The new man at the helm of FFA must be a risk taker, even whilst facing the scary realities of coronavirus.
Monday morning’s announcement that Australian football would proceed in spite of the pandemic seemed somewhat out of step with most current thinking. It also did not align with many of the decisions being made by other sporting organisations, both in Australia and internationally.
James Johnson held a professional and concise press conference to inform the nation of the decision to allow football across the country to continue in the immediate future, with an assurance that the fluid situation would be re-evaluated on a constant basis as the evolving coronavirus story unfolded.
The powers at be were content for the W-League Grand-Final between Melbourne City and Sydney FC to go ahead this weekend, albeit behind closed doors. With just one match remaining in the season, an argument could be made that it is a risk worth taking.
However, endeavouring to continue the A-League season in spite of increased infections around the country and some of the logistical complications that will occur with an immediate change to the schedule, will seem fool hardly to some.
With mandated 14 day quarantine periods now in place for people arriving in both Australia and New Zealand, Johnson’s announcement means that both the Melbourne Victory and Wellington Phoenix will experience such a restriction after returning to Australia. Upcoming matches involving both clubs within that period will be postponed.
Wellington will have their Round 24 clash with Newcastle delayed as well as the already postponed encounter with Sydney FC. Victory will have their matches against Brisbane and Perth pushed back to accommodate the quarantine period.
A-League boss Greg O’Rourke expressed the need for brisk discussions with stadium representatives and clubs in order to re-schedule the final seven rounds of play. Doing so would allow the postponed matches to be held and all teams to play out their allocated 26 games.
It appears mid-week matches will become the norm in an effort to squeeze seven weeks into four.
Despite initially announcing that NPL play would continue, with only people essential to the playing of the game to be in attendance, that decision was reversed on Tuesday. Along with all grassroots football, the game will now go into hiatus until at least April 14.
What Johnson outlined to the media had obviously been carefully considered, in line with the Australian Government’s official advice at the time and after discussions with key stakeholders. However, with most sporting competitions taking the decision to cease indefinitely, it appears that proceeding with a revised A-League schedule could have serious repercussions for players, staff, referees and their families.
Ploughing forward with a revised schedule in the hope of completing the season and crowning an A-League champion, as well as continuing NPL and grassroots play, would simply have increased human interaction and by extension, the chance of infection. That plan lasted less than a day, with common sense prevailing, aside from the decision to continue the A-League season.
Stoically allowing the matches to proceed does little more that create more human contact than what would take place during a short term suspension of play.
Thus, many will see the FFA decision as irresponsible.
When quizzed by journalists around the ramifications of the loss of gate-takings and the financial hit the game was already taking, Johnson was quick to state that monetary matters were secondary and that the health and wellbeing of the footballing community were of the highest concern, along with the game acting responsibly as a citizen.
Yet with schools acting briskly and postponing events, major sports putting competitions on indefinite hold and all gatherings of 500 people or more now banned in Australia, FFA’s move appears one made by a body determined to proceed in spite of the increased risk that doing so creates.
In reality, the decision could be the most temporary of moves. An infected A-League player would shut the league down instantly and seems inevitable.
No doubt, should the league be ceased at its current point, the ramifications for FFA are profound. Lost revenue stemming from postponed World Cup qualifiers is already on its mind and an Olympics where our national teams were to be showcased appears more and more unlikely
The already financially stretched A-League clubs will suffer further without gate takings and may be forced to forgo corporate benefits from opportunistic businesses looking to align as the season reaches its climax and the finals approach.
A-League wages for both players and staff would come into question, with other codes already toying with notions of broad and mandated percentage pay cuts.
Grassroots registration fees across the country may well be refunded should junior football associations be forced to abandon their seasons and state federations could be left with a financial vacuum and without their most reliable revenue stream.
Without football to cover, media contracts will not be met and the ramifications of adjustments to broadcasting deals to compensate for a lack of content will further hurt the game.
Johnson and O’Rourke have made the call to persist with play and if that proves to be a successful ploy, as infection rates drop and the situation stabilises, they will forever be known as the geniuses who navigated their sport through a period in which others shut down conservatively.
Alternatively, they may be seen as the men who proceeded pig-headedly, when most of the sporting world closed for business.