Exclusive: Chris Nikou talks to ESPN about re-engaging Australia's fractured football community
Six months into his role as chairman of Football Federation Australia, Chris Nikou has just completed a country-wide roadshow of community forums and now has a fairly clear picture of just how big the challenge is to unite a fractured football community.
No stranger to the game, Nikou has been part of the football family in various guises for most of his life. Starting his playing days at the local level in Victoria, he worked his way through the ranks eventually holding simultaneous club secretary and captain positions before moving onto the board of the then Victorian Soccer Federation. A position with the re-branded Football Federation Victoria, coincided with the dawn of the A-League era and following a stint as company secretary for Melbourne Victory and a role on the local organising committee for the Asian Cup, a seat at the top table beckoned.
Four years on, and now in football's top job Nikou is in charge of a game that is at risk of withering on the vine in this country. The FFA chairman took his team on the road to find some clues as to why the "family" has become so disaffected, disillusioned and -- most concerningly -- disengaged.
Speaking to ESPN following the eighth and final community forum in Canberra, Nikou was buoyed by the fact that despite the myriad problems keeping the game bogged down in a morass of bickering factions, at community level they are still passionate.
"These forums confirmed to me that there is great passion in the sport," he said. "But it's not utilised or harnessed properly and we are not aligned as a sport.
"We can talk about the great numbers that we have, because they are great -- but unless we start to convert the participants to football family members we are not going to realise that potential.
"We use that word 'potential' a lot, but we have to get to the point where we say: 'Enough of the talk, am I going to be part of the solution, or part of the problem here?'
"I'd like to think if you like the sport you will do something positive to make it move forward.
"The forums were my initiative, yes there were some people who are angry but I think most appreciate the fact that they get a chance to be heard. I think it's important as the governing body to lead and that means engaging with people."
While the topics raised around the country were similar, the emphasis varied depending on the location and it came as no surprise to Nikou that expansion was the hot topic in the Capital after Canberra failed to secure a licence for the second time.
"I understand they are disappointed. We had to make a difficult decision and by its very nature with 11 bids on day one, we were always going to disappoint nine others," Nikou said.
The passion [in Canberra] is strong, is probably the strongest I've experienced of the nine. I'm keen for expansion, FFA needs to get through the New Leagues Working Group and then get the dialogue back with the clubs about the next level of expansion.
"The sooner that can happen, the sooner we can start to engage and reward communities like [Canberra]."
Across the continent another key issue raised was infrastructure, one Nikou declares is probably the biggest burning issue for the sport at community level.
"We need to trap our fair share of government money for facilities -- we are $500 million short," Nikou explained.
"And that is not asking for 'you beaut' facilities, that is asking for fit for purpose facilities for boys and girls."
It was apparent throughout the forums that the gulf between grassroots football and the professional game has widened over the years to an almost untenable position. Nikou hopes that the new structure will help to rectify that.
"As a sport we need to have a greater level of connectivity. So when we end up with the New Leagues Working Group, I'd like to see the A-League owners have more power to take the sport forward and be incentivised to invest," he said.
"Then at the same time the whole of sport comes with it -- we are only going to survive as a whole, not running parallel systems."
Unity is the holy grail for this new-look board and the chairman believes that sorting out the issues bedevilling the A-League clubs will have a trickle down effect and benefit the whole of the game.
"Clubs are screaming out for greater incentives and control of their destinies," he said. "Various parts of the football machine are not gelling at the moment, so we need to recalibrate that and make it work better.
"I think if we get to the new model and the clubs see the upside in it and fully embrace it, they will drive that side of the game. That will spit out commercial results and the FFA can then go back to what should be its core business of grassroots and community football, pathways and national teams."