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It may not be long since FIFA itself was rocked by scandal, but now soccer’s world governing body is in Australia to push through reforms to Football Federation Australia. By Jack Kerr.

FIFA pushes for Football Federation Australia reform

Football Federation Australia top brass found themselves in rare company in Sydney this week, with a delegation from one of the most corrupt organisations to ever put on a sporting event here to lecture them on good governance.

There are ever-so-slight breezes of reform blowing through FIFA these days, thanks to last year’s intervention by the FBI. But the management of Australian soccer has been raising eyebrows in Zurich since even before the world game’s disgraced leader, Sepp Blatter, was finally forced into resignation. In March last year, FIFA found Football Federation Australia to be in repeated breach of the standards statute, the document outlining governance and democratic requirements for the sport’s national federations. Members of the FIFA administration were so concerned they flew out from their Zurich headquarters for two days of meetings, specifically so they could restate their decision and demand the necessary reforms be made.

Chief among their long list of concerns was the lack of democratic process in the Australian federation. Despite regulations to the contrary, soccer players, clubs and other stakeholders have been frozen out of the running of the game, or given minimal say at best. Instead, the subordinate state bodies control all but one vote at annual general meetings.

As unlikely as it may seem, FIFA has been working to improve the governance of its 211 national federations in recent years. Even China and Saudi Arabia have been brought to heel. Australia, however, has proven less amenable. 

One FIFA insider said Australia’s refusal to co-operate with FIFA’s demands put it on a par with North Korea, and said its ongoing resistance meant there was a very real prospect it could be suspended from world football. This comes as Ange Postecoglou’s squad is preparing for the most crucial phase of its 2018 World Cup qualification.

FFA’s current structure is born of a good place. It’s the product of 2003’s Crawford report, the inquiry that led to the dissolution of the old Soccer Australia – a body riddled with conflicts and drained of money – and the creation of the shiny and new Football Federation Australia. There’s no doubt it has served the local game relatively well over the past decade, as evidenced by the rising fortunes of the Matildas, the Socceroos and the A-League.

But the honeymoon came to an end for founding chairman Frank Lowy as details of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding scandals came to light. Lowy was replaced by his son, Steven, shortly before last November’s annual general meeting.

FIFA had originally told FFA to implement the necessary reforms in time for the AGM vote. Instead, a headhunting firm was brought in and rejected the bona fides of alternative candidates for the board put forward by the state bodies.

“The current FFA board is no less ‘stacked’ than the former Soccer Australia board was,” says whistleblower and #NewFIFANow activist Bonita Mersiades. “It’s simply stacked another way.”

It certainly appears that way to those watching from Zurich. Talks of reform were to restart in April this year, and FIFA requested meetings be arranged with the players’ union and club owners. FFA chief executive David Gallop baulked at such suggestions, however. In a letter seen by The Saturday Paper, dated April 11, he requested FIFA put off meeting with the very parties it wanted to give voice to until a later, unspecified date.

Of major concern to Gallop was how any reforms might upset the negotiation of a new television broadcasting deal. “The importance of getting this negotiation process right and ensuring we secure the best deal for the sport cannot be overstated… The environment in which we conduct our broadcast marketing and negotiations needs to be optimal.” Later, he argued that for FIFA to meet with players and clubs constituted “an unacceptable risk”.

“What is also critical to appreciate about our governance model is that the A-League clubs in Australia are not ‘clubs’ in the more traditional European or South American sense. They are all privately owned … and as such are ‘for-profit’ entities whose objective … is to act in the interests of their shareholders (and in doing so build the sales value of their asset) and not act in the interests of the game of football in Australia as a whole.”

FIFA’s acting general secretary, Markus Kattner, responded from Zurich that “FIFA and the AFC [Asian Football Confederation] are surprised that FFA would attempt to further delay the implementation” of the required governance reforms.

He reminded Gallop that November’s elections had been allowed to proceed “in good faith and on an exceptional basis” – but that there was an understanding reforms would be carried out as soon as possible afterwards.

Suggestions that dealing with stakeholders was bad for business were rejected emphatically. “In our experience, such a dialogue is in no way detrimental to the stability of national football. In fact, it stimulates development and stability. Moreover, FIFA and AFC cannot treat FFA in a more favourable way than other AFC member associations.”

The nightmare scenario for FFA is that when the clubs have a stronger voice, they will demand the A-League be run independently, as the leagues of England and Germany are. While not exactly a cash cow, the A-League does, by some accounts, generate 80 per cent of FFA’s revenue.

And thanks to the A-League’s success, FFA is dealing with the types of cashed-up and connected owners that Australian sport has never known before. Melbourne City is pumped up on petrodollars straight out of the Gulf. Brisbane Roar is owned by Indonesia’s elite Bakrie family. The Newcastle Jets were recently acquired by a Chinese technology company valued at $1.6 billion.

“The A-League has three owners whose combined wealth, and influence within FIFA and the AFC, are beyond anything FFA has encountered amongst A-League owners previously,” Mersiades posted online last week.

But it’s not just clubs expecting a voice. “[The standards statute] requires that member associations are effectively representative democracies,” said John Didulica, head of the players’ union, before this week’s meetings. “From our perspective, players are a fundamental part of the matrix within the sport. So it stands to reason that the players have a really important role within that representative democracy.”

#NewFIFANow would also like to see fans represented. “Fans are the biggest stakeholder in the sport, who choose to spend their money on being an active fan, and should have a mechanism for real involvement,” Mersiades says.

It’s not thought fans have such representation anywhere in the world. However, in countries such as Spain and Germany, where clubs such as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are member-run, fans do indirectly have a voice.

Some of FIFA’s original concerns have already been addressed, and further changes were agreed upon in Sydney this week, with more stakeholders to be given a say. Whether that will see the elite clubs given greater voice – they currently share between them the same voting rights as Football Northern Territory does – is yet to be determined, FFA says.

“When I was elected chairman of FFA in November last year I said that football was moving from its foundation stage to a new phase of growth and evolution,” said Stephen Lowy after the meeting. “We can and we should consider changes that give all stakeholders the best chance to achieve their potential.

“At the same time, FFA stressed at all the meetings that the future success of the game depends upon a disciplined and stable governance structure that serves the interests of the game overall.”

“In broad terms, the game has taken some great leaps forward,” said Didulica. “[This week’s meetings were] a timely opportunity, 13 years on from Crawford, to revisit the model that was implemented … and see how we can set the game up to take another step forward.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 24, 2016 as "Tackling FFA". Subscribe here.

Jack Kerr
is a journalist and documentary maker.

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