Wednesday, 19 February 2014
Sydney FC Fans Forum: The Devil is in the Detail
Jamie Samaha, the youngest of the Sydney FC board members, leaned back in his seat as Sydney FC fans filed in to the conference room, confident at the media lockout. With a smirk he muttered to a suited friend "they all want an exclusive." I smiled at Kate Cohen, who sat beside me. #MediaTourists don't count.
It is said that the football media is Sydney-centric. I don't know. I tend to subscribe to the view that sport tells us a lot about who we are as a nation. It's why we don't give much of a toss about Asian football, although perhaps we should. It's also why we get a little spooked by ethnics running their own soccer clubs. And it's why, at 1am in the morning, straight from the top floor of a Surry Hills terrace, I am writing about the Sydney FC Fans Forum. I've been to Melbourne. The coffee isn't that good, and lets face it, everywhere else in Australia is full of weirdos and people wanting to live in Sydney. So Sydney it is.
Sydney, as Tony Pignata said in his powerpoint presentation, is BIG. BOLD. AMBITIOUS. In capital letters. The club, as logic would suggest, should represent those values. So like all good CEO's, Pignata began with the positives. Sydney FC has won ten titles across three leagues, he said. It was all part of a three point plan. The first point in the plan is to create an elite juniors pathway, from u/12's up. The second was creating a Football Centre of Excellence. The third was Asia. Sydney FC want to be the biggest club in Asia. I also want to be the guy who tells John Pilger that the copy is due. We all have a dream.
Tony Pignata's presentation wasn't particularly impressive, if we're honest. He spoke about a "history to be proud of", and promised "we set high targets and we demand success." It would have seemed more emphatic had his brow not been saturated with sweat. Public speaking is hard.
"What's our vision?" asked Tony Pignata of the crowd. He did not want an answer. After a short and extremely awkward pause, he glanced quickly to the slideshow to remind himself. The answer was a quote from Scott Barlow, helpfully written it italics. "To be Australia's premier club" was just the sort of cliche the crowd was looking for, and so Pignata continued.
The night, unfortunately, was going from bad to worse for Sydney FC's CEO. After regaling a stony faced crowd with stories of seeing fake Sydney FC shirts in Italy - "proof that we've made it" he said - Pignata presented the audience with the Strategic Plan.
I kid you not. After talk of increasing revenue, the first point of the club's philosophy was "creating goal scoring opportunities." Remember when you played u/6's, and everybody streamed forward in packs in search of a goal? THAT'S THE PLAN!
It was time for another rhetorical question. After revealing that scoring and defending were key components of the club philosophy, Pignata asked "have we achieved this?" This time the audience was too quick for Tony's rhetorical questions. "NO!" they shouted, and laughter spread around the room. The audience was lost.
You have to admire Tony Pignata. Despite the rustling of the savages, he continued bravely. In the long term, he suggested, Sydney FC want to win the Asian Champions League. "Adelaide got to the finals" he offered encouragingly. And so the audience was invited to compare themselves to The Pissants. Not realising the irony, Pignata then asked the crowd to remember all the great players that have played for Sydney FC. His suggestion that Sydney FC were even able to sign Lucas Neill was met with more guffaws.
There is a certain skill in holding a crowd. However, the greater skill is in knowing when you have lost them. For all of his considerable talents, Tony Pignata does not seem to possess either of these skills. Without a hint of irony, he finished his public address by saying that he had just given a glimpse of the club's "high level vision", before the audience was invited to ask questions.
Did I mention the MC? He was the kind of guy that sells used couches. Trim suit and half a bucket of brylcreem in his hair, he made jokes about alcoholism. The board members laughed. But then again, they were paying him. They should have spent some money on partisan crowd members.
Anyway, the MC instructed us to ask questions. Nothing was off limits, he promised. "From Mary from Maroubra to Pete from Penrith" we were told to speak up, or forever hold our piece. I appreciated the alliteration.
The first question was a pearler. Dan was his name, and he wanted to know why the board hadn't listened to Craig Foster when he recommended Josep Gombau to Sydney FC. "The team has no rudder" said Dan.
The answer was unconvincing. Pignata said that the board had chosen Frank Farina because he was good at sorting out short term problems. "He did it, sort of, at Brisbane" was the endorsement. That's right. He did sort of do it at Brisbane. Until of course he was fired, Ange Postecoglou took over, and took the team on a record-breaking unbeaten streak. Sort of.
So much for the long-term goals.
"Do you see Frank as the future" asked Dan, by way of rephrasing the question. There was another awkward silence. Scott Barlow promised us the football department had his full support.
Peter, from North Bondi, was next. He wanted to tell us that he had worked with Alessandro Del Piero on a film clip for some marketing thing he did. Great. Nobody likes a name-dropper, but it turned out to be just the kind of tough question to crack open Tony Pignata's frigid exterior. "Dealing with Alessandro Del Piero and his brand can be difficult" said Pignata. My fist, which had until then been firmly inserted in my mouth to stop myself from laughing out loud, was suddenly removed, and notes were scrawled. The evening had just got interesting.
The MC, of course, made it worse. He decided to paraphrase the question. Will ADP be here for the next season, he asked the board. Tony Pignata gave him a look, one not dissimilar to the one Michael Corleone gave Fredo in Godfather II. "The last time we looked you weren't a member" said Pignata, and the MC was suddenly doing the 'mouth laugh.' You know the one. You're making laughing sounds and grinning from ear to ear, but inside, you know you've fucked up.
Then there was Ron from Glenfield, who had a problem with player turnover. "I don't recognise the team!" he complained. Then again, he was advancing in years. He also thought he was at bingo night at the Hurlstone Park RSL.
Mark Arbib, who until this point had been silent, decided to speak up. The faceless man of the NSW Right has a face, and that is Sydney FC. "A-League clubs have no connection to the grassroots" he mused. Everyone instantly wrote him off as a bitter NSL fan.
Then Andrew from Newtown asked a question. He looked vaguely familiar. I think I once bought a bed off him from a Gumtree ad. Andrew, if you're reading this - solid question mate. "This is not the first strategic plan" Andrew pointed out. Who will be accountable, he wondered, if the latest plan is stillborn? The answer, as you might have guessed, was more platitudes about "commitment."
The comedy continued. Lynne from Hurstville questioned how "a team of champions" could be turned into "a champion team. "I thought [Aaron] Calver had a good game [against Perth]" replied Tony Pignata. "Unfortunately he got sent off." Indeed.
Michael Crismale, a board member who had been silent, suddenly had something to say. He wanted to remind the plebs of all the great players who had worn the colours of Sydney FC. Again, the onlookers were too quick. "Like Alejandro Salazar" one bloke yelled out. The room once again was filled with sniggers. The club used to be so broke, Crismale told the onlookers, that he once lent Dwight Yorke $1000 to pay his living allowances. The laughter, unsurprisingly, did not stop.
Next to take the microphone was an ex-Parramatta Power fan, who was banging on about something to do with wanting to support "an Aussie team." To be honest, I wasn't listening. I was too busy scouring the room. There was Bonita Mersiades with her hand up to my far left. The MC was assiduously ignoring her and those around her.
Perhaps Peter Paradise, on the end of the panel of board members, read the room. Before Bonita could ask her question, he started speaking about what he called "women's issues." Bonita, of course, has been a tireless advocate for women in sport. Was this the topic of her question? Who can say for sure?
The club had bravely backed Ellyse Perry to play two sports, Paradise ventured. On top of that, he self-reflexively noted the complete lack of women on the board of Sydney FC. He promised that would all change. Bonita's hand went down. Maybe her arm was just tired.
Then came the crazy questions. One fan asked if Scott Barlow would step down if the team didn't reach the Asian Champions League. Another wondered why Sydney FC had accumulated so many yellow and red cards. Jamie Samaha responded by telling the riff-raff to show some respect for the absentee owner's son-in-law, who squirmed in his chair, while Tony Pignata said "the players let us down from a yellow cards point of view." From a who's point of view?!
The natives were no longer restless. They were bat-shit crazy. One man stood up, pointed to the field, and asked "if you want to dominate Asia, do you even watch the game?!" The board promised us they did. Another bloke was angry that Tony Pignata hadn't answered his emails and phone calls, while another loudly heckled the board for their "lack of knowledge of the world game."
The night had turned silly. A cheeky fan suggested the board be replaced by a "panel of ex-captains", before Phil Hope stood up and calmed the room. A veteran of the Socceroos and Sydney FC, 'Hopey' returned the conversation to reality, asking about Sydney FC's investment in facilities, so they could stop "tipping money into the SCG coffers."
The answer, unfortunately, was not convincing. Scott Barlow suggested the inner west is "an ideal location" for Sydney FC. Considering the smallest of apartments in Newtown now fetches million dollar price tags, its anybody's guess how Sydney FC will find room and money for a stadium and a centre of excellence in the inner west. I'm just excited about the prospect of late night Manoosh after Sydney FC games.
Then Doug Kors finally got to ask his question, after a good twenty minutes with his hand raised. It was a rare question that was actually relevant, and it was about the funds allocated to a high performance unit to monitor training loads. Tony Pignata promised Doug that Sydney FC had hired a psychologist, which isn't really the same thing. Oh well.
It was time for some tough talk. Parochialism usually gets a crowd going. And who better to give that tough talk then a bunch of corporate spivs in suits. Tony Pignata promised the fans that "we're not gonna let Melbourne Heart take the Sky Blue." Peter Paradise agreed: "they've got a fight on their hands", he said. Similarly, Scott Barlow apparently has a "real issue" with Central Coast Mariners taking games to North Sydney Oval. The insecurity was plain to see.
The last question was about loyalty, which seemed fitting after a largely useless night of high farce. The last questioner even used the phrase "day dot." I fucking hate it when people say that.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this is why democracy doesn't work.