FFA takes eye off the ball as A-League’s honeymoon ends

by Ray Gatt for The Australian

It hasn't been a great couple of weeks for Australian soccer.

With the A-League five rounds into its sixth season, a new coach at the helm of the Socceroos and excitement and optimism building as we draw closer to a decision on Australia's bid to host the 2022 World Cup finals, the game in this country should be on a high.

Yet it is difficult to escape the feeling the sport is in crisis from Football Federation Australia to the Socceroos to the A-League.

The ugly public spat between Socceroo Harry Kewell and commentator and former teammate Robbie Slater, rumours of discontent among the Socceroos, A-League crowds falling at an alarming rate, Newcastle Jets in financial strife, concerns over the viability of Gold Coast United and other clubs and the FFA's disciplinary regulations coming under fire have conspired to put the blowtorch to the belly of the FFA.

Even the FFA cannot hide from its own internal problems with reports surfacing it was forced to instigate $5 million in cost-cutting measures recently. The head body appears to be melting like plastic under the intense heat.

It begs the question, where's the leadership? Where's chairman Frank Lowy? Where's chief executive Ben Buckley? Hello, is anyone home?

Lowy is in Europe for the Socceroos friendlies and The Australian understands Buckley left yesterday for a trip to China and is not likely to be back until Thursday. It seems an incredulous decision on Buckley's part when you consider the dramas going on, especially in the A-League.

It is difficult to see the NRL's David Gallop, the AFL's Andrew Demetriou or the ARU's John O'Neill being out of the country in such circumstances.

For all the arguments that, coming from a rugby union background, he knew nothing about the game, this would not have happened in O'Neill's days as boss cocky of FFA.

His corporate skills were a blessing for the game, but it was his ability to be out there, the face of the game in good and bad times, that made him such an asset.

It didn't matter whether O'Neill called a hastily arranged door stop or a full-blown media conference, television, radio and the written press flocked.

Clearly he was publicity savvy, an expert in getting the message out to the most important people - the fans and sponsors - either extolling the virtues of the game or putting out the spot fires before they turned nasty.

But O'Neill has long gone and, whether by design or by accident, the parameters have changed - and for the worse.

It is clear the FFA has taken its eye off the ball over the past 12 months in regards to the game in general. The World Cup finals in South Africa in June-July and the World Cup hosting bid consumed it at the expense of all else.

The events of the past fews weeks have done nothing to change that perception as we have lurched from one problem to the next.

This week is a case in point.

Issues like the A-League's falling attendances - figures are down by every measure, round-by-round average, total attendance and total average. Just 4100 turned up to watch new club Melbourne Heart play North Queensland Fury on Saturday night and Sydney FC drew its worst home crowd ever (7500) against Adelaide United on the same night. Then there is the financial drama at the Jets, who could go under this week. The players, staff and management are two weeks behind in wages and the FFA was forced to cough up $60,000 to ensure yesterday's game against Brisbane Roar went ahead.

By the time Buckley returns, he could be attending a funeral - that of the Jets.

But they are not the only club in trouble. The FFA already runs Adelaide and Fury and helped prop up Gold Coast last season. You wouldn't want to bet Gold Coast owner Clive Palmer will hang around next season.

The 10 clubs lost a combined $25 million last season.

Then there is the issue of expansion and the new western Sydney club that will become the A-League's 12th franchise.

Despite admitting it did not have the financial backing and insistence from the FFA that it would not financially support the club, Sydney Rovers was, after just several months of existence, given the 12th spot - amazingly leapfrogging four other bids that had each put in as much as 18 months work. But we have not heard a peek from the FFA. In this age of transparency, this is simply not good enough from the FFA.

When Lowy rode back in to the game as its shining knight seven or eight years ago, the sport rejoiced. For the first five or six years all involved in the game enjoyed the honeymoon.

These days our administrators are acting as if the honeymoon will never end and have become too comfortable, maybe taken things for granted.

They could do well to remember the words of Martin Luther King: "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."

It is time for the FFA to heed those words.

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