Football Federation Australia CEO Ben Buckley left Australia earlier this week for a secret mission to China.
We know this trip is secret because FFA refuses to tell us anything about it.
“It is not our policy to publicly discuss this sort of information as I am sure you understand,” emailed Rod Allen, FFA’s head of Media Relations, when quizzed last week on the nature of Buckely’s trip.
Understand? Well, since you ask, not really.
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Buckley’s no-need-to-know jaunt includes a stopover in Osaka, Japan, on the return leg and is, of course, tied to Australia’s taxpayer-funded bid to the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
There’s been some surprise from within the wider Australian sports community — and those with knowledge of how World Cup bids are won — of the need to visit China but the truth is that FFA currently needs all the friends it can muster in Asia.
Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam, a FIFA executive committee member, recently declared he’ll vote for his home country Qatar to host 2022 rather than any of the other AFC bidders – Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
Peter Hargitay, one of the Australian bid’s controversial “consultants”, visited China at least twice last year on FFA business, according to sources. The outcome from those trips was a belief that China could come out on Australia’s side for the 2022 bid.
Subsequent plans included a final presentation to FIFA in Zurich this December featuring Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as well as a delegation from China backing Australia’s World Cup proposal as a tournament for all of Asia.
FFA was confident it had an endorsement from the China Football Association, which was timetabled to be publicly revealed around about now.
But, as Rudd might know, 12 months is as long a time in football as it is in politics.
The then head of the China Football Association, Nan Yong, who supposedly gave Australia his blessing is now in jail facing trial for alleged corruption related to bribes, match-fixing, and betting.
The new boss of Chinese football, Wei Di, is apparently an incorruptible with a mandate from the government to aggressively clean up China’s image in international football.
And guess who now wants to host the 2026 World Cup? China.
“There have been many debates on whether China should host a World Cup or when to host it,” Wei Dei said after the past World Cup in South Africa.
“After the tournament succeeded in South Africa, I have to admit, China has no reason not to have a World Cup. And now is the time.”
This announcement didn’t go down too well in Australia or Qatar, or Japan or South Korea. FIFA won’t hold successive tournaments in the same region and China is the mother lode when it comes to soccer taking over the global sports market.
The winning formula could now look like Europe in 2018, USA four years later, and China in 2026.
Buckley’s week away comes at a time when FFA is putting out a series of domestic fires.
FFA stayed well away from an avoidable public feud between Harry Kewell and Robbie Slater, two of the sports biggest names in Australia but did step in aggressively to ban two A-League players accused of “diving”.
This was an honorable and brave attempt to stamp out perceived cheating but was mismanaged when the accused players were unable to mount appeals for what is widely agreed were highly debatable incidents — even under video scrutiny.
Buckley, a keen micro-manager, has also seen the A-League, soccer’s local barometer, under pressure. Crowds are low and in some cases lower than the old National Soccer League.
Expansion teams Gold Coast United and North Queensland Fury could be described as near disaster and few people seem to have any interest in Melbourne Heart, a second team for Melbourne.
Newcastle Jets recently joined Adelaide United and North Queensland on a list of teams propped up financially by the governing body.
Sydney Rovers, a proposed second team for Sydney, will enter the league next year after being granted a licence with no financial backers amid cries about lack of transparency for the A-League admission process.
Buckley’s contract expires at the end of the year, just after the December 2 announcement on where the 2016 and 2022 World cups will be held.
Should he want to stay at the FFA’s helm, and there has been no sign the ex-AFL player has such desire, he will be lucky his position is not an elected one.
If there was a vote, it’s unlikely Australia’s football community would tick a box with any confidence — even if Buckley returned from Beijing with news China had dropped its 2026 ambition to support Australia’s bid for 2022.
But then the public wouldn’t know about that because — ssshhh — this sort of thing isn’t discussed publicly.