Round Ball Politics


After the Socceroos’ glorious draw with Croatia last Thursday morning, it took Australia’s top soccer executive, John O’Neill, just eight minutes to get himself on Alan Jones’s Radio 2GB morning show. Nearly drowned out by the noise of cheering fans echoing down the line from Stuttgart’s Gottlieb-Daimler-Stadion, O’Neill wanted to pay back some dues.

The very public mutual back-slapping began like this:

Jones: And from Stuttgart, John O’Neill, good morning.

O’Neill: Good morning Alan Jones. How are you?

Jones: [Laughs] Well, how do you feel?

O’Neill: Well, I just got off the phone to the Prime Minister, now I’m talking to you and that’s probably the order of events. But Alan what a night!

What a night and what a morning after. The exuberant conversation between Jones and O’Neill, Chief Executive of Football Federation Australia (FFA), revealed plenty about the way sports politics operates in Australia and who greases the wheels of the sports machine.

One of Jones’s many hats is being Deputy Chair of the Australian Sports Commission, a job gifted to him by his friend, Sports Minister Rod Kemp. And on Friday, O’Neill had 12 million reasons to be grateful to Jones.

Jones: What a night, hey!

O’Neill: You know, you’ve been associated with a lot of heroic sporting moments, but tonight I think was one of the great ones.

Jones: Absolutely.

And so the mutual admiration continued over Sydney’s breakfast airwaves while listeners tried to swallow their cornflakes. That morning, after Jones finished with O’Neill, he got Sports Commission CEO Mark Peters on the line. Jones reminisced about how he’d rescued soccer:

Jones: Frank Lowy said to me: ‘you must ring the Prime Minister, we need money.’ I said: ‘Frank you ring the Prime Minister.’ ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘that would ruin my friendship.’ I said: ‘Oh, you want to ruin mine?’

Mark Peters: [Laughs]

Jones: So I remember saying to the Prime Minister: $12 million. And he said: ‘How much!?’ And somehow or other the $12 million materialised in, what, a grant and a loan, no problems.

No problems! That’s how business is done in the world of sports politics. Name-dropping, cosy friendships, and deals done with taxpayers’ millions over private phone calls to the Prime Minister.

Jones told his listeners: ‘I have witnessed first hand what Mark Peters did, turning around soccer in this country, with terrific support from Sports Minister Rod Kemp, and amazing hostility from the Board of Soccer Australia at the time.’

In fact, Friday’s breakfast banter appears to be a bit of Jones braggadocio. According to the authoritative account of the period, sportswriter Ross Solly’s 2004 book, Shoot Out: Passion and Politics of Soccer’s Fight for Survival in Australia (Wiley Australia), it was Lowy who got the cash. Solly writes:

He told Kemp he wanted $15 million to do the job properly. This was a lot of money for a Government to shell out to one sport, but it had come too far to back out now. As a compromise, the Government asked that it have a member on the Board, to safeguard its investment. Lowy refused.

FFA chairman, Lowy, got his way. He got the money, consisting of $15 million over three years, a combination of a $9 million grant ($3 million a year) and a loan of $6 million. And he got a Board unencumbered by Government representation.

Notwithstanding Jones’s public grandstanding, Lowy is one of the two key figures in the revival of Australian soccer. The other is Melbourne businessman David Crawford, who was asked by the Howard Government in 2002 to chair a committee on the future of soccer, then in its bleakest hour. In the words of Solly: ‘No-one trusted anyone, most people had been compromised, and there were too many people more interested in "payback" than in charting a future for soccer.’

Crawford is a Melbourne insolvency specialist with an Aussie Rules background. He didn’t mince his words when he handed down his part of the Asian Football Confederation; removing it from the ‘Oceania’ ghetto it has languished in for decades.

Lowy began to weaken, and asked for assurances his time wasn’t going to be wasted. He wanted guarantees of ongoing government support. He wanted to be able to pick his own Board. And he wanted access to money, and lots of it, to get soccer out of its mess.

Lowy played hardball with the Government, threatening on a number of occasions to walk away, even late in the piece when Crawford thought he had his big fish onside. But each time, faced with the prospect of losing Lowy and his business cachet, the Government blinked.

Lowy got his money, and much of it has gone to developing a professional national competition — the A League — and lobbying successfully for Australia to be accepted.

The new national coach, Guus Hiddink, has taken his share, too: he received an estimated $AUD1 million bonus for guiding Australia to the final 16, before leaving the Socceroos to coach Russia for $US7 million.

Three decades ago, the economics of Australian soccer were less glamorous. Writes Ross Solly:

The campaign for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico was particularly gruelling for Australia with matches in South Korea, Mozambique, Israel and Sydney. And hours of flying time in between. At the end of the ultimately unsuccessful nine-match campaign the Australian Soccer Federation presented each player with a cheque for $13.27. The players were outraged, especially as many blamed the failure to qualify for 1970 on a poor preparation program.

The pre-Lowy Socceroos accepted their fate with typical Aussie gallows humour: they called themselves the ‘Rag-arse Rovers’ and continued to represent their country for love, not money.

The current crop of Socceroo silvertails fly at the pointy end of the plane, stay at the best hotels, and are less likely to accept the pauper treatment. For that they have Crawford, Lowy, O’Neill and yes Alan Jones to thank.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.