THE Youtube clip is only a few years old but already looks like a relic from a hard-to-remember past. The tone is optimistic, the future seemingly bright as Les Murray introduces the news story about the Melbourne Knights’ partnership with Melbourne United – a candidate for the brave new A-League being put together by billionaire Frank Lowy.
”Melbourne Knights are set to play a big role in a proposed new national league team,” Murray begins.
The plans sound exciting. A listing on the stock exchange, average crowds of 10,000-20,000 for the new club within three years. The Knights to play a key role, acting as a feeder club for the new entity, described as ”Australia’s own version of Manchester United”.
Those plans may have been pie in the sky. They certainly seem a long way from reality now.
When the Knights were claiming back-to-back National Soccer League titles in 1995 and 1996, crowds of up to 12,000 packed Somers Street to watch Europe-bound young stars such as Mark Viduka, Danny Tiatto, Steve Horvath and Josip Simunic.
In recent weeks, crowds have fallen below 800 as the club sits stone cold last on the Victorian Premier League table, seemingly destined for relegation to the suburban tundra of State League One.
It is hard not to accept that while Australian soccer is flying higher than ever at the elite level, as the Socceroos prepare to inspire national World Cup bedlam, the ”old soccer” structure below has not reaped many rewards from the ”new football” revolution.
Many at the Knights, and other clubs like them, feel abandoned by the game. They eye with incredulity the $45.6 million allocated to fund Australia’s World Cup bid and wonder what a fraction of that could do for them.
”I don’t think they are too interested in us,” Knights president Ange Cimera said of Football Federation Australia. South Melbourne chairman Nick Galatas says his club – home to 49 Socceroos in its proud history – does not want to cry victim but is withering. ”We are being ignored,” he said. ”Worse than that, we are being deliberately ignored.”
One gripe is the compensation paid by A-League clubs to traditional ones, such as the Knights and South Melbourne, when young players are recruited.
The Knights develop dozens of junior talents. Many of these remain uncontracted amateurs. Others receive such minimal wages as a team drawing 800 can pay.
When A-League clubs swoop for a starlet they give little in return. Steve Horvath was one of the men behind the unsuccessful Melbourne United bid. The former Knights captain and owner of 31 Socceroo caps is scathing about what has happened to his old club and others like it.
”Without a doubt it’s sad,” he said, likening the Knights’ situation to the fall of England’s Leeds United. ”Sometimes great teams go down because they bankrupt themselves but the Knights have just been hamstrung.
”I’m not actually sure what the long-term plan is with soccer in this country.”
Cimera says every club in the VPL is ”doing it hard” and that other former NSL clubs, such as Marconi and Sydney Olympic in Sydney, have suffered similarly. Horvath reckons the World Cup bid has distracted from the key tasks of entrenching the A-League and re-engaging with a struggling grassroots system.
”The focus needs to be the A-League and the premier leagues,” he said. ”Building the game from the grassroots up. That’s your base. A World Cup bid is just the cream on top.”
A long-mooted cup competition could allow clubs such as the Knights to test themselves against top opposition, but it remains little more than a dream. So, too, does a national second division or B-League.
An insider in the sport – who does not wish to be named – sees lasting damage. ”The demise of clubs like the Melbourne Knights and the other ethnic clubs who have been the nursery over many years means we are not getting the talent coming through,” he said. ”The FFA has let them wither but there has been no replacement.”
It is not simply the case that the cup-bid millions could have been better deployed. Without the bid there would not have been such government largesse. And if, by some chance, Australia is successful, the benefits to the sport will be enormous. But many wonder if the bid has not also caused the FFA to lose focus on the sport’s grassroots.
Desperate for new opportunities, South Melbourne this year has entered Singapore’s FA Cup. Club chiefs travelled to London last month to accept an award as Oceania’s team of the century. They found a who’s who of soccer there but nobody from the FFA in attendance.
Galatas says that, in Singapore and London, South Melbourne is treated like a great Australian club with a rich history. ”Here, we don’t exist, because football was invented in 2005. It didn’t exist before then,” he said. Like Horvath, he cannot see any direction from the governing body that will reverse the bleeding suffered by traditional clubs, offering recognition of their past or a way of re-integrating to the sport’s future.
FFA chief executive Ben Buckley says the money being pumped into the game will trickle down eventually but admits the change has been hard on those who once were the sport’s bedrock. He admits more should be done. ”Over the next few years we, as a governing body, need to focus some of our attention on reinvigorating that level of football and the issues confronting them,” Buckley said. ”But while we have to acknowledge the role those clubs have played over the history of football, the current model is clearly a better model.”
Galatas sees a top-down structure built on sand and relying on uncertain loyalties. He sees A-League franchises that are in danger of collapse if their hobbyist owners walk away. ”For them, it’s a toy. They cut their losses and think little of it,” Galatas said. ”For community clubs like us, it’s a way of life.”
DAN SILKSTONE (The Age Newspaper)
Photo by Lucy Aulich