In the wake of the FFA's 'XI Principles for the future of Australian football', the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC) has reiterated its calls for the speedy introduction of a national second division, as well as a major review of the structure of the game below it.
Released to the public on Thursday afternoon, the FFA’s expansive XI principles discussion paper laid out numerous proposed targets and reforms that the FFA would be seeking to implement in Australian football over the next 15 years as it emerged from the COVID-19 crisis and cast its eyes forward.
These included moving to align the A-League with the rest of Australian football’s winter-based competitions, using the 2023 Women’s World Cup as a springboard to improve women's football development, greater in-house media production and distribution, and reducing the cost of playing the game by streamlining its governance on a local, member federation and national level.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given FFA CEO James Johnson’s previous responsibilities at FIFA, the introduction of a strong domestic transfer system and positioning Australia as a top exporter of talent also played a significant role in the document.
Nonetheless, despite the numerous goals entailed within the document, the substance of how to achieve them was, sometimes deliberately, left vague.
Notable throughout was the lack of a concrete plan surrounding one of the hottest button issues of Australian football: the introduction of a National Second Division (NSD) and potential moves towards the introduction of promotion and relegation.
Though a second tier is mentioned on numerous occasions throughout the document, the careful language used throughout meant that just what relationship this competition would have with the A-League was not clear.
Verbiage deployed in section IV of the document - Create a dynamic and engaging football product by optimising competition structures to connect Australian football – in particular, appears to have rankled proponents of a NSD; advocates taking umbrage with the phrase “Consider the development of a second-tier competition”.
Johnson said that it was important to look beyond simple promotion and relegation, citing Japan's J.League and Mexico's Liga MX as examples of alternative models.
In a written response on behalf of the AAFC seen by FTBL, Chairman Nick Galatas - though noting that he was responding to a 'living' document that is subject to change - moved to see off any headwinds gathering against the introduction of a nation-wide second-tier, declaring that the unity of vision called for in the discussion paper could not be realised without unification of the game.
“It is not enough that the widely supported and much-awaited NSD be ‘relegated’ to the status of something to be 'considered', as it is in the XI Principles,” Galatas said.
“FFA has resolved to introduce it. Board members, executive officers and congress members alike have all endorsed it. There is no reason it should not be a key part of the document when it matures from 'living' document to fully formed policy. We will work to ensure it is so.
“The XI Principles is a good-faith start from a new, football-focused, Board and a new CEO, who has won our respect and appreciation for the way he has handled, with much success, the many problems which have confronted him in his first six months at the helm.
“Together with [FFA Chairman] Chris Nikou and his new Board, James [Johnson] and his team have instilled hope and excitement in us all. We aim to ensure that continues.”
Going to great lengths to emphasise their view that the central building block of the game was its club, the AAFC response to the XI principles calls on the FFA to “remove all shackles, burdens and restrictions imposed upon these clubs”.
However, it does this not only through its familiar calls for the linkage of the Australian football pyramid - but also through major reforms to the game’s governance.
Decrying the current model of the National Premier Leagues (NPL) competitions that the vast majority of its clubs compete in, it calls for clubs to be reinstated as members of their local federations, as well as for the suspended National NPL Review to be reconvened.
“The new governance model enacted by the Lowy administration culminated in the introduction of the NPL,” said Galatas.
“This turned our clubs into ‘NPL clubs’, effectively licenced by their member federation to participate in the highest state tier as though the federation enjoys an ‘ownership’ right over the game, enabling it to licence the game.
“AAFC is pleased that a new governance structure is under consideration as one of the XI Principles. Clubs must be reinstated as members of their federation. A democratic governance model providing for clubs to have a direct say should be enacted.
“AAFC has fought for the introduction of a true NSD, to be drawn primarily from our member clubs. In achieving this, the rest of our member clubs will be simultaneously freed from carrying burdens they should not.
“It will also ensure the reduction in the cost of participation for our young players and lay the foundation for the long-awaited and necessary linking of our game, from top to bottom.
“This is the best way to create the competitive tension referred to in the XI Principles.
“The suspended national NPL review must be reconvened as soon as possible. Clubs should not be branded NPL clubs or at all. Clubs should be allowed to be the most and best they can be.
“It is not the sole function of clubs below the A-League to produce players. That is one of the consequences of what they do. Their primary purpose should revert to serving the aspirations of their members and community.
“In that way, they reflect what football people want and promote democratic outcomes. That is a worthy component of our identity, we say.”
The FFA has emphasised in its communication surrounding the release that the XI principles that it was a discussion paper, one that would serve as a “basis for engagement and consultation with the Australian football community”.
A series of online surveys are set to commence on Monday, July 6 to gather community feedback.
“We look forward to working with the Board, James and his team in playing our part in the development of the ‘living’ document into what will become the blueprint for lasting and successful change,” Galatas said.
“After all, the biggest and most welcome difference between this proposed collaborative change and the changes imposed upon us in the past, is that now we are being asked to contribute. Inclusivity in action.
“Let’s extend this inclusivity in pursuing the strengthening of our nation’s clubs through the introduction of the National Second Division, the national review of the NPL and the direct and democratic representation of clubs within their federations.”