitement in us all. We aim to ensure that continues.
We look forward to working with the Board, James and his team in playing our part in the development of the “living” document into what will become the blueprint for lasting and successful change. After all, the biggest and most welcome difference between this proposed collaborative change and the changes imposed upon us in the past, is that now we are being asked to contribute. Inclusivity in action.
Let’s extend this inclusivity in pursuing the strengthening of our nation’s clubs through the introduction of the National Second Division, the national review of the NPL and the direct and democratic representation of clubs within their federations.
We will work collaboratively and constructively to do so.
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