Patrick Fitzgerald is an unusual combination because he knows lots about business and lots about sport and here he’s really put a few facts on the table for the benefit of soccer fans ahead of the big World Cup qualifier.

Soccer Australia (SA) and all its associates should forge an alliance with the dreaded National Rifle Association in the US of A? Why? Because their penchant for shooting themselves in the foot makes having guns around a prerequisite.

In the lead up to Australia’s PR disaster with France whereby resident Socceroo “animal” and vice-captain Kevin Muscat (son of a gun), once referred to as the most hated player in UK soccer, put the boot into France well and truly in a spiteful game at the MCG. Muscat brought new meaning to the definition of soccer “friendly” after hacking down Christophe Dugarry who faces up to three months on the sidelines. Muscat was immediately substituted as the French and the Socceroos swapped pleasantries as the game threatened to get out of hand.

The French also weren’t without blemish with scything tackles on Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka, but it was Muscat who first reached for the gunpowder.

If Muscat is guilty of stupidity and not for the first time as Uruguay know only too well from personal experience in previous altercations with our resident “chopper”, he was kept pretty destructive company by his own Professional Footballers Association who went gunning for their local bosses before even a ball was kicked in anger at the MCG.

All week in the lead up to the France game, the public was fed a steady diet of “will they or won’t they play”? First one Association mouthpiece then another decreed there was a real possibility of a Socceroos player boycott of the upcoming France and World Cup games if their demands for a future guaranteed slice of future Socceroos games wasn’t met. They started at 50/50 for a slice of the international cake and after an offer or 30%, both parties cut their losses and tapped it at 40% of any prize money earned from World Cup qualification, growing to 50% if they make it to the second round of the Cup next June.

But the fact remains the PSPA gunboat diplomacy didn’t leave much room for either party to settle this festering sore with any dignity, as soccer should have been basking in the build up towards its finest hour. Not so much a shot to the foot as an IRA six pack! What was the public to think about mostly a bunch of millionaire players threatening to walk out on the eve of their country’s desperate grab for World Cup fame and glory? The less said about their totally inept employer SA who should have tucked away an agreement long ago, the better.

But then we do know better and let’s cut to the chase!

PROMOTER IEC GETS TICKETS IN A KNOT AND COURT BECKONS

Well you can’t say Crikey didn’t warn you!

While the Socceroos were threatening to pull the plug on their MCG games, would you buy a $180 public premium (totally crap seat) for France, not knowing whether you would be seeing Harry Cool or Joe Schmo from Perth Glory? What happened to the “real” premium seats? It would seem that while certain lower grade “premium” seats were sold to suckers for a wildly inflated price by Sydney-based promoter International Entertainment Corporation, what of all those great seats on the wing of the Great Southern Stand at ground level? They were virtually empty from one forward flank to the other.

We figure that’s because they were not made available to the public or at least weren’t on any available list Crikey checked out. They were no doubt being kept for corporate’s at an even more inflated price but didn’t sell. So for this world class TV spectacle that Victoria Major Events was looking to promote Melbourne, you had the ugly sight of no one sitting in these “genuine” prime seats, which also happened to be the most common TV view of the stands. For the millions watching in France they also know if you want a good downpour, come to Melbourne in November.

Now we really wish SA all the best concerning leaked news about a pending legal battle with IEC. According to various reports legal papers were being prepared for lodging with the NSW Supreme Court, Equity Division, with an unnamed source telling The Australian: “This is all about getting our game back.” So there you have it, it’s official: Soccer Australia has managed to lose its game!

Somehow SA plays the role of innocent or wronged party in all this, but who appointed IEC and agreed the terms they now find so injurious? Of course there’s a long history of bizarre dealings between SA and commercial operators, so they reap what they sow. But don’t just blame the previous administration/s because the buck stops with the current board also. Some of them were party to these deals as board members at the time. If they didn’t know as such, then it stands to reason they’re incompetent and not doing the job for which they were appointed. Can they seriously suggest a commercial operation can enter into a major marketing and promotional agreement for the right to stage Socceroos internationals, and the board is ignorant of the broad details or what they now claim is a totally lop-sided deal in favour of the promoter IEC?

Of course any court proceedings might show Crikey is being just a bit hard on them as they might well have been kept deliberately ignorant or even deceived as to certain arrangements or transacted deals, which is where dumped former SA chief, Tony Labbozzetta and certain others face an interesting future to say the least

Crikey does feel sorry for SA genuinely trying to get the game out of it’s current dire financial straits, but they can’t always blame everything on Labbozzetta, although that’s a good place to start. Particularly as it relates to Labbozzetta’s “questionable” IEC relationship that has an association stretching back to his inglorious past as kingpin at Club Marconi, now up to its eyebrows in debt to an increasingly restless NAB.

Labbozzetta, putting aside his IEC mates, should never have been allowed back into any SA official position in recent years, let alone run the bloody show after he was fingered by the Stewart Report into dodgy doings in local soccer years ago. The NAB should have seen the approaching ambulance a long time ago!

Meanwhile Back At The Ranch

So with IEC managing to oversee thousands of prime seats going begging, our players threatening no-show, and then the Kevin Muscat hack, poor old France on arrival and post kicking, must have been wondering what hit them? Why they had bothered to give the Socceroos so much support in their recent spat with FIFA and the greed-driven clubs of Europe, only to have such magnanimity kicked in their face? Welcome to soccer’s latest serial shot in the foot.

Let’s hope they don’t make it a total massacre over two combustible legs with Uruguay. Anything matching or beyond 2-0 to take to South America, and we might just start to think we’re on our way to the land of the fallen yen. But with Muscat and possibly wing-back Danny Tiatto another white line fever merchant in the ranks, can we keep a lid on these powder kegs over two legs when Uruguay are hardly choirboys themselves? Both sides are capable of lighting the wick.

We do need Muscat’s steel at the back but not his stupidity. The risk of a red card over the two legs doesn’t bear thinking about. Hopefully Farina will have read him the riot act and he will settle for crunching Pom’s as captain of legendary Wolverhampton Wanderers, and confine his most hated tag to his domestic game in England. Hot heads cannot only cost us severely against Uruguay, but failure to go to the Cup would also be a sizeable down payment in possibly bankrupting Soccer Australia.

SOCCER AUSTRALIA IN A MESS ALL OF ITS OWN MAKING

The fact Soccer Australia has been looking with its lawyers at all aspects of its commercial deal making with all and sundry, and then flagged action against IEC, was as usual for SA, a masterpiece of perfect timing. But did they have a choice?

Their apprehension over contracted agreements with IEC has been known ever since Tony Labbozzetta got ambushed as SA chairman four months ago by a coterie of well-meaning ex political has-beens of the likes of Greiner, Kennett, Wran (odd man out) and other failed Liberals now part of the potential SA gravy train (if they ever get out of hock).

Why did they take until the week of the France game to leak to the soccer media their intention to go to court with IEC? Couldn’t have been inspired by the player’s pending strike action surely? After all it makes perfect sense to show their financially demanding star-laden internationals they really were struggling to make ends meet. So much so they have to go to court just to get their fair whack. That despite a litany of previously broken promises to the players going back years, they really were finally doing something about getting their own house in order.

In an act of almost suicidal honesty, SA was not only pleading poor but practically ready to call in the receivers if things didn’t improve? Throw in the odd $1.7 million deficit in this year’s accounts which was a fairly good argument to put to the players to temper their demands, and just maybe they could buy themselves some time while they hopefully saved their arse and soccer’s future in this country by qualifying for the World Cup. Only then could they realistically put soccer back in the black. But don’t hold your breath for the NSL, that’s a total basket case.

Now these typically millionaire players being decent folk who could see little point in beating up on their hapless boss and who were never ever going to strike despite what their union flacks sprouted, finally gave ground and SA got a very late reprieve. Still it’s hardly going to weaken the player’s credit rating. Particularly when half the team could individually afford to buy SA. Now there’s a thought?

MISSING IN ACTION, SCARCELLA FIDDLES WHILE AUSTRALIA BURNS!

I nominate for one of the greatest disappearing acts in Australian sporting history, Oceania FIFA regional president, Basil Scarsella. Another illustrious former head old boy of SA.

In all the recent battles between SA and FIFA covering a multitude of critical issues that demanded the local rep go into battle for his major constituent to his bosses in Europe, how often did you see or hear Basil Brush publicly going into bat for his own country?

I never once saw him on the TV or quoted in the press as taking up the cudgels on our behalf. Perhaps he’s like the Vatican who know a few tricks and is of the silent diplomacy school? But hang about. In a sport where the loudest always get heard, just how the hell are we to judge the forceful nature of any arguments he put on behalf of Australian interests to those airheads at FIFA?

So I ask again. Where was Basil when we needed him?

The value of his contribution can only be measured by his deafening silence. Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with his nice FIFA sinecure to swan around the world (particularly World Cup 2002) irrespective of whether he did a single thing to help Australia get there or not?

But Basil, Crikey is going to give you one final chance to redeem yourself and save your backside from any bloodletting if Maradona’s hand of god or anything else untoward gets in the way of us knocking off Uruguay. Because if we fail again, expect to see local soccer politics resemble nothing less than the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Even if we lose the battle Basil you can win the war. You just have to prevail on FIFA after this World Cup to declare Oceania a qualifying group in its own right. Win Oceania and you directly qualify instead of charging all over the world giving other FIFA confederations one last crack at our expense. This concession might not mean much to Tahiti or Tonga, but it gives the Kiwis a sniff, and realistically short of the most diabolical misfortune, it should guarantee Australia safe entry to the World Cup for the next couple of decades.

Deliver that outcome Basil and you have definitely left the doghouse. Otherwise like Labbozzetta who succeeded him at Soccer Australia, this bloke needs to be sent packing before he makes any further “blinding” contributions to the welfare of the game locally.

Can you see a pattern emerging in all this? Stuff up and move on to bigger and better things. Former Oceania FIFA octogenarian delegate Charlie Dempsey got the flick last year after he failed to cast his regional vote for South Africa for the 2006 World Cup. Poor old Charlie explained that the pressure got to him when he got “heavied” by the Poms. But trying measuring the dollar value of that disgrace in terms of what it could have brought South Africa, but instead now benefits Germany? Dempsey’s rat in the ranks can be measured in billions.

Against just such a background of historic incompetence, corruption and just sheer bloody stupidity and even senility that is the world of FIFA, is it any wonder that soccer in this end of the world is such a financial and operations disaster? Where as far as Australia is concerned between the MCG and Uruguay, seemingly our only salvation lies in a glorious World Cup campaign that should save our current NSL and its overlord SA, from being taken to the cleaners.

Yet this alarming state of the local game at the highest domestic level coincides with a time when our playing stocks have never been better and our next World Cup team should be even stronger. Our best players will be at the peak of their powers in 2006. With or without Basil Brush we have realistic expectations that we can qualify for the next two World Cups starting with the first down payment at the MCG.

But forget all this crap about settling for winning 1-0. Nothing less than at least a two-goal lead and hopefully 2-0 or 3-0 is going to be a decent margin to take to Montevideo.

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Peter Fray

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