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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 7 April 2018
28 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 7 APRIL 2018 SPORT DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM ISSN 1321-1676 9 771321 167062 Why the A-League needs South Melbourne The A-League needs South Melbourne as much as the NPL club needs to be back in the top tier of Australian football says bid chairman Bill Papastergiadis CON STAMOCOSTAS Sunday 4 April 2004 is the day the bell tolled for the National Soccer League (NSL). The Grand Final between Parramatta Power and Perth Glory ended the NSL's 27-year reign as the premier football competition, and a year later the A-League was formed. The lifeblood of clubs like South Melbourne, Sydney Olympic, and Marconi was switched off and the blue ribbon game of the year heralded not a celebration but a dark shadow that lasted almost 15 years. Besides Perth Glory, the remnants of the NSL dissipated as broken dreams and bitterness festered. What followed was the Socceroos qualifying for four consecutive World Cups and the ALeague and W-League ushering in a new era of full-time professionalism, higher wages, bigger stadiums, larger crowds and record TV audiences. While the sons and daughters of the migrants who built the foundation prospered, those pioneers and their deeds were forgotten. Now, for the first time in many years, former NSL clubs can dream again as last week Football Federation Australia formally commenced its process to expand the A-League with two new clubs from the 2019/20 season. South Melbourne A-League bid chairman Bill Papastergiadis says it's a day the faithful South Melbourne fans have been waiting for. "This really is one of the most important days for the club over the last 10–12 years since the demise of the NSL," he told Neos Kosmos. "It allows the club to aspire to assume its rightful place in football in this country." With the A-League in a downward slide in attendance and TV viewership figures, Papastergiadis says the competition needs the presence of a club like South more than ever. "The A-League needs South Melbourne," he says. "It needs real derbies, real passion, and real supporters. We're not a franchise. We're a real club with member-based support which has a rich history. [We are] the most successful club, having been awarded the Oceania Club of the Century. "We will put bums on seats and eyeballs on screens. As much as South wants to be in the A-League, the A-League needs South for those derbies and for that passion and that interest for the game." Archie Fraser was Head of the A-League when Melbourne Heart, North Queensland Fury, and Gold Coast United joined the competition. He believes South Mel- bourne has a strong case to be one of two expansion teams. "It's probably the bid that is closest to being ready for movement straight into the A-League," he told Neos Kosmos. "They have a stadium deal, they are a mature club and they have the supporters, and it would add local derbies and a number of other things. They will certainly get close to the line." As part of the expansion process, FFA has asked clubs to address a number of criteria including fan engagement, stadia, government, youth pathways, and financial capacity, and Papastergiadis is confident all requirements can be met. "The club has been working off the field in all aspects of this bid process in anticipation of this announcement," he says. "In terms of infrastructure, support base, social media outreach, community engagement, female football department, junior football development we like to think that we're at the elite level in this country, let alone in this state, and that we will meet the criteria necessary for a fruitful discussion to enter the A-League." South's run during last year's FFA Cup semifinal also showcased the club's potential on the field. "That was perfect timing but it's not coincidental," says Pa- pastergiadis. "We have worked hard to ensure that our team was match-ready on the field as much as the club was ready for A-League admission off the field. We are entering this submission process having a team that is largely ready to play in the A-League. "During preseason we also beat Guangzhou R&F, an Asian Champions League team 3-0. Their manager Dragan Stojkovic was incredibly unhappy with the result. He was heard yelling at the players after the game. It's a perfect example for us. It shows that we are a club that ticks all the boxes, now and tomorrow, for admission." One of the roadblocks that South could face to joining the A-League is their ties to the Greek community, but Archie Fraser says that is not a valid reason to discount the club's bid. "The key thing is that there has been a lot of water under the bridge and South Melbourne have been patient," he says. "At the end of the day what they've got is passionate football fans and I don't think they have got ethnic football fans. They would add significant interest to the local derbies that currently include Melbourne City and Melbourne Victory. "The ethnic thing is not an issue in football in Australia anymore. It's long gone and long past and I don't think there was a lot wrong with it anyway. If that is the reason they are keeping a team out, then I think it's for the wrong reasons. " Papastergiadis agrees and says the ethnic tag is not relevant to the bid criteria. "If you come and watch our team and our juniors play, the Hellenic presence is largely proportional to our presence in society," he says. "In other words, it's about two to five per cent of our playing group or our coaching group. The club is made up of members, supporters, coaches, players and administrators from every part of our society and it's truly multicultural. It is a club for all Melbournians and all Victorians. And we will make some further additional announcements shortly to emphasise its broad, multicultural reach." Moving from a semi-professional club to one that is involved in a fully professional environment is one of the challenges South must overcome but Papastergiadis feels the club can make the step up. "I don't believe that it is a significant jump because in many ways we are already ahead of many A-League clubs," he says. "We're ahead in social media edge, we're ahead of many in junior development and women's foot- ball too. We're ahead of many of the A-League clubs from a stadium and social club perspective. We've had full-time coaches and full-time administrators over the last five to seven years. So, this is not a big step for the club." Papastergiadis also feels that enduring the dark times since the NSL's demise has made the club resilient. "We never for a moment abandoned the dream to play at the top level," he says. "We understand that South Melbourne is just a part of the fabric of this game in this country. Hopefully South can serve a story for every other football club as well. Where if you're given the opportunities to aspire you can achieve your dreams. It's the same story for our kids and it's the same story for our club. That's what we're learning as part of this bid process, that and to stay humble and respectful at all times." Meanwhile Fraser is excited about what South Melbourne will bring to the A-League. "The FFA should be going for clubs that have good facilities, good structures, a good history and good fans that can add value," he says. "Let me put it this way. Would I rather watch South Melbourne play Melbourne Victory or Central Coast or Wellington play Victory? I know who I would prefer."
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14 April 2018