For the Australians in Johannesburg, Wednesday morning began with the best intentions.
Federal Sports Minister Kate Ellis accompanied Football Federation Australia Chairman Frank Lowy and his CEO Ben Buckley to Mohklakano, a township west of Johannesburg. The town’s welcome included a vuvuzela parade through its streets while a bus shuttling Australian media was mobbed as if Bafana Bafana, South Africa’s soccer team, were inside.
The Australians were in town to donate 9000 ‘lap desks’ to local school kids, a worthy cause costing FFA around $150,000. A fair price for goodwill and great publicity. But whirring away in the minds of both Lowy and Buckley were comments made the day before at a meeting of the Asian Football Confederation.
On Tuesday, AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam had announced that his Confederation, of which Australia is a recent member, will be backing a European nation to host the 2018 World Cup. But, wait — isn’t Australia bidding for the 2018 tournament? Ah, yes, and there’s the problem.
Quizzed by Australian media as hundreds of Mohlakano primary school students sang, danced, and clapped hands behind them, Lowy and Buckley tried to find positive spin about Bin Hammam’s comments.
“Who said he is not supporting Australia?” Lowy said. “Okay, so he is not supporting 2018, but [he’s] supporting us for 2022.”
Buckley, however, revealed that Australia had no idea that Bin Hammam was going to announce Asia’s support for a European 2018 candidate.
“It was not a position that had been put forward to us prior to the meeting but it doesn’t change anything,” Buckley said.
Actually, it does. Australia’s current relationship with AFC has been exposed.
One question Lowy will want answered is why one of his infamous international consultants did not know about the AFC’s intention. Swiss-Hungarian Peter Hargitay is a former adviser to FIFA President Sepp Blatter and previously worked with Bin Hammam before signing on with Australia. But despite Hargitay’s long list of contacts — and expensive invoices –– he appears to have been unable to forewarn FFA of Bin Hammam’s plans.
The other question: why didn’t Bin Hammam advise Lowy personally of his public announcement?
Australia joined AFC in 2005 and, at the time, much was made of the personal relationship forged between the two as they rode around Asia on Lowy’s private jet. It was believed that their growing friendship played a large role in Bin Hammam supporting Australia in its bid to join Asia. But maybe not any more.
Buckley believes Australia’s relationship with AFC members remains strong, but behind the scenes there appears to be much tension, as demonstrated by Bin Hammam’s unguarded moment. South Korea, Japan and Qatar are all bidding for 2022, along with Australia and the United States.
“While there is an enormous amount of respect for one another and the strengths of each bid you can’t have a unified position going into the bid because each country is going for its own advantage,” Buckley said.
“The relationship [within Asia] is very positive. We are only relative newcomers to the AFC. Everywhere we go we get a good reception. We have very good representation on a number of important committees. I think Australia is a respected member of the AFC.”
That’s great but another reason Australia’s relationship with AFC may be tested is not just because Bin Hammam is Qatari and has to be seen backing his home country, even if he is a pan-continental president. The guy has sights on Sepp Blatter’s job, which will be decided in elections next year after the World Cup hosts for 2018 and 2022 are decided.
For Australia, this may be inconsequential but will have big consequences on its 2018/2022 ambition.
Today, News Limited papers are reporting Australia “is firming as the likely winner of the 2022 World Cup bid”, with Lowy quoted as saying: “I am talking to the people who matter and I hear what they say. I hear their sentiments and I am hearing some very good sentiments about Australia.”
Can Bin Hammam call in votes from Europe for the top job after earlier supporting their World Cup bids?
If Australia becomes collateral damage, who cares? Or even really notices?