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Frank Lowy’s pre-emptive blame game over AFL and World Cup bid

General News

Australia’s Association Football World Cup bid was bedded down in time for the submission bid book to be delivered in May this year. WFN reported on the MOU that satisfied rival codes. And along the way to the December 2 decision day, Australian’s have heard both good and bad things about the bid and some of the ‘FIFA’ style interactions that go on around that. However, the odd thing is FFA supremo Frank Lowy, Australia’s richest man, down playing expectations whilst at the same time attempting to broadside the AFL as if to set the retribution wheels in motion before the fact – just in case the bid should fail.

The soccer forums lap this stuff up. The common understanding is generally rather lacking. A few of the subtleties seem to have been lost.

A basic time line is worth considering.

November 2008 – Rival codes (AFL especially) are reported to have agreed in principle to allow access to venues. At the time though, it was clear the AFL both intended to NOT leave town and to retain Docklands stadium. At this point, it is reported that it is envisaged the AFL retains Docklands and the new rectangular stadium would be ‘beefed up, to at least 40,000 capacity.

October 2009 - Sydney media reports that rival codes leave host cities for 4 weeks of the tournament, and vacate venues in the 4 weeks leading in. It is also suggested that Etihad is one of the 12 stadia required.

October 2009 - NRL makes some noise in response, with some clubs threatening revolt.

December 7, 2009 - NRL rejects FFA’s proposed scheduling work-arounds. David Gallop stressing support, but, not at any price.

December 9, 2009 - AFL responds to soccer authorities for ''trumpeting'' their plans to use Etihad Stadium as a World Cup venue without consulting the AFL.

And here lay the crux of the issue :

    The FFA had initially believed it would not need the venue, instead using the MCG and the new rectangular stadium on Swan Street as World Cup venues.

    That stadium was supposedly ''future-proofed'' so that it could be enlarged to 40,000. But the FFA turned back to Etihad after it emerged that the distinctive bubble roof of the rectangular venue meant it would cost a prohibitive $150 million to enlarge it.

    Etihad Stadium featured in the glossy book and film handed out to FIFA delegates as part of Australia's lobbying effort at the World Cup draw in South Africa last week.

    It was also shown off by the FFA to an official party of international journalists brought to Australia by the FFA for a familiarisation tour last month.

The following Monday 3AW's Neil Mitchell extracted worst case comments from Andrew Demetriou. Without the MCG and Docklands, then an AFL season might not be feasible. From then on, many pro-soccer people (both journalists, commentators and bloggers) ran with the AFL being anti-World Cup bid – rather than anti certain elements that the FFA was seeking to insert in the bid.

As it turned out, the Federal Government got involved. Not as some pro-soccer people might have hoped, to bulldoze the AFL, but, instead to broker agreements.

What is clear is that the NRL were just as vocal if not more so (at least earlier) than the AFL. The AFL was not alone in standing up for itself. One can argue whether the job of arranging a WC bid for soccer in Australia was too big a job for the fledgling FFA when so much depended upon the good grace of other codes.

What was surprising to Victorians and AFL fans was why, even by March 2010 when premier John Brumby revealed that whilst he was offering Geelong’s Skilled Stadium that the FFA was still steadfastly set on securing Docklands (Etihad). The FFA had already rejected the brand new 100% State Govt funded rectangular stadium (AAMI park), which if upgraded would leave a publicly funded 'soccer legacy'.

At the end of the day; negotiations were had; an agreement was reached; The bid book submitted.

What is astounding is the post submission (of the bid book) vitriol aimed at the AFL. In late May 2010 we saw Michael Lynch from the Age reporting from Johannesburg 'Outrageous' AFL stance nearly stopped cup bid. Unnamed sources from within the FFA suggested that the AFL wanting to retain Docklands and to stage games in World Cup cities were some of the ‘outrageous demands’. Staggering really. The article sought to isolate the AFL on this front, when clearly the NRL intended to NOT be kicked out of host cities (but had no ‘fortress’ Docklands to fight from), and the NRL will benefit by staging SoO at Docklands if need be.

And so, to see in October, 2010, less than 2 months out from the announcement, when Frank Lowy and the FFA should be building up positive momentum. Instead, we see this from Michael Lynch again, AFL's hard line on MCG almost wrecked World Cup bid: Lowy illustrates an amazing ‘blame mentality’. Frank Lowy speaks of 'They [AFL] had certain demands which were excessive, but we agreed in the end, and we have both moved on.

If by that, Lowy means the AFL was still consistent with the opening position back in November 2008 when they made clear they did not intend shutting down and would retain Docklands stadium, then, one wonders why the FFA left it until 2 days out to cater for that. Obviously the AFL didn't sign off on the MCG release until they were satisfied with more than verbal assurances made on the run to the media. Perhaps as Lowy underestimated the AFL, or the value of long term leases, or overestimated the extent to which Government support might go. And we still scratch our heads and wonder why 2 years ago that the new rectangular stadium was a good idea to future proof the city for a World Cup when apparently it wasn’t.

People need to make up their own mind, however there seems a specific anti-AFL agenda here. Did Lowy's ego take a 'hit' being out played by Demetriou? Surely Lowy couldn't blame ignorance given having Ben Buckley in his camp. Whatever the case, and I rarely would quote Patrick Smith in The Australian, however, I thought back on June 1st this year, that he got this article pretty spot on AFL not offside playing hardball. It may turn out that Lowy fears that the size of the compensation scope may make hosting too costly, or not as great a golden goose for the FFA. It may be that Lowy fears that FIFA will not look well upon the AFL and NRL NOT being excluded from host cities. Perhaps Frank knows something we don't. If not, then, let's all wait and see together.