Sunday, April 16, 2006

NZ Knights FC given reprieve by FFA's A-League

Brian Katzen, a London-based South African, is making a name for himself in owning football clubs that, so to speak, cross frontiers. Qualified as a Chartered Accountant with a Bachelors and Masters degree in Finance and Accounting, Katzen, spent four years working public accounting firms, then ten years working in the finance areas of manufacturing and distribution companies (specializing in seasonal companies and in working through successful turnaround situations) before co-founding Octagon Holdings in 1997, "a highly diversified international private equity firm that focus's on businesses that have a particular niche within an industry and that are poised for significant growth and expansion".

Among the ventures he's nursed back to health is the Swansea Football Club, which is based in the second largest city of Wales but plays in the neighbouring English Football League. In the space of four years the club has returned to the English Football League's Division 1 and is fighting for promotion to the Championship. "They've also built a new 20,000-seat stadium and crowds have increased from 3000 to an average of 14,000," noted Michael Brown in the New Zealand Herald.

Katzen's other football investment, the New Zealand Knights, is an even more interesting venture. The Knights, play in Football Federation Australia's professional 8-team Hyundai A-League, a competition not only in a neighbouring country ... but also in a neighboring continental zone - the Asian Football Confederation rather than New Zealand's home Oceania Football Confederation.

The question as to whether the Knights are an Australian club playing in NZ or vice versa may have to be determined if the club ever wins the A-League Championship or Premiership and qualifies for the AFC's Champion's League.

At the moment this seems a long way off as the Knights were the A-League's worst performing franchise - in terms of on field performance, crowds and marketing - in its inaugural season. In March, FFA Operations Director, Matt Carroll commented, "New Zealand is a concern".

This week the Knights concluded a round of discussions with FFA and New Zealand Soccer regarding the club's plans for the 2006-07 A-League season. Meetings were attended by Carroll, Katzen, Knights CEO Steve O'Hara and New Zealand Soccer CEO, Graham Seatter.

"Discussions over the past few days have proved fruitful in forging a partnership between the New Zealand Knights and New Zealand Soccer. There is still much work to be done but the club is aware of this. We will continue to monitor the Knights developments, just as we do with all A-League clubs. Overall, I am pleased that progress is being made," Carroll said.

Graham Seatter is also committed to supporting the Knights and sees a bright future for the franchise. "We echo our comments of recent weeks and months that New Zealand Soccer is committed to supporting the Knights and helping them succeed in the A-League. The meetings have proved beneficial in that respect as we explore all opportunities to build on the relationship and help develop the game in New Zealand," he said.

In the FFA press release, Katzen added that he was pleased with the outcome of the two days discussions and reaffirmed his commitment to the club before he headed away to spend the Easter break with his parents who live in New Zealand. "The FFA and New Zealand Soccer have both been very helpful in our discussions and will continue to provide great support and advice to the Knights. We are very clear in our aspirations and goals for the new season and beyond and have a dedicated team of staff, coaches and players working hard to ensure a successful future," he said, officially.

However, he also told Michael Brown that his goal was "to push to win the league every year because we are not doing it for fun, you know. We're here to make money, otherwise I wouldn't be around."

He also emphasised he wouldn't panic about the loss of $3 million last season as "everything is a long ride. It takes years to get things right because in business, you have to invest for the long term, otherwise it doesn't make sense. If you want a quick fix, it's like gambling. [What happened] last year makes me feel even more strongly about getting it right. It makes me want to prove to myself and other people that we can make it in a rugby-mad culture."

Katzen admitted to Brown that he probably didn't take enough of an active role last year and has already become more involved this time around to get things right.

UPDATE (9 May)

New Zealand Knights chief executive Steve O'Hara has been axed after just seven months in the job follows the resignation of manager John Adshead last month while board member Chris Turner has also quit the club, citing the growing influence of the FFA. "It came out of left-field and its taken me the whole weekend to recover, I'm very upset," O'Hara told Martyn Watterson. "I was rung by the chairman (Anthony Lee) and told the FFA said, if they were going to have continued involvement, they didn't want me to be in place. (Majority owner) Brian Katzen has obviously accepted that, or agreed with it and so that's how it came about."

He said it was more beneficial to have New Zealand interests backing the Knights, who finished with the wooden spoon last year. "In hindsight, what I should have done is everything I could to have the club 100 percent New Zealand owned. New Zealand investors will be resident here and will understand what's going on, whereas (UK based) Brian Katzen is 12,000 miles away. I believe that's not in the best interests of football because you need to be here to understand what's going on."

UPDATE (12 May)

FFA head of operations Matt Carroll has confirmed New Zealand Knights will not be able to use the A-League as a launching pad for playing on the world stage - even if they win the championship. From next season, two A-League clubs will qualify for the Asian Champions League, with the winner of the ACL going on to play in the lucrative FIFA Club World Championships.

"This is a new problem for the AFC [Asian Football Confederation] because New Zealand is, of course, a member of Oceania, whereas Australia is a member of Asia," Carroll told Michael Cockerill of the Sydney Morning Herald. "So are the Knights a New Zealand club playing in Australia or an Australian club resident in New Zealand? Their players are registered to us [Football Federation Australia] but I don't think either FIFA or the AFC are inclined to see it that way.

"We are now talking to Soccer New Zealand about a solution. If the Knights were given a place in the Oceania play-offs, I would imagine they would have a great chance of qualifying for the Club World Championships.Given that all the other clubs in Oceania are basically amateur, I would suggest that having the Knights playing regularly in the CWC would be the best way of branding New Zealand football on the world stage."

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