Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Australia football CEO bluntly answers critics

On the eve of the launch of Football Federation Australia's new elite national compeititon, the A-league, CEO John O'Neill boldly declared his faith in Australian football over the next decade. The former banking and rugby union chief 'returned fire' on critics of the radical changes brought in by Chairman Frank Lowy over the past two years and claimed the new model would "unite the tribes".

"Go back to the whole context, which people often don't. The National Soccer League collapsed in 2004 and in its last four years the clubs and the old Soccer Australia lost A$60 million. We believe our model is viable but cautious - we have a broadcaster in place, we have a range of sponsors, we're playing in by and large excellent stadiums. The old NSL had none of that."

"When we launched the league, we didn't claim it was anything but what it is. You're not coming along to watch the Premier League, you're seeing the best Australia has to offer. But it will only get better. It's not a one-year wonder. We're taking a three to five to 10-year view. As the football and finances improve and more of the best players remain or return, the quality of the football will improve.

"There's a leap of faith in this. The idea of the one-team-per-city model is to unite the tribes. We've had a fragmented and fractured sport and we're looking to make it far more inclusive.

"Ours was a herculean task. We had to raise A$40 million in capital, plus A$5 million per club each year in running costs. But the audience has to wake up to the fact that running a national competition in Australia is phenomenally expensive. The audience has enormous expectations we can do everything at once. We can't. We inherited a bankrupt business and rebuilt it from the ground floor up."
He isn't shy of trading fire with people he believes are not giving the new regime a go.

"Craig Foster at the players' association and others just pick off single issues, saying the FFA hasn't done this or that. Well how could we? Foster says there's not enough football knowledge in the FFA, that O'Neill has brought all his rugby mates with him. With all due respect to Craig Foster, he wouldn't have a clue who works here. We've got seven national teams with national coaches, plus the AIS and state teams.

"The FFA needs to tell that story better than it has done. In sport you're only as good as your last game. You've got people supporting you for as long as it's in their interests to do so. Some of the old brigade are probably waiting for us to stumble, want us to fail."
And shrugged off poor pre-season crowds.

"I've been following rugby league for years and I've never heard anyone mention pre-season crowds. Yet there's been an incredible focus on our pre-season. We hope to get an average crowd across all clubs of 10,000 which isn't overly ambitious, but pretty good compared to the NSL. We need to get people to back us for the long haul.

"We're in the world's most competitive market. No other country of 20 million people has four football codes."
The A-League kicks off on Friday, 26 August and concludes with a Grand Final on 4 March next year, with the top four teams in the league qualifying for the finals series. The league will also feature a three-week break in December to allow for Sydney FC's participation in the Club World Championship in Japan and the summer Christmas holiday.

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