“Athletes respect sport and never forget their experiences of competing. They think differently because they know the sport from the inside out”
It’s been through its fair share of re-branding and renaming, but April 2013 marks 20 years of the Professional Footballers Association. Twenty years ago tomorrow, a group of semi-professional footballers in Australia formed the first players union, during one of the most turbulent periods of the National Soccer League. Over the past two decades, the PFA (neé Australian Soccer Players Association) has been at the coal-face during all the major reforms in Australian football. More than any other stakeholder, the players union has driven reform and consistently agitated for the modernisation of the professional game in Australia, from negotiating better conditions for individual players to the founding of the A-League in 2004.
It all began back on April 27, 1993, when a group of footballers from around the country decided that strength in unity was the best way to advance their own interests. The motley crew of NSL players included Socceroo striker John Kosmina, who at this point was playing for APIA Leichhardt, Melita Eagles midfielder Aytek Genç, and West Adelaide trio Greg Brown, Robbie Hooker and Stan Lazaridis. Others in attendance included Marconi striker Kimon Taliadoros and one of Australia’s silkiest midfield operators, Oscar Crino. Messages of support and solidarity were sent by several NSL players from around the country, including Warren Spink, Gary van Egmond, Andrew Marth, Billy Wright and Robbie Zabica. Alongside these seasoned professionals sat Brendan Schwab, a fresh-faced, bespectacled industrial lawyer whose family was deeply involved in Australian Rules Football in Melbourne. Together, the group founded the Australian Soccer Players Association (ASPA).
There had been shows of player power before – in the 1980s there were several stoushes between the Socceroos and Australian Soccer Federation president Sir Arthur George – but this was the first time players had come together in an organised fashion, and formed their own independent interest group. Historian Roy Hay and industrial relations academic Braham Dabscheck have both noted that footballers in Australia had tried, with little success, to mobilise on several occasions over a period stretching five decades. Indeed, former Sydney City goalkeeper Tony Pezzano and John Kosmina had both advocated a players union – the latter in a column for The Australian in 1989 – while Charlie Yankos had led the Socceroos in successfully lobbying the Federation for payment fees during the Bicentennial Gold Cup in 1988.
The lessons of earlier attempts and industrial action had illustrated that Australian footballers were far better off as an organised group, rather than negotiating their own individual contracts. In 1985, when preparing to play Scotland in the World Cup Qualifier, the Socceroos camp had split during payment negotiations, and as a result, were not able to secure the pay and conditions they had originally bargained for. And at this point, it important to remember that these conditions were meagre at best, and the pay was dreadfully low. Footballers in Australia played for love, not money, and were forced to supplement their income through other business activities. Yet within just one year, the players union had found a naming rights sponsor and amalgamated with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, which was affiliated with the much larger Australian Council of Trade Unions. Additionally, they had received a groundswell of support from players throughout the competition and overseas, and announced Kimon Taliadoros – a young accountant-cum-striker playing for Marconi – as their inaugural Chief Executive.
“Of major importance to the success of Australian teams has been the players themselves. Apparently, in the past, this has been forgotten by administrators.”
Dr. Graham Bradley. Report on Structure and Organisation of Australian Soccer. May, 1990.
For Kimon Taliadoros, his involvement in advocating players rights began during negotiations over his own transfer from South Melbourne to Marconi at the end of the 1991-1992 season. Just 24 years old at the time, Taliadoros’ contract with South Melbourne had expired, and the club was on the verge of losing one of their most talented young players. During his time with the club, Taliadoros had broken into the Socceroos squad and helped South to several successive finals series, including a championship in 1991. In 1991-92, Taliadoros had bagged 15 goals, joint top with Sydney Olympic’s British centre forward Tim Bredbury. Put simply, unexpectedly losing their star striker to a rival NSL club was hardly an attractive proposition for South Melbourne.
The reasons behind Taliadoros’ itchy feet were twofold. Firstly, South Melbourne were on the verge of losing their legendary coach, Ferenc Puskás. Under Puskás, Taliadoros had flourished, but was attracted to Marconi, who had former Socceroos coach Frank Arok at the helm. Secondly, Taliadoros had a family business opportunity in Sydney. The circumstances dovetailed nicely for the young striker to make the move north. However, despite the fact that his contract with South Melbourne had finished, Marconi were required to pay a “compensation fee” to South Melbourne for his services. These kind of payments could be seriously restrictive to player freedom, and they were not well understood by many players at the time.
Taliadoros enlisted the help of his old school mate from Camberwell Grammar, Brendan Schwab. Schwab facilitated the transfer of payments, and ensured that Taliadoros would be able to go straight into playing for Marconi despite the fact that Marconi were yet to pay the compensation fee. Looking back, Taliadoros now considers himself one of the lucky ones. Speaking to Leopold Method, Taliadoros explained that because he was transferring to Marconi – a club that had led the way in player welfare during the NSL – the appropriate payment was eventually made and he was able to continue his football uninhibited. But the issue of “compensation” stuck in their minds. As Taliadoros remembers,
It occurred to Brendan and I that it seemed ridiculous that, having completed a contract, you were not free to move to another employer of choice. You were inhibited by the fact that the previous employer could request or demand a compensation fee. We shared this principle and perspective before we understood how the transfer and compensation system existed… it was based on the rule of law and on common sense.
Indeed, it was in that existing ‘system’ where players most needed change. Rather than individual players trying to defend themselves on different issues, it was clear that there needed to be a basic framework from which the players could expect a minimum set of standards. Moreover, the players needed an organised and representative voice when it came to dealing with disputes and punishments, rather than simply relying of the good grace of club officials. “It was for the good of the game,” Taliadoros explained, “we fundamentally believed that if the conditions were fair and reasonable and rewarding for players, the game would benefit. That was the premise.”
“Soccer players in Australia have the worst contract of any sport. It’s a sub-standard contract.”
Braham Dabscheck. Australian & British Soccer Weekly. October 4, 1994.
In October 1993, just a few months after the founding of the players union, Inside Sport ran an important report on player welfare in football. Investigative journalist Robert Galvin explained to readers the draconian nature of NSL contracts, which severely restricted the freedom of players and placed them at the mercy of the clubs. In his investigative tour de force, Galvin concluded that “soccer has remained an island of regressive, backward player relations.” While the AFL and rugby league had gradually transfered agency to the players in the 1970s and the 1980s, football had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new era.
Indeed, establishing the union was hardly popular in administrative circles. ASF chairman John Constantine made the circular argument that because players weren’t fully professional, “professional rules that the association may want to implement do not apply.” This was echoed by South Melbourne president George Vasilopolous, who, after ejecting Brendan Schwab from South’s dressing room, stated that “soccer players don’t need that, they get looked after now.” Soon after, Brendan Schwab was chased off the premises at Heidelberg by the club president, while Adelaide City coach Zoran Matic bluntly called members of the players union “lunatics, dreamers and bullies badly in need of a doctor.” The old saying about the NSL is that clubs were run like a corner store, and in regards to player welfare it was a sadly accurate assessment. While there are many cases of NSL clubs helping their players find employment (Kimon Taliadoros was, for a period of time, Assistant Financial Controller at Marconi) and indeed many heartwarming stories of players being treated like family, the flip side was that players could be ostracised just as readily as they had been welcomed into the fold.
As Robert Galvin examined, Socceroo goalkeeper Jeff Olver had been shown the door at Heidelberg just three days before Christmas of 1992. Over a decade of loyal service counted for little, and Olver was caught in purgatory as the Greek-backed north Melbourne club put a huge transfer fee on his head. Not only was Olver considered surplus to requirements, he was going to have to earn a profit for the club before he would be allowed to continue his career elsewhere. Like Kimon Taliadoros found when he left South Melbourne, clubs had the power to simply hold onto them until any prospective buyers paid the “compensation fee.” This fee could be in the tens of thousands of dollars, often equal to a season wage. Unsurprisingly, this feudalistic restraint of trade was resented by players, who, quite literally, were the property of their club. In particular, it affected older players like Olver, who was in the last days of his career, and had few buyers knocking down the door for his services. His career never recovered, and he spent the rest of his playing days in the Victorian Premier League.
The rise of an organised and professionally run players union in the early 1990s was no coincidence. While the links between the economic and the cultural are often overplayed, by the 1990s, both Australian society and Australian football were at a crossroads. In 1991, the Price and Incomes Accord oversaw the introduction of Enterprise Bargaining Agreements, which allowed employers to negotiate a contract with a trade union representing employees. This was a shift from the old system of wage-fixing in industrial relations. The role of the players union in football was to negotiate these agreements. Players were under a collective agreement, which established a certain set of standards, but they also negotiated the detail of their individual contracts with prospective clubs. Put simply, the union movement and football were both heading towards a more efficient relationship between bosses and workers. Such high levels of organisation, professionalism and involvement of players ensured that the players union succeeded where previous attempts had failed. As Taliadoros explains,
That philosophy was one of the reasons we decided to get closer to the union movement. The planets were aligning. The government and unions were leading the reform process and the deregulation of the market. That was a huge leap for the unions, and philosophically, that sat comfortably with us. The Media, Entertainment and Artists Alliance understood the nature of our industry, and the structure of negotiated bargaining really appealed to us.
Furthermore, the steady globalisation of the game created a greater opportunities for footballers in Australia, who began to seek contracts abroad. Similarly, under the leadership of Hawke and Keating, the ‘Australian Settlement’, as it came to be called, was gradually being dismantled as old economic orthodoxies were replaced by market-oriented policies. As the Australian economy relaxed barriers to trade and opened itself to the world, so did football. And with this change came the usual anxieties. By the late 1990s, the fret of a ‘brain drain’ in sections of the Australian economy paralleled fears of a ‘talent drain’ in Australian football. “We cannot afford to give our best soccer players away for next to nothing,” warned former St. George coach Mike Johnson in 1991.
“The lucky few will escape overseas. The rest will stay here, condemned, to soccer’s great shame, to a life of sporting slavery.”
Robert Galvin. Soccer’s Slave Trade, Inside Sport. October 1993.
But little could stem the tide. Perversely, the conditions faced by players in the NSL proved to be an incentive for them to move abroad. Inaugural president of the players union, Greg Brown, said at the time,
You have to blame the ASF for the state of the game in Australia. Is it any wonder so many players head overseas given the way they are treated in their own country?
Indeed, the focus of the players union has from the very beginning been tied to both the global and the local. The nature of the beast demanded as such. But of most pressing concern was the conditions for NSL players. When the ASF commissioned a report into the structure and organisation of the game in 1989, it was with the view to professionalise their operations and revamp the structure of the game. Looking back, the Bradley Report was perhaps the single biggest missed opportunity in the game’s history. Few of Bradley’s broad recommendations ever took hold, and for those that did, it was a case of too little and too late to save the NSL. But in Chapter Four of the Report lie two important recommendations for players. Firstly on page 51:
I recommend that the ASF introduce a salary cap to prevent clubs from spending too much on players in an effort to win the competition, thereby adversely impacting their financial viability.
And then, on the next page,
It is recommended that the ASF establish a standard contract to be used by all NSL and State League clubs throughout Australia. The development of this standard contract should be the responsibility of the Competition Policy and Planning Committee.
Evidently, the trend was towards smart macroeconomic fiscal management, and uniformity and consistency for players. Bradley was trying to balance the wage demands of players with the demands of NSL clubs who were already operating in the red. But while the recommendations were theoretically sound, they overlooked the true nature of player payments at the time. Indeed, while the players union was a strong advocate of the standard contract, it did not support the introduction of a salary cap. In 1994, after ASF chairman John Constantine floated the salary cap idea, Kimon Taliadoros railed against it, stating that there was simply not enough revenue to support such a measure, and that it would drive down player wages. Moreover, Taliadoros feared that more players would simply pack their bags and move abroad if a salary cap was introduced, thereby decreasing the standard and the overall credibility of the NSL. It’s a position that he maintains to this day. While the salary cap in the A-League has been supported by the PFA, during the NSL it was not aimed at growing the game as a whole. It was aimed, as the Bradley Report indicates to “prevent clubs from spending too much on players.” While a salary cap can be good for stability, in 1994, it was more about cost-cutting than growth.
But while the players association wanted the best outcome for players in the NSL, it was never the intention to stop players moving abroad. As Brendan Schwab noted in 1998,
It’s understanding the hopes, the dreams and the aspirations of the players, and being able to meet them. Sport is changing so quickly, and with it the demands on the players are growing exponentially. Agreements must recognise this and then come to grips with it.
Speaking to Leopold Method, Kimon Taliadoros echoed this view,
We wanted to give every player the opportunity to achieve the most they could. For those that were talented, there is a market out there, and it’s not in Australia. It’s in the players own financial interest to be aware of that and pursue it if they want. In addition to that, we were obsessed and committed to local, domestic career paths.
Indeed, with the rise of Asian football, there were soon opportunities for players to make a living out of the game right on Australia’s doorstep. Soon after the salary cap was suggested by the ASF in 1994, Melita Eagles star midfielder Aytek Genç started attracting interest from overseas clubs. Genç was coming off contract, and the Granville based club were keen to hold onto his services. However, when the club released the transfer list of their off contract players, Genç’s fee was listed at a whopping $75,000. “In those days nobody was going to pay that, it was a record fee,” laughs Genç, who spoke to Leopold Method about his transfer. The club was trying to squeeze him into signing a new contract which was below what he had expected. But with the help of Brendan Schwab at the players union, Genç’s transfer fee was negotiated down to $30,000. This allowed Malaysian side Johor FC to sign him, and he became one of the pioneers to move to Asia. Asked what he would have done without the help of the union, Genç explains,
I would have been left in a precarious position, having to fend for myself against the club. They (the players union) were amazing. They gave me guidance and they explained my rights.
“Players are not chattels to be bought and sold without proper consideration of their interests”
First Senate Report, 1995: p. 9.
Genç’s situation was symptomatic of a new issue facing Australian clubs, who stood to lose their best players. According to Lawrie Schwab at the Age, players such as Tony Popovic, Zeljko Kalac, Steve Corica, Stan Lazaridis, Andrew Marth and Steve Horvat were the most prized at the time, demanding six-figure transfer fees. Thus overseas transfers were seen by clubs as a way of cashing in on their playing talent. With foreign scouts circling, the transfer fees for players could provide struggling clubs with a huge financial windfall. Not only that, it stood to benefit individuals who conducted the transfers. Later that year, reports emerged about the role of certain members of the Australian football establishment receiving “kick-backs” for transfers. The Senate Inquiry found,
In several cases, there were large differences between the amounts shown as paid by a foreign club and the amount paid to an Australian club. Some of the difference was sometimes paid to individuals as cash, but often left a large amount for which there had been no satisfactory accounting.
Indeed, the Senate Inquiry and Stewart Report would prove to be a watershed moment for football, and importantly for the players union, it found that the transfer and compensation system was in need of serious overhaul,
It is apparent that the traditional views of players of a young age as being the property of a particular club, to be traded in accordance to the needs and requirements of the individual club, is still… prominent. It’s an attitude that is clearly out of step with the rest of contemporary Australian society.
Little wonder, then, that Democrats Senator John Coulter called the system “mafia-like”, while Liberal Senator Michael Baume concluded that “the game is in need of an enema. It won’t like it, but it will make it feel a whole lot better.” Meanwhile, the Stewart Report stated that “a complex network of almost Byzantine proportions exists,” and recommended that the compensation system be abolished by the end of 1996. It was a damning assessment, and vindication of the players union’s efforts in bringing the issue to attention.
However, the recommendations were predictably unpopular in many quarters. NSL coaches Bruce Stowell and Branko Culina worried that if players were free to move on free transfers after their contracts expired, then smaller clubs would lose revenue and the league would become less competitive as big clubs would simply pick off the best players. This would lead to a situation where clubs would spend less money and less energy developing young players, as they no longer stood to make any money off them. It was a point supported by NSL general manager Peter Russell and Melita Eagles President Sam Vella. Zoran Matic was a typically bullish in his opposition, “there are some players who can’t even trap the ball – they should pay us to play.” Still, perhaps most importantly, the abolition of the compensation system was overwhelmingly supported by the majority of NSL players (86.7%), while 93.9% of players supported free agency. In the end, in mid 1995, the Industrial Relations Commission recommended that “the compensation fee system in its present form should be abolished.” It also criticised the attitude taken by many club officials that players were property of the clubs. As Sydney Olympic fullback David Barrett complained, “players are treated like pieces of meat.” That attitude was pervasive, and it remained long after the IRC’s decision. When Collingwood Warriors went bust a couple of years later, a spokesperson for the club said,
We see it as similar to a food shop which goes broke, but then sells off it’s equipment to pay it’s debts. In this case, the players are our equipment.
Moreover, the IRC found that the primary justification for the compensation system, namely that it helped reimburse clubs who developed young talent, was in fact rarely the case. Instead, the players “market value” would determine the transfer or compensation fee, rather than the time upon which the club had spent developing the player. But while the IRC’s decision was a boost for the players union, it wasn’t quite so simple. There still remained a disconnect between the law of the land and the nature of FIFA dealings. As Taliadoros explained,
It (the transfer and compensation fee) was found to be invalid, but it wasn’t overturned because it still existed within the FIFA environment. But that decision provided us as an organisation an opportunity to have the rule of law applied, and therefore leverage to negotiate.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the Bosman Ruling, which was handed down by the European Court of Justice in December 1995, that the transfer and compensation system would be completely overturned. Like in Australia, the Bosman case forced football authorities to comply with the laws of the land. No longer could the game remain an island unto it’s own outdated culture of industrial relations. The Bosman Ruling is widely considered as a prelude to a revolution that would change the game forever. But for the players union in Australia, it provided another boost for their fight for players rights. To this day, you can still hear the satisfaction in Taliadoros’ voice – “that was validation. Validation on a grand scale. The argument was settled.”
“What’s an Australian Soccer Player Worth?”
John Kosmina. The Australian, December 7, 1989: p. 22.
From the very beginning, football has been about the players and the fans. Without them, there is no game for the administrators, sponsors, journalists and commentators to profit from. But in an increasingly professional sporting environment, clubs, rather than individuals, set the agenda and flow of news and information. The clubs have the ability to dictate the limits and direction of fan interest and loyalty, and the power to control the nature of communications between their players and those who want to get close to them. Players, more than ever before, are expected to toe “the company line” and act as “good clubmen”, estranging fans from their true thoughts and their personalities. Instead, players become pantomime heroes and villains by the measure of their loyalty to the club cause. We as fans expect it of them, and feed that very culture.
In this regard, it is important for club administrators to recognise that they are deeply indebted to those players who lend their image to the profile of the club. In a growing competition like the A-League, the players role as ambassadors for their teams is more important than ever. But even after 20 years of pushing, prodding and cajoling both Australian football clubs and the governing body in the direction of better player welfare and professionalism, we still witness cases of players not being paid their wages on time, or being cut from the squad after suffering an injury. Disrespect for the rights of players, and indeed the acknowledgment of the fact that these players are human beings with families, responsibilities and lives of their own, runs deep, and cuts across many A-League clubs. As Kimon Taliadoros says,
There’s always been solidarity between the players, because the issues are very real. Most players that got to the NSL and get to the A-League haven’t had the exposure to some of the issues. But it’s just one bad tackle away or one misfortune away, even for the most successful players.
Perhaps players rights will never be fully respected, and the conservative attitudes will never change. But where they don’t, the players, at least, know that they have a voice through the PFA. As we approach 20 years since the founding of the players union, now is a good time to reflect on the role of the players themselves in the advancement of football in this country, and indeed for the good of the game as a whole. The ‘salad days’ of the players union illustrated here doesn’t come close to detailing the list of the PFA’s achievements, nor do they highlight the number of careers the players association has saved. Such an undertaking would go well beyond the scope of this article. But the idealism, the industry and the foresight of people like John Kosmina, Greg Brown, Kimon Taliadoros and Brendan Schwab at such a crucial point in the game’s history needs to be, at the very least, respected and understood.
Leopold Method would like to thank Adam Vivian, the staff at the PFA, Inside Sport editor Graem Sims, Andrew Howe, Aytek Genç and Kimon Taliadoros for their assistance to the author in researching this article.