While Australia narrowly avoided the embarrassment of FIFA taking over the running of the game in the country, all is still not well
FIFA is well-known as a hotbed of corruption, ineptitude, and sexism. Not exactly a beacon of competent and effective governance in the soccer world. Imagine then that things were in such a state that FIFA was considering taking control of soccer in your country, and that this prospect was seen as a good idea. No I’m not talking about the controversial reign of outgoing US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati or the failure of the US men’s national team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Instead, I’m talking about Australia, and the ongoing dispute between Football Federation Australia (FFA) and those demanding change to the game’s governance in the country.
At the heart of the crisis is a push, led by A-League clubs and the players’ union, to make the FFA Congress more democratic, giving greater representation to clubs, players, and the women’s game. FIFA, too, has demanded a more inclusive and representative congress. All FIFA members are obliged to observe the FIFA statutes, with statute 15 (j) stating that “legislative bodies must be constituted in accordance with the principles of representative democracy and taking into account the importance of gender equality in football.” The Australian one is reportedly the smallest and least representative of FIFA’s 211 members. Under exceptional circumstances, FIFA has the power to remove the executive bodies of member associations and replace them with a normalization committee, effectively taking control of the sport in that country.
The current congress in Australia is made up of just the nine member federations of FFA and one A-League representative. While FFA is not opposed to expanding the membership, the other stakeholders feel that it has not been willing to go far enough. Following previous failed attempts to broker a solution, FIFA had set a deadline of 30 November for changes to be agreed. There was even speculation that the place of the Australian men’s national team in the 2018 World Cup or Australia’s bid to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup might be in jeopardy if the dispute was not resolved. When the relevant stakeholders again failed to reach an agreement by the FIFA-imposed deadline, the matter was referred back to FIFA’s Member Associations Committee to review the situation and decide what action to take.
The situation had escalated to such an extent that at the beginning of December it was expected that FIFA was going step in, sack the FFA board, and take control of soccer in Australia through a normalization committee until the dispute is resolved. In 2016, FIFA introduced normalization committees in Argentina, Guinea, and Greece. The under-fire head of the game’s governing body in Australia, Steven Lowy, commented at the time that it would be a “very sad day” if FIFA took over and it would have a negative impact on the reputation of the game in the country. What is sad, however, is that mismanagement by FFA and Lowy allowed the crisis to go on for so long that, as one Guardian Australia headline put it on the eve of the Member Associations Committee meeting: “It is is in football’s best interests for Fifa to intervene in FFA crisis.”
In the end FIFA opted for a less radical intervention than the normalization committee. Instead, it decided to allow for the establishment of a congress review working group. A joint FIFA and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) mission is set to visit Australia early next year to meet with FFA and the stakeholders—the FFA member federations, A-League clubs, and the players’ union—as well as other relevant parties including the Association of Australian Football Clubs in order to help define the working group’s objective, composition, mandate, and timeline.
While avoiding the imposition of the normalization committee was a win for Lowy, it should not be read as anything more than a temporary reprieve. It remains to be seen how, if at all, this issue will be resolved or whether further intervention from FIFA may be necessary. The FIFA/AFC mission, however, does give FFA, Lowy, and the key stakeholders yet another opportunity to come to a negotiated solution that it is in the best interests of Australian soccer as a whole. At play are a number of motives, including reluctance on the part of FFA and its member federations to relinquish too much power, a desire on the part of A-League clubs for a bigger say and a bigger cut of FFA revenue (the clubs are also pushing for an independent league), and a push to give representation to players and the women’s game.
All involved would do well to seize this chance and resolve the messy, almost two-year long saga as soon as possible, allowing everyone to move on. Instead of infighting, Australian soccer should be celebrating recent successes including the men’s national team qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, the women’s national team entering the top five in the FIFA rankings for the first time ever, and the wider growth of the women’s game.
Follow Aubrey on Twitter @AubBloomfield.