FFA put eggs in Fifa basket as Australian football descends into chaos once again

The process of thrashing out what change might look like illustrated neatly why such changes are required after a chaotic week of failed talks

It has been a defining week for Football Federation Australia chairman Steven Lowy, and following a hectic few days of negotiation, brinksmanship and ultimately failure, the outcome is not flattering.

The fate of football in this country now rests in the hands of Fifa and a potential normalisation committee after a delegation from Zurich oversaw an exhausting round of discussions with stakeholders but did not witness a resolution to the long-standing governance crisis.

Participants in the talks have indicated the major stumbling block was Lowy’s refusal to authorise a compromise deal. On two occasions most stakeholders were confident agreements had been reached but both were scuppered by 11th-hour interventions from the FFA chairman who convinced state and territory federation representatives to side with his view.

The ability for an elected director to strongarm congress members in this way strikes at the heart of why an overhaul of the body is necessary. The 10 FFA members are supposedly the game’s custodians. They are charged with overseeing the election of the FFA board, and in turn its chairman. According to FFA’s constitution the members are the “supreme electoral body of FFA and the supreme legislative body of FFA”.

Yet, as evidenced by this week’s manoeuvrings, with the exception of New South Wales, the states and territories appear collectively subservient to the board they are supposed to oversee. It is unclear how Lowy was able to convince the wavering members which way to side, but the inference from insiders is very much one of stick, not carrot.

FFA defended its chairman’s position, telling Fairfax Media, “It is entirely appropriate for the FFA board to share its view with the members and any other interested party as to what balance in the congress it believes is appropriate to ensure the interests of whole game are promoted. It is not right to suggest that the FFA board should not be actively involved in any debate about the company where they have been specifically tasked with acting in the best interests of it.”

Stakeholders believed Lowy’s official role in the formal negotiations was as a facilitator but became angry at what was perceived as overt coaching of the state and territory representatives. Such was the interference on one occasion it appears to have forced Fifa’s delegation to sideline the FFA chairman in a bid to foster productive dialogue. A-League clubs are especially furious at the two and a half hour side-meeting that Lowy conducted with state and territories after a compromise deal was brokered, a meeting that precipitated the breakdown of talks.

It begs the question why Lowy is proving so intransigent? Lowy asserted in his missive last week that: “We are involved for no other reason than to serve our country and see football continue to grow, prosper and build on the huge gains of the past 13 years and to honour the legacy of those who served the game for decades before that.” If that is the case, why has this fiasco been allowed to drag out for months only to end in such brinkmanship and make a Fifa intervention all-but inevitable despite stakeholders effectively resolving the situation twice?

There is a suggestion from inside the negotiations that Lowy now believes he can persuade Zurich to lobby for a preferred outcome in the time before a normalisation committee is implemented. But as previously mentioned, this is an administration seemingly without an agenda and lacking the funds to prosecute one if it did. All of this in an environment crying out for leadership and ambition.

The crisis is the product of FFA’s membership – its congress – being deemed unconstitutional by Fifa for representing only a narrow range of interests. Change is therefore mandated, unavoidable, and based on principles of good governance. With no little irony, the process of thrashing out what change might look like illustrated neatly why such changes are required.

The present congress is composed of the nine state and territory federations and one A-League representative (9-1). FFA proposed a 9-3-1 model with clubs gaining two extra votes and Professional Footballers Australia one. This was dismissed by Fifa as not going far enough.

A-League club owners and PFA put forward a 9-6-2 model which was rejected by FFA as it pushed a potential A-League/PFA bloc towards a size that would require only a minority of state and territory federations to align with it to obtain enough voting rights to force through their agenda. NSW, by far the largest state federation, is already out of alignment with the FFA board position.

All of which meant the purpose of the week was to find a middle ground between 9-3-1 and 9-6-2, with the threat of a normalisation committee hanging like the sword of Damocles over Whitlam Square.

It seemed agreement had been reached twice on a malleable 9-5-1 solution, a compromise supported by A-League clubs, PFA, and all state and territory federations to progress. On both occasions late persuasion from Lowy seems to have pulled the rug from under the deal.

The official response to talks gives little indication of the chaos that took place or is scheduled to follow. “A wide range of options has been robustly discussed over the past 48 hours,” Lowy said. “Everyone, including the FFA Board, A-League club owners, member federations and the PFA have shown willingness to move from their original positions and this has been noted by the Fifa/AFC delegation.

“FFA and the Fifa/AFC delegation have agreed not to make public comment on the details of these proposals while discussions continue. FFA is hopeful that an agreement can be reached to enable the necessary procedural changes to achieve an expanded congress by the end of November.”

The pitfalls of a denuded congress can be seen elsewhere with A-League clubs recommitting to pursuing FFA in court to force the disclosure of financial information that might ordinarily be presumed readily available. What is there to hide that they are prepared to go to such lengths to protect? Moreover, where has the oversight been from congress to allow such a toxic situation to fester – especially in light of Australia’s place in the uncomfortable Garcia report.

Adelaide United chairman Greg Griffin is leading this charge, writing to FFA recently: “Not only have these findings [the Garcia report] shamed Australian sport but it causes any fair minded person reason to doubt the integrity of the FFA accounting practices which are not disclosed to any member. Put simply I believe that unless I and any other interested member review the associated figures there can be no formal closure of the matter.”

This is an ugly unbecoming mess and under the current leadership there seems little chance of a positive resolution. The Fifa normalisation committee was originally feared for the uncertainty it represented. Perhaps it should now be viewed as the source of merciful relief?

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