Last week, Melbourne City midfielder Rostyn Griffiths declared to The World Game “it’s no longer the players' responsibility to keep fixing this league” and he couldn’t have been more right.
For too long now, A-League footballers have been forced to atone for the blunders made by CEOs with fat salaries and out-of-touch administrators who have all continued to pocket a pay cheque in spite of the game’s continued losses.
Make no mistake, much of that has changed in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak and although the repercussions have dramatically impacted the global sporting economy, the A-League’s woes predate the unheralded arrival of the pandemic.
The professional game has been gripped by a series of issues the powers-that-be have either created or been incapable of solving in the last 15 years, and this truly awful period in time has simply accelerated our plight.
In the last five months alone, the story our competition has told to the world has been nothing short of polarising.
From a disenchanted host broadcaster desperate to sever ties with the sport, to clubs standing down players and staff without pay: and who could forget the Melbourne-based footballers suffering through the embarrassing Victorian border fiasco?
Almost daily, there was a stream of unflattering headlines that punctuated just why we have continued to repeat the mistakes of the past and all of it stems from the mismanagement of the league since its inception.
Let me be clear in saying I am not unsympathetic to the fact that no one could have prepared for this brutal moment in our history, but where I am completely unforgiving is in the realisation that the Australian football ecosystem has systematically failed its players.
Now, the news that clubs are looking to slash the value of contracts by between 30 to 50 per cent next season represents the ultimate slap in the face after years of being treated like unimportant commodities, particularly throughout this difficult period.
When the game was eventually shut down after the March 23 clash between Newcastle Jets and Melbourne City, the players were told prior to kick-off that they had play in order to receive the next financial installment from Fox Sports.
They knew there were associated health risks and still made the decision to shoulder the burden of propping up the game - a common practice it seems.
So how were they treated by their employers in return?
Seven clubs stood down their staff and players without pay and forced many of them to apply for the government’s Job Keeper payment scheme.
For those who elected to return for the competition restart, all of them have taken dramatic pay cuts and are receiving just 17% of their salaries.
The worst-affected are using the government subsidy to support themselves and their families and will have completed three months of work in a hub at the same level as their usual full-paid work.
This is how we treat the lifeblood of our game?
As the great Craig Foster said, “these players have helped build these clubs.”
“They’re not responsible for the management of clubs, for playing in massive stadia, for the lack of marketing campaigns we’ve had, for the lack of the vision of where the game is going, for the multi-million dollar salaries at head office in recent years, for the constant churn of owners of these A-League and W-League clubs.”
“Their responsibility is to do their job on the field, sell the game to the public and conduct themselves in the appropriate manner, which they’ve done as well as any sport in the country.”
Further still, the consequences of such negligent treatment have been revealed in some startling new figures.
According to recent survey results obtained by The World Game, of the 270-odd players currently contracted in the A-League, more than 50 per cent are reportedly currently under financial stress and one third of the cohort have children.
Up to 70 players are coming off contract on August 31, with no guarantee for work and then there is the emotional and mental impact the COVID-19 shutdown has had on them.
Research conducted by Professional Footballers Australia in conjunction with FIFPro surveyed 150 players in June and found a distressing spike in anxiety and depression across Australian players.
During the football hiatus and government-enforced isolation period, 58 per cent of players reported symptoms of anxiety while 45 per cent of players demonstrated symptoms of depression.
By the time this finals series comes to a close, many of these players will have been separated from their families for over two months, with Perth Glory set to endure a further quarantine period in Malaysia once the AFC Champions League kicks off next month.
The heavily pregnant wife of Wellington Phoenix defender Luke Devere was forced to relocate to Brisbane to welcome their second child, while City captain Scott Jamieson nominated not to return for the remainder of the season after he welcomed a son with his partner in Melbourne.
The feelings of uncertainty have also been compounded by the fact FFA have given no clear assurances as to when the next season will kick off or what the financial landscape will look like.
Speaking to Sydney FC coach Steve Corica last week, he admitted that “no one really knows what's going to go on, if the players have to take a pay cut. We don't even know when the season is going to start.”
For too long, I’ve listened to people bemoan that A-League players have got it “too easy” or that they’re “paid too much” but I would love to know exactly what is “easy” about being a professional footballer in Australia?
When the A-League players aren’t being squeezed into the ever-rigid salary cap, they’re being offered one-year contracts, uprooting their families and bouncing from city to city just to try and make ends meet.
The life of a footballer may sound glamorous but the life of an Australian footballer is anything but.
Not everyone is destined for the glittering lights of Europe and for those who are likely to fulfill their dreams playing the game they love in this grand country we call home, clubs are now saying to them that they are expendable and not worthy.
These are the same clubs and administrators who petitioned for a change in congress over two years ago and have lobbied for control of the competition and now they’re asking the players to sacrifice their financial well-being and risk their families' futures all in the name of the game?
It’s just shocking.
One in three players have already revealed that they are determined to leave the A-League as soon as possible with almost half of the surveyed respondents saying they would rather move overseas next season, even if the money and the playing standards were akin to the A-League.
The damning reality that we are facing is that we have given Australian players no choice but to abandon our only elite competition, much like many of the fans and stakeholders have done over the years.
We cannot expect them to continue to make extraordinary sacrifices for mediocre rewards and endure more than what they already have.
For too long, football fans have only seen the players’ on-field pursuits; the goals, the near-misses, the trophies or the grand final heartbreak - well it’s high time we started seeing the truth.
The players have suffered enough to ensure that this league lives to fight another day - now it’s over to the clubs and the custodians of our game to pay the price for their own mistakes.