Just over two weeks ago it was announced that Australian football had lost a true legend, when ‘the little professor’ Leo Baumgartner passed away. Baumgartner had starred in his native Austria before moving to Australia in 1957. He played for the Australian Federation in representative games and also for the Australian national team.
When his playing career came to an end he moved into coaching with much success and coached Apia, Hakoah, Sydney Croatia and Marconi. He coached the New South Wales state team in the 1970’s and became director of coaching at Sydney United at a time when the club produced players such as Mark Bosnich, Tony Popovic and Zeljko Kalac. His game and coaching style was built on developing a first touch, and a passing game where the ball was kept on the ground.
Baumgartner was a man who had football flowing through his veins, and he was happy to talk about the game to anyone as this writer was fortunate to discover.
When news of his passing reached me, I could not help thinking back to his book published in 1961, “The Little Professor of Soccer” and his views at that time for the future of the game in Australia.
With much debate raging about the NPL structure, and where this level of the game is headed his book shows that the principles behind the NPL are in fact the right ones.
In his book he asked a question that is still valid today, ‘Are we working less and talking more?’ He then went on to state, “At present there is still a big split between first grade players and the Juniors. Perhaps it is the Juniors that are not taking enough interest in the game? But surely the interest of young players can only be retained if there is efficient coaching, interesting and purposeful training. We must always be developing new and better techniques. They are paramount in inducing the interest of young players.”
Some clubs have tried to have the senior players become more involved with junior development, but sadly mainly just so that they can pay those players more, outside of the salary cap. The children are quick to pick up that these players have very little interest or passion, and many sessions have fallen well below what is needed to keep the children enthused. Individuals inspire children. How many of us can remember one teacher who managed to bring the best out of us? The same is true as you learn the game, and what may be set down in a curriculum may not work for all players. As Baumgartner stated it must be kept ‘interesting.’ These senior players and coaches need to stimulate the young players to work hard on becoming better and aim for a first team place.
He also wrote, “Our youngsters are not sufficiently recognised. They are not the part of the game that they should be. Except for training and playing our youngsters seldom see one another from one training day to another. There is no bond between the boys and the seniors in our clubs.” That is still true at many clubs.
Sadly the fees being bandied about for children playing at NPL clubs is not going to help this situation. A rise from $300 to $800 is going to make a sport that was always for everyone, an elitist one. This is where clubs who manage to subsidise their juniors rather than have the juniors prop up the senior teams will succeed over their rivals. Once again children are quick to pick up on signals, and if parents feel they are not getting their money’s worth, the child will pick up on that vibe and may walk away from the game before their parents do. Certainly they will now expect a level of commitment from the clubs in return for the extra payment.
Where the NPL is good is having all the junior teams playing in a similar competition as the seniors; something that Baumgartner advocated 52 years ago. In order to help them feel involved and that every team at the club matters, there should be a “Club Championship” in the NPL. In this Championship every team’s results are compiled and go towards an overall club title. So if five of the eight teams playing on the weekend win, the club picks up 15 points towards the “Club Championship.” This way Juniors will take an interest in the teams above and below them, as will hopefully the senior teams.
In closing it is also interesting to note, even though the clubs of Baumgartner’s era were based on ethnic, immigrant lines, things at club level have not progressed that far since either. He wrote back in 1961, “I remember also the warring of different factions within the clubs and committees that pretended to know the game, when they really should have been concerned with the administration.” He went onto say that these same committees and administrators “should have evaluated every player according to his ability, the way he fitted into a team, the way he conducted himself as a sportsman on and off the field.” He was speaking out against prejudices based on a player’s nationality, now we are discussing prejudices based on a players age.
Maybe because the ball is round that as it keeps rolling the issues in the game in Australia remain constant. It is sad that we do not pay more heed to visionaries such as Leo Baumgartner, but he is as right today as he was when he penned his autobiography over 50 years ago. The future of the game lies with the Juniors and we should do all that we can to inspire and encourage them, and make the game accessible to them. Yet when it comes to the senior teams that these juniors aspire to play for one day, that team should always be selected from the best players available to suit that coach’s style of play, irrespective or race, colour, creed or age, as well as not restricted by a submitted squad list.