The announcement of his departure caused some stir in the football community of Melbourne, taking many – but not all – members and supporters of South Melbourne Football Club, by surprise.
Leo Athanasakis became the president of the Club in 2007, when no-one else wanted to be in that position. I remember his pathos and vision when he took upon himself the taxing task of reimagining and rebuilding South Melbourne, which was on the verge of collapse. It was infectious. I used to call him “a dreamer.”
Wrong choice of words, I realise now. Athanasakis was ‘a visionary’ and one with the capacity to make his vision reality, as proven.
His achievements are numerous: he managed to secure the 40 year lease for Lakeside Stadium, which is now showing to be the main asset in the bidding for the A-League; he brought the women’s team, which was on its own, into the club and gave the opportunity for both the women’s and men’s teams to stand as equals and have access to the same facilities, a move that gave the impetus for successful growth in the women’s game – women won three championships in a row as a result of this move. Last, but not least, when he started the Club had no junior teams – there was a junior club that was using the South Melbourne name without having any connection to the Club; now, over 300 juniors play.
Why then, he who managed to save the Club from certain death in 2007, secured a home for it, created a social club, a museum and a vibrant sports community of players of all ages and genders decided to go now, when the club is on the verge of entering the A- League?
“I wouldn’t describe it as a major surprise,” he says. “I disclosed to the Board at the start of the year that 2018 would be my last year as president. I want to give the opportunity to the next president to have one year before the next elections. I think it’s important for them to have the opportunity to show to the members what they can do before the elections. It would be unfair if I took it all the way, one more year. I always said to the Board that once the redevelopment of the Lakeside stadium and the social club was finalised that would be my time. Within that was also the A- League bid which should be the icing on the cake for me as my legacy to South Melbourne. That was the plan and the thoughts behind it.”
Having said that, Athanasakis makes it clear that he is not going to cut his ties with the Club.
“If we do make it to the A-League, I will take a position on the A-League Board, but not as a chairman or in any leadership role there. I will continue on the Board until South Melbourne goes to elections,” he says, reaffirming that another SFMC board member, Bill Papastergiadis, had already put his hand up to be the Chairman of the A-League team.
“I do feel proud for what the club has achieved and on a personal level what makes me proud about my tenure is that I became president when South Melbourne was at its lowest position,” he says, looking back to the dark days of 2007. “It had just come out of the NSL, it had no money, no social club, an unclear future about the premises; the lease was running out at Bob Jane stadium and really none other than the real supporters have stayed with the team. The rest have moved on to the A-League. The challenge was to reunite and rebuild South Melbourne with the right foundations to make it a powerful club in Victoria and Australia and I think we achieved that in the last 11 years. Now it’s on the verge to be selected into the A-League with huge support from government, from investors, from sponsors, from members, supporters and fans and it is recognised once again as one of the most powerful and strong clubs in Australia.”
He is right up to a certain extent, but it has to be mentioned that the number of supporters on the stands is declining. He disagrees.
“We found that the club has a huge following on social media; some 90,000 people follow us. So the data suggests that the culture of the supporter has changed. Especially in the NPL which is not very widely supported in general because it is the second tier, but our social media presence is bigger than that of some A-League teams. This says to us that yes, they do not want to come out to the stadium to see the game now, but at the next level, the A-League, there would be huge support because it is the next.”
STRENGTHS, WEAKNESSES AND THE TAYLOR EFFECT
It is easy for the outsiders to talk about his leadership’s weaknesses. However, it is much harder for some leaders to adopt an introspective viewpoint identifying them. Athanasakis is not one of them.
“I think my strength and my weakness at the same breath is giving autonomy to my Board to make independent decisions,” he says.
“Eighty per cent of the time that went really well. By giving them autonomy you give them the belief that they are responsible for their portfolio and work 100 per cent better than having to come back to the president and ask him. That is a weakness too, because if they get it wrong it affects me too, for example the decision to get rid of coaches and that sort of stuff”.
Chris Taylor’s sudden departure just four weeks away from the opening round of this last season had disastrous consequences for the team and according to some the team’s performance was partly responsible and created pressure for Athanasakis to resign from the presidency. There was also talk out there that the decision to get rid of Taylor was not his.
“The decision to get rid of Taylor, it was the decision of the football department that we supported,” he says.
“It did not go the way that we planned and in hindsight, it ended up being wrong. We acknowledge we should have acted immediately when the recommendation was made; it was a mistake to delay it for another month. We did not give the opportunity for the new coach to build his own team. We thought with the existing players we’ll do the job, but we found out that a new coach needs his players to support him. But we won championships before, making the same difficult decisions each year about players, about staff.”
The A-League bid is the most important issue at hand at the moment with many speculative scenarios and gossip accompanying it.
One of them points to Harry Stamoulis, or more accurately, to the money he invested or not in this bid. Athanasakis keeps his cards close to his chest when I ask him about this by answering to my impertinent questioning, repeatedly in a laconic way.
“He is supporting the club. He is a strong supporter of the club.”
He is not as straight in answering, when I ask him who will be his replacement.
“Nick Maikousis is putting his hand up, he’s got a lot of experience and I think that he will do a good job,” he says giving to him or any other future president the following advice.
“Always be humble and communicate to your members and supporters. If you do so they will be your biggest strength and be respectful of its position in the community.”
As for the future Athanasakis in his passionate style, concludes:
“I see South Melbourne in the A-League and fighting with Victory for the fifth national championship because both Victory and South Melbourne have the higher number of national trophies, we have four, they have four now. There would be huge interest to the community of who is going to be the one to get first the fifth one; to be the ultimate number one. We will be Victory’s biggest rival in Melbourne by a big way. That is where I see us.”