Brendan Schwab, Special Counsel to Professional Footballers Australia (PFA), was asked to recount another great anniversary for the players – 20 years after the PFA’s successful fight for free agency was secured by a landmark ruling of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission.

It is a fitting tribute to the players of the 1990’s that, as we recognise the achievements of the last decade, we recall their struggle to build the game in this country and, with that, a profession for today’s players.

It is 20 years ago that the PFA achieved a legal victory for the collective rights of players that transformed the game.

On 9 June 1995, the legal right of an Australian footballer, when out of contract, to be free to negotiate with and join the club of his choice, be it his current employer, or a new one, was recognised.

That principle – free agency – ensures that a player has control over his own career and livelihood. That he is not a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Such has been the extent and reach of change within Australian football since then, the significance of the PFA’s achievement is little known today. It involved countless hours of negotiations with the then governing body, the Australian Soccer Federation (or the ASF), a 4 Corners Program and lengthy proceedings before an internal ASF inquiry headed by former New South Wales Supreme Court judge Hon Justice Stewart (the head of the National Crime Authority), a ten day hearing before the Full Bench of the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC) and even Australian Senate committee hearings.

And because, just six months later in December 1995, Jean Marc Bosman’s legal crusade through the European courts emancipated the European professional footballer, many of today’s players do not know that their freedom within Australia comes not from Bosman, but from the pioneers of their own players’ association here in Australia.

The players’ lot in 1993 when the PFA was founded was very different to what it is today. To quote journalist Robert Galvin’s, “Soccer’s Slave Trade,” Inside Sport, October 1993:

“The lucky few will escape overseas. The rest will stay here, condemned, to soccer’s great shame, to a life of sporting slavery.”

The career was semi-professional in pay and conditions but fully professional in demands. Contracts could be terminated on seven days notice in the absolute discretion of club coaches, players were not covered when injured and, consequently, many players had the sole dream of escaping Australia.

To do that, players had to deal with a transfer system that entitled a club to claim a substantial fee for the transfer of a player even when the player’s contract had ended.

Players, in effect, were owned by their clubs. If a deal on a transfer fee could not be reached, players were simply forced out of the game until one could be done. Players had to rely on the favours of powerful game and club officials to continue with their careers. I still recall being asked to help one of the game’s greatest players and an experienced international and was told his salary was $16,000, about 50% of what I was then earning as a labour lawyer straight out of law school.

The ASF defended the transfer system to the hilt. It was essential, they said, to ensure competitive balance within the National Soccer League, the economic viability of the Clubs and the training and development of young players. Its abolition would mean the death of the NSL and, with that, the professional game here in Australia.

The players were adamant that the transfer system hurt the competitiveness of the game, undermined the viability of the clubs and had nothing to do with the training and development of young players. Moreover, the system encouraged graft and corruption, with famous tales told of how suitcases full of cash changed hands along with the player registrations of some members of Australia’s golden generation.

The players that formed the PFA in 1993 – Kimon Taliadoros, John Kosmina, Stan Lazaridis, Joe Palatsides, Oscar Crino, Alan Hunter and Greg Brown, among others – did so with the twin objectives of supporting the players and building the game. We were soon informed by our adviser Braham Dabscheck that we were the ninth attempt at forming a footballers’ association in Australia since the 1960s. The previous efforts all failed because of a refusal by the ASF and the State Federations to recognise the union.

We modelled our strategies on those of the world’s very best players’ associations – England’s PFA’s and the MLBPA – and went to work.

We did not seek recognition by the ASF, but the support of the players. In our player meetings, we learned of the tribulations being faced by players of all ages. Three players emerged with stories that highlighted the damage of the player transfer system:

> Kimon, then a Socceroo and the NSL’s leading scorer. Despite being out of contract and 25 years of age, his club South Melbourne demanded a transfer fee the equivalent of more than a year’s salary. The impact of this on player wages was devastating
• Joe Spiteri, an Olyroo, demanding free agency in his individual contract as he embarked on his career knowing the damage the system had done to others and with the foresight to avoid being another victim
• John Koch, a player who spent years out of the game due to a series of transfer fee disputes

As with the PFA of today, our approach was built on four key strategies:

1. We ensured our position was in the best interests of the game

2. We ensured our position was in the best interests of the players

3. We engaged the players. 86.7% supported the abolition of the domestic transfer system, and 93.9% free agency
; and

4. We exhausted negotiations, and once they had been exhausted, we took the legal and industrial steps necessary to ensure the legal and economic rights of the players were upheld.

In all of the hearings – before Hon Justice Stewart, the AIRC and the Senate – the players gave evidence. But many did not, fearful of the repercussions. A heavy burden fell onto Kimon’s shoulders who took on the position of PFA Chief Executive whilst still playing with leading NSL Club Marconi. Their 1993 NSL championship side also included Andy Harper, Ufuk Talay, Steve Corica, John-Paul de Marigny, Gary van Egmond, Luke Casserly and Mark Schwarzer.

The AIRC found that:

> the transfer system ‘operates in many instances unfairly towards players’
• it has little or anything to do with the training and development of a player’
• it ‘treats players as if they were the property of their club’
• it impinges ‘on the freedom to choose one’s employer’
• it may not operate ‘to the [overall] advantage of … clubs … [and] the sport of soccer in Australia‘
• its abolition may lead to an increase in the remuneration of some players’
• it may be an unreasonable restraint of trade

Equally importantly, the AIRC ordered the ASF, the NSL Clubs and the PFA to negotiate all terms of employment of players, and a year later the first NSL CBA was signed by PFA President Taliadoros and new Soccer Australia Chairman David Hill. Benefits then negotiated – including a free labour market, a contract that cannot be unilaterally terminated, a minimum 104 weeks injury cover, and independent grievance arbitration, continue to protect players in the A-League today.

Most importantly, that CBA paved the way for a fully professional career path here in Australia. Without that, the performances and achievements of the A-League players we celebrate tonight would not have been possible.

Of course, the PFA’s work is not done. I would like to congratulate the PFA, its President Matt McKay and Chief Executive Adam Vivian on the research released last week that highlights the challenges of players transitioning during and after their playing careers.

It is a great thing to have the privilege of playing the world’s greatest game for a living. But the game, too, owes the players a duty of care. Together, everyone in the game must ensure that not only do we leave the game in a better place when our involvement has ended, but that we also develop great people and not just great players.

Thank you.