Posts Categorized: Football

Retrospective: Robbie Gaspar

IMG_2303Two years ago I ventured on a three week journey around South East Asia, watching and chatting to a range of Australian footballers and coaches. A number of stories followed from these meetings. Here is a retrospective look at the five-days I spent with Robbie Gaspar in Bandung, Indonesia. Robbie is a great man who these days has over 83,000 twitter followers rather than nearly 50k. He’s hung up the boots, too, but is still fighting for the rights of professional footballers across the globe.


With a Twitter following fast approaching 50,000 and instant recognisability on the streets of Bandung, Australian midfielder Robbie Gaspar is on the frontline of the fight to fix Indonesian football.

It’s a mild Saturday morning in Bandung, Indonesia. Traffic relentlessly snakes its way through the narrow, winding streets as locals trade their wares at the edge of the road.

Having risen early to venture to training, Robbie Gaspar beams as his blurry eyes catch sight of a youngster buzzing by on his motorbike.

It’s not the daring speed at which the rider is travelling, nor the dangerous swerves through oncoming traffic that makes Gaspar smile – that he has witnessed many times before. It’s the fact that etched on the motorcyclists back sits his surname: “Gaspar”.

Born in Perth, Western Australia, and with just a handful of Australian national league games in the early 2000s to his name, Gaspar is far from a household name in his homeland.

But in Indonesia the former Sydney Olympic players’ celebrity extends from the beaches of Balikpapan to the markets of Malang, and most certainly to the bars of Bandung.

We arrive at Stadium Si Jalak Harupat. As Gaspar and his then teammate, Montenegrin Miljan Radovic, emerge from their car some 250 kids who have gathered to watch their heroes train swamp them. Dozens of mobile phones instantly appear and the kids clamber for a photograph.

The youths are insistent, but not rude. Gaspar and Radovic fulfil every last request and eventually make it to the relative comfort of their decaying change room 15 minutes after their arrival.

“It feels good to be recognised for what you do,” Gaspar says.

“They love their football here and they’re very passionate about it. When fans come up to you and ask for a photo or autograph in the street it makes you feel appreciated and it makes you want to put that bit extra in on the field. Each team from each city has that loyal, die-hard following. Footballers here are like footballers in England.”

It’s true, footballers in Indonesia are like footballers in England – they’re revered. Trouble is, football in Indonesia isn’t like football in England.

Political infighting has dogged the Indonesian game for years, holding back the undoubted potential of the domestic scene, and subsequently Indonesia’s national teams.

Unratified rebel leagues, match fixing, player strikes, and games being postponed – even cancelled – at the very last minute are an unfortunate reality of the current landscape.

Having spent seven seasons in the many incarnations of Indonesia’s “top flight”, Gaspar is well placed to outline the problems that plague the game.

“Some of the things I’ve seen and heard in the last seven years are a disgrace,” he says.

“Football here is such a powerful tool that a lot of people want to get involved for the wrong reasons. I just want to see people getting involved for the right reasons.

“What’s happening to the players shouldn’t be happening. The players need to be treated with respect. The players and the fans are the most important part of the game. If everyone put their own agendas aside and worked for the betterment of the game this place could be anything.”

Gaspar doesn’t hide the fact that when we met, he was one of the lucky few. His club at the time, Persib Bandung, is one of Indonesia’s biggest, routinely drawing crowds in excess of 30,000.

Studies have shown that across the diverse archipelago approximately 20 million people watch Persib’s matches on television, while hopeful entrepreneurs hawk unofficial merchandise around Bandung. Importantly, the club pays their squad and staff on time.

Others at Indonesia’s 90 professional outfits are not so fortunate. Many players go months without their salaries, with club owners simply refusing to stump up the cash promised in their contracts.

Gaspar admits players routinely break down, departing their teams and with that losing hope of recouping what they’re owed. Others battle on with their fingers crossed, all the while struggling to provide for their families.

Having seen the plight of his fellow professionals first hand and advocated for them unofficially for years, Gaspar was recently appointed an executive of the Asosiasi Persepakbola Professional Indonesia (APPI), Indonesia’s first players union akin to Professional Footballers Australia (PFA). In essence, his voluntary fight was formalised.

“Being from Australia we are from the culture where we like to stick up for ourselves and stick up for our mates,” he says.

“As footballers we are like family, so when you see a fellow footballer not being paid, it’s unacceptable. I just want to help out the boys. The players in Indonesia are not used to having a players union so we need to educate them that we can help them.”

While APPI have enjoyed some success in securing payments for players thus far, Gaspar’s support of his fellow professionals extends beyond merely campaigning for cheques to arrive in their bank accounts.

It’s Sunday dusk and Gaspar takes me to meet Juan Marcello Cirelli, a 28-year-old Argentinean player who counts River Plate among his former clubs, and Andri Ibo, a 22-year-old Indonesian defender of Papuan decent. Cirelli and Ibo play for Persidafon Dafonsoro, a small side based in West Papua near the city of Jayapura.

Tomorrow, Cirelli and Ibo will line up against Gaspar’s Persib. Tonight, they are brothers in arms.

We share dinner at one of Bandung’s popular malls and as the passionate, articulate Cirelli outlines that Persidafon’s players have gone six months without salary, Gaspar listens attentively.

Like an investigator he probes the Argentine for more information. His phone buzzes numerous times throughout the two-hour rendezvous, usually with another Indonesian-based professional on the end of the line.

When the bill arrives Gaspar insists on picking up the tab for his guests.

“Every day I am on the phone getting feedback from the guys,” he says.

“There’s a lot of work in it because there are a lot of professional players in Indonesia, but we are speaking all the time. APPI is holding regular meetings with the federations and working hard to sort this out as soon as possible. When we do, the potential for football to grow in Indonesia is phenomenal. We’re slowly trying to implement PFA models.”

Indeed, Gaspar believes Australia can and should do more to contribute to Indonesia’s development, while reaping rewards of its own.

From player and coach exchanges to Hyundai A-League clubs marketing themselves in Indonesia, Gaspar reckons the opportunities that can be enjoyed by a close relationship between the nations is limited only by imagination and endeavour.

“We’re neighbours,” he says.

“There are 240 million people here compared to less than 25 million in Australia. Australia would be crazy not to tap into it, and Indonesia could learn a lot from Australia’s professional practices.”

“Sport breaks down boundaries and football is a great way for Australia and Indonesia to communicate.”

Due to the current restructure of the Indonesian league system, Gaspar – along with Radovic, Brazilian Marcio Souza and Singaporean Noh Alam Shah – was recently released from his Persib Bandung deal. He hopes to sign at another club prior to the commencement of the new Indonesian Super League season – whenever that may be.

His impassioned mission off the pitch continues unabated.

FC St. Pauli – The Coolest Club?

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It’s quite a strange thing, my passion for FC St. Pauli – the German football Club from the port city of Hamburg which has spent most of its time of late in Deutschland’s 2. Bundesliga.

Truth be told, I can’t pinpoint when it was I started following this unique football institution, whose home is the 29,063-capacity Millerntor-Stadion (right near Hamburg’s famous Reeperbahn district) oozing with what some unsuspecting fans, and probably rival outfits, would find downright obscure traditions and culture.

Certainly, St. Pauli the football club, plus their matchday, is about as far removed from the Hyundai A-League experience as any could imagine. And most probably, therein lies its appeal.

You see, FC St. Pauli has a rawness and edge to it that you just don’t get at most clubs, or in most countries or cities around the globe. Even so, don’t mistake this rawness and edge for anything confrontational, anything that ought put you off venturing to a game – attending a FC St. Pauli home fixture in Germany’s north is an extremely welcoming and rewarding experience.

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Evident to my eye on my sole visit to the Millerntor for a matchday is FC St. Pauli’s vast and varied fan base. Packed into the Club’s boutique, beautiful Stadium on game day one of the 2. Bundesliga 2014/15 season as FC St. Pauli hosts Mathew Leckie’s FC Ingolstadt 04 are men and women of all ages. The most common thread that identifies them to the eye is the shades of brown and black in which they sport.

But the FC. St. Pauli fan base unite for much more than just their team. Indeed, the Club itself were the first in Germany to integrate a set of fundamental principles to dictate how the Club is run. These principles – chief among them “tolerance and respect in mutual human relations” – ensures that support of the Club extends far beyond sporting success, which is probably why the Club is so widely renowned and respected.

FC St. Pauli supporters regard themselves as anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-homophobic and anti-sexist, and included in the Club’s principles is that the Club “owes its identity” to the “particular city district” from which it stems. This gives the Club “a social and political responsibility in relation to the district and the people who live there”. Beautiful.

The Millerntor then, is the shrine that represents the people of the district, and those who share the Club’s ideals. Graffiti and stickers adorn the walls, it’s rough around the edges, and not necessarily kept spick and span. I’d love to visit again with time up my sleeve to explore the venue in full – the stories the walls would tell. More Hyundai A-League clubs could look at this type of integration to tell their narrative, and reflect their fans – though until Clubs begin to start owning their own Stadiums, I won’t hold my breath.

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The way FC St. Pauli integrates its sponsors and partners, plus sells its merchandise, is also unique and innovative – undoubtedly the Club would have it no other way. Half a Mini sticks out near the scoreboard, while everything from toasters that burn the Club’s unofficial emblem of a skull and crossbones into bread, to tees and scarves are sold from modified yet purposeful shipping containers dotted around the precinct. At the game I am told FC St. Pauli, despite playing in the second division, have merchandise sales ranking third in Germany behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. I can’t verify this, but if the sheer range of products, and products changing hands in the Club shop and from the shipping containers is anything to go by, it could possibly be true.

The entertainment outside the Stadium? An authentic fan and his guitar singing FC St. Pauli songs in a mix of German, English and Spanish. An open-minded lad probably pushing 40, but with brown and black running through his veins. It’s beautiful, and could well be adopted here. The guy’s clearly a hero among his comrades. And, like many places I have been in Germany, and generally Europe, the attitude to sipping a cold beer – in this case an ‘Astra’ – just outside the gates is also liberal. It’s great, and makes for a party atmosphere even before you step inside the venue proper. The sun shines, and life is good.

FC St. Pauli’s matchday programme, the 16 page VIVA ST. PAULI, is printed in on rough newspaper. It’s distributed free, but fans can opt to drop some shrapnel in the distributor’s tins if they wish – the money re-invested into game day tifos. The design of VIVA ST. PAULI is clean and cooky – in a positive way – and ticks the boxes from a content perspective, balancing partner promotion, community chatter, and match information. Even with only limited German I can get the gist of the articles – if I was fluent it’d be better still.

So, if you’re in northern Germany between August and May, do yourself a favour and look up when FC St. Pauli will next be frequenting the Millerntor. You won’t regret the experience if you attend, nor will attending break your travel budget – tickets are very fairly priced. Plus, if you’re the type of supporter who loves to immerse yourself in all sorts of football fandom and culture, then you’ll find this particular visit immensely refreshing.

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Lessons From Lille…

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To become the best that you can be, it is imperative that you take the time to learn from, quiz, and gain experience from individuals and organisations that not only possess vast knowledge in your space, but can also demonstrate a track record of innovation and growth.

In August 2014, former Socceroos star Mile Sterjovski – a generous man who I worked alongside during his playing days at Central Coast Mariners FC – opened a door for me to visit one of France’s leading football clubs, LOSC (Lille Olympique Sporting Club). LOSC, based in the northern French city of Lille, are a regular contender for silverware in Ligue 1, routinely play in European competition (UEFA Champions or Europa League), and, importantly for me, have managed to grow their media and communication department from two to 12 full-time staff in just over a decade.

The man at the helm of Lille’s media and communication sector, or, to give him the title to which he’s due, LOSC’s Directeur de la Communication (Director of Communication), Aurélien Delespierre, has been involved in the growth, development, ups and downs of Les Dogues’ fortunes throughout this entire period. Indeed, when Aurélien first joined the Club LOSC had not long been promoted to Ligue 1 from Ligue 2, and were a relatively unfashionable Club in terms of French football. LOSC’s media and communications department ran on the smell of an oily rag. 

Fast-forward to 2014 and LOSC are among the key players in the French game. Even so, Aurélien admits that the gap between what his Club can offer in comparison with what the biggest ballers in the country Paris Saint-German can (both on and off the field) is widening. Still, with a huge and passionate fan base of local, national and international supporters to service and supply, I can’t help but be impressed by the way LOSC, Aurélien, and his welcoming staff – particularly Laëtitia Masson and Louise Degaudez – run their media operations, content, and comms.

So forget what you’ve heard about the French being arrogant – if my visit to LOSC is anything to go by nothing could be further from the truth!

I run into Aurélien outside the Stade Pierre-Mauroy – the 50,186 capacity structure oozing style on the outskirts of the city proper. It’s well before our scheduled time to meet, but Aurélien welcomes me in any case. He swiftly fetches my Access All Areas pass organised in advance by Louise, and ushers me into the Stadium. Just minutes after walking around on the stoned exterior of the Stadium taking in the fan culture and professionalism of the precinct, I’m striding down the tunnel of the considerable football cathedral home to the three time Ligue 1 winners. Give it another couple of minutes and I’m shaking hands with the Club’s respected Chairman, Michel Seydoux, and Manager, René Girard. Girard has walked from the change rooms to inspect the surface – it’s the first game of the season and today LOSC host FC Metz, an outfit promoted from Ligue 2 as Champions earlier this year.

But while the opportunity to meet (however briefly) Seydoux and Girard (men of considerable respect and repute in French football) is class, it’s not what I am there for. Thus, my attention turns back to my ‘job’ for the next few hours – studying LOSC’s processes from a media and communication perspective. You can’t get carried away in football, or things will pass you by pretty quickly – I’ve learnt that from some of the best in the Australian game.

It’s now that Aurélien formally introduces me to Laëtitia and Louise, two of LOSC’s key media and communication staff. Laetitia is a press relations officer, and, like me with Phil Moss and formerly Graham Arnold at the Mariners, enjoys a close relationship with Girard. She’s the primary link between the staff (football and management) and media, handles the majority of press requests, and, Aurélien says, “does the job of two people”. Louise is in charge of media communication, and it is her who controls many of the media operations that happen on game day. Louise is responsible for disseminating accurate details to the many journalists in attendance, handling accreditation requests and requirements, and making sure all the media sectors from a technical perspective are running smoothly. These are roles not foreign to me at the Mariners, but certainly the scope of interest and attendance from media at LOSC in Ligue 1 is different to what I’ve seen right around the Hyundai A-League, let alone just at Gosford’s idyllic bayside arena! It’s another level, and it’s intriguing.

Aurélien, a suave character who dresses stylishly and appears to know (and impressively have time for) everyone in the Stadium, takes the time to show me all the media areas. It’s an open book, so much so that post-match I am left able to cruise in and out of the post-match pressers, mixed zone, and tunnel. Post-game handshakes with the likes of Nigeria’s FIFA World Cup custodian Vincent Enyeama, Liverpool bound striker Divock Origi, and Danish defender Simon Kjær, will hopefully be recalled in old age.  

In the bowels of the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, LOSC TV base themselves in a small, yet useful room. Set up is an impressive backdrop, lit well by sidelights. Content captured by their cameramen is run back to the producers in the room, who store the files for future use. It’s here, too, that the big screens in the Stadium are manipulated, switching between live feeds and interviews on ground and around the Stadium pre-game, and pre-prepared content. There is an emphasis on the Club’s history – it’s fantastic. We’re starting to grow in the Hyundai A-League, so the onus is on the Club’s and Football Federation Australia to produce and document the greats, the moments, the good and the bad. Following the fixture, LOSC TV – a web only product – record interviews in the space in front of the backdrop, their full-time journalist conducting the chats before the impressive branding. The chats are uploaded across social and digital that night and the next day. Content is plentiful. 

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We also visit the post-match press conference room and mixed zone. They’re not necessarily different to what I’ve been exposed to before (particularly in Asia) but what they do scream is class and professionalism. I’m particularly impressed with the spaces of the Stadium – the design and pre-thought by the developers providing the Club with rooms of adequate size; spaces in which to work sans stress. In Australia, I find that all too often this is not the case. There are a few exceptions – particularly Stadium Australia in Sydney, and Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium – but Aurélien is blown away when I tell him about the teeny-tiny areas in which we operate in Gosford. This is constructive criticism, reality, and food for thought for future development of Stadia in Australia to assist the growth of the game. We’re not the only code that deals with these issues. 

Aurélien takes me up to the areas where the journalists work. Like any Stadium worth admiration, this area is outdoors, covered from any potential rain, yet exposed to the atmosphere provided by the supporters. Perfect. It’s also hooked up to wired Internet – something that isn’t necessarily valued in Stadiums around Australia, unfortunately. I’m full of questions, so it’s here that I bombard Aurélien with my queries as we lean over the railing and watch LOSC warm-up for the first time this Ligue 1 season.

Chief among my questions is how LOSC deals with the media itself. More or less, what emphasis does LOSC place on providing exclusivity to media? Aurélien gives me great insight into LOSC’s ‘Club first’ process, and the need to be the official source of information for fans. French and European football is, of course, very different to Australian football. It’s more developed, and the ability for a Club such as LOSC to provide far-reaching content and messages to its fans via its own mediums is stronger than ours at the Mariners. Nevertheless, the idea of being the first and foremost source of content and information appeals to me, and is something our Club at this stage in its growth cycle ought to balance with servicing the host broadcasters, and other media.

Having a bit of a penchant for matchday programmes, I am also interested in LOSC’s take on these. I learn that LOSC’s printing partner, newspaper METRONEWS, print a total of 50,000 programmes (theirs is called ‘Réservoir Dogues’) for distribution. 25,000 are handed out to the fans attending the Stade Pierre-Mauroy on game day, while 25,000 are issued inside the METRONEWS paper on the Friday before a home game. Superb. Pre-game programme delivery is a concept I’ve often thought about at the Mariners, and while approaches have been made to local media in regards to the distribution of our Club’s Kashiwa Reysol-inspired A3 sized publication known as ‘The Loose Cannon’, we’re yet to have that interest returned. I believe it’s a fantastic way to pre-promote a game, inform fans, and achieve more support for the Club, and, very importantly, the team. Hopefully it’s something we can achieve soon.

I listen attentively as Aurélien points out all his staff to me and explains their roles. He’s got a couple of dudes dedicated to social media, a match reporter, his LOSC TV crew and presenters, a snapper or two, Laëtitia and Louise, himself. It’s a well-oiled machine with unwavering focus – everyone knows their role and, crucially, gets the opportunity to stick to their task. This is what makes it work, and makes the content and experience exceedingly professional and rewarding for fans in the Stadium, to supporters following on Facebook, to the scribes scribbling away, to the neutrals who happen to peruse up a copy of Réservoir Dogues on their Friday morning commute.

Aurélien hooks me up to watch the game from the very comfortable surrounds of the corporate area. The game ends 0-0, and is a typically tough opening day tussle. LOSC’s stocky midfielder Florent Balmont – a servant of the Club since 2008, impresses me, as does attacker Nolan Roux when he enters the fray.

But my visit to the Stade Pierre-Mauroy was not necessarily about watching great players. It was about discovering for myself some of what Mile Sterjovski had told me in the two seasons I worked with him at the Mariners about LOSC. For those two seasons, Mile had spoken only glowingly about LOSC, and what I experienced reiterated his sentiments. A Club with class, backed by smarts, and full of good people working hard, together, towards common goals. A grand Club, and a Club from which plenty of lessons can be gleaned.