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Apr 15, 2010

Germany can fix the A-League's problems

Let's not beat around the bush: there are some major issues surrounding the A-League that need sorting out. Fast.

• Hesse: The funny old game in the Bundesliga

In recent weeks, the Sunshine State has become one of doom and gloom for the FFA, with Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury creating concern for the sport's governing body.

Add to the mix the resignation of the man in charge of the whole A-League, Archie Fraser, and the mood at FFA HQ is about as high as that of Christine Nixon.

Barely had season five ended before the FFA had to step in and inject North Queensland Fury with $2.5 million to keep the club afloat after owner Don Matheson announced he'd no longer pay the bills. Had Fury Board members got their way, we'd be preparing for a nine-team A-League this season. However, a simple directive from FFA chairman Frank Lowy put the case to bed: Fury still had a pulse thanks to the FFA's life support system.

Just as that crisis began to settle, a new one emerged with revelations that Gold Coast United's billionaire owner, Clive Palmer, had thrown his toys out of his pram again and was set to withdraw his financial support from the club. He'd verbally made this threat before, but this time he managed to find a pen to put it in writing.

Then that same morning, another bombshell was dropped, this time within the FFA's College Street offices when Fraser handed in his resignation to FFA CEO Ben Buckley, who must've thought it was a belated April Fools' prank.

Optimists, like Buckley, will protest that the recent spate of issues are normal during the developing stages of a newly formed league, just as the timber frame of a new house creaks as the abode settles into its foundations.

But what if it's a little more serious than that? What if the competition is truly ill?

These issues can be dressed any way the FFA want them to be, but fundamentally, it cannot deny that there are serious concerns regarding the financial stability of clubs and attendances at A-League matches. Which is why the FFA should look to the German Bundesliga for a few pointers.

Unlike in Australia and a vast majority of leagues around the world where clubs can be owned by one individual, the German model places club ownership in the hands of fans. The league mandates that members of a club must retain 51 per cent ownership, preventing a single entity, be it a wealthy businessman or private company, from taking a controlling interest. This ruling, known as the 50+1 rule, not only ensures the financial stability of a club, but also guarantees a large following and a tribal feeling among the populace.

The model is based on a strict set of financial rules and licensing that drastically reduces debt, while regular check-ups are carried out to ensure clubs are financially stable.

The system is one that builds from a solid, stable foundation, and at the very heart of that foundation are the fans, not shareholders who yell 'penalty' whenever a player goes down anywhere on the field or billionaire tycoons that slam the stadium doors shut on their club's fans.

To its credit, the FFA has embraced a community model for the Fury, however with nine of the ten A-League clubs suffering financial losses this season, perhaps it's time to make such a model mandatory.

Implemented correctly, the FFA will be able to invest its energies in other areas of the game, rather than propping clubs up as they have been doing for the past few seasons. Clubs would also have the funds to lure higher quality players to the A-League and who knows, perhaps one day the salary cap may even be scrapped.

Until every A-League club is in the black, that remains a distant dream. However, should control of the clubs continue to go to the individual instead of the people, then a vibrant A-League might also remain a dream too far.

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