The dodgy bit in the middle

Way back during the National Soccer Summit in May of 1995, most speakers tended to agree that the top and bottom of Australiaís footballing pyramid (the Socceroos and the junior playing base) were doing okay, it was the bit in the middle (the NSL) that was the problem.

Four years later sees the NSL enjoying a renaissance of sorts, and new franchise teams chasing the pot of World Club Cup gold at the end of the rainbow, so the time may be right to look at that other bit in the middle ñ the state leagues. With good cause as well, because if this past season in Victoria is indicative of whatís going on elsewhere, then it may be time for another summit.

To be fair, Studs Up and its Victorian readers have tended to turn their noses up at the Victorian Premier League in recent years, except when it comes to finals time, when you can pay your admission fee reasonably safe in the knowledge you will see a good quality game. So when the VSF decided to abolish the successful final five format for the 1999 season, the groans from around the metropolitan area were audible. The grand final had consistently attracted around 5-6,000 spectators in recent years and there seemed no reason to abandon such a money-spinner, but thatís soccer in Victoria for you.

The result was a return to the ëEuropeaní way of deciding things which has pleased the purists but not the accountants, with some clubs suffering embarrassing attendances for important fixtures - fixtures that have also been decided by the ëEuropeaní way if you believe some of the rumours.

Of particular concern was the final weeks of an absorbing relegation struggle which climaxed in an emotion-charged finale between Altona East Phoenix and the visiting Springvale White Eagles ñ a match in which the Sweagles needed a victory to avoid the drop and the hosts needed a point to do likewise. Tense stuff, for sure, particularly when an incident from the penultimate round is considered.

The previous week had seen Springvale host Bentleigh Greens in a match which could have seen the hosts relegated. The free-scoring Greens (who had netted 30 goals in their past seven outings) hardly troubled the opposing keeper and went down 0-1, giving the Sweagles an invaluable lifeline as they headed to Altona. Rumours that the 1-0 scoreline was known a couple of weeks in advance were taken with a grain of salt initially, but more on that later.

Of greater concern was an incident which occurred five minutes from time, when a clumsy challenge by Bentleighís Tom Karapatsos on goalscorer Jim Gacovski resulted in swinging arms and fists from the players. Worse, it incited a dash from the bench from Sweagles skipper Zlatko Mihaljovic to become ëthird man iní in what developed into an ugly melee. (At this point it should be noted that Mihaljovic was serving a suspension for accumulated yellow cards, and as such should not have been on the bench in the first place.) Referee Robert Caminiti flashed red cards at Karapatsos and Gacovski and also sent Mihaljovic from the field.

The incident provoked great discussion amongst the occupants of the press box, which included VSF president George Wallace and former Soc Aus board member Dom Di Fabrizio. While the melee was met with universal disapproval, the dialogue soon centred around the likely penalties (Gacovski would obviously miss the vital final round match against Altona East) rather than whether the players were guilty of various offences.

The incident itself was distasteful enough but what followed is perhaps a more serious indictment on the game in Victoria.

During the week, SU contacted the VSF and requested a list of players suspended for the final round. We were advised that such a list was unavailable, so we dropped the veil and asked specifically about Zlatko Mihaljovic.

Yes, Mihaljovic was clear to play, he had served his existing suspension, and as nothing was noted on the refereeís report there would be no further action.

This brings us to an interesting point. Point 4 (l) to be exact, from the VSF 1999 Yearbook (page 197), under the heading Statement of Purposes of the VSF: 4. Powers of the Federation.

(l) To expel, suspend, disqualify, fine or otherwise deal with any member club, club, league or affiliated organisation, player, officer or official of any Clubs, league, affiliated league, affiliated organisation of the Federation and/or other person, established from time to time by the Federation, who or which shall have committed any breach of the rules, regulations or by-laws established from time to time by the Federation of who or which shall have been guilty of any conduct which in the opinion of the Federation is contrary to the interest of the Game and the Federation.

And from the VSF Constitution, Point 7 ñ Discipline of Members.

A member shall not act in a manner unbecoming of a member or prejudicial to the objects and interests of the Federation or sport generally or bring the Federation or sport generally into disrepute.

Having been a witness to the scenes at Springvale, why wouldnít the president of the Federation initiate an investigation? Perhaps the answer can be found in Point 28.3.

The president shall not be summoned to testify as witnesses before any Federation disciplinary body.

Well, yes, that means that George Wallace wouldnít be required to give evidence at a possible tribunal hearing, but it certainly doesnít mention anything in 28.3 (or anywhere else as far as we can see) about the president not initiating an inquiry into an unsavoury event.

And what of the referee? Why wouldnít he mention something in his report about the melee, especially one involving people not directly participating in the match?

And what of the match inspector? Why wouldnít he mention something in his report about the melee.

A spokesman for the the Soccer Referees Victoria Incorporated was kind enough to point out that it would be a matter of internal policy at the VSF as to whether they released the contents of a refereeís and inspectorís report. Naturally, the head of the VSFís Disciplinary Committee suggested we put our request in writing. Rather than postpone the deadline, weíll get back to you on that next issue. It should be worth holding your breath for.

Footnote 1: Zlatko Mihaljovic was awarded the Bill Fleming medal on September 16 for the ëmedia panel player of the yearí. In what is viewed by some as a curious decision, we will attempt to provide further details next month. It may just make remarkable reading.

Footnote 2: The VSF are happy to promote the 2000 season as a new start for soccer in Victoria (er, make that metropolitan Melbourne) with a reduction in teams in each division and a regionalisation of the lower leagues (see last issue). But the people who have presided over this seasonís debacle will preside over a twelve team Victorian Premier League which features five Greek clubs and no club outside a 20km radius of the GPO.

And we havenít found ANYONE in metropolitan Melbourne who thinks that is a good idea.