Governance structure and Its implication to soccer development

Recently, there had been a feud between the A League and Football Federation of Australia (FFA) over the governance structure of the National Council. The A League (the only other closed league in the world other than MLS) is claiming since it is generating most of the revenues for Football in Australia it should have a more powerful representation in the National Council. FIFA intervened and formed a Group (CRWG) to come up with proposals for the new governance structure of FFA. The report it produced has to be ratified by the National Council to be implemented. FFA Board strongly opposes the report claiming if the report is implemented it will be detrimental to grassroots soccer. If the proposal is not ratified by the extraordinary congress in September, then FIFA might intervene and even ban Australia from international soccer.

An American reader might ask what is so important about this news. Well, governance structure of soccer federations can either be detrimental in the development of the sport or it can be supportive. I will write about two soccer federations, namely Turkish FA and U.S. Soccer, and their governance structures that I know best and their implications to soccer development. 

Turkish MNT is ranked 38th in the World and 22nd in Europe. Turkish MNT participated in only two World Cups: 1954 and 2002. In 2002, it finished the World Cup in third place. (I should point out that qualifying for the World Cup from UEFA is not very easy.) The MNT also participated in the 1996, 2000, 2008 and 2016 Euros with the best performance of playing a semifinal in 2008. So Turkish MNT’s successes are very sporadic, cyclical and not sustainable. 

On the other hand, the Turkish Super League is ranked sixth (2016-2017) in revenue in Europe after the big five in Europe. Recently, BeIN started broadcasting Super League games in the USA. According to CIES, the Super League is the oldest (average age of 28.85) league in Europe. It has the least number of club-trained players (3.74%) in Europe and the second highest in the number of expatriate players (72.37%). According to Deloitte’s Money League published in 2018, there are no Super League clubs in the top 20 clubs in Europe based on their revenue. In the past years there had been one or two clubs (Galatasaray and Fenerbahce) in the top 20. On the sporting side, UEFA ranks Besiktas as 26th, Galatasaray as 51st and Fenerbahce as 61st in Europe based on UEFA coefficients. All the “big” three clubs – Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas – are under the threat of UEFA Financial Fair Play sanctions this year so they can only purchase/transfer if they sell/transfer players from their current roster. 

On the development side, Turkey is not one of the top 15 countries in the world that exports players. There are less than 10 Turkish players developed in Turkey playing in Europe. About one third of the Turkish MNT players are actually developed by German, French and other European youth development programs. On the other hand, the Turkish MNYTs are quite successful in Europe and in the world. The U-17 team won the European Championship in 1994 and 2005. The U-17 team finished fourth in the FIFA U-17 championship in 2005 and it played the quarterfinal in 2009. There are about 400,000 registered players approximately 60% of which are youth players. There is a fairy tale of Altinordu – a first division professional team – which has an incredible success story in youth development. This will be a topic of another article. “How to make money through youth development”.  The legendary English manager Howard Wilkinson told me in 2008 that if the youth development programs in Turkey are redesigned and supported by Turkish FA, Turkey can become the Brazil of Europe. 

So what does it all add up to? The Super League is the passage way to China and to the Gulf/Saudi clubs for older European players. Neither the Super League clubs nor the MNT show a sustainable development strategy, actually the Super League clubs are going downhill financially. The bottom line: Turkish clubs has slowed down in developing players and instead opted to import mostly older players from abroad.

You might ask why?  The answer lies in the governance model of the Turkish FA and the Clubs. Let us start with clubs’ governance model: Most if not all of the clubs are actually associations whose presidents and boards are elected for a three-year term by the members of the association. The presidents are not financially liable. They spend the money of the club without any personal risks. As a result, most if not all of the professional clubs are in the red. The sword of Damocles - UEFA Financial Fair Play -- is now over their heads. The Super League is actually run by the FA and the FA has done nothing to correct this situation. The Super League clubs want to run their own league but have not done much to that effect either.  One might ask why the Turkish FA doesn’t take the necessary measures and steps to put Turkish soccer back onto the correct trail. 

There you run into the second problem: The governance structure of the Turkish FA.  The General Assembly/National Council of the federation elect the president and the board. There are 302 members/delegates of the General Assembly, 251 (83%) of which represents the professional leagues. Super League is represented by 126 (42%) delegates. 400,000 amateur players (men/women and youth/adults) are represented by only 10 (3%) delegates. Professional players, coaches and referees are represented by 5 delegates each. Actually when the Turkish FA climbed up in the FIFA rankings in the 1990s the representation of professional clubs were lower about 65%. In Europe, you will not find a single Federation with such a high percentage of professional soccer representation in their General Assembly. For example in the FA, the council consists of 126 members of which only 12 represents the professional leagues. The highest percentage of professional league representation is in the Netherlands: 50%. 

When you have such a high percentage presentation of the professional leagues and such a low percentage for the amateur teams like in Turkey, then the professional leagues dominate the Federation. In order not to displease its constituents, the federation cannot take steps like standardizing youth development academies; since such steps are seen as a cost center by the myopic professional club administrations. Since very few of the clubs are owner-based, the non-owner based clubs (associations) just think about the current year and not beyond. So wrong club governance models coupled with wrong federation governance structure causes a country like Turkey which is full of talented players to stagnate in soccer. 

If you go across the Atlantic and come to the USA you have other governance structure issues. I will not repeat the facts about soccer in the USA, but one can see some similarities between Turkey and the USA. Both have the talent pool and the resources but cannot make the leap forward.

Let us have a look at the structure of the General Assembly/National Council of US Soccer.

National Council shares: 

Youth Council (25.8%)
Adult Council (25.8%)
Professional Council (25.8%)
Athletes Council (20%)
Miscellaneous (2.6%)

It looks like a balanced share between constituents. We owe the 20% share of the Athletes Council to the Stevens Amateur Sports Act.  If we compare the structure of the U.S. Soccer National Council to similar ones in Europe we see two major differences.

  1. The National Council does not represent two of the most important stakeholders of soccer namely the coaches and referee. 
  2. The National Council for amateur clubs is fragmented along adults and youth. They are further fragmented along state associations, US Club Soccer, and AYSO etc. There are historical reasons behind this fragmentation. It is worthless to argue about this fragmentation; instead we should concentrate on its consequences.  In Europe, there is more of a seamless flow between the youth, adult and professional clubs; hence they can focus on mutual interests. Every amateur club (men and women) in Europe has an adult team and youth teams. Each club usually has one team for each age group. Through promotion and relegation every amateur club has the potential of one day becoming a professional club if it meets the professional criteria.

Let us take an example from the USA. There is no doubt that promotion–relegation in the USA will increase the competition and enhance the quality of professional soccer. Also, it is a fact that especially MLS will not agree to promotion-relegation in the near or distant future. (MLS has approximately 16% of the votes in the National Council). If an administration decides to implement promotion–relegation in the USA, it might neither have the backing of the youth council nor the adult council. Neither one has any interest in the promotion-relegation system for the professional leagues with the current construct. Both councils have their primary interests in the numbers game fueled by the number of registered players -– namely, quantity. The only council that might have an interest in implementing promotion–relegation is the Athletes Council. The first thing to do is to create common/mutual interests for all councils. 

U.S. Soccer’s mission statement says: “To make soccer, in all its forms, a preeminent sport in the United States and continue the development of soccer at all recreational and competitive levels.”  According to Webster Dictionary the word “preeminent” means “having paramount rank, dignity, or importance”. If U.S. Soccer interprets preeminent sport in the USA as having more registered players than any other sport in the country, then this governance structure can one day serve that purpose. On the other hand if “having paramount rank, dignity or importance” means to be one of the best in the world for both USMNT and USWNT, then clearly having the most number of registered players will not serve that purpose alone.  Recent stories of Croatia MNT and Japan WNT are testimonials that quantity is not necessarily a prerequisite for quality.  All constituents must have the same primary interest in increasing the quality of soccer as well as the quantity in the USA. Right now, this does not seem to be the case. 

Both countries Turkey and the USA have similar problems: The international level of the MNTs does not reflect the potential talent pool and resources of both countries. One of the obstacles seems to be the governance structure. Changing the governance structure through a constitutional general assembly is one option, but that option at this point and time does not look very feasible. Both countries need smart and powerful leaders who can navigate around the current governance structures without alienating the constituents in order for the Federations to reach their full potentials. At least, I can see the positive signs of that in the new U.S. Soccer Presidency and administration. 

14 comments about "Governance structure and Its implication to soccer development".
  1. Wooden Ships, August 30, 2018 at 10:33 p.m.

    Always enjoy your work Ahmet, thank you. What is it specifically that gives you optimism with regard to our current USSF? 

  2. Ahmet Guvener replied, August 30, 2018 at 11 p.m.

    Carlos Cordeiro is trying to navigate around the obstacles that the councils have erected. Trying to convince them instead of mandating them.  

  3. s fatschel, August 30, 2018 at 10:43 p.m.

    The seemless flow between youth and adults happens at only a handful of ethnic clubs in the US that brought over the system from Europe.  A logical step for USSF would be u23 DA teams playing in USL D3 

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, August 31, 2018 at 8:45 p.m.

    Sorry but that makes no sense. The USSF does not create teams and does not create clubs. It makes up its own youth league by selecting from existing clubs in existing leagues that apply to join USSDA. Someone has to build clubs and teams, but that someone is not USSF and never has been. MLS reserve teams playing in USL D3 would be a step backward as they should be playing USL D2.  

  5. s fatschel replied, September 1, 2018 at 10:23 a.m.

    BA if it helps don't call it USL just call it DA-pro. IMHO, the USSF is the only organization that can make our leagues less fragmented, the issue raised in the article. USSF did this before by deciding not to cooperate and improve HS but rather start from scratch with the DA. Solving problems in the US will require more out of the box thinking from our leaders to make big changes.

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, September 1, 2018 at 11:41 a.m.

    Our managers walk around wearing cardboard boxes over their heads. USSF managers are typical and do not want change. Cordiero's election will be seen as a majority mandate for the comfortable status quo. 

    People form soccer clubs and teams because someone wants to play. People running clubs have different agendas. 

  7. Lynn Berling-manuel, August 31, 2018 at 11:29 a.m.

    Ahmet's articles are always interesting and thought provoking but just one correction on this one. United Soccer Coaches, the coaches association for the U.S., actually is a member of US Soccer and has a vote on the National Council.  We are the largest soccer coaches association in the world and have increasingly taken our position as advocates for U.S. coaches and the game very seriously. US Soccer has, unfortunately from our perspective, not always viewed coaches as an important constituency with a valuable voice, but instead as collateral to the process. We are working together to change that. We appreciate that Carlos Cordeiro and US Soccer staff have reached out. We don't always see things eye to eye (we ARE coaches!) but thank them for their effort.

  8. Ahmet Guvener replied, August 31, 2018 at 12:28 p.m.

    Thanks for the correctrion Lynn...
    But do you think being represented by a single vote at the National Council properly represents the soccer coaches of the USA who are one of the most important stakeholders of soccer. Fans are represented by two votes!

  9. frank schoon, August 31, 2018 at noon

    My head is smoking already trying to read this administrative gobblygook. This looks like a battle between the "Administrative" types in soccer which has become the "cottage industry" initself ,not adding one iota to improving kids techniques , and that is why were in the mess we're in.
    To compare Turkey with America having similar problems, I'm sure there are some intersections somewhere. But when I see a country like Turkey, a soccer country, with a much,much deeper soccer culture,history and experience, always being just second tier in Europe and not really producing the soccer , the players, the history and impact that another European country like Holland, tells me there is some more wrong than what meets the eye; and I don't think it will be fixed by some "administrative" fiat that "Administrative" types, so often, think can fix the problem....

  10. Bob Ashpole, August 31, 2018 at 8:53 p.m.

    Ahmet, interesting article. Apparently you are assuming that, how well organized and well managed a national federation is, predicts international competition success. If so, then why are so many nations having such different results between women's and men's national team programs. It is the same FA. 

    I certainly believe that some people are important to program success, but I don't believe it is the managers of the national federations. Simply put, they are too far removed from the game to be of influence.

  11. R2 Dad, September 1, 2018 at 2:49 a.m.

    I'm not entirely clear on why the Adult Council has such a large say, especially since unregistered adult players have exploded in this country so it appears unresponsive to the needs of the adult soccer community. From my perspective, Youth and Professional Councils should dominate the conversation because the future of the game depends on youth player development and the professional structures to enable that. Lastly, I know SA represents the interests of coaches, but coaches are not very objective and have turned ODP into a joke. Referees, who get zero respect and have zero say in player development, are actually the ones who see player performance and attitude up close in competitive situations, and could be a good resource if anyone cared a whit what they thought.

  12. Wooden Ships replied, September 1, 2018 at 8:57 a.m.

    R2, definitely agree with you on referees.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, September 1, 2018 at 11:31 a.m.

    R2, the problem with that type of thinking is that adult players are also officials, coaches, parents, and former youth players. There is a lot of overlap. Likewise the "youth" council are adults running the leagues. Amateur players have no representation. As for the professional council, out of 20-plus million players in the USA, a tiny insignificant amount are professional players. The number of professional clubs is also insignificant compared to the total number of clubs in the US. Why does the representation favor professional soccer? Because USSF and FIFA is focused on the business of soccer, not the sport as Ahmet points out.

    Participants in the game have little say in USSF's affairs.

  14. s fatschel replied, September 3, 2018 at 3:13 p.m.

    USSF needs to view soccer as primarily a social and health benefit to majority of participants, not just as an opportunity to make a buck like in MLS, USL.  Majority votes should go to grassroots.

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