It's less than a month until the A-League and W-League seasons commence and, as ever, Australian and New Zealand football has thrown up plenty to talk about. This week, the PFA makes a stand, thoughts on thought leaders, Mark Rudan on finding advantages in a chaotic schedule, the W-League's identity, irony, Kiwi reform, fees, the Magic of the Cup, and much more.
Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) has declared that any introduction of a domestic transfer system must be accompanied by a removal of the A-League salary cap, stating the two concepts are "incompatible."
The FFA's foreshadowed push towards the introduction of a domestic transfer market took another step forward with the launch of the first in a series of webinars discussing "the establishment of a modern Domestic Transfer System (DTS), the benefits and challenges of the system, and the potential for reform and evolution in Australia."
The FFA enshrined the introduction of a DTS in the third of its new XI Principles, part of a wider section on "stimulating the growth of the Australian football economy", and it is a clear goal of federation chief executive James Johnson.
Its introduction, however, is just one of a number of reforms likely to be explored -- and battled over -- in the coming years. Johnson has previously set the stage for a proper exploration of a National Second Division after league independence, while recent performance gap reports have shown the ongoing challenges associated with youth development and the cost to play football remain a significant issue.
And with such a wide-ranging agenda on the horizon, the PFA has been quick to plant a flag on one its biggest hills -- a position that, according to a 2019 survey, has the vast support of its membership.
"As we seek to rebuild the professional game we need to address a number of important strategic matters," PFA co-chief executive Beau Busch told ESPN. "In doing so we will know whether the league is closed or open, what the expansion of the professional footprint looks like, the optimal season window, and the talent development pathway.
"Once we address these matters we can then devise labour market regulation, such as the introduction of a domestic transfer and compensation system that supports achieving the game's legitimate objectives.
"The players are willing to enter into collective bargaining discussions regarding the development and re-introduction of a fit-for-purpose domestic transfer and compensation system; however, this remains conditional on the removal of the salary cap from the professional leagues.
"A salary cap and transfer system are incompatible. It would present another barrier in regards to [the] freedom of movement for players through imposing a tax on their employment, while the cap would continue to restrain their earning potential and employment opportunities."
A long-standing objective of the union, the PFA floated the possibility of a salary cap/floor-free year in 2020-21 during bitter CBA negotiations between the union and clubs earlier in this offseason. The pact that was reached is yet to be publicly acknowledged by clubs, the union or the FFA, although ESPN understands it has been agreed.
The FFA, for their part, told ESPN on Thursday: "The aim of these webinars, and the subsequent release of a DTS Reform White Paper in December, is to raise awareness of the global transfer system and encourage and facilitate discourse on the DTS.
"[XI Principle Three] highlights the need to raise the understanding and awareness of the international transfer system, and for Australian football to implement a fully-functioning, modern, domestic transfer system to evolve and grow an integrated and thriving Australian football ecosystem.
"Importantly, a modern DTS would help address some of the player development challenges we have identified in our Performance Gap studies by ensuring that clubs, at all levels of the game, are appropriately incentivised to continuously and sustainably invest in the training and development of players.
"The launch of this White Paper will be complemented with opportunities for all stakeholders to provide feedback on and contribute to the development of a DTS model that is suitable in the Australian context. This consultation process will of course include the PFA amongst other key stakeholders of our game."
The Man and the Hour
Nine of the 11 coaches confirmed for the A-League's 2020-21 season are Australian born, and, of the remaining two, Melbourne Victory's Scottish-born coach Grant Brebner is well integrated into the Australian game. It's a similar story in the W-League, with just two foreign-born coaches leading clubs and both -- Jeff Hopkins and Rado Vidosic -- possessing deep-seeded ties Down Under. This state of affairs has been driven significantly by the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Similar to the likely increase in opportunities available (in theory) to young players in the coming months, the sudden surge in Australian coaches should (in theory) bode well for the future of the Australian game. In a perfect world, those who seize their chance, display enhanced tactical aptitude and an ability to consistently glean results, will go on to earn greater opportunities overseas, with the best assistants rewarded with opportunities in the main chair.
Coaches exposed to the perilous and open nature of European leagues have the opportunity to take those lessons, grow and be better for it, even if their time is cut short like Kevin Muscat's was this week at Sint-Truidense in the Belgian Jupiler League,
At a time when the Australian game sits at a crossroads of identity, from both a structural and spiritual perspective, the empowerment of a (hopefully) standout local cohort that can bring fresh ideas and a solid grounding in the contemporary landscape has never been more important. As seen when Australia came together to celebrate Ange Postecoglou's philosophical approach when his Yokohama F. Marinos triumphed in the J-League, high-profile Australian coaches have the ability to proselytize about the game in a manner that others quite simply don't.
The Australian scene is crying out for thought leaders: Individuals who demand respect and carry a clarity of purpose, desire to use their platform to shape the discourse, and have genuine skin in the game. As Australian football looks to rebound from COVID-19, these individuals -- or a vacuum of them -- will be key in to helping set the direction.
Skin in the game also explains why figures such as Josip Skoko, Sasa Ognenovski and new Edgeworth Eagles coach Michael Bridges should be respected for their involvement in the lower levels of the game. These three, and many others, rolling up their sleeves and getting to work in such a manner not only helps but also gives them much needed perspective.
With what has been marketed as a "feast of football" on the horizon, the packed opening exchanges of the 2020-21 A-League season will provide a monumental challenge for players and coaches alike as away days and interstate travel present new challenges from the hub-based end to last season.
"When you've got such an amount of games in a short space of time, what I do know that it's almost impossible for your so-called starting XI to play 90 minutes in 27 games because of how compact it is," Western United coach Mark Rudan told ESPN.
"What's important is that you invest heavily into your whole squad. It's a daily grind as far as we're concerned. Even if they're not playing, we communicate with them and tell them: 'Look, these are the things we want from this position and this is the position we want you to play.'
"It could be one position, could be two positions.
"It really is going to be a season dependent on your whole squad. I think that's hugely important, in the past you've seen teams rely on a core 12 or 13 players and get away with that, but I don't think that's going to be enough this year."
On top of squad management, the frenetic nature of the season and the limited preparation afforded to clubs opens the door for coaches to catch opponents unawares by taking risks in approach or selection, using the chaos as a ladder to emerge supreme.
Conversely, in a league that has been largely characterized by an aversion to risk, and a largely transitional nature, the coming games could see a rise in conservatism as coaches seek to maintain some sense of familiarity and routine as the games come thick and fast.
"In terms of intricacies, it goes to looking at an opposition and devising a game plan," Rudan said.
"That's going to be a tough one for coaches, because daresay there's going to be a lot of different personnel. That might change the way teams set up defensively or the way they play out.
"That's going to be a hard one because we're used to playing once a week, getting a feel for the starting XI of the other team, knowing who is injured. I think it's going to be a different beast altogether. It's why I revert back to the process, what can we do and how can we get better at that no matter who we play. If we can do those things, we'll be ok."
Western are set to play games in Geelong, Ballarat and an undetermined Melbourne ground in 2020-21, and Rudan said the groundhopping wasn't ideal from a playing perspective but it would serve as an important part of the club's drive to establish themselves as a team for Victoria's west.
The United coach was less willing to comment when asked about wantaway midfielder Max Burgess, referring ESPN to previous statements made by club chief executive Chris Pehlivanis and adding only that "he's a contracted player at Western United and I look forward to having [him] back at the club and doing what he does best: Playing football that entertains people -- including myself."
Don't Fence Me In
The 2020-21 W-League fixture was released on Monday, following last week's A-League announcement, and it's also set for a busy opening: Eight games to be staged in as many days over the New Year period.
Examine the language used by the leagues in the wake of the fixtures announcement, and the players put forward to spruik it, and it becomes pretty apparent that the W-League, even more so than the A-League, is being positioned as a proving ground for the next generation of Matildas stars.
Such a move, so long as it's accompanied by a strategy to increase professionalism and conditions for the remaining player base, isn't necessarily a bad thing. As part of an assessment of the future of the W-League, ESPN has previously explored in detail the possibility of the W-League becoming a "development league."
"We need more games," Matildas assistant coach Mel Andreatta said on Tuesday. "I said it in my time as a W-League coach.
"On a personal level, I couldn't advocate for that more. A longer season for these players to compete in, in a high-performance environment, is the way forward."
Any expansion of the Dub would also require a reflection on the NPLW's place in the broader women's football ecosystem.
Most W-League players compete in a NPLW competition during their offseason to expose themselves to year-round football, meaning these competitions need to shift their timing to accommodate an expanded W-League, redefine their own player base to compensate for the loss of players, or both.
Either direction will necessitate further investment in the space to ensure NPLW and women's and girl's state league clubs below them have adequate and equitable access to pitches, facilities and administrative attention, ensuring they are of sufficient quality to facilitate progression to the W-League.
"I know firsthand that there's a new horizon coming for women's football," new Perth Glory coach Alex Epakis, who previously led NPLW NSW powerhouse Sydney University, told ESPN.
"If the NPL clubs don't act as a catalyst for development into the W-League, then who will? So, I think there's definitely going to be opportunities for those NPL players who are on the brink to now step and hopefully for coaches as well.
"If the W-League was to move to a winter comp, with a full home-and-away season, and partner with the A-League, that would be fantastic. What that would also do is that a lot of players that play NPL all year round would now play W-League year-round, and that opens up another pool of opportunity at NPL level for the younger players to step up and play senior football earlier.
"Then all of a sudden, you're growing your pool at a competitive level. And the best playing the best as early as possible is probably the best thing from a development point of view."
In other W-League news, sources have told ESPN that two-time Brisbane Roar golden boot winner Allira Toby is set to move to Sydney FC this season. Jenna McCormick is the subject of chatter linking her to Melbourne City -- after she departed Real Betis on Wednesday evening. City are also understood to be trialling Japanese player Reona Omiya.
Keep Young and Beautiful
In terms of interviews that people regret, Socceroos and Olyroos boss Graham Arnold's declaration that the A-League wasn't a developmental league must be right up there. Not because he's since come to disagree with that statement -- far from it -- but because it's now become so pervasive in the discourse that it frequently overshadows the broader point he is trying to make whenever he opines on youth development.
Of course, there does exist a layer of cosmic karma in the dearth of under-23 players Arnold was confronted with when he assumed the role of Olyroos boss.
But what also needs consideration is the fact he was right to state that youngsters need more opportunities to play games.
Substantive, hyperbole-free debate surrounding how those games should be staged, how teams are selected, what attributes should be emphasized, and how much importance should be placed on the result, is still much needed, but almost anyone working in the youth-development space will say that playing games is the most critical part of youngster's progression -- and that right now they don't get enough of them.
It's not a controversial topic, although specifics of the proposed solutions inevitably will be.
But young players don't care if the consistent call for reforms to Australia's flagging developmental pathway comes from Arnold or Captain George Mainwaring so long as change is made.
Room at the Bottom
On the subject of youth development, New Zealand Football announced a sweeping change to its domestic scene this week in order to promote the development of young Kiwis and to increase sustainability.
From 2021, the ISPS Handa Premiership is set to be disbanded and replaced with regional leagues of 10 clubs that will then send representatives to a national championship. Competing teams must have two under-20s in their starting lineups, while foreign players are limited to four -- five if one is from Oceania. A similar transition is on tap for the women's game once competitive balance can be ensured.
Amateur contracts will be introduced for all players in top-level competitions from 2021, and a full integrity and audit programme will be introduced to ensure compliance.
New Zealand Football has confirmed the biggest changes to its domestic national leagues in a decade, overhauling the women's and men's competitions to make youth development and sustainability a priority.— New Zealand Football (@NZ_Football) December 1, 2020
Read the full announcement at https://t.co/xvOizKs0TQ pic.twitter.com/gOgwrqQTde
The King was in his Counting House
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has placed significant strain on the grassroots level of Australian football, with the latest point of contention in Victoria.
In recent weeks, a collection of nearly 80 state league clubs have united to voice displeasure surrounding policies of governing body Football Victoria regarding refunds and the charging of registration fees for the cancelled 2020 season.
In an open letter posted on a Victorian State League news page on Sunday, the clubs claim their requests for meetings with the body in the wake of the charges being sent have proved fruitless, and that, in response, the clubs have escalated the matter to their "local MPs, Councils and Consumer Affairs."
In the wake of calls to the station on Monday morning, Football Victoria president Kimon Taliadoros told 3AW that the federation had been left with little option but to charge the fees, saying it could not "prop up" clubs.
"The reality for us as a sporting organization is we do have hard costs, we do have staff," he said.
"This will have a meaningful long-term impact on our sport, and the participation, and the clubs."