Playing long balls into empty space since 2012.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Assorted reactions to FFA's Whole of Football Plan

Paul Mavroudis
the unofficial voice  conscience of South Melbourne FC

First published on Paul's South of the Border Blog 

Now I'm not going to go into too much detail about a document whose contents were already decided before they'd even conducted their infamous box ticking consultation from 2014 (for some reason the most popular article ever on this blog). So they want to be the number one sport and cement their autocratic rule by abolishing the states. They told us that months ago - and if we're fair dinkum, there is nothing in this document that should surprise any of us. So here are a bunch of mostly hysterical reactions to this announcement.

Misplaced anger
Some people have been upset by the For Modern Football site's satirical take on South Melbourne's press release. If anyone should be upset though it should be me, because I was doing this kind of stuff years ago.

The stated aim of making soccer more affordable to play, especially junior registrations, is a motherhood statement that should be eclipsed by certain realities of the situation, including the backgrounds and statements of those putting forward that rhetoric.

When during the NPL consultation process former FFV CEO Mark Rendell compared the then potential cost of the NPL junior fees to a sport like swimming (as well as classifying South's then $3,500 program as a 'Rolls Royce' program); when Tom Kalas tried to justify the cost of that South program by comparing it to dance, music or karate; and when Kyle Patterson compared the costs of junior soccer to his kid's violin lessons - what does this mean in the context of making soccer more affordable for kids?

At best it's another motherhood statement in a document full of them; at worst, it's insincere about soccer's attempts to go middle class. It's language which speaks to an aspirational segment of Australian society which is not concerned primarily with cost, but with value. In the same way that increasing numbers of middle class people scrimp, save or make sacrifices to send their children to expensive private schools - and to hell with those left behind the in the public system - it's the perceived value that's more important than the price of that sacrifice.

[A side note - whether there is also a cultural and class consciousness element to this is also worth considering. Several years ago on a certain forum, a bloke posted his observation that some middle class English people were moving towards the upper class game of rugby union, in part because of the persistent and/or residual association of soccer with the working class. I don't know if that observation was accurate, and the English class system is obviously quite different to Australia's, but there is I think something intriguing about that assertion, and something that could very well be applicable to those who see soccer as providing a more cosmopolitan sporting option than the insular and boorish (bogan?) Aussie Rules and rugby league cultures.]

In other words, soccer is now a middle class game. The participant is only useful so long as they can be leveraged for more and more money. It's not about fun any more, or belonging to a club, or even being able to take up one sport during the winter and another during the summer. Each soccer loving individual in this country has had a monetary value placed upon their head, whether they are a player, parent, volunteer, fan, media person or even - and while undoubtedly a sign of the times, also a bit frightening - someone mostly interested in soccer video games. And like the cult-ish Evangelical mega-churches the 'we are football' branding and rhetoric reeks of these days, it's bring your credit card with you when you come to worship.

Of course if your bank balance is smaller, or if your involvement in the game generates minimal value for the upper tiers - or heaven forbid, doesn't agree with every part of this Great Leap Forward - you can go and get stuffed. This is disturbing to me because in my line of work I'm required (and want) to see the best in people and their potential. FFA does the opposite. The concept of people getting into and enjoying soccer as an end in itself has been thrown under the bus.

As increasingly seems to be the case these days, I'm reminded of a comment Melbourne Heart CEO Scott Munn made at an academic conference a few years back, about the relative pointlessness of school visits by his organisation.
As an aside, one of the more curious things that was said by Munn, was that one off attempts at trying to convert people to your cause like school clinics were almost doomed to fail (he used some clever analogy about pissing on your own leg - I can't remember how it went, but it was quite funny). 
This was a point expanded upon at last year's Whole of Football Plan meeting in Melbourne, when the failure to leverage soccer's existing base for the A-League was something which FFA wanted corrected (fair enough), but was a point nevertheless which showed how different the priorities of those at the top and those at the bottom were.
The FFA... seemed to think that things like school visits and absurdly inflated participation numbers - which included intangibles like kids playing street soccer - were all about converting kids into being A-League fans. The difference with those of the community club sector was the community club representatives were showing annoyance at the lack of school visits not because of the missed opportunity of getting kids to follow the A-League, but to get them involved with the game of soccer as opposed to other sports.
Some people think soccer is first and foremost a great game to be involved in. Others think the most important thing is not how much you enjoy the experience, but how much they can fleece you for. I guess this is why I'm not in marketing.

Gallows humour

SMFCBLUES07 wrote:
I'll do the honours here

Press release:

smfc wish to announce since there is no future in football we have abandoned ship and will refocus our efforts in strip clubs not social room

The one with a forced literary allusion
In Toni Morrison's novel Beloved,  the slaves learn that 'definitions belong to the definers, not the defined'. The FFA has spent the past ten years applying that lesson. Soccer is, among other things, wogs, violence, incompetence and marginality. Football is other things: good things, Australian things, mainstream things. Most importantly, FFA has learned from the disparagement that soccer received from other codes over the decades, and vowed that it would never succumb to the same fate - not only this, but they have striven to take it to the next level, by appropriating the language of the oppressor and using it as a successful example of wedge politics.

Terms like new dawn and bitter, mainstream and ethnic, new football and old soccer  - they all create division, and almost everyone has bought into them, this writer included. From our side of the fence, there have been those like the long gone Pumpkin Seed Eaters who have attempted creating other names, such as foundation clubs; journalists, when they weren't completely on the bandwagon, traditional clubs; FFV and FFA when they tried to find the most patronising PC term possible, community clubs. The net effect of all these definitions though was to point towards two directions - the past and the future.

Regardless of whether one got sucked into using the terms created by those with the power, or those without it - even my facetious and petty 'I am soccer' catchphrase in response to 'we are football' - the debate has been had on the powerful's terms. It's too late now to to start using different language in the hope that it will somehow turn everything around, but it's not too late to define ourselves outside of the parameters that have set. How we would do that, and what would be appropriate terms to use is an etymological process I'd be interested in seeing developed.

The club released its own response, and it's another in a recent line of measured posts.
May 6, 2015 
South Melbourne FC welcomes Football Federation Australia opening up the dialogue about Australia’s football future with the ‘Whole of Football Plan’ released on 5 May 2015. 
However, the current FFA Plan spells the possible end for aspirational football in this country. 
The proposed Plan currently provides no obvious club pathway that allows any club that aspires to develop and improve their process, systems and connection with their communities – or more importantly succeeds on the field – to be promoted as occurs throughout the football world. 
We are also disappointed that the FFA does not detail plans for further development of a second tier of Australian football, to facilitate the intended expansion of the Hyundai A-League and ultimately the implementation of a viable promotion and relegation system. 
Promotion and relegation would assist the improvement of the quality of our top division and provide a breeding ground for players, coaches, officials and aspiring clubs. 
More generally, a key component of all successful ‘plans’ is ‘implementation detail.’ We are keen to review that detail when it gets released. 
The FFA has certainly made great in-roads for our code’s development (for example football broadcasting and the launching of the Westfield FFA Cup), however we are mindful that strategic errors have also been made in the past. 
As a key stakeholder of football in Australia, we will be contacting the FFA to understand and obtain greater detail about their planning processes and to ensure the long term viability and growth of our club. 
Leo Athanasakis, SMFC President
Tom Kalas, SMFC Director
Whatever I may think of the club's approach over these past few years, I'm not going to go out and fault it. They tried to play nice, they tried to be conciliatory, they tried to be collegiate. Melbourne Knights tried to be difficult, tried to dig their heels in, tried to make a scene. No issue with that either. The fact is if they don't want you, they don't want you, and no amount of niceness or hostility is going to change things. Still, it'd be nice if some people, outside of those who are with us now, could have made a bit more of a fuss, if only for show.

This photo is the one the club chose to use to illustrate its press release. I made a comment on the club's Facebook page that it was slightly mischievous. It's a pointed reminder of what we once were, and where we are now. More importantly, it's a reminder that those who could, at the very least, speak up for us - not in an outrageous way, but in a way that they believe that we are still relevant - have chosen not to do so.

That the photo contains two of our most beloved members adds to the sting. And where's former president George Donikian? Spruiking the A-League semi-final with George Calombaris. Where is the Greek community?  At the A-League or the footy, or making fun of us on our Facebook page, telling us we're doomed, that we should give up because they have, and that there's a newer, shinier toy to play with. To be marginalised by the authorities is one thing, but to be marginalised by your own, that's the biggest insult. Making fun of us because we don't get the crowds we used to, as if the people pointing that out aren't part of that problem. And where will Enosi 59 be this week?

Boy, I really didn't see that one coming/Defeatist
Now the part of the announcement that most South fans (plus assorted remnants of old soccer and their associated new dawn sympathisers) picked up on was the FFA finally putting to rest promotion and relegation to the A-League. I am of course on the record as stating that I don't believe promotion is suitable for Australian soccer, and I still hold to that position. But no matter how harebrained I think that idea is, there is something I admire in it, and which seems to have been lost in the wash - and that is that at some level a belief in promotion and relegation is actually an endorsement in FFA, the last ten years and in the future of Australian soccer. It puts forward the belief that there is a viable future soccer in Australia, not just for the 'mainstream' but also the 'traditional'. It's a belief that's not about the old antagonisms, but about sharing a space.

If that's an example of the circumstances of the past ten years creating a sort of forced humility, then so be it. The problem with FFA's approach of incrementally increasing the number of teams in the top flight is that there is still no detail about what plan they'll use. Their own history on the matter is full of contradictions: last October Frank Lowy says that promotion and relegation will happen soon; now they rule it out; David Gallop says they'll fish where the fish are from now on, but now adds that any region with a population of 500,000 will be looked at, despite the problems of Central Coast and North Queensland; they briefly mention in the Whole f Football document that applications for an A-League licence from an NPL team would be possible, but offer no details, no pathway, no method.

Absurd (sans Simpsons reference)
So how do we get back to the top? If the A-League teams monopolise the majority of youth development, if no matter how well you do on and off the park you're effectively locked out, where's the incentive to excel by the processes of reform and self-improvement and by trying to follow the rules such as they exist in the NPL? To merely achieve the honour of being the longest lasting of the ethnic club museum pieces? When I asked on Twitter, rhetorically of course, for someone, anyone, to at least show us the hoops that we need to jump through to make the grade, Mark Bosnich offered to explain it to myself along with the others involved in the relevant discussion, in person next time he comes to Melbourne.While I appreciate the gesture, and would happily take part in such a meeting, I'm curious as to what Bosnich thinks it will achieve. Does he have some special insight or inside knowledge that's not available to the rest of the soccer public?

Absurd (with Simpsons reference)
What I imagine Mark Bosnich will feel like if he ever follows through with his promise to meet with the bitters.

This isn't just a story about old soccer fans, or South fans in particular. This is a story that has deep resonance to me as an individual. Now I've never run a club, but I have the utmost respect for those people that do put their hand up to do it these days - even when I disagree with them, and even when they fail. No one is closer to the coal face than they are in terms of seeing the problems and institutional injustices every day, and no one understands them better.

But having written this blog for seven and a half years, and having been involved in the online arguments for long before that, I feel I have a unique relationship to this problem. Getting reconnected with South Melbourne in 2006, and having my writing on the forums praised and encouraged (especially by Ian Syson) has lead to a number of peculiar outcomes.

Firstly, for better and for worse I have become the chief voice of South Melbourne fans outside of what the club controls and what some fans on certain forums put out. My self-declared desire to be the reasonable one, to play a straight bat so to speak, has won me some admirers; but the overall effect has been that the necessity and rigour of trying to fine tune the arguments combined with the increasing and ongoing marginalisation of South means that I have found myself backed into an ideological corner.

I'm not alone in that corner, but that's not really the point. There have been plenty of times when I've been jubilant or outraged, cautiously optimistic or maudlin, inspired or defeatist - these are the general swings and roundabouts of being involved with the game at any level. The point here is that because of South Melbourne I have ended up with the career of sorts that I have now, and the option to be broader and more engaged with Australian soccer such as it exists these days.

Every few months I end up having a discussion with Ian Syson where he worries about my own increasing marginalisation in the soccer writing world, a world where he thinks I can contribute intelligent and cogent arguments to a wider reading audience than I do now. And yet every time we have this conversation, I find some myself being more adamant that I can't make myself be the kind of writer that Syson (and others) would want me to be; and instead of embracing those possibilities of taking an interest in and writing for a broader audience, with each passing year I find my focus getting narrower, and my outlook become one that can allow fewer compromises and extensions of faith and trust.

While a measure of this attitude is inevitably down to my being an introvert, a large part of it is because by associating myself so strongly with South Melbourne, I have been made smaller and more insular by the circumstances of our decline, and my reaction towards those whom I hold responsible. Thus as South has been marginalised culturally, so have I, and I can imagine that at times this is a feeling that many South fans have felt over the last ten years or so.

And while I'm a doom and gloom merchant by trade, the fact is that I don't like partaking in defeatism for the sake of defeatism. A former friend, from back in the days when I was involved with left-wing student politics at Melbourne University, who had me pegged as a hopeless pessimist, later told me that she'd been mistaken; that rather than being an outright pessimist, I was a foolhardy optimist, who when my expectations weren't met, descended into cynicism and irony as a coping mechanism. Amateur psychology it may have been, but the fact that she took the time to think about it resonated with me as much as the content of the message itself.

I resolved then to lower my expectations, to be more cautious. But no matter how much you try to do that, we as human beings inevitably see and come to understand these things through our own prism. In that way, South fans see this plan as hostile to our interests. Outside of us, an acquiescent and largely apathetic soccer public just goes along with it. All the pride, the incapacitating anger, the depression that we experience is at best for those outside of our sphere seen as a regrettable and ultimately forgettable novelty.

Having by and large conformed to the new regime, outsiders do not understand the pressure that exists to conform to or engage with this regime - and that by not doing so it means that you become smaller, narrower, and seen as selfish almost by default, when all you as a dedicated South fan see is your loyalty to the cause. I know this, because having been briefly on the other side of this schism, I've learned the arguments from both sides.

We have collectively been made smaller by the experience. There are people who have lost their passion for the game entirely, while others have given up the ghost on the national team. On the latter point, despite my diminished passion for the Socceroos, I never thought that I'd get to the point where I felt my relationship to the national team would have felt like it had been poisoned by South's predicament, but that's where I am now. It takes a certain level of intestinal fortitude to resist, which at times becomes too much to bear - when seen from the outside, it seems as if all sense of perspective is lost

There were many times when I was writing this post where I had to stop because I was so angry and despondent. That we care that much should be seen as a strength, not a weakness; but how do we convince not only others but ourselves, too, of that fact?

Pragmatic fatalism
So what do we do now? The same thing we always do. Support the club, try our best to make it bigger and better despite all the obstacles that we face. In that way we not only honour the work being put in now, but the history of the club as a whole.

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