|National Soccer Summit 1995|
|Tuesday, 05 August 2008 00:45|
National Soccer Summit
Melbourne, May 19-21, 1995
(First published in Studs Up 4 - June/July 1995)
Looking around the auditorium it was difficult to imagine a greater collection of soccer minds ever assembling in the one room, and there was an air of expectancy as George Negus welcomed everyone to the most important meeting in recent Australian soccer history. The 1953-54 Queensland ball-juggling champion then went on to introduce a video which began with various clips of Stewart, Thomson, Holmes, Tsaklis and so on, but just as some people started to squirm in their seats, a reminder of why we all love the game. There was some great action from the recent NSL finals series complimented by that catchy little ditty "Things can only get better". Indeed, that seemed to be the theme of the long weekend, and while a fair bit of dirty laundry got hung out, it never really got nasty. That's not to say there weren't any cheap shots though...
As expected, the first key speaker was 'Nifty' Neville Wran who spoke in an optimistic tone, convincing the delegates that he believes soccer can become the major football code in Australia. He went on to list the variety of problems the game faces, but apart from the odd suggestion (Asia-Pacific Challenge Cup) didn't really ignite proceedings as we'd hoped. At least he put his cards on the table and left no doubt in people's minds that he is aware of all the major problems. What the conference needed to kick it off with a bang however, was an opening speech with sparkle and above all something new. Perhaps he was leaving that side of things to David Hill.
Hill wasted little time in setting out his agenda for Australian soccer in the 21st century. Few disagreed with his claim that while junior development and our international sides are generally doing well, it was the bit in the middle (the NSL) that is letting the sport down. Most nodded in agreement. If there is one problem that he will devote most of the time to it is the under-performing National Soccer League. He was mostly seated in the front row of the theatre, usually as an impartial observer, but make no mistake, he has very strong opinions on the direction of the sport. These views were formed well before the summit and the three-day talk-fest was partly an attempt to gauge support for a professional soccer league with (if necessary) a totally revamped NSL.
Disappointingly, not everyone was there. Some clubs still live in a kind of dreamworld where they refuse to acknowledge the sport’s predicament. If they knew what was good for them, they would have been there taking copious quantities of notes on how to remain in the ‘new’ league. As DH intimated, those that don’t change and flow with the times will soon become ex-NSL clubs. It wouldn’t surprise me if certain clubs signed their death warrants during the week-end.
Hill spoke passionately about the need for a professional league to stem the overseas player drain and boost the game’s profile. He made little secret of his wish to see clubs attracting a cross section of Australians and by providing better facilities. Nothing revolutionary there, only a commitment that existing NSL clubs would be given the opportunity to lift their game. If they didn’t they would be axed. Axed for new clubs that, although not rejecting ethnic support as its core market, had truly regional support, a marketing strategy and ability to attract television coverage and sponsorship.
So what was the reaction? Mainly positive, however the people sitting most uncomfortably in the dark auditorium were the NSL chairmen. They sat and squirmed as their competition was continuously criticised for everything from archaic facilities, non-accessibility to the mainstream media, playing standards, and lack of community support (a euphemism for the ‘ethnic issue’). At one point DH had the NSL chairmen sweating when he sat in on the ‘ethnic’ discussion and asked them what they thought their role was in broadening their clubs narrow support base. Despite putting the clubs on notice, he must have been disappointed and under-whelmed at their response. Those that had the courage to turn up and speak (Sam Vella of Parramatta and George Vasilopoulos of Sth Melb) mumbled their way through the usual excuses about the reluctance of members to change and needing more time. But back to David...
His first surprise was his insistence that the sport be referred to as 'football'. His second was his desire to see the 'Socceroos' play 16 matches a year, 12 of them at home. No details of course, just a desire. Being the numbers man that he is, he was quick to point out that ASF revenue in 1993 was $10.5 million, in 1995 it was to be less than $5 million. Enough said. Hill went on to suggest the ASF may introduce development scholarships in an effort to slow the overseas player drain, may provide the clubs with direct financial assistance, and would actively encourage new teams in the NSL without actually expanding it. Delegates from Heidelberg, Melbourne SC and Parramatta would certainly have felt uncomfortable at that point...
For a full review of the Hill masterplan turn to pages 21-22 (at bottom of this review).
SESSION ONE - Friday May 19 - 11.20am
With the keynote speeches and morning tea out of the way, the delegates could settle down and discuss details. Or could they? The first open session had a vague title of "With an Open Goal, How does Australian Soccer Maximise its Goalscoring Opportunities".
A panel of nine had about five minutes each to state their opinions and hopefully give some constructive suggestions for the improvement of the game here. Sadly, that didn't really happen. Many of the delegates (not just on this panel but throughout the summit) were under-prepared and dragged their time out when really they had little to say that had not already been covered by Hill and Wran. Well, at least we knew that everybody was aware of the problems. Pity about the lack of solutions...
Well, sort of. 'Studs Up' had the opportunity to have their say and put forward a seven point plan as follows:
We also pointed out that overseas federations recognise the importance of the fans and some have actively sought their representation in the game's decision-making processes.
SESSION TWO - Friday May 19 - 2:30pm
Titled "Selling Soccer - The Best Sporting Product in the World", the marketing discussion brought into sharp focus the lack of thought by NSL clubs and the ASF as to how to go about marketing the sport in Australia.
The organisers of the summit should be congratulated for assembling a wide cross-section of speakers, although the addition of Max Walker (of chook hypnotism fame) was perhaps one choice that backfired.
Max's suggestion that soccer could be marketed as a 'green' game confused a few people (another Diego 'dope' shock?), with something about re-cycling , um I dunno, it just didn't work really.
At the other end of the scale was Gary Kingshott, marketing guru from Ansett, who enlightened everybody with a range of observations and proposals. The key point of interest was Ansett's expansion into Asia, and the opportunities this opens up for soccer, but he also told the delegates of the importance of networking their sponsors (a la Brisbane Broncos) and we can only hope all NSL clubs get a transcript of his comments and read them every morning after breakfast. This guy was good.
Another revelation was the appearance of Damien Stenmark who has previously worked with Seven Sport sales and has reportedly sold over $100 million worth of sponsorship in this country. To him, the key problem is poor image (surprise!), and he believes the only way for soccer to get ahead is to start again from square one. Start a NEW NSL, with only one team per city, with privately-owned clubs, etc, etc. He wasn't the only one who believes revolution is preferable to evolution.
Jane Brook (Mars Confectionary) was one of the few females to find her way on to a panel, and like Kathy Walsh later that evening, saw the need to market players as individual stars.
John Poulakakis (Campaign Palce) felt the same, as well as insisting that the best marketing company in the world would have trouble marketing a poor product. A veiled stinging attack on the quality of soccer served up by some clubs.
It was good to see Jim Tansey (Promotions, Adidas) again, although from a distance he looked like an anorexic Clive James which made it a touch difficult to concentrate. His comment that we must bring world-class teams to Australia was frequently echoed, and he shared the general feeling that our best marketing tool is the Socceroos. There was a universal view that the players need to be promoted more and so on, but for the average fan, this was stuff we've known for years. Again, specifics were rare, but don't be surprised if the ASF holds compulsory marketing seminars for the clubs in the near future. One surprise omission from the panel was ASF marketing chief Cec Bucello. I wonder why...
Note: Session two was interrupted by Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett (complete with personal press crew) who made a brief speech full of the usual rhetoric about sponsorship, marketing, must make tough decisions etc, but he did mention that two corporations were keen to come on board. Didn't say which ones though...
SESSION THREE - Friday May 19 - 7:30pm
After a quick pizza it was back to the summit for a discussion on the media - Meet The Press - Are They On The Ball?. Kyle Patterson took the reins and introduced a variety of media representatives who continued to point out soccer's problems, and throw a few curve-balls as well.
Kathy Walsh (Coca-Cola) took the delegates on a walk down rugby league's memory lane, reminding us of the enormous image problem RL faced in the late 70's. Besides the obvious step of 'cleaning up' the game, rugby's honchos took the bizarre step of promoting the meat-heads as hunks by sending them to charm school and then unleashing them in shopping centres and schools.
Steve Speziale (MMM radio and Cantona lookalike) was refreshingly forthright when he told the masses to 'Stop whingeing, get your act together and come and talk to us.."
Wanda Jamrozik (The Australian) put the cat amongst the pigeons when she suggested a media blackout on accents. This became a bit of a running joke for a while (amongst the pigeons anyway) who treated the comment with mock disdain, but Zoran Matic saw the comment for what it was worth. It is crucial that soccer's frontmen/women be articulate, and while Arok, Vasilopoulos and co made no secret of their disrespect for Wanda, soccer's intelligentsia considered it a shrewd observation. Perhaps some of her critics could go to charm school...
Steve Copping (Shoot magazine) highlighted the inadequate facilities for the media (with examples of radio commentators calling the game from the concrete steps) and urging the ASF to take a greater interest in the juniors, but the star performer of this session was Phil Gardner, sports editor of the Melbourne Herald-Sun. As he pointed out, his paper gives it's readers what they want. While some delegates spoke of their hopes to make soccer the number one sport in Oz, Phil was realistic enough to suggest nothing will replace AFL as the number one sport in Victoria, and quite possibly the other southern states. Above all, he spoke of the need for soccer to get rid of the chip on it's shoulder, and in many ways soccer has only itself to blame. As Steve Speziale also pointed out, the media often finds out about soccer happenings through the back door, and it is up to the clubs to ring the 'Hun' and inform Mr Desira of exactly what's happening. Maybe one simple step would be to announce the teams for the coming weeks games on the Thursday night, just like AFL.
FOURTH SESSION - Saturday May 20 - 9:00am
The previous evening had ended with a 'drinks' session so a few heads were worse for wear come 9:00 Saturday morning, but all ears (if not eyes!) were open for the 'NSL - Pros and Cons' chinwag.
Johnny (Can I just make a point here?) Warren kicked off the debate by revealing the SBS ratings figures for this years grand final. Adelaide 13, Melbourne 2! Yep, 2. Perhaps an indication of Melbourne fans disinterest in a club which is so very pro-Croatian. Anyway, Warren spoke of the need to expand into Asia - with a potential television audience of 200 million - and the league should look closely at Tahiti, Fiji and of course Indonesia.
Peter Thorne (General Manager, Soccer NSW) was more blunt. "Start again", said Peter, with (probably) 12 teams, including WA, Canberra and only 2 teams from Melbourne and Sydney. Ground rationalisation was high on his agenda, as was franchising, with a suggestion of no promotion or relegation until the league is settled. And he wasn't the only one to come up with a new name. The 'A' league...
George Vasilopoulos (President, Sth Melb) made an (at times) impassioned plea for the ASF to give more support to the clubs. Plenty of rhetoric, but again short of practical ideas, and I was a bit concerned when he said the league needs 14 teams, and the current clubs are the best options! John Kosmina was ready to spray bullets around the room, insisting that someone has to take the blame. Over the next few hours, various people did just that. Well, accepting that we should all take part of the blame anyway. And then came Brendan.
Brendan Schwab (son of ex-AFL administrator Alan) is working with Kimon Taliadores in an attempt to get a better deal for the players. While this session was supposed to discuss how the NSL could afford to go professional, Brendan was the only one to put actual figures on the table. In a pro league the clubs could expect an average yearly wage bill of $650,000, which will put a lot of clubs to the wall.
Ricky Nixon (AFL player manager) was from the same boat, telling the delegates that if you don't look after the players, nothing else matters. He repeated a number of ideas such as moving into Asia and ground rationalisation, but his suggestion to return to a winter competition is unlikely to get out of the starting gate.
Barry Neame (Canberra Cosmos) was an excellent panellist with plenty to offer, as he was an NBL administrator in the days when that sport was struggling. He pointed out that when the tough decisions had to be made, basketball left the passion outside the boardroom, something soccer must do if it is to progress. One excellent suggestion was for all clubs to supply a full media kit - action shots and head/shoulders - as well as renaming the stadiums. If Canberra Cosmos can hold on to this guy, their future is assured.
An interesting late addition to the agenda was the appearance of John Rashley (I think) from Whittlesea council, north of Melbourne. He unveiled plans for a $10 million complex to be situated 10km from Melbourne Airport, or 20km north of Melbourne GPO, with two pitches and a pavilion to be completed by early 1997. The big news however was the second stage of development which will see a main stadium with 3,000 seats and a total capacity of 15,000, social clubs, press facilities and parking spaces for 1,600 cars. The suggestion was made that this could be a great place for the Olyroos camps, AIS, VIS camps etc, but the eyebrows of one or two Victorian clubs were surely raised given the heavy ethnic population base in the area.
Raul Blanco was a delight to listen to, acknowledging that after 27 years he may have to accept part of the blame, and to an extent he feels guilty, but came up with some wonderfully emotional stuff, including "promoting the good-looking bastards". Eddie Thomson had some interesting ideas including putting crowds onto one side of the SFS to make it look good for the television. His approval of Mark Silic climbing the fence after the NSL grand final concerned a few people though...
Inevitably, it all came back to the ethnic issue. Various club identities stated their cases with all the usual cliches, with a number of them asking for more time to broaden their support bases. Well, they've only had twenty years, after all... Lex Marinos made a guest appearance in the audience, detailing the problems Australians have in attending NSL games, from the stadium announcers to the hostility of the home fans. Coming from an ethnic background, Lex spoke with a lot of weight.
Frank Arok made his periodical poignant comment when he asked whether we were welcome in Asia. Even the most committed Euro-phile must realise that Asia (in some shape or form) is our future. But do the Asians really want us? We assume that the Koreans, Japanese and Chinese would welcome us with open arms but what have we got to offer them? Arok also wants to see a reduction in the number of teams in the NSL, but play three rounds per year. Spot on, Frank.
Ian Holmes summed up the general feeling when he said the NSL needed a "full-frontal lobotomy".
SESSION FIVE - Saturday May 20 - 1:30pm
The Coaching and Development session had the potential to be extremely boring but Steve Darby (ASF development officer and husband of ‘SU3’ covergirl) went for the overhead projector approach in an attempt to increase the delegates retention rate. And it worked. An excellent presentation from one of the few people to thoroughly prepare themselves. We even got hand-outs to follow through...
Geraldo Delamore (National coach, Oz Futsal team) also used the projector and made some cutting comments while he was at it. Australia's problem was not players going overseas, it was not having ready-made replacements. I assume the delegates immediately thought of Brazil. It was interesting to note that although our under-age teams perform very well on the international stage, they rarely reach the same heights at senior level. Unfortunately, this anomaly was not discussed, with the emphasis on self-congratulation at youth level.
Frank Arok made another pertinent observation when he remarked that so far, the various Institutes have created good defenders, attackers and goalkeepers, but are yet to produce a playmaker who has gone to Europe.
The delegates were told there are about 12,000 accredited coaches (Level 1) in Australia, but I reckon this figure should probably be treated with caution. I've seen the standard of level one coaches getting around. Very few of them would pass level two or level three...
Oh, and before I forget, the girls were mentioned! Of the 400,000 juniors playing around the country, less than 20,000 are girls. Surely a lesson there...
Just one final point. A number of officials were heard enthusing over our under-age record at FIFA tournaments. They conveniently overlook the fact that few of the European sides (including Germany, Holland WYC 1995) take their best players. Yes, we're good, but not as good as they're telling themselves.
SESSION SIX - Sunday May 21 - 9:30am
Zoran Matic was first up and went on for about forty minutes. I guess he had heard everybody else have their say on everything and wanted to go out the same way.
Zoran also dived into the ethnic debate with gusto, giving George Vasilopoulos and co a huge serve, and backing up Jamrozik's comments about accents. And to top it off he gave the players a bashing - "Why go to court? Come and see us at the table". Like I said, Zoran spoke for maybe forty minutes, but it was great stuff. In many ways he was only saying what everyone else was thinking, but sometimes it takes a lot of guts to get up and say it so bluntly. Well done Mr Matic, a true 'Studs Up' performance.
After that refreshing burst of common-sense it was back to the rhetoric of an ASF official, this time Basil Scarsella. Nothing he said was particularly wrong, its just that we'd heard it all before over the previous two and a half days. It was different next though as Eugene Brazzale took the microphone. For the first time in the conference somebody was smart enough to talk about the politics of FIFA. As he said, sustained success at national level ensures a higher level of INFLUENCE at FIFA level. ASF take note!
Johnny (Can I just make another point here?) Warren was his usual forthright self, and had facts and figures to back up all his suggestions. Besides France 1998, the 2000 Olympics is the biggie - 36.4% of all Olympic spectators are at the soccer. Practical suggestions from the guru included commemorative matches every year on Anzac Day and Australia Day. And then along came Frank.
You could just 'sense' that Arok had waited years for this type of stage, and after Matic had clocked in around forty, the man who gave Australian soccer 'respect' was determined to beat it. No complaints from 'Studs Up' though as Frank wants the same status for coaches and players as we want for the fans. To be considered a stakeholder. Might be time to ring Kimon, Frank..
He also proposed a 'gold pass' for legends of the game. Spot on again, Frank!
Next came a few statistics on FIFA's international rankings, and effectively said what 'SU' has been saying for some time. We're not as high as we should be, but we're not much lower than we should be either...
This was only one in a series of 'minor' digs at Thomson, but everyone knows they don't exchange Christmas cards and was probably to be expected. Besides, ET was speaking later on...
But back to Arok. He was typically, er, frank on a range of issues relating to the national team, specifying the need to build a team (not select one), the need for a four-year (World Cup) plan (not a five year plan), and of course the old chestnut about Eddie and Les getting around Australia a bit more, and not just inviting everyone up to Sydney.
Jack Reilly was reasonably brief given the number of axes he has to grind, but beyond all the rhetoric was his undeniable wish for the game to support the players. Just think, if Negus and Hill had never got involved, Jack may have ended up ASF Chairman...
Considering the long hours of the previous two days and nights, a 9:30am start and sitting for two hours while everybody else had their say, ET was understandably subdued when he finally got to have his say. He explained (defended?) his past record and stressed the need for more games and re-iterated the level of commitment from overseas based players and moaned about the cost of holding training camps in Europe and..
Well, it wasn't quite one long whinge. But Eddie had copped a few cheap shots over the past three days and he felt a need to answer his critics perhaps. Having said that, his final words of "Trust me" would not have inspired bags of confidence. While the coaching staff live off that narrow defeat at the hands of Argentina, it is never mentioned that a loss to Canada on penalties would have changed everything. I couldn't help wondering if ET kisses a photo of Mark Schwarzer every night before going to sleep. Unfortunately I never got to ask him because the 60 minute session had gone 155 minutes, which left time for three questions from the floor!
So what did we get out of the three days? Well, as George Negus explained during countless press and television interviews over the weekend, this was only the beginning. The organisers will now go away and sift through the numerous submissions (including a 30 page effort compiled by 'Studs Up') and get back to everyone in the near future with a preliminary draft. By the end of the year we should have a definite three/four/five year plan ready to go, but with the new NSL season due to commence on October 23, they may well have to work faster.
But wait, there’s more...
THE ASF DINNER - Saturday May 20 - 8:00
Included in the conference price of $125 was a seat at the informal dinner which was a relatively jovial occasion, helped along by a humorous dig through the history books and a look at some relics ‘re-discovered’ at the summit by Greg Blake. He and Kyle Patterson kept proceedings moving with a review of all the ‘new eras’ Oz soccer has experienced since 1974, and it brought some red faces as well as some smiling ones. Unfortunately one ex-international didn’t take the light-hearted digs too lightly, which brought a few more red faces, but in the wash-up he probably embarrassed himself more than anyone else.
On a more uplifting note, the ASF had pulled a master-stroke in inviting Leo Baumgartner to be guest of honour. While never having had the privilege of seeing the man play, I could sense the effect he had over the legends of the game here, and Johnny Warren in particular was ‘over the moon’ that Leo could finally be honoured in such a way. ‘Studs Up’ was able to sit and talk with Leo for a while towards the end of the evening and it transpires that Leo now lives in the ‘Negus’ area in Northern NSW and George was responsible for getting him to Melbourne. Excellent work, George!
The bonus in attending this sort of function is that between the ‘Grain-fed Sirloin of Beef with Dijon Mustard’ and ‘Chocolate basket on a Black Cherry Coulis’ you have the chance to wander around and chat with people you generally wouldn’t come across. ‘SU’ is happy to report that everyone we approached was happy to hear the fans views, although most expressed disappointment that more fans did not attend the summit. Well, we know the reasons for that...
But wait, there’s still more
IN THE LOBBY - Various times over the three days
At any major gathering of power-brokers there is bound to be as much action off-stage as there is on it. ‘Studs Up’ tried to concentrate on what was happening in front of us but it was unavoidable to notice the small pockets of officials who were drifting in and out of the main auditorium. Sure, you had to go to the foyer for a cigarette (as did ‘SU’ once or twice during the boring bits) but even roll-your-owns don’t take 20-30 minutes. Naturally it would not be fair of us to say who said what to whom at the wash-basins, but we weren’t the only one to suspect a period of autocracy at Rockdale and there were plenty of political manoeuvrings to ensure players were on the winning team at the end of extra time.
Had a bit of a chinwag with Mike Urukalo who was off for a spot of job-hunting closer to the equator and he shares Frank Arok’s fear of Asian rejection when push comes to shove. It will be interesting to view the development of the newly announced S-League, with supposed massive injections of capital from the Singapore government and a major airline.
But we know you want more...
Kim and Brendan not real popular...
No comment from Charlie...
Well, I’ve got news for you Charlie. It seems that the ASF is pretty keen to get to Asia, and where will that leave your confederation?
...But plenty from the ASF! Something we didn’t expect to see at the summit was the release of Volume 1 No.1 of ASF NEWS. This simple A4 size 4-page fold-over job was a (long overdue) collection of news items and upcoming events, but also stated a few broad policies regarding television rights, administrative re-structuring etc. Interested parties should contact the ASF and get on the mailing list. Presuming there is a Volume 1 No.2 of course.
I wish I could remember his name...
Are we all part of the same organisation?
And finally, the logo... One thing that just about everybody agreed on was the need to replace the current ASF logo. If you look at it long enough, you’ll know why. Go on, stare at it a bit longer. If you reckon you’ve got a good idea for a replacement, get in contact with the ASF because you might just save the Federation a few thousand dollars commissioning some agency to design one.
Just to wrap it all up...The David Hill 24-point Masterplan
1. Australian Football needs a National plan with more vision, clearer direction, concise planning and specific strategies.
2. Australian Football should embrace the requirements of our International teams as the highest priority.
3. Long term (roll-over) planning of Australia’s international team schedule - to the year 2002 - should replace the current, piece meal basis scheduling of games. There should be more Socceroo games and more played in Australia.
4. Consistent with an International Tournament and World Cup obligations, Australia should plan a rigorous schedule of 16 internationals each year, 12 in Australia.
5. The Socceroos schedule should include more games against higher ranked world football nations.
6. The resourcing and management of international touring requires a number of detailed improvements eg. travel of individual overseas players to join the Socceroo squad.
7. The NSL needs fundamental changes to take it to its next stage of development.
8. The NSL (alongside Australia’s international teams) needs to be recognised as the highest priority.
9. The financial viability of the NSL and NSL clubs needs to be enhanced.
10. Significant increases in full time professional opportunities for Australian footballers need to be introduced.
11. As an initial step to promote more full time professional opportunities, the ASF should provide some direct financial assistance to each of the clubs which will enable us to increase the number of full time player positions available.
12. Strategies need to be introduced to increase all major revenue sources including TV rights, sponsorship, gate receipts, merchandising, various Government revenues.
13. The ASF should assist in developing appropriate programs and standards for the improved management, organisation structures and administration of national league clubs.
14. Strategies need to be developed to improve management and administration of the NSL.
15. A national sponsor of the national league needs to be arranged.
16. Television coverage (both free-to-air and pay TV) of football should be increased.
17. The national league season should be extended.
18. The appeal of football and the NSL needs to be extensively broadened into the mainstream of Australian society.
19.There is a need to further widen the community appeal of NSL clubs, so that beyond the current centres of support the ordinary Australian feels equal access and ownership of their local football team.
20. The natural advantages of football as the genuine national code should be exploited - by encouraging viable bids from Perth, Canberra, Newcastle and other Australian centres for admission to the NSL.
21. Strategies should be developed to capitalise on the increased football opportunities in the Asian Pacific region with regular tournaments or competitions at both internation and national league level.
22. The future of Australian football requires a positive and constructive collective effort, rather than the promotion of sectional interests.
23. The current review of the ASF Articles of Association should address the representation of constituent football bodies and the relationship between the ASF and other football organisations.
24. Immediate consideration should be given to replacing the name ‘soccer’ with ‘football’.