Sharks circle Aussie FA chief

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(With Mike Tuckerman seeking pastures new, we welcome back FourFourTwo Australia launch editor Paul Hansford as our Aussie correspondent... – Ed.)

Like a pack of great whites circling a lone early-morning surfer, the Australian football press is smelling blood in the water. Their target: Football Federation Australia (FFA) CEO Ben Buckley.

As the national competition falters with dwindling crowds, club owners in revolt and several teams in dire financial straits, the Australian football chief is out in open water with the Jaws tune playing loudly in his ears.

The news dominating the Australian footballing press over the last few weeks is that the FFA have placed far too much time, effort and money into the bid to host the 2022 World Cup finals, while the domestic A-League has been left to flounder in a sea of empty seats, crippling debt and finger-pointing.

From a financial standpoint, table-topping Adelaide United are being propped up by the FFA, North Queensland Fury were revived from their deathbed over the summer and Sydney Rovers, the 12th expansion team hastily handed a licence over several more viable alternatives, look to have been given the elbow because they can’t raise enough capital. And less than three years after a Grand Final win, Newcastle Jets are sitting on the very edge of extinction too.

While journos and bloggers have been discussing these issues for some time, the waters were well and truly chummed last week by former A-League CEO Archie Fraser, who hit out at Buckley and the FFA for taking their eye off the ball when it came to the domestic game.

Fraser, who left his position at the FFA at the end of last season, told The World Game website “The only focus right now at the FFA is the World Cup bid and the A-League has been left to become a basket case.”

As Mike Tuckerman reported last week, Fraser soon trained his sights on his former boss: “I couldn't make any decisions, and no decisions were ever made until the last minute. Everything went through Ben Buckley.”

While most previous criticism of the FFA’s mishandling of the domestic competition had focused on the governing body itself, Fraser’s comments were the first time someone on the inside had named Buckley personally.

With moneybags FFA Chairman Frank Lowy maintaining a distance from the furore, preferring to make a few unspectacular comments to FourFourTwo Australia, Fraser’s outburst opened a floodgate of comment that has placed Buckley – a man who looks like a mix of George Clooney and Anthony Wiggle – firmly in the firing line.

Spot the difference: Buckley, Clooney, Wiggle

The Australian’s Ray Gatt wrote a scathing attack on the governing body and Buckley’s leadership, SBS’s Jesse Fink called for an ‘intervention’ by Lowy, and Robbie Slater – already causing a storm by saying national treasure Harry Kewell was "past it" – called Buckley "a faceless man who sits in his ivory tower firing out emails".

What no-one has explicitly written yet is a call for Buckley’s head over the entire mess, but it’s just a matter of time before the sharpened knives are given a thrust in his direction.

In Buckley’s defence, some of the problems the A-League is now facing are not of his making. It was the previous regime at College Street who locked the A-League into a sponsorship deal that severely limits the clubs from developing their own revenue streams.

With the league having a centralised kit, car, drinks and communications sponsor, individual clubs are prohibited from approaching competing companies to broker their own deals. So companies with a pedigree for their involvement in football like Ford, Vodafone and Adidas are locked out of the domestic game, while the clubs are reported to be losing up to $2.5million per year.

Buckley and Lowy glad-hand the AFC

One of the big issues is the TV deal with pay-TV giant Fox Sports. At the time it was rightly hailed as a vital lifeline to the Australian game, but it now looks archaic, locking tens of thousands of potential new fans out of the game.

Fox Sports are fiercely protective of their deal with the FFA and have resisted all calls to have one live game a week or a highlights package on free-to-air. Fox’s inability to see they might actually see an increase in subscriptions by allowing a bigger audience a taste of their product is as disappointing as Buckley’s reluctance to renegotiate the deal.

It doesn’t help that the 43-year-old former Aussie rules player suffers in comparison to his predecessor, the confident and headstrong John O’Neill. Joining the FFA in 2004, the former ARU chief helped launch the A-League and bring in Guus Hiddink to coach the Socceroos to the 2006 World Cup. While O’Neill would jump in front of a camera at the mere sniff of a crisis, Buckley only tends to emerge in response to issues.

What is ironic about the entire saga is that the quality of the football has improved every year and early signs in season six are that fans are in for the most hard-fought competition yet. The football has been exciting and some of the goals have been as good as you’d see anywhere in Europe. It’s just a shame that not enough people are going to the grounds to see it.

A great dribble and goal – click to watch

Ultimately, Ben Buckley will live or die as head of the FFA on FIFA’s December 2nd decision on who will host the 2022 World Cup. If Australia can win it, then it will buy him and the FFA time to right the ship. If they fail, then don’t expect Frank Lowy to pull a Roy Scheider and pick off the sharks circling around Buckley.

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