THE PUSH FOR PRO- REL SPARKS A REVOL UTION
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.