In November last year, the AAFC announced a proposal to introduce a national second tier with hope that, in time, it will be linked to the A-League via promotion and relegation.
It means that National Premier League (NPL) clubs from all over Australia such as Bentleigh Greens, Heidelberg, Sydney Olympic, and West Adelaide will have a potential pathway to the top tier of Australian football.
Tom Kalas, who helped form the AAFC in February last year, told Neos Kosmos that clubs who are in the tier below the A-League should be readying themselves for the blueprint model dubbed The Championship, which it hopes will be up and running by October 2019.
“My advice to all the NPL clubs is to improve their infrastructure,” he said.
“The minimum criteria will include having a boutique 3,000 capacity stadium, a press box, women’s and men’s pavilion, change rooms and so forth. You can’t broadcast from a horafi! It’s got to be broadcast-standard.
“Last week AAFC chair Rabieh Krayem and the board met with Football Federation Australia around the criteria for the second division and also have other meetings scheduled. So, it’s happening.”
The timing of the AAFC being formed coincided with the ongoing governance issues that have been plaguing the FFA for over a year. With state member federations, A-League clubs and the Players Football Association unable to vote on the make-up of an expanded congress, FIFA intervened.
So, when world football’s governing body was in Australia to sort out the Congress malaise, Kalas, who was working as a strategist with AAFC, also took part in the discussions.
“When we met FIFA in August for the first time I was there along with Krayem and the first question they asked was, “Why isn’t there a second division in Australia?” Kalas says.
“The entire management of the FFA, including chair Steve Lowy, was in the room with us but FIFA wanted to hear the response from us. We explained that the model created makes it very hard for all the clubs underneath the A-League and it has had very bad repercussion for football in Australia.
“FIFA told us that they had never seen the creation of an organisation like the AAFC anywhere else on the planet. They called it the ‘Australian Spring.'”
Kalas explained how the privatised football model in Australia has failed, signified by this season’s falling average crowd and TV viewing figures.
“I have been saying the current A-League model is flawed for many, many years,” he says.
“On 28 February 2017 when FFA CEO David Gallop and Steve Lowy came out and said that the A-League and W-League model was financially unviable that suddenly woke everyone up. That is when I decided to form the AAFC.
“We have blown all this money after 14 years and the A-League is going to die. It’s nearly dead and people don’t realise this. We got the wogs out, we starved all the other clubs with no transfer fees. Why? Now it isn’t working.”
Last week FIFA handed down their terms of reference for the Congress Review Working Group with a number of mandates including representation of NPL clubs in football governance structures.
Kalas says the recognition by FIFA of the AAFC is a massive boost to NPL clubs.
“It’s not only Greek-backed clubs but all former NSL clubs have seen their profile elevated around Australia,” he says. “So, this season we’ve had significantly bigger attendances, better hype and it’s added confidence to all NPL clubs because now they have been taken seriously.”
In the mid 1990s, then Soccer Australia chief David Hill axed a number of ethnic clubs from the National Soccer League, including Heidelberg, and in their place Perth Glory, and AFL-backed teams Carlton and Collingwood were introduced.
Hill says the reasoning behind his decision was an attempt to broaden the Australian football supporter base.
“How many non-Greeks went to watch Sydney Olympic?” he asked Neos Kosmos. “How many non-Croatians went to watch Sydney United? How many non-Italians went to watch Marconi? Bugger all, five to 10 per cent of the crowd. It never grew.
“I remember we energised the NSL with Perth Glory. We would occasionally get crowds of 10,000 [at] Belmore Oval in Sydney on Sunday night to watch Sydney Olympic and they said ‘whoopee’, but they were still 99 per cent Greek.”
Soon after Hill’s reign the NSL was completely axed and replaced by the A-League a year later, and Kalas says the attempt to broaden Australian football came at a huge cost.
“This ethnic argument really does my head in because we focused on that and not building infrastructure,” he says.
“It’s time to embrace everybody and build football culture, stop talking crap about ethnicity; it’s not the issue. We need to get everyone focused on improving facilities to get bigger and stronger to grow football culture otherwise we are going to be in the same hole in 50 years as we are now. That’s why the A-League is in the trouble it is in now.”
Kalas feels that in time NSL clubs were going to evolve in a way that sporting organisations around the world have been doing for years and gave the example of AFL and NBA teams.
“Clubs have already been broadening. It’s going to happen generationally,” he says.
“So, all clubs eventually morph into sporting clubs.”
Former Socceroo and Melbourne Victory legend Archie Thompson spent time with Heidelberg and Murray United after he retired from professional football and says his experience in the NPL was eye-opening.
“There is a lot that needs to be sorted out,” he says.
“Just being in a football bubble for so long you think the game is alright until you go to the grassroots level and you see some of the things that they have to fight that we took for granted. It’s things like not having the facilities, lights and issue with pitches. That’s one battle that we all have in every state.”
And when it comes to improving football facilities, Kalas believes the formation of a national tier below the A-League will be a catalyst that will see Australia finally join the rest of the football world.
“This is the global standard,” he says. “It’s about building football culture and that includes promotion and relegation, transfer fees, boutique stadiums and youth development.
“We cannot afford the A-League model. Creating more franchises doesn’t work. This is why we need a second division to build infrastructure. I guarantee you that NPL clubs today will be part of Australia’s future in the top tier, there is no doubt about it.”