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Ten years ago the phoney code war went ballistic

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3 days ago
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Ten years ago, November and December 2009, was an interesting time in Australian sport.

Last year I reviewed 2008, when the FFA had announced its intention to bid to host the FIFA World Cup.

It very marked the start of a phoney war, with the various belligerents threatening but keeping their powder dry. So a decade on let’s revisit how 2009 played out.

A brief summary so far. February 2008 and the FFA unveiled their preliminary World Cup bid, but signs of what was to come were visible.

Australia is an intricate sporting market for a relatively small population. AFL journalist Caroline Wilson forecast that the FFA bid would hasten AFL’s move on Sydney, and time shows that perhaps she was correct. In Sydney, Jacquelin Magnay in the Sydney Morning Herald reported the FFA would meet with rival codes, which foreshadowed what we all knew: that the FFA would need to step on some toes to get it done or work hand in hand with other codes.

Another SMH journo, the late Michael Cockerill, celebrated that the FFA had “[found] a powerful friend, and rivals are quaking in their boots”.

There were more factors at play. The global financial crisis struck in 2008 and suddenly the economics of sport and new stadia projects was questioned. $45 million from the federal government became a significant sum.

However, 2008 was closed out with Cockerill reporting in an article headed “Can Australia really host the 2018 World Cup?” in which he suggested after initial discussions with other codes “the feedback we’ve got so far has been nothing but positive”.

And so onto 2009 and some of the key dates for the FFA.
March 2009: An official lodgement of intention to bid.
June 2009: FFA official launch of the bid.
December 2009: Binding bid agreement to be delivered to FIFA by 11 December.
May 2010: Lodgement of official ‘bid book’
December 2010: The final vote

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As with 2008, the year the global financial crisis hit, much discussion in 2009 was around the finances and who would carry the burden. The states didn’t want to do the heavy lifting.

Tim Cahill celebrates scoring a goal

(Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

On the surface Australia would have to provide a bid, including a minimum of 12 stadia with at least two holding 80,000 fans and ten other holding a minimum of 45,000. Then there were also the training facilities for 32 teams and five-star accommodation in each host city for a minimum of four teams plus FIFA and match officials. The timeline was tight with a tick under 11 months to pull together the bid book.

The irony of what played out late in 2009 was that it was perhaps little more than a whole lot of chest-beating. It brought out the rats, that’s for sure. People bobbed up with two cents or more to contribute their opinions and, alas, much of the ‘factual’ basis was lost, glossed over or completely misrepresented.

So the year rolled on. Frank Lowy and Ben Buckley delivered their bid to Zurich in March and launched it locally at Parliament House in June. It wasn’t until October that the general public gained some insight to the possible realities of hosting the event.

23 October: Michael Lynch reports “Rival codes face two-month Cup shutdown”.
26 October: Michael Cockerill, “The $2b football bandwagon is big enough to even give dinosaurs a lift”.

These opening salvos introduced the general public to the level of control FIFA might exert. It must be remembered that this wasn’t fearmongering by AFL or NRL officials or journalists; these were two of the more respected football journalists in the country.

Sadly, Cockerill in particular had already made some factual blunders. A common narrative was a complaint of greater funding for other sports and a desire for football to benefit via tangible legacy not shared with others. The reason I detail this one example is to illustrate some of the Sydney-centric ignorance of the actual lay of the land in Melbourne.

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Cockerill complained the AFL had received $77 million from the federal government towards the MCG rebuild, which was wrong on two fronts. Firstly, that money was from the Victorian state government and was less than 15 per cent of the total $576 million for the entire rebuild of the MCG over a 15-year time frame.

His second error was to move onto cricket and their benefit from works on the then SACA-controlled Adelaide Oval and the SCG. Ironically he failed to acknowledge the MCG is run by the Melbourne Cricket Club, not the AFL. There were other misrepresentations and ill-informed assertion. A rocky start.

Still, though, it was mostly quiet. Another couple of weeks passed by.

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14 November: Jacquelin Magnay reported that some NRL clubs would be put at risk by the World Cup bid, opening with “Rugby league officials fear the federal government will introduce legislation to ban the State of Origin and other big matches for two months, threatening the future of several clubs”.

NRL chief operations manager at the time, Graham Annesley, was reported to have told a conference of Leagues Clubs Australia that the future of several clubs was in danger if even a few matches were suspended or moved from their supporter heartlands.

This article also made mention of former Qantas chief Geoff Dixon to head a steering committee to try to bring the ‘warring’ state governments together. The post-GFC era made economics a sticking point.

It seems somewhat strange looking back that this article didn’t stir the pot more than it did. Was it perhaps planting the seeds of what was to come?

19 November: Jon Ralph’s Herald Sun article “World Cup loses its cheer” was the first we heard from the AFL.

It’s important to note that, at this time, AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou was absent after the birth of his son. It was left to AFL Commission chief Mike Fitzpatrick and then COO Gillon McLachlan to brief AFL club officials, who were shocked by the possible extent of interference to the AFL calendar. It was suggested the MCG could be out of action for not just the eight weeks of the tournament but a possible for a month-long preparation process. A loss of 12 weeks was clearly untenable.

At that time, the club officials were told the AFL would respond publicly the following week. Ralph reported that the “AFL believes its best tactic is to support the World Cup in principle, but clearly it would be a logistical nightmare.”

“In contrast, NRL chief executive David Gallop has described a mid-season shutdown as ‘unworkable’.”

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Ball hits the back of the net as Chile score against Australia.

(Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

20 November: Caroline Wilson, in an article headed “AFL seeks compensation for World Cup disruption”, introduced the notion of compensation and also indicated that AFL officials had only recently received details.

24 November: The AFL forwarded a letter with nine key questions to the FFA. This is important. Up to this point the AFL had yet to go public. The NRL had made some comments, and both codes were briefing internal stakeholders.

2 December: The FFA unveiled a glossy 16-page ‘credentials book’ along with a five-minute promotional film presented and narrated by Nicole Kidman for the ‘no worries’ World Cup. This included Melbourne’s Docklands Stadium as part of the package. This too is important.

7 December: This proved to be a day to live in infamy.

First, the ABC published a story headed “NRL rejects FFA World Cup proposal”. Well, no, not quite. That wasn’t the story that went ballistic.

Michael Warner wrote in the Herald Sun that the AFL was fuming over the FFA’s World Cup demands. Andrew Demetriou was back at work and ironically this was all now headline-grabbing news. He did come out swinging regarding a potential option of a $130 million reconfiguring of the MCG that might put the venue out of AFL considerations for up to four months.

Football generic

(Gene Sweeney Jr/Getty Images)

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Docklands had already been put up by the FFA, including in the December second video and booklet, and the venue hosted visiting journalists, all of which went against the understanding the AFL believed to have been established 12 months prior. Warner reported a growing frustration with the lack of transparency of the FFA processes and a seeming lack of respect. That was it: the battle lines had been set and the war had begun in earnest.

Docklands at the time was made to be the stumbling block. Why? Apparently because of a prohibitive cost of around $150 million to upgrade the supposedly ‘futureproofed’ Swan Street rectangular stadium to World Cup capacity.

And the elephant in the room, as mentioned by Magnay back in November, was the threat of government legislation. This came up again and again during the week. However, in Victoria the state government had no control over the privately run Docklands Stadium. They did over the MCG.

The AFL had a 25-year binding contract with Docklands Stadium that would culminate with the league assuming ownership – lock, stock and barrel come 2025. The reality is – and this has since panned out – the AFL were always planning to take ownership earlier. The AFL knew by 2022 the venue would be theirs and perhaps by 2018. Remember that the AFL offices are based at the stadium.

The general AFL uncertainty is illustrated by these two of the nine questions put to the FFA on 24 November and not subsequently answered satisfactorily, as published by the ABC:

  • Is FIFA/FFA planning to take over the AFL offices for the duration of the World Cup and if so, for how many weeks?
  • Is FIFA/FFA planning to take over the offices and training facilities of AFL clubs so that they can be used by countries participating in the World Cup?
Kylian Mbappe

(Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

The FFA made noises about seeking clarity from FIFA, but it was clear FIFA would not be moved until after a host was announced. The AFL and NRL could get no guaranteed assurances from anyone.

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The media landscape during this and the following week included commentary from the likes of former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, footballer Frank Farina and actor Anthony LaPaglia among others. Everyone had their two cents to share.

Irrespective of all this, the Council of Australia Governments meeting on Monday, 7 December, saw the governments sign off and by 11 December the binding agreement had been dispatched.

That’s the great irony – the chest-beating that went on was of little importance. Perhaps state governments were just signing onto an unlikely idea. Perhaps the federal government realised the FFA were somewhat out of their depth, as just after Christmas the federal Minister for Sport, Kate Ellis, discretely announced the formation of a new task force within her department to work alongside the Geoff Dixon committee to drive the bid. Was it a takeover?

Looking back, it’s interesting the AFL and Andrew Demetriou were seen as the villains given the NRL were the first to come out with somewhat grave concerns. However, the media didn’t seem willing to build a big story around David Gallop. The NRL also had very little real ammunition. The AFL did, with the MCG and Docklands both bound by 25 to 40-year agreements.

The fact that the snippets from the AFL reported 19 and 20 November didn’t cause much of a ripple. When Demetriou returned to work and went public the story blew up. As it was, many a football conspiracy theorist asserted that the time was a deliberate ploy to disrupt the process. Given Demetriou had been on paternity leave, I’d suggest the ‘deliberate ploy’ argument falls somewhat flat. The message was clear enough two and three weeks earlier. It seems that perhaps there was a deliberate ploy of the media to wait for a predetermined villain to appear.

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It seems more that the AFL and NRL needed to get certain concerns clearly on the public record even if it was clear nothing could be done at that time. The FFA knew that FIFA were a law unto themselves and couldn’t therefore promise anything. However, it does seem in retrospect that Frank Lowy was just itching to get the government to bulldoze the AFL from their home turf at Docklands Stadium.

I say this because well into 2010 the FFA was still pushing the Victorian government to make it happen even when Premier John Brumby was offering Geelong’s Kardinia Park as the potential second Victorian venue.

That to me seemed to be the conspiracy at play, which reflected the sentiment of Michael Cockerill from 10 December when he reported “Rival codes powerless to halt Cup juggernaut”. He was sure that the AFL and NRL “whinging and moaning and throwing tantrums” wouldn’t get them anywhere. That with Lowy’s ‘tour de force’ and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd laying down the law to the state governments that the disruptions hardly mattered.