By Stewart Prins
This piece was first published on The Punch on 29 February – just as FFA Chairman Frank Lowy announced that Gold Coast United was being expelled from the A-League.
A-League football had one of its more mysterious moments on the weekend when colourful franchise owner Clive Palmer sent his Gold Coast United (GCU) team out onto the field with the message “Freedom of Speech” plastered across the front of their playing strip.
Neither Mr Palmer nor his Gold Coast United CEO Clive Messink offered an explanation for the late change to the playing strip, or for the advertising billboards quoting the same slogan.
The strange advertisement came after a controversial fortnight where Mr Palmer appointed a 17 year-old debutant as acting club captain, sacked the coach and lambasted FFA bosses as incompetent and overpaid.
The soap opera has taken the gloss of a largely successful season in the A-League, and has left the future of the Gold Coast-based club under a cloud.
But while the discussion around Gold Coast United has focussed on the erratic behaviour of its owner, the situation has exposed another issue which deserves to looked at: professional football’s reliance on the benevolence of a billionaire boys club to stay afloat.
The league is increasingly operating at the behest of mining magnates. Apart from GCU, the Newcastle Jets is owned Nathan Tinkler, Perth Glory is owned by Tony Sage, and Brisbane Roar is now owned by controversial Indonesian tycoon Aburizal Bakrie.
Is this situation healthy? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being beholden to a small cadre of rich men?
The advantages are obvious: they have bucket-loads of cash and are happy to spend it. Running a professional soccer club is expensive, so it makes sense to call in people who can afford to do it, and who don’t mind burning some money along the way.
Clubs are by nature collectives, comprising payers, members and supporters. The people need to feel a sense of belonging to the collective.
When a club becomes the personal play-thing of one individual, it fundamentally loses its meaning.
The disenfranchisement of club supporters was evident on the Gold Coast on Saturday night, where GCU’s supporter group – known as ‘The Beach’ – held aloft a banner that read ‘FFA save GCU’. I guess that’s freedom of speech.
The reliance on mining billionaires to fund the professional game is also indicative of a mindset that has pervaded the administration of football for years – a view that football is somehow broken, and in need of a saviour. Terry Venables, John O’Neill, Frank Lowy, Guus Hiddink, Robbie Fowler, Harry Kewell and Brett Emerton, mining billionaires – the list of football’s supposed white knights is long and illustrious.
And then there was the biggest white knight (turned white elephant): the World Cup bid.
It’s a cargo cult mentality, a top-down approach that believes that the next big thing will come along and spark a wave of interest in professional football, and the benefits then flow through to the rest of the sport.
There are two things wrong with this view.
Firstly, it hasn’t really worked. All of the people mentioned above have made a significant contribution to the sport, but A-League clubs are still struggling to gain a solid foothold in our competitive professional sporting market.
Secondly, the cargo cult mentality fails to understand football’s greatest strength. Football is easily the most popular participation sport in the country. According to Frank Lowy himself, football has 1.7 million active participants in Australia.
At the grass-roots level, football is absolutely flying, but the interest in football isn’t translating into an interest in the A-League.
The top-down approach to this conundrum looks to impose board-room solutions. It’s about the next marketing gimmick, or about bringing in another business mate with deep pockets.
But why not turn this model upside down? If we built football from from the base up, from the strong foundation that’s already in place, the game would look a lot different.
In fact, it may look more like FC Barcelona – arguably the world’s most successful football club.
Indeed there is a growing movement in the UK and across Europe of football clubs that have at least partial supporter-ownership.
Clubs like AFC Wimbledon, for example, have been created by local supporters, while other groups like Dons Supporters Together in Aberdeen are organising and demanding a real stake in their local club.
And, dare I say it, member-ownership is the structure used by clubs in Australia’s most successful professional football code – the AFL.
Of course, the member-ownership may not be the answer to all of football’s problems in Australia, but neither is Clive Palmer.
Rich people who are willing to get involved the game should be welcomed, but the game should not be reliant on them.
And instead of always looking to the sky for the next big thing, the administrators of football in this country need to look down and think about the big thing that’s already at their feet: the huge community of football fans who want their game back.
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