Despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, FFA Chairman Chris Nikou says that the introduction of a National Second Division (NSD) remains something that the FFA is genuinely pursuing.
The FFA – which was forced to stand-down 70% of its staff in the face of the pandemic – and its board has largely been consumed in recent months by the duelling concerns of dealing with the fallout that COVID-19 has had on the game, as well as partnering with New Zealand Football in a bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup.
As a result, issues such as a NSD have been forced to the periphery; derailing momentum behind the push to establish what has become one of Australian football’s white whales.
As recently as early March, reports were circulating that the FFA was set to “test the market” through an informal expression of interest process that would guide the federation in preparing financial modelling of what a National Second Division would look like.
The determination of the outlay required to take part in any proposed NSD is crucial for prospective participants – many of whom are unwilling to commit to applying until they can be sure both it and their participation are financially viable.
“At the moment the emphasis is on dealing with the immediate, which is COVID-19 related,” Nikou told The World Game.
“But, as soon as we can deal with the immediate issues, its still our ambition. We’ve got a strategic plan that we’re working on and we will obviously work with our members and share with the public. But all those issues are still on our agenda.
“Our aspiration is for a second division and to improve the pathway, that’s at the heart of it. Obviously, that requires collaboration amongst a number of stakeholders, but certainly, a second division is something that we’re genuinely pursuing.”
For the Association of Australian Football Clubs (AAFC), a coalition of ambitious National Premier Leagues clubs that are seeking the introduction of a NSD, their attention has also been diverted to COVID-19 related matters in recent months – representing their clubs in negotiations over the return of NPL competitions with various Member Federations.
But its Chairman, Nick Galatas, told The World Game that recent events in Australian football, which have created uncertainty surrounding the model the professional tier will operate under, have helped crystallise the need for the introduction of a national second tier.
“Our position now is that we think that recent developments in the A-League - where the model looks like it reduces a bit in cost and becomes more modest - if that eventuates it means it is even more relevant and urgent for a NSD to be introduced,” Galatas said.
“Alignment will also prove easier.
“We’ve always said that a second division will help the A-League, no matter what the A-League looks like.
“Now, given what we’re hearing about the A-league and the developments, as reported with Fox and broadcasting more generally, we now think that a NSD will help the whole of the game even more. It’s even more important now.
“Far from what’s happening being a dampener, sure there’s been little action for a few months because we’ve all been dealing with COVID-19, but we say a NSD is not only on the table – but it fits even better than it did before and the need for it is even greater than it was before.
“The benefits that it will give the game as a whole are even greater because there will now be a seamless continuum between the divisions – which is what we should have always had.
"The whole of the game and all its support will be more closely bound together, making it stronger.”
Debate not just around a NSD, but on a diverse selection of topics ranging from youth development, the future of sponsorships, a winter A-League and the future of broadcasting have all rushed to fill the conversational void left by the A-League’s suspension.
The re-emergence of Mark Viduka as part of these discussions, first in an interview with ESPN and then as part of a 'Golden Generation' round-table on Optus Sport, served as the catalyst for the FFA to establish a 'Starting XI' panel of playing legends that will report to FFA’s Football Development Committee.
“On the one hand, obviously the FFA is entrusted with managing the sport and we're in dialogue with our stakeholders, PFA, clubs, Member Feds, Women’s Council, but the fact that people are actually talking about football issues, I think it’s very good,” Nikou said.
“We want dialogue, we want to talk about how to improve the sport but, ultimately, the FFA is entrusted with delivering outcomes.
“We get media clippings daily, so that picks up some of the social media aspects. I think you’ve got to be careful judging between opinions and the facts because sometimes all the facts aren’t out there. It may well be that if you explain the situation people are like, ‘hang on a minute, that changes my opinion’.
“I think the cost of football is a good example of that. I think people have been genuinely surprised when we’ve said, 'we agree with you fully about reducing the cost of football, but do you realise only $13 of the registration fee comes to the FFA?' The perception is there are significantly greater amounts coming to the FFA.
“I think that we, as a sport, need to say that there’s a lot of good things happening in our sport, it’s not perfect, nothing in life is perfect. We actually need to unite and start working on issues and moving the dial.
“I think you can talk, and that’s great, I think we’ve identified a number of shortcomings – pathways and things like that – but we need to go into the solutions.
“The game is good. The fundamentals are good. We, as a football community, are really good at pointing out the negatives rather than highlighting our positives. The A-League and W-League can only get better, a Women’s World Cup would be a significant boost and our core number of participants is second to none.”
Of course, for the A-League to begin to get better it will first have to resume - with their being nothing but rumour and innuendo available to fans seeking clarity on when – or even if – the 2019-20 season will be able to recommence.
There are then possible questions around future expansion, as well as the fate of new sides Western United and Macarthur FC.
“All the work’s been done,” Nikou said on the A-League’s return.
“There are some finishing touches, I mean, everyone understands we’re positioning this for a mid-June resumption of training for a mid-July resumption of the A-League in predominantly a hub model, finishing by mid-August is our plan. A lot of work has been going on with the PFA and the clubs and we’re in dialogue with Fox.
“Macarthur and Western United are two new teams so obviously they need to build their following and their base. Our expectation and our planning is that they will both be there.
“The existing clubs, they get a chance to take the sport and further advance it, that’s what they’ve been asking for.
"We’ve just got to provide the right environment. The level of dialogue and cooperation between the A-League clubs and the FFA is, really, very good.”