A true champion of the game

Brendan Schwab's passion for and contribution to the evolution of football in Australia has left an indelible imprint on the game.

First a disclosure. Brendan Schwab is a long-time friend of over almost two decades. I served on the Professional Footballers Australia executive under Brendan and as interim Chief Executive under his Chairmanship.

In a non professional capacity, we spent far too much time sipping vinos and talking football in different settings, countries and stadiums.

Given this, TWG has asked me to pen a few lines to provide some insight into the man. Accordingly, there is no pretence to objectivity in this blog. Rather, these are my personal reflections on a gentleman who has made a singular contribution to player rights and the broader game in this country throughout one of the most tumultuous and challenging periods in its history.

It comes as no surprise to hear that Brendan will step away from his role as Chief Executive of PFA as he has achieved everything possible in the position.

As a young lawyer, Brendan was integral to the creation of an Australian player’s union in 1993 and brought a deep love of the game, despite emanating from a family with a very strong background in Australian rules administration.

It quickly became clear to the playing group that Brendan was a fiercely loyal person who refuses to say a bad word about anyone he represents. He always maintained a professional demeanour and conduct in any context.

The players love him. They see in him as a warrior for their cause who has absolute respect for the game and its practitioners. They see him as one who stands up on their behalf to take the constant barrage of personal attacks from a sport that has struggled to come to terms with the concept of growing player professionalism over the last decade.

I have known no other person in football who is willing to front up day in, day out and accept the position as the focal point of all player disputes and angst from both sides. Yet one who has never held a grudge, continues to act in the most professional manner and who constantly provides the answers to the game’s problems to others who almost invariably take the credit for themselves.

For most initiatives trumpeted as groundbreaking today, Brendan could pull out a file note, dated several years ago, in which he offered a suggestion that took years to implement. I know this for a fact.

The Australian Premier League (APL) model is a case in point that demonstrates very clearly that Brendan has always been well ahead of the game.

In 2002, with the game in a precarious state, Brendan and three PFA Life Members decided to take the matter into their own hands and look at a different model.

Several hundred thousands of dollars were raised to fund the most significant research into the Australian football market that had been conducted. Brendan led the project alongside current PFA Chairman John Poulakakis - a man of exceptional quality and capability who provided the marketing expertise.

In December 2002, the APL document, 'For the Fans’, was launched. It was a model for a new professional league that specified five core pillars: quality, atmosphere, community, local brands and visibility.

Many at the time wrote that such a league could not survive in Australia, and continue to believe this today because of where the league finds itself financially.

They are wrong. The extent to which the A-League prospers is based largely on the degree to which it has adopted, albeit painstakingly slowly, the findings in the initial APL document - Brendan’s vision.

The new administration completely ignored the document and is now fighting to gain lost ground in each of those key areas.

Quality started lower than it should have. The strategy was to compile a list of the best players from the National Soccer League to make the transition and coordinate international scouting centrally. Football Federation Australia left the job to agents and many quality players were left out. Others signed that should never have. It took years to overcome and at tremendous cost.

Atmosphere suffered through a failure to acknowledge the research findings that football is atmosphere. Atmosphere is a key success factor and small stadia were preferable from both a commercial and brand-building standpoint. Scarcity and maximum capacity were strategic imperatives, not empty terraces. Seven years and tens of millions of dollars later, many teams are looking at downsizing for obvious reasons.

Community was almost completely overlooked.

Local brands meant tailoring each club specifically to the demographics of the region they resided in and understanding the target market. Instead, a 'market forces’ model has left key decisions to club owners, most with no history in the game.

Gold Coast is an excellent example and reason why I believe Clive Palmer, despite his shortcomings, was bound to fail from the beginning.

Visibility meant not just the critical issue of television exposure, but a whole program to educate the football and broader media to develop a literate culture designed to recognise and value high quality football that would contribute to Australia’s long term international success.

Through it all, and despite his immense passion for football which sees him often call wanting to discuss the finer points of an A-League or Champions League match and to know why and how things occurred in the analytical way a trained lawyer should, Schwab has maintained a dignified composure while fighting a mission for the players’ and the game’s cause.

Brendan was the only person in the country who understood ten years ago that providing a rewarding career path is absolutely fundamental to the success of our game both domestically and internationally.

I sat alongside Brendan twelve years ago with Soccer Australia officials and heard them time and again argue incapacity, simply because they could not manage the game’s business affairs as well as Brendan managed the interests of the players. I am hearing the same things again today.

The PFA CEO must understand the entire football industry including players’ rights, the regulatory, governance and commercial framework as well as game structure from top to bottom. After twenty years and with an intellect few can match, Brendan understands the macro and micro better than anyone.

He rose to become a director of the world players’ governing body, FIFPro, took ownership of player’s unions in the most difficult region culturally - Asia - and came to be highly respected as a leading thinker on the game.

In other sports, this breadth of experience and understanding is valued and acknowledged. Just look at former AFL players’ boss, Andrew Demetriou.

In our code, however, we have not yet matured from an adversarial approach to one of enlightened partnership. That continues to be deeply disappointing.

Sadly, Brendan is a resource that Australia’s professional players benefited from over twenty years and that the game gained less than ten per cent value from, to its detriment.

He’ll still be involved on a consulting basis and I hope, one day, be back in a full time capacity.

In the meantime, if he needs anything, at any time, he need only pick up the phone to at least 10 or 20 Australian captains, male and female, several thousand Socceroos representatives past and present, Matildas and professional players, many of whose careers he saved, and plenty in the game who he has helped, supported and mentored.

That long list includes me.

He will be livid that I wrote this because he likes to keep everything professional, unemotional and focused on PFA and players, rather than himself.

But if I can speak for a moment on behalf of all former PFA executive members, life members and every player who ever picked up the phone from any corner of the world and said, 'Brendan, I have a problem", he goes with our congratulations, best wishes, and invitation for a celebratory vino anytime, anywhere for a wonderful contribution to football.

Arsene Wenger once said that some people work in the game and some work for the game. We have far too many of the former, whereas Brendan has always been the latter.

Having been involved in this wonderful game for over three decades in a playing, executive, player rights and media capacity, I assure you with considerable sadness that it is extremely rare to be able to say in football, 'there goes a character of the highest integrity and ethics who truly believes in the game and conducted themselves in a manner at all times that football should be proud of’.

But, then, Brendan Schwab is a rare individual.