Thanks to the ever increasing levels of coverage of the game globally, supporters have never enjoyed greater access to the world of football.
Innumerable media outlets report the latest results and rumours around the clock, while fan led content adds to the maelstrom, offering an unfiltered view via the medium of blogs and podcasts.
With the rise of social media, our sporting heroes now seem closer than ever. In the not too distant past, one could only dream of meeting the games biggest stars, but thanks to the likes of Twitter and Instagram, they are constantly available in the palm of our hands.
But off the park, elements of the footballing world remains mystery.
Fans will readily call for the heads of the board, criticise the commentary team or mull over what’s going on in the murky world of the football agents, but how much do we really know about these people, or the unseen work that they do behind closed doors?
In this new series, Kick360 aims to pull back the curtain for a brief glimpse in to what goes on behind the scenes in the beautiful game.
To kick things off, we headed straight to the top; sitting down with one of the A-League’s most experienced executives, Perth Glory CEO Tony Pignata, to get a better understanding of what exactly goes on in the boardroom.
Pignata started his career in the world of finance, working as an investment banker and in marketing for a number of major global institutions.
But as an Italian-Australian who grew up watching European football in the early hours with his father, a career in the sport was a dream come true.
“Being Italian, football was in my blood. I got in to administration after my investment banking days were over and headed up football in Victoria for three years, then the A-League started and an opportunity came to go to Wellington and help get them started as a new club, and I jumped at the opportunity.”
As the Phoenix’s inaugural Chief Executive Officer, Pignata had the task of building a team from scratch in the aftermath of the failure of the country’s original A-League side, the New Zealand Knights.
After helping to establish a stable A-League side across the ditch, Pignata returned to Australia where he has enjoyed successful spells at the helm of Sydney FC and Perth Glory, whom he helped secure their first piece of silverware in his first season in charge.
“I don’t coach the team, but what I try to do is drive them on and build that mentality. We don’t want to be just there and thereabouts, it’s about growing and pushing to the limits, pushing people to the point where they can reach success” Pignata said.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of people who are driven and want to succeed. For me, it’s about fuelling that success in everyone.”
“I’ve got a saying, sport is champagne and razorblades, there’s not much champagne and a lot of razorblades throughout a career, but when you have that opportunity, you drink that champagne.”
As CEO, Pignata is responsible for ensuring that all facets of the club, both on and off the field, are running smoothly.
“At the end of the day, everyone says the buck stops with the CEO and a lot of CEO’s have fallen on their sword over the years.
“We have to make sure both on and off the pitch work, we don’t pick a team, we don’t train a team, but we make sure things get done and that coaches are given every opportunity to be successful.”
“Our fans, our members, they just see the club for 90 minutes every weekend, but there’s a lot of people that work behind the scenes to get our players on the pitch. From our medical staff, our massage lady, our pilates instructor, our dietitian, memberships, marketing, commercial, we all work as one team and it doesn’t matter that Bruno Fornaroli scores the winning goal, there’s been a lot of people who have helped get that ball in the back of the net.
“It’s my role to make sure they all work in unison, so we all taste the champagne.”
While no two days are the same in the fast moving world of the football business, the Glory CEO attempted to give a brief outline of an average day in the office.
“I get up early 5am, 5:30. I’m an avid cyclist so I’ll go out and do a good 50,60k before work. Driving in, I think about what’s on for the day, and usually you get in to work and something changes.
“On a game week, it’s about making sure all our game-day activations, the marketing and sponsorship is all ticked off, and making sure Richie Garcia has everything he needs, making sure there’s no stresses for him or the players, so there role is just to go out and play. Just taking the pressure off.”
At the end of the season, while the playing staff get the chance to recover from the exertion of the past year, the hard work starts all over again for those in the front office.
“This is our busiest time.” Says Pignata, “We start July 1, our financial year.”
“We start with zero sponsors, zero members, everything has to start over. It’s all about signing new sponsors, signing new members, players moving on, re-signing players, out in the market recruiting, so it’s phone call conversations with agents, the football department, the commercial department, my marketing, my membership, making sure everything is ticking along, so that when the season does come, we’re ready”
All this hard work is part of a wider goal, one that Pignata is incredibly passionate about.
“For me, it’s about growing the game in Australia. We’re unique here in that we’ve got four major sporting codes that operate [in the same space]; Aussie rules, Rugby, NRL and us, all football codes. It’s about us driving our brand and our code.”
“It’s not easy, Aussie Rules and NRL are very dominant here, but we are carving our own niche, and our own place, and from a participation level, there is no bigger sport than our game and now we need to convince those playing to come and watch our game.
“We have a lot of people who love the game, love watching the Euros, the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, but they don’t enjoy coming to the A-League… Yes we’re not at that level, but we are live football, entertaining football, and it’s a great day out. “
“When the fan comes to a game, from the car park attendant right through to watching the game, [I want them] to enjoy every aspect of the game.”
In his world of ‘champagne and razorblades’, one of the most cutting things has been the impact the demands and sacrifices of the role has had on family life, one challenge that has only become harder in a Covid impacted world.
“For me, [the hardest thing is] not being with my family. They live in Melbourne and I’ve lived in Wellington, Sydney and Perth. Last year, when Covid hit and borders were shut and I couldn’t actually go and see my wife and children for six months.
“That was tough, Like anybody, when you get home from work you need an opportunity to take a break, have a chat with your wife, have a chat with your kids… All the other stuff is work. I deal with it, I’m the type of person that is calm and collected but on the outside I take it all in. If we have a loss on the weekend, I will walk in on Monday morning and be buoyant and positive about the next game because it’s important for staff to see that.”
Despite the long hours, the stresses and the strains, the highs that come with the role more than make up for it. Pignata insists he wouldn’t change a thing.
“From Wellington in ’07 to now, the A-League has been a big part of my life. We’ve gone through ups and downs… the highs of bringing Alessandro Del Piero to Sydney, selling out Westpac stadium for Wellington Phoenix, drawing more people than an All Blacks Wallabies Bledisloe Cup game. Winning the double with Sydney FC, and in Perth, winning the Premiers Plate and in five days selling out our Grand Final.
“I’ve been in this industry a long time, I love the job. It’s a pleasure working in the job, yeah there’s a lot of crap you’ve gotta deal with, but it’s a great job and I keep telling my staff and everyone who plays, we are lucky to be involved in a game we love.”
Image Supplied: Perth Glory