Cup bid 'takeover' conveniently buried in Christmas crush
DAN SILKSTONEDecember 27, 2009
CHRISTMAS is all about good news, right? Maybe not for everyone.
At 6.30pm on Wednesday night, Federal Sports Minister Kate Ellis quietly slipped out a news release that was ignored by almost everyone. She will not have minded. What it said was that the Government would establish a new taskforce - within Ellis' own department and working alongside former Qantas chief executive Geoff Dixon - to drive Australia's World Cup bid. What it didn't say was that this looked a lot like a partial takeover of a bid struck by persistent trouble in recent weeks.
Releasing this news late on Wednesday meant it was too late to receive proper analysis in the next day's papers. And the day after that - Christmas Day - there was no paper at all. With newsrooms empty and eyeballs trained firmly on Carols By Candlelight, the news was effectively buried.
What did it mean? One thing is certain: for the announcement to be smuggled out the back door at the quietest time of year, Ellis and Co. can't regard it as good news.
''Government takeover'' has a ring of failure to it that would not resonate well with the 24 men of the FIFA executive committee who will vote to award hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments next December. It's also not entirely true, though it does look a bit that way. What's more, the announcement (if you could call it that) came as FFA chief and bid leader Ben Buckley was overseas lobbying on the bid's behalf.
It is hard to see the announcement as anything other than a backhander for FFA's largely in-house bid team - though all involved will surely deny that.
For months the FFA has been asking the Government for more help behind the scenes to cut through the funding wrangle that had threatened to stall Australia's bid. All year, state and federal governments have prevaricated over which of them will pay for the stadium improvements, new facilities and financial guarantees required.
It has put the bid team in a frustrating position. At the moment they are hypothetical costs - if the bid is unsuccessful, the bill never lands.
It's doubtful, though, that this is quite the help the FFA wanted. The minister's statement makes clear that much of the heavy lifting will be done now by the taskforce. That includes the responsibility of negotiating arrangement with the AFL and NRL so that disruption to those sports is minimised and compensated. The importance of peaceful coexistence between the codes was emphasised by Ellis' statement in terms that none of the key players can have failed to note.
The taskforce will also work to resolve the funding row and ensure that 12 FIFA-compliant stadiums are found so that the bid book can be submitted in May. The Government has committed $45.6 million to fund the bid. The real cost is even higher. When FFA chairman Frank Lowy first presented his plans to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the price tag was more like $80 million.
Footing the bill, the Government was clearly worried by recent events. The premeditated and sustained attack on the bid led by the AFL has taken some paint off.
Nightmare stories about how FIFA's demands would shut down Melbourne and threaten AFL clubs could be traced straight back to AFL headquarters. They were no accident. But that did not mean the AFL's concerns - though partly confected and exaggerated - had no basis in fact.
An attitude had developed in the corridors of power around Melbourne that the World Cup bid and its supporters in Canberra were lacking respect and communicating poorly. The AFL was not the only one to proffer it. A Sydney-Canberra axis of control did not help matters in Melbourne. ''There's a feeling,'' one insider told The Sunday Age, ''that Frank [Lowy] wants this and has convinced the Prime Minister to want it and we are just supposed to play our little part as directed by a bunch of people in Sydney.''
The FFA had the Feds onside, it was believed, and the likes of the AFL and state governments would be presented with a fait accompli and expected to fall into line. Publicly the AFL was scathing about the way the bid was being conducted; privately, it was even more critical.
Muscles were flexed and the Government took notice. Now it has responded. The message is clear: nothing will be allowed to disrupt a bid that Rudd has backed from the start.
Placating the AFL will be important. The league is so powerful, so well-resourced and so adept at arguing its position that some in Canberra refer to it as ''the extra state'', noting that handling the nation's top sporting code is like dealing with another unofficial state government.
The AFL has received attention: turning around its public opposition is now a more immediate priority. Compromises will be offered, no doubt, and whatever it is that Andrew Demetriou wants, he will get the chance to ask for it.
The FFA says it has met 14 times with the AFL during the past year and a half and that it is mystified by the claims of poor communication and disorganisation coming from Demetriou. True or not, some of that communication will now come from Canberra rather than from soccer's headquarters in Sydney's Oxford Street. The AFL has captured attention but would do well not to push too hard. Maybe it has the power and influence to actually scupper Australia's bid - a fact soccer's more zealous true-believers prefer not to believe - but even the actual states are loath to pick too big a fight with the Feds, particularly when what the PM really wants for Christmas is to have the World Cup bid back on track.