A new chapter in Australian football
THE coronavirus pandemic has meant James Johnson's start to life as Football Federation Australia CEO has taken an unexpected course. However the proud Queenslander tells Marco Monteverde that it has presented an opportunity to truly unify the sport nationwide.
Monteverde: Your first three months as FFA CEO has coincided with the spread of COVID-19 and the effect it has had on not only football, but all sport and the whole society. How have you found the challenge of running football in these unprecedented times?
Johnson: COVID-19 has knocked the wind out of the game, it's really tested the game, but largely Australian football has responded very well to it and come together. I'm very pleased about that, particularly because from day one I called for unity in the game as a starting point. Unfortunately there will always be people that will try to divide during a time of crisis, but in Australian football in this case, that's been largely the exception and almost non-existent. The big challenge, but also a great opportunity going forward out of the virus era is creating a new vision and new chapter for the FFA administration.
M: How does the new chapter begin?
J: It starts with an honest assessment of what we've done well and what we've not done so well over the past decade and a half. What we've done well is received mainstream support for the A-League and the W-League, moved into the AFC and qualified for consecutive World Cups. What I don't think we've done well has been the disconnect between different levels of football within the game and possibly different eras within the game. The other thing we haven't done well is player development. This is an opportunity we have going forward to maintain what was good about the past 15 years and focus on what we can do better.
M: Former Socceroo captain Mark Viduka last week commented on Australia's recent failure to develop players and the need to get ex-playing greats involved with running the game in Australia. Was he right?
J: The simple answer is yes. Mark is a legend of the game. He makes a very valid point around player development. I think there is a great opportunity for Australian football to be a serious producer a talent. The production of player talent is something that we need to take a serious look at in this new chapter of Australian football. In relation to getting players involved, I believe players need to be at the heart of decision making. Already in my first couple of weeks, you've seen a very player-centric approach that was taken towards the Matildas. If you look at our current (FFA) board we have Mark Bresciano and Amy Duggan, a former Socceroos and former Matilda respectively, I've elevated Sarah Walsh in our management team, another former Matilda, and I've recently brought in Robbie Middleby (general manager of member federations), who is my first signing so to speak and a former Socceroo. I would like to see more former players involved than we already have and that will be the case under my watch.
M: Maybe someone like Socceroos great Craig Moore, who has had past roles with FFA and national teams?
J: Moorey's a legend of the game. He's someone that I'll always pick the phone up to. He's got great knowledge, he's got great experience and he's played a number of roles within the game.
M: The A-League season, currently in suspension because of coronavirus, can be completed in the space of a month. How confident are you of finishing the 2019-20 campaign?
J: We're optimistic that the season's going to be completed, but the reality is we've got to monitor the latest advice from the different levels of government. We had a COVID-19 working committee in place, which has representatives of FFA, the clubs, the PFA and member federations. We want to ensure at all times that the health and wellbeing of the football community, in particular the players in the case of recommencing the league, is paramount. We have a review date on April 22 when we'll announce our next step. At this stage we're not able to play, but as soon as we are and it's safe for our players, they'll be out there playing again.
M: FIFA has recommended that player contracts, which in the A-League's case run until May 31, be extended because of the likelihood that no football will be played before then, What is the FFA's stance on this matter?
J: It's a recommendation of FIFA not a direction but it's one that's being considered by the A-League clubs and the PFA (the players' union). It needs to be considered. I've been pleased that the A-League clubs and the PFA have been in discussions about playing contracts, about the stand down of players at various clubs, and about this recommendation from FIFA. That's healthy. We've been clear that if the clubs and the PFA cannot resolve player matters with stand downs, then we would intervene. Those discussions are going along smoothly.
M: Some argue that state and member federations should be scrapped. How is the relationship between FFA and the state and member federations?
J: We're working very well with them. That's a strategic priority for me. We have to have better alignment with our member federations. They're the base of the pyramid. What we need to avoid is where we have duplicate and too many layers of administration, too many people doing the same thing. We can streamline our operations and work more efficiently but that requires working closer and in a more collegiate spirit with our member federations, which we've started to do in the past three months. I see the member federations' role going forward as crucial because they're closer to the ground than FFA is. That closer relationship to grassroots football is important.
M: Are you confident state NPL and community competitions will recommence this year?
J: I am. Because the state and territories have also put in place various measures, the spread and the flattening of the virus will be different in each state. What's important for us is that football is played as soon as possible at grassroots level all over the country, but it can only happen once it's safe to do so.
M: With different recommencement dates likely for community and state competitions, and the A-League, will the FFA Cup be too hard to run this year?
J: It's something we're looking at right now. It's become an important part of the Australian football calendar. I'm a big believer in the FFA Cup and part of the vision going forward will be to optimise and take that competition to a new level. The FFA Cup connects people and connects different levels of football, so that will be a priority if we can get that up and going.
M: The Socceroos were set to take part in the 2020 Copa America before it was postponed until next year. Are Australia still invited to compete in the tournament in 2021?
J: We're in discussions with CONMEBOL (South American Football Confederation) as to whether or not we would participate. We haven't been formally invited yet but if we expressed interest then we would be. We've got to consider the whole national team calendar.