One reputation that Australian sport has around the globe is that the nation is not a good loser. Frequently when beaten, the officials are blamed, the conditions, etcetera, rather than accepting that maybe on the day they were beaten by a better team.
Is this strong hatred of losing, that has embedded itself into the psyche of Australian sports so strongly, the reason for the current aversion to punish teams appropriately by throwing them out of a competition for, for want of a better word, cheating? Is this the same reason why the FFA, and in fact many sports in the country are against bringing in relegation to their league competitions at national level?
With a failure to perform not being punished by relegation elite sport becomes extremely protectionist, a closed shop. CEO David Gallop’s comment last week that the A-League expansion would be based on population rather than merit, was one that disappointed many football fans across the country.
It would no doubt have disappointed the Asian Football Confederation who requested relegation to be implemented, and the fact that the National Premier Leagues is supposed to in the words of the FFA “underpin” the A-League.
Many believe that the Champions of this competition should earn the right to replace the bottom placed team in the A-League. Although there are so many issues attached to such a move.
Firstly as the FFA Cup has so far proved, full time footballers are a lot fitter and stronger than their semi-professional counterparts. That is not to say that the semi-professionals with the same training and commitment could not match, or even surpass those playing at the moment. However it will take time.
Another problem is that the FFA model for the A-League, which involved private investors owning clubs, creates another massive issue when pitted against a community based semi-professional club. If the privately owned club is relegated, the private owner will most likely walk away and the FFA faces either finding a new owner for the club, or an established club folding. What about “Parachute Payments” to the relegated A-League club as per those teams relegated from the English Premier League to the Championship? These are payments to assist clubs in paying higher wages than in the league the find themselves playing in, and assist them to adjust their books to meet their new environment. The problem here is the FFA does not have the money for such payments. Another issue is that most A-League clubs do not have a ground that they can call “home.” So where are they going to play their games and generate income?
Many will say that the players will walk away, but how can a player under contract walk away? If relegation were to come in, and the A-League was to be a league based on reward, then a transfer system would need to be implemented, so that newly promoted clubs could in fact purchase players from the relegated team should that club wish to release them. With the FFA struggling to handle international transfers as it is and still taking a percentage of these, even though FIFA stated that this was illegal (Cashing In), a domestic transfer system is extremely unlikely to happen in the near future. Although there is no reason why it should not occur at NPL level.
What about the Salary Cap? Newly promoted clubs would be faced with making the leap from administering a wage bill in the hundreds of thousands to one in the millions. Could they cope? Do they have the experience and wherewithal to handle such larges sums of money? Many of these clubs are currently run by well meaning committed volunteers, who love football, but many clubs are struggling to make ends meet. How therefore would they cope in a professional environment? Would they be prepared to bring in experts to run the club and relinquish their control? Ultimately this is a decision for each club, but it is a real issue that needs considering by those who advocate the promotion and relegation system.
There are many who say that new clubs to the A-League should not have to make such a giant step in terms of meeting the current salary cap. That they should instead be allowed to build their club based on a budget that they feel is achievable, and will not put the established club in a financial position that could ultimately see it fold, if it fails on the pitch. There is merit in this school of thought, however yet again clubs need to become professional in the way they operate. At NPL level we need to see contracts back in place, clubs not approaching other players without doing it properly, by asking the President first. Unless these clubs are run along professional lines and employ proper football etiquette, they will never survive in the full time professional environment. Is this an area the FFA should be helping? Maybe, but do the FFA really want any true community-based clubs with history in the A-League? It is unlikely they will invest time and money in helping the clubs they claim are “underpinning” the A-League, as the last thing they want is the possibility of a former NSL club resurfacing. They would rather create new clubs “where there are millions of people not hundreds of thousands,” as Mr Gallop said last week.
There is no doubt that Promotion and Relegation would enhance the football experience in Australia. It is a fact that the AFC want to see it introduced. There is no doubt it would benefit the players immensely as suddenly they know what it is to play in do-or-die games, something many A-League players have never experienced, because they have been cotton-wooled from this environment, by travelling the “football pathway.”
Former Australian coach Terry Venables stated to this writer that his biggest challenge as national coach was trying to teach Australians how to hang onto a 1-0 lead and kill a game. The problem he said, was they did not play enough competitions where they needed to do that, and were happy to continually bomb forward and attack; The Iran game in 1997 maybe a case in point, although Venables was blamed for his tactics. Whatever your thoughts on that, this is where Pim Verbeek’s achievement of having the Socceroos qualify for the World Cup in South Africa without conceding a goal is an underrated achievement. His was the first real change in approach since Venables comments, he built a team that qualified on a strong defence. Now pressure from the media and others has seen Australia revert to type. Ange Postecoglou, who has done a great job since taking over as National coach is encouraging attacking football, but the Socceroos are leaking too many goals, an issue that needs to be addressed quickly. To win or progress in international tournaments you need to learn to kill a game when you have a lead, as unattractive as it may seem, Italy are masters of it, hence their repeated success at the highest level. Sadly the National Youth League is still not teaching this. Fighting for promotion and the prize of a place in the A-League, or the threat of relegation may well help develop this side of the game in Australia. An important part of a player’s development and one that will assist in the national team progressing in major tournaments.
Will we see promotion and relegation happen in the next ten years of the A-League? Hopefully. Will we see it realistically? Unlikely.
The trouble is with A-League clubs being privately owned, most owners would walk away once their club was relegated as few are genuinely there for the game as a whole. Hence the reason the FFA needs to protect those clubs.