Held hostage - FFA reforms and the future of Australian football

There is, it seems, no other way: Australia will be suspended from FIFA unless those running the game in this country change their attitude, and change it fast.

Suspension would mean no Asian Cup defence for the Socceroos in January; no chance of the Matildas claiming a first FIFA Women’s World Cup in France next year; and no way Australia would host that tournament in 2023 (if it hasn’t already ruined its bid chances).

And all for what?

The battle to fix Australian football’s governance issues is not a Mexican standoff. Nor is it mutually assured destruction.

FIFA are the only one in this fight with the nuclear option of suspension at their disposal, and barring some unforeseeable plot-twist, it seems inevitable they will disendorse their Australian chapter, should the latest round of reform recommendations not be accepted.

Because if they aren’t running out patience, FIFA are certainly running out of options.

Since intervening two years ago, when they became increasingly concerned about the undemocratic fashion in which football in Australia was being run, FIFA have taken the softly, softly approach.

When negotiations reached a stalemate, they could have installed a normalisation committee to institute the reforms they saw fit.

Instead, they assembled a working group, headed by Judith Griggs, and tasked them with finding the best way forward. Call it normalisation-lite.

Rather than the detached international governance experts that would sit on a normalisation committee, the future of Australian football was put in the hands of eight locals with skin in the game: four representing the state football bodies; one from FIFA; two from the A-League clubs; and another from the players’ union (the PFA).

And their package of solutions is a good one.

It increases the size of the FFA Congress (the group which appoints the FFA board) from 10 to 29.

It spreads the voting weight more evenly amongst this cohort: the block of state federations, which currently controls 90 per cent of votes, has its collective voting weight reduced to 55 per cent - which is less than the 60 per cent needed to appoint members to the board.

That should mean an end to sham boardroom elections in which only those with links to sponsors get a seat at the table.

The working group’s findings also have gender equality as a cornerstone: on top of a special Women’s Council being granted 10 of the Congress’ 100 votes, each other member must be represented by one male and one female delegate.

And the proposed model allows for new voices to be given a say: special interest groups - such as those representing coaches, NPL clubs, fans and even Indigenous footballers - can get a place in the Congress should they meet the list of criteria that has been laid out in the findings.

All up, the proposal handed in to FIFA and currently awaiting their approval, moves the governance of Australian football towards the best practices of other national member associations.

Now, for it to come into effect, the reforms need to get the approval of at least eight of the current FFA Congress’ 10 members.

For it not to win that support would be illogical: yet here we are, with the smaller states - who are said to have become increasingly recalcitrant during the process - now putting their commitment to head office before the interests of the game.

In other words, the future of football is being held hostage by the likes of Football Federation Northern Territory, a region that has rarely produced a Socceroo, a Matilda, or an A-League player, which has barely a few thousand registered players, and which seems to do little to foster Indigenous footballing talent.

But it wouldn’t be football politics if the microstates were not having undue influence on proceedings.

Perhaps the only circuit breaker to this situation lies in the six pro-reform members in the Congress - the mainland states and the clubs’ representatives - engaging their rights to kick out members of the current board and replacing them.

It is something they have so far refrained from doing, preferring, they say, to work in a spirit of collegiality and good will.

But with these latest reforms the last chance to change the governance of the game in Australia on a cooperative basis, it may yet come to that.

And that would be disastrous for the Lowy family's legacy in the game.

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4 min read
Published 7 August 2018 at 12:00pm
By Jack Kerr