By Brendan Schwab, co-founder of the PFA and PFA Champion.

It is a great honour to accept induction into the Football Australia Hall of Fame – I do so not as an individual – but on behalf of the generations of Australia’s professional footballers who have united through their union – the PFA – to shape the future of the game in this country profoundly for the better.

At its very first meeting in 1993, the PFA was as concerned about the standing of the game as the position of the players themselves. The PFA’s longstanding mission statement – Supporting the Players. Building the Game. – makes this clear.

If this honour says anything, it is perhaps some recognition on the part of the game as a whole that the work of the players through their union has unquestionably been in the best interests of the game. 

Let’s be honest, major sports bodies are naturally very conservative and hierarchical. They are reluctant to share money, let alone power. The reformist zeal of the PFA was at all times resisted by the game and without the unity, strength, policy and principle of the players, the PFA’s reforms would not have seen the light of day. 

Collective bargaining at National Soccer League level was only possible because of our successful legal challenge to the domestic transfer system in 1995, the revelations of the corruption it fed, and the union’s capacity to demonstrate that the system was not in the interests of the clubs or the old NSL, let alone the players.

Collective bargaining for the Socceroos and the Matildas in a meaningful sense only eventuated because of the Socceroos industrial action in Saudi Arabia in 1997 and the Matildas strike of 2015. The game has realised the rewards of these industrial transformations into what are now high performance workplaces. Full-time professionalism at home – then an impossible dream – is now the established norm (at least for A-League Men – and it will be for A-League Women); the Socceroos are preparing for their fifth successive appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals after a 32-year hiatus; and, the Matildas hold sway as arguably Australia’s national team.

But it is about much more than this. As Socceroo Jackson Irvine recently said, “If there’s anything from my Socceroos career that you can have there, you hope you’ve encouraged people to try and make not just the game better, but make your community and your country a better place through football and through any kind of influence that you have.”

In many ways, the PFA stands alone among Australian player associations due to our belief that only through organising and action can the players have an equal say at the table. We know this to be true from our own experience – and from our membership of the global player association movement. The PFA today stands in solidarity with 85,000 professionals across sport, through our leadership of FIFPRO, the world footballers’ union, and the World Players Association, which I am honoured to have served as Executive Director since 2015.

The PFA, possibly, also stands alone among Australian player associations because of our deep commitment to shaping the business and governance of the game. This is because, when we started, the players were, unacceptably, the victims of poor governance and failed business leadership. The players have always understood in a very real and lived sense that the wellbeing of the game is a precondition to the wellbeing of the players. They therefore decided to do something about it.

The PFA’s key reforms are now embedded in the game – a new governing body; new professional leagues; collective bargaining; engagement with Asia; and gender equality – although everyone must always strive to be better, acknowledging that we work for football – the world’s most competitive sport – in arguably the world’s most competitive sports and entertainment market.

The success of the game as a business, however, cannot be separated from its responsibility and capacity to respect the internationally recognised human rights of the people central to it – the players – and, indeed, everyone impacted by the game and who make it possible.

As much of Australian sport presently struggles to reconcile sport and human rights, Australian football has an important opportunity to lead; to demonstrate and realise the cultural power of the game which transcends us all. If there be any doubt about this, let’s just recall the unity of the Australian football community when Hakeem Al-Araibi arrived safely at Tullamarine Airport in early 2019 alongside PFA stalwarts Craig Foster and John Didulica. Let’s build on the leadership of the Socceroos and the international labour and human rights community to build a lasting legacy in Qatar and ensure that the Matildas’ continuing campaign from 2019 which invoked the legacy of the pioneering suffragettes of New Zealand and Australia delivers equal pay and prize money at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup!

This work fully accords with the “light on the hill” that Jackson spoke of and which so inspires Australian football’s “true believers” – that our game – at its best – represents Australia at its very best. That, by transforming a great sporting nation into a great football nation, we will forever change our country for the better.

Please allow me to thank my partner Megan Hughes and the four children, Ben, Matthew, Melba and Henry. It’s not easy being in a trade unionist’s family. The phone rings often, at any hour, and when it does, the person on the other end is normally a player in need, an angry protagonist from management, or a member of the media. I inherited my commitment to labor from my mother Annette, and my dedication to the service of sport and football from my late father Alan. I will forever be grateful to Mum and Dad.

Let me close where I began, with the players. It’s an incredible honour to represent you and your leadership and dedication to the game in Australia and Australia’s place in the football world are beyond reproach.

The PFA’s Presidents since 1993 – Greg Brown, Kimon Taliadoros, Alex Tobin, Simon Colosimo, Matt McKay and Alex Wilkinson; outstanding Chairs John Poulakakis and Craig Foster; the PFA Champions and Life Members; the many who have served the PFA Executive, especially our female pioneers Kim Carroll, Elise Kellond-Knight and Lydia Williams; on-field leaders Paul Wade, Alex Tobin (again), Paul Okon, Mark Viduka, Lucas Neil, Mile Jedinak and Mat Ryan – Cheryl Salisbury, Melissa Barbieri, Kate Gill, Clare Polkinghorne and Sam Kerr; the generational players who paved the way and gave decisive support to the PFA, the late Joe Marston, the late Johnny Warren, Craig Johnston, Frank Farina, Harry Kewell and, Cheryl and Sam (both again); as well as our current PFA leaders who every day live the values of our organisation, including Chair Francis Awaritefe (who was there at the start), Wilko, the PFA’s long serving President, and Co-Chief Executives Kate and Beau Busch.

I’m proud every time I see those five PFA values boldly stated – RESPECT, WORLD CLASS, INTELLIGENCE, TRUST, and, yes, we can’t forget, COURAGE. I’m even more proud when I see today’s members of the PFA live those values – day in, day out – 30 years after their union was created.