THE PUSH FOR PRO- REL SPARKS A REVOL UTION

Australian Four Four Two - - NEWS -

Ex­pan­sion is one thing, but the A-League’s true white whale is pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion. The idea it­self has univer­sal sup­port, along with the in­tro­duc­tion of a na­tional sec­ond di­vi­sion. But whether Aus­tralian foot­ball is ready is ar­guably the game’s hottest on­go­ing de­bate. Some fear what it would do to rel­e­gated A-League teams, oth­ers dream of what a tense rel­e­ga­tion bat­tle or the power of aspi­ra­tion can do for the sport at large. For what­ever rea­son, it is a con­ver­sa­tion FFA has never re­ally wanted to be a part of. The A-League is one of only two com­pe­ti­tions in the world, along with Ma­jor League Soc­cer in the US, with­out pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion. FFA has resisted pres­sure for years from FIFA and AFC to in­tro­duce it, in­sist­ing Aus­tralia is a unique mar­ket that is not yet ready for it. The cold, hard facts sup­port this: the sheer size of the coun­try, the rel­a­tively sparse pop­u­la­tion, com­pe­ti­tion from other codes and the some­what frag­ile ecosys­tem of Aus­tralian foot­ball are all un­der­ly­ing fac­tors that sug­gest the A-League would strug­gle to im­ple­ment pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion suc­cess­fully in its cur­rent state. Still, it re­mains the ul­ti­mate goal for Aus­tralian foot­ball. FFA has teased it at times, de­spite tak­ing no ac­tion to­wards it and pro­vid­ing no roadmap for its in­tro­duc­tion. Ten years ago, FFA chair­man Frank Lowy de­scribed pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion as the “lifeblood” of the game, pre­dict­ing it would be in place by 2018. That proved to be empty ges­tur­ing. Lowy was back at it in late 2014, in­sist­ing the A-League would be “made” to in­tro­duce pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion and had to start tak­ing steps to­wards it. Again, noth­ing hap­pened. But the mo­ment that set cur­rent events into mo­tion was the re­lease of FFA’s ‘Whole of Foot­ball Plan’ in May 2015, a doc­u­ment that laid out the gov­ern­ing body’s vi­sion for the next 20 years. There was not even a pass­ing men­tion to pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion or a sec­ond di­vi­sion. South Mel­bourne called it “the pos­si­ble end for as­pi­ra­tional foot­ball in this coun­try.” The omis­sion planted the seed for the even­tual for­ma­tion of the Aus­tralian Fed­er­a­tion of Foot­ball Clubs (AAFC) in March 2017. The AAFC rep­re­sents more than 100 Na­tional Premier League clubs who de­cided to get or­gan­ised af­ter years of feel­ing ig­nored by the pow­ers that be. Un­happy with the cost of the NPL and an­gered by FFA’s lack of fore­sight on pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion, the AAFC be­came an im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal player and seized an op­por­tu­nity to con­trol the dis­cus­sion around a na­tional sec­ond di­vi­sion. AAFC pre­sented their pre­ferred model in Oc­to­ber 2017, dubbed The Cham­pi­onship, a highly am­bi­tious plan for a new com­pe­ti­tion to be­gin by late 2019, with up to 16 teams with men’s and women’s di­vi­sions. Pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion would be in­tro­duced five years later. Most stake­hold­ers chuck­led at their fi­nan­cial mod­el­ling but com­mended their en­ter­prise. “It’s dis­ap­point­ing it wasn’t driven by the gov­ern­ing body,” AAFC chair­man Ra­bieh Krayem told FourFourTwo. “What we’ve said is, we can sit there and com­plain and whinge and moan that no-one’s done any­thing about it – or we can con­trib­ute some­thing to­wards it. That’s what we’ve done and we now have di­a­logue back on the ta­ble.” FFA’s ini­tial re­ac­tion to The Cham­pi­onship was bad. In­stead of en­cour­ag­ing AAFC’s am­bi­tion, FFA said it was un­re­al­is­tic and poured cold wa­ter on the idea. Sup­port­ers were dis­mayed with FFA’s re­sponse, and even­tu­ally an of­fer was ex­tended to AAFC to visit head of­fice and talk over their plans. “We’ve made no se­cret of how dis­ap­pointed we were at how quickly the FFA re­acted to it, which prompted us to write to them 24 hours later,” Krayem said. “We were pleased they wrote back and said, let’s just meet.” The first meet­ing was sched­uled to oc­cur just as FourFourTwo went to press. AAFC has al­ready made pow­er­ful al­lies. As well as FIFA and AFC, Foot­ball Vic­to­ria has told FFA it will not sup­port their model for a re­formed con­gress un­less they en­gaged with AAFC on the topic of a sec­ond di­vi­sion. FFA was gazumped, forced to a ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble it didn’t want to go near – and faces a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge in pla­cat­ing the ag­i­ta­tors and find­ing a so­lu­tion that works for ev­ery­one.

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