PFA Life Member Francis Awaritefe goes 1v1 with the PFA to discuss the beginnings of the players’ association, the remarkable commitment to reform the game, the huge sacrifices many made and much more.

PFA: In the late 80’s you made the move from the UK to Australia. How did this move come about?

FA: There was strong British influence in Australian football at the time when I came out here. I didn’t have a team and my original plan was to go on trial with Melbourne Croatia, but South Melbourne was actually closer to where I lived so I ended up going to train with them for a month, or a month and half, and it was towards the end of the season, unfortunately they didn’t have any spots as they had a lot of great forwards. I then went to train with Melbourne Croatia but I only had two or three weeks before the end of the season and they told me to come back for pre-season with them, which I did. I played in a pre-season tournament and did well and I think I was top scorer and they signed me off the back of that and that was how I gained my first contract in Australian football.


PFA: For your first few seasons there was no players’ association in Australia. What was life like for a footballer at the time?

FA: When you think about it now it was very precarious as a lot of the rights players take for granted these days did not exist. There was no such thing as a standard playing contract and we didn’t get injury pay. Players would rack up injury bills for medical expenses and clubs wouldn’t pay. Players would have to dip into their own pockets; everything was stacked in the club’s favour. If you completed your contract even at the end of it you couldn’t move, clubs had to pay a fee for you. If you refused to sign a contract with your club they could leave you rotting on the shelf and you might not play football for years. This happened to quite a few players and these were some of the problems and the ways players were treated.


PFA: Was their talk amongst the players about getting a union up and running?

FA: I learned later on that there had been several attempts to get a player union up and running throughout Australian football history and all of the attempts had failed. The whole thing that precipitated it was Kimon Taliadoros when he wanted to move to Marconi and live in Sydney. It was tremendously difficult for him to do so, even though he was off contract, due to the transfer system and that is what started it. Kimon and Brendan Schwab got together, apparently they knew each other from school, Brendan was a young lawyer and the whole thing started with them. They approached all the top players and started to form a union.

I wasn’t an Executive at first, but later I remember speaking to Kimon and we sat down and had a chat and it was a no brainer for me. I had come from England and knew how important a players’ union was and became a delegate at first. I remember having to get the players signed up, and we couldn’t have a meeting on the premises. Clubs did everything they could to try to stop players joining the union, there were threats and all sorts. I got the players to go to a restaurant down the road from training and had pens and the forms and got everyone to join there and then. We were all taking risks with our careers and none more so than Kimon, who paid big price with his career. I think a lot of young players maybe aren’t aware of what Kimon did and the impact it had on his career. I think it affected him as a player and I think it was hard for him to be at the same level as the pressures were great and many clubs viewed him as a trouble maker.


PFA: What was the philosophy that drove the beginnings?

FA: There was a sense within the playing group, and all players, that there needed to be change. At the top clubs there was less incentive to try to change things because the players there were treated well, and I was treated very well by my club, and if you were at a good club like South Melbourne you were paid on time and looked after. There were a lot of disputes at some clubs and players were put in positions where if they didn’t tow the line they could retain your registration and there was some really bad stuff happening. We wanted to band together to support the players who were less powerful and there was a real sense of collectivism and we were determined we were going to do that. It was not easy. There were times when the existence of the PFA was very precarious but people like Brendan and Kimon stuck at it. In the end this core group just keep it going through all the tough times.


PFA: How critical to the success of the PFA was the unity of the players?

FA: Unity is where your power comes from. We had almost 100% membership of the whole league so we were incredibly powerful. Prior to that the football federation would not recognise the PFA and the clubs didn’t recognise the PFA. I remember Brendan got kicked off South Melbourne’s ground when he tried to organise a meeting. They did everything to try to not recognise the PFA but in the end they had no choice because we were all in it. It was a very exciting time but also so precarious and without the vision of people like Brendan and Kimon the whole thing would not have succeeded.


PFA: Fairly early on the decision was taken to play a leading role in reforming the game. Was this something that had long been the objective of the players?

FA: The players realised very early that the PFA could be a union, which basically resolved grievances, maintained work conditions, ran disputes or we could try to influence and shape the game. We felt we could influence the direction the game was taking, hopefully in partnership with the governing body, but they were very hostile. I think the PFA was ahead of its time and unfortunately the governing body were not fit for purpose. The players wanted to do what was best for the game. I remember quite clearly when the decision was taken that money would be quarantined and spent on research for what we now call the A-League. The players knew that if our vision came off it could mean the end of some players careers. When we got the research it confirmed the league was too big and it was clear there would be a reduction in the number of teams and a reduction in the number of jobs; however, in exchange for that players were going to have a better quality of job.

The players were prepared to sacrifice their jobs and people don’t really remember that. I remember when the league shut down they owed a lot of money to Socceroos players and the governing body couldn’t afford to pay it as they were trying to start a new league and the players sacrificed over $1 million for the good of the game. The players are not just in it for themselves, they understand that the wellbeing of the game is a precondition to the wellbeing of the players and they want to leave the game in a better state than they left it.


PFA: Having laid out the vision for the A-League, what was made of the early years of the A-League?

FA: It should be a great source of pride to the PFA as they did all the work in setting out the vision. We were happy with the direction, but it wasn’t implemented in accordance with all our research in the way it should have been and we saw that with the expansion model, which was based solely on capital. People forget that for the first two or three years players did not have a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) so for the players, in some ways, it was a difficult because once you have an environment where the employer can do what they want, you get abuse of player rights, but once a CBA went into place that was remedy for a lot of this.


PFA: Since hanging up your boots you have maintained a strong voice on the game. Why do you believe it is important that former players continue to play a role in shaping the direction of the sport?

PFA: I think for me personally, football is my life; it is something that has given me a lot and something that I like being part of. I just want to contribute and do my bit to help the growth and the wellbeing of the game and you find ways in which you can do that. Through the PFA I have been privileged to be able to do that, whether it was as a Delegate and Executive or later on as a Life Member and that has been an absolute privilege and the next thing I would like to do is work as an administrator. We have now seen former players really doing great work in the technical side of the game and they are educated to a very high standard, which is something that used to be non existent.

I think people from the PFA have made huge contributions to the game. You look at people like Craig Foster through his work in the media and Andy Harper and then you look in the coaching area with people such as Alistair Edwards, who did so much work to get the curriculum up and running and change people’s thinking about coaching. Then there’s others like Kimon Taliadoros, who is now the Football Federation Victoria President and I would like to see the next revolution of former players now starting to take over in terms of administration. In Europe the input and voices of former players is respected and welcomed. They need to be educated and prove they can perform in those roles but football needs to look to push former footballers along. It is great to see the PFA leading in that space by appointing a former player as the Chief Executive, a highly qualified one at that. John Didulica played the game but has also performed a number of roles and knows the game from a macro and micro level.


Each week the PFA will go 1v1 to gain an insight into the lives of current and former footballers on and off the pitch.