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The report this morning from The Australian’s Ray Gatt about the delegation from FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) who are visiting Australia next week to discuss changes to FFA’s Constitution is a big deal.


Let’s put aside for the time being the innate hilarity and hypocrisy of FIFA assuming that they’re qualified to lecture anyone on governance issues, the fact is there are Statutes in place to which FFA is expected to adhere as a ‘Member’ of FIFA.


Amongst other things, those Statutes include a definition of stakeholders which includes players, clubs and leagues (Definition 18) – interestingly, not fans, as #NewFIFANow has pointed out many times – as well as the principle of promotion and relegation (Article 9). FIFA Statutes also set out that any club or league is subordinate to the Member Association, ie. FFA, which means that it is entirely within FFA’s purview to set the parameters for the establishment of a separately administered A-League competition and/or promotion and relegation if they wanted to do so.


The issues are not new to FFA. FFA Board member Moya Dodd is familiar with them. She has been an FFA Board member for nine years, on the executive of the AFC for seven years and on the FIFA Executive for the past three years. The AFC has also raised the lack of promotion and relegation on multiple occasions as a significant barrier to an increase in the number of automatic places in the Asian Champions League.


So why are FIFA and AFC concerned with Australia?


It’s a fair question. On a scale of 1-211 of FIFA’s member associations, it’s unlikely that governance within the Australian game is anywhere near the top of the ‘problem pile’.


Granted, FIFA insiders confirm that several sets of eyebrows were raised in Zurich when Frank Lowy handed over the FFA chairmanship to his son Steven Lowy, but the real genesis of the summit next week dates back four years.


Remember the A-League ‘Strategic Committee’?


The committee was established in 2012 under the chairmanship of then deputy chair of FFA as a peace-making gesture to club owners who were unhappy about the state of the A-League at that time. It apparently didn’t achieve much.


Speak to any A-League club owner or CEO for a nanosecond, and they’ll give you a litany of grievances about the way the competition is being run by FFA and the implicit conflict of interest in them doing so. Off-the-record of course.


Their complaints are not a lot different from Frank Lowy’s when he famously folded his beloved Sydney City and declared a few days into the 1987 national soccer league (NSL) season – which was a mere ten years after the NSL’s establishment - that:


“I couldn’t get ahead personally. I had a certain vision for the game and I couldn’t bring it about. The game was in disarray with the leadership.  It was run by people who wanted to keep something for themselves and I wanted to make major changes.”


In other words, almost 30 years ago Lowy was a strong advocate for separation of the NSL from the governing body. In 2004, after he returned to the game, his hand-picked committee that looked at the formation of a new national league also recommended separation of the league’s administration from FFA. Lowy ignored their advice then; and FFA has ignored the regular cri-de-coeur of A-League owners ever since.


The rationale was sound in the early days of Lowy’s reign. It was argued that the fledgling A-League and the cash cow of Australian football, the Socceroos, should stay together to maximise the revenue opportunities from sponsors and broadcasters for the ‘whole of football’.


The issue is whether this is still necessary today


The A-League owners, and others who are familiar with the financial data, suggest that it isn’t. They suggest that not only is the A-League capable of being independent of the national body but the power balance within the relationship has shifted. In other words, FFA and its national team and development priorities needs the A-League more than the A-League needs the FFA.


What the parties want


As a minimum, the owners want more of a real input into what goes on in the A-League, but preferably a separate structure along the lines of the FA and the Premier League or the DFB and the Bundesliga.


What FFA wants is to maintain the status quo which they advance as ‘best practice’, of unique relevance to the Australian sporting landscape and essential at “a critical time for the future of the game, particularly in relation to the new broadcast deal.”


What FIFA and AFC want is greater input into the professional game by the clubs and the players, as well as promotion and relegation.


Maybe.


Three other factors upset the balance in the FFA/A-League clubs relationship


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.


First, there are the Bakries. While they annoy the hell out of Brisbane Roar supporters (and perhaps players and FFA), the fact is they have deep connections in the AFC and FIFA.


Second, there are the owners of Melbourne City, the City Football Group. The Group also owns Manchester City, New York City and have a significant share in Yokohama Marinos. Almost two years ago the City Football Group were concerned enough about the A-League model to invite all club owners to Abu Dhabi for a strategy pow-wow at the time of the Abu Dhabi F1.


Third, there is the new owner of Newcastle Jets, the Ledman Group.


The City Football Group and the Ledman Group’s owner, Martin Lee, share a connection.


China Media Capital (CMC) has a 13% ($400 million) share of the City Football Group. Both CMC (5%) and Lee (3.5%) have a joint shareholding in Infront Sports.


Does that name ring a bell?


Infront Sports is the company headed by Sepp Blatter’s nephew Philippe, which was acquired by Dalian Wanda last year for $1.2 billion. Philippe Blatter is head of Wanda Sports.


In March this year, Dalian Wanda was named as one of FIFA’s premium sponsors - negotiated between Sepp Blatter and Philippe Blatter before Gianni Infantino was elected FIFA President - in a deal that is worth around $100 million a year.


Wanda owns media rights to FIFA and FIFA Films, Russia 2018, Serie A, Serie B, Ligue 1, the DFB’s competitions (not the Bundesliga), AC Milan and Inter Milan. Recently, they floated the idea of a rival to UEFA’s Champions League competition which is causing a major split in UEFA that is likely to have an impact on their Presidential election tomorrow. 


For the game, for the world? Really?


As FFA and its key stakeholders (other than fans of course!) meet with FIFA and the AFC next week, the key questions they need to be satisfied on are:


  • What is in the best interests of Australian football overall?
  • Would a separate A-League administration be willing to step-in if/when the next A-League club goes under?
  • Would they fund expansion?
  • Would they fund promotion and relegation?


Let’s go into it with eyes wide open. FIFA and AFC Statutes may be the rationale for the meeting. The real reason is likely to be something much bigger. 


Categories: Analysis | Football Business

fifa, ffa, afc, a-league, governance

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