FFA CEO James Johnson: “We have many challenges in front of us as a sport”

James Johnson FFA CEO

Is James Johnson the trailblazer Australian football needs?

When James Johnson, the FFA CEO, attended his first press conference in mid January, he could never have predicted the enormous challenges facing Australian football.

Significantly, he was the first CEO in the history of the FFA to have a football background, having played for Brisbane Strikers at youth and senior level in the NSL and also being an original member of Les Scheinflug’s Joey’s squad of 1999 which performed so gallantly to reach the final in New Zealand before succumbing in a penalty shootout to the mighty Brazil.

In late March, mainly due to the impact of COVID-19, it seemed the sky was falling when 70 per cent of the FFA staff were stood down and there was extreme uncertainty about Fox Sports’ commitment to A-League coverage.

Fortunately, Johnson demonstrated all the negotiation skills he had gained in his senior roles at the PFA, Asian Football Confederation, FIFA and the City Group since 2009 to carve out a deal which ensured A-League backing from Fox for the remainder of the current season and to the end of next season.

He also played a major part in Australia and New Zealand securing the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and was the main architect behind the selection of the Starting XI and the proposed XI Principles which are designed to lead football into a new era.

Nevertheless, despite his track record and excellent credentials, Johnson has one of the toughest jobs in Australian sport as he tries to unite the stakeholders of a game which has always exhibited major political divisions.

In this interview with Roger Sleeman, James Johnson discusses all things football in his attempt to take the game to a new high in the Australian sporting landscape.

What are your views on the current state of Australian football?

We have many challenges in front of us as a sport, intensified by COVID-19. These include the economics of cost and funding, as well as many football challenges, for example rankings in senior men’s national teams and not producing the same number of players competing in leading overseas Leagues. Also, our youth teams still find it hard to qualify through Asia in both the men’s and women’s game so this has to be addressed.

However, there are many opportunities, including capitalising on the large participation rate, local and global ownership, NPL clubs with an amazing history which has to be tapped into, and great products in the Matildas and the Socceroos, with the Tokyo Olympic Games, and World Cups, including one on home-soil in 2023, to look forward to.

Which of the Proposed XI Principles deserve major priority?

They are all important as they include a vision, a narrative and definition of who we are. These philosophical football principles must be reinforced by commercial well-being of the game so real change can be implemented. Critically, changes in all parts of the game are required to realise the principles.

What is the state of progress in the efforts to fund the game, in light of the competitive marketplace and sponsorship dollars foregone?

The traditional methods of business are broadcast, sponsorship, gate receipts and player registration fees. Undoubtedly, post COVID-19, broadcast revenues will be more difficult to obtain and sponsorship will be more competitive. Due to globalisation of the game across the world, the sponsorship funds go to bigger Leagues and clubs. Therefore, in Australia we need to look at new ways like O.T.T. and digitalisation of the game to produce more reliable revenue streams. Capital investment from the private sector and government also has to be increased.

What is being done to engage the general media in lifting the profile of the game within print, radio, television, and internet mediums?

Firstly, we have to identify how our supporters are absorbing content. Our ongoing market research shows the A-League supporter is between 16-30 years of age and they are obtaining content through digital means, for example social media, especially Facebook. We have to capitalise on this further, but we shouldn’t ignore traditional and mainstream media. The Women’s World Cup can be very important in leading the transition to gain increased coverage through this medium. Also, we have to identify people in mainstream media who support our game and can influence the decision makers. In this regard, I recently met with Karl Stefanovic from the 9 Network who played youth football in Cairns and whose father played for West Ham. We have to be smart and find such people to put their hand up and make a statement for the code.

What are your plans to revamp the youth development system?

In this space, there are significant challenges and it takes a long time to develop pathways. Some of our recent failures to qualify in both men and women youth tournaments must be reversed and we have to find ways to invest in youth development and pathways. Ideally, a transfer system will be an incentive for NPL and A-League clubs to focus on player development which will guarantee rewards and reinvestment in the game.

There is a distinct absence of technical players in Australia and very few playing regularly in the world’s top Leagues. What are you proposing in this area?

The improvement in technical skills is a major priority for our game and we are discussing this in detail with the Starting XI. Regarding the fewer Aussie players in top Leagues, the freedom of movement of players in Europe sees more players moving across borders which increases the talent pool and can limit the opportunities for our players.

The selection of the Starting XI with former star players like Mark Viduka, Paul Okon and Mark Bosnich was an innovative step but what about former players who have achieved at the highest level in the game and in business but are not given a chance to contribute, e.g. Jack Reilly, Peter Katholos, Danny Moulis, Alan Davidson, Craig Johnston, Gary Marocchi, Glen Sterrey, Richie Williams, Manny Spanoudakis and Dave McQuire to name a few.

The Starting XI is a football advisory panel and they have provided a lot of feedback already, including on the transfer system. Certainly, we have to listen to other football people to assist the game’s growth, and we are very open to doing so.

The game’s history reflects a lack of recognition for former players to be involved.
Your comment.

I reiterate, it is important to draw on the expertise of former players and perfect examples are (Zvonimir) Boban and (Marco) Van Basten with FIFA and (Dejan) Savicevic at UEFA. The appointment of Mark Bresciano and Amy Duggan to the FFA Board last year was a positive move and former Socceroo and Newcastle Jets CEO, Robbie Middleby, is making a big difference at the FFA. Sarah Walsh, a former Matilda, is also a member of our senior management and works in our participation and grassroots space.

What are your thoughts on the proposed change of season from summer to winter?

Obviously, the practical reason for a change is the late finish in August, rather than May this season. We have flagged the 2020/21 competition to start in December which will allow a fair time for the clubs and players to re-set and provide the opportunity for us to assess the benefits of A-League, W-League, NPL and grassroots playing simultaneously. This will also test the alignment of more grass-root supporters to become fans of senior football.

Many people believe the decision of the Board to deny the Southern Expansion an A-League license was a major mistake, particularly in light of their commitment to put down $15 million dollars on the table immediately and their Chinese backer’s intention to purchase Shark Park from Cronulla League’s club.
Your comment.

I can’t comment because I wasn’t in the country at the time, but I can say, there is a solid commitment in the XI Principles for our Professional Leagues to be expanded.

Came From Nowhere: the forgotten story of the Western Sydney Wanderers FC

Less than 24 hours after the Central Coast Mariners captured national attention with their historic treble of titles, SBS quietly released a documentary, this film told a similarly, yet arguably more remarkable, football story that has almost disappeared from the collective memory of Australian sports fans.

In 2014, only two years after their existence, the Western Sydney Wanderers won the most prestigious club competition available to Australian teams: AFC Champions League.

They achieved this victory in front of 11 of their own fans, due to the travel difficulties and restrictions, and 60,000 enraged Saudi Arabians, overcoming challenges such as bus crashes, hotel raids, public taunts, and laser pointers aimed at their eyes. Despite these obstacles, the Wanderers persevered, becoming the first Australian club to win the continent’s most prestigious trophy.

However, this narrative appears to have faded into the pages of history, scarcely acknowledged in broader discussions concerning pivotal moments or memories that have moulded Australian sports, the question is why?

This is what journalist Marc Fennell sought to explore this question in his latest documentary, “Came From Nowhere.” The film delves into the inception and initial triumphs of one of Australia’s most intriguing, yet currently contentious, football clubs.

“What became very apparent very quickly, and what interested me, were two things,” Fennell told ABC Sport.

“One was this truly incredible, Hollywood-esque, fairytale arc of a team that literally went from no name, no players, nowhere to play, nowhere to train, no coach to winning the highest championship you can as an Australian club.

“Then there was the other side, which was that the active support group had gotten lots of coverage. The RBB (Red and Black Bloc), there were reams and reams of news and footage of them. And I felt like those two things were linked somehow, and they were both stories worth telling, but we were trying to work out: how did they intersect?”

For years, the region had fostered a vibrant football community, nurturing numerous Socceroos who honed their skills at clubs such as Marconi, Blacktown, Parramatta, and Sydney United in the former National Soccer League.

In 2012, when Clive Palmer’s Gold Coast United ceased operations, the opportunity arose for the Wanderers. With the FFA requiring ten teams for upcoming television rights negotiations, but facing difficulty in finding a financial sponsor to establish the team in time for the 2012-13 season, they took matters into their own hands. The FFA secured a $4 million government grant to establish a professional football club in Sydney’s west, essentially from the ground up.

Following numerous community forums and fan surveys held across the region, various topics including club colours, playing style, home grounds, club values, and proposed names were thoroughly discussed and debated. On June 25, it was revealed that the club would officially be named the Western Sydney Wanderers, paying tribute to Australia’s first-ever registered football club, Wanderers FC, established in 1880. The club’s colours were designated as red and black.

During their inaugural pre-season match in St Marys, 4,500 attendees witnessed a small gathering on a grassy hill where a few songs, penned over the previous four months, were practised. This laid the foundation for the Red and Black Bloc, an active supporter’s group integral to the club’s narrative alongside the players.

Despite their first match in the A-League at the old Parramatta Stadium ending in a scoreless game, for the supporters standing behind a banner proclaiming “Football comes home,” the result on the scoreboard was inconsequential. What truly mattered was that they now had a club they could proudly call their own.

“This is a love story between a town and its team, between football and its fans. And every love story has ebbs and flows: it has moments of high euphoria, and then it has bickering and tempestuous fighting,” Fennell said to ABC Sport.

The film then tracks the team’s debut season in 2012-13, starting slow with no goals or wins in the initial month but swiftly gaining momentum. They achieved a league-record of 10 consecutive victories, challenging prominent clubs like their now-local rivals, Sydney FC, as they climbed the ladder.

With each victory, the fan base of the Wanderers expanded. In a remarkable show of support, 10,000 Wanderers faithful journeyed to Newcastle for their last regular season match. Mark Bridge’s two goals contributed to a 3-0 triumph, clinching their inaugural Premier’s Plate in an extraordinary debut season.

The film then delves into its second focal point: the club’s fanbase and the escalating tensions arising between its active supporters and the authorities.

Certain factions of the RBB posed challenges for the local police, exhibiting behaviours such as violence, property damage, intimidation, and the use of flares. This led to an increase in police presence at home games.

The RBB’s customary pre-match procession in Parramatta, along with the use of flares, megaphones, banners, and even profanity, was prohibited. While some viewed these measures as necessary for community safety, others saw it as “eroding the essence of what makes football unique.” Fans felt let down by league officials, perceiving a lack of support.

Tension may have arisen from the Wanderers’ blurring of boundaries between what writer Joe Gorman once termed the “de-ethnised” A-League, the ethnic and multicultural roots of Sydney’s west, was where the Wanderers emerged.

This might also explain why the manner in which its fanbase interacts with the sport through tifos, flares, chanting and marches has faced widespread criticism from the mainstream Australian media, which may not fully understand or feel at ease with the cultures and traditions of a working-class migrant sport that differs from their own.

In the last segment of the film, the focus shifts to the team’s extraordinary journey through the Asian Champions League. Once more, they embrace their underdog status and mindset to triumph over some of the most formidable and accomplished clubs in the region.

Members of the championship-winning team reminisce about the different tactics employed by rival fans to disrupt their visits, including infiltrating their hotels to disturb players, using lasers during games, and even orchestrating a bus accident on a congested freeway on the way to a stadium.

The match that ensued became legendary in football history, now recounted by bleary-eyed Wanderers fans who congregated in a public square in Parramatta at 3am witnessing their club, which had humble origins, rise to become one of the greatest football clubs ever produced in Australia.

The greeting for the team was at least 2000 passionate, chanting fans of the Western Sydney Wanderers flooded Sydney International Airport on a Monday night at 11:20pm, transforming the arrivals area into a vibrant and noisy celebration welcoming home the newly crowned Kings of Asia at the time.

This type of football fan culture is present all around the world which is just another normal day for them, but for WSW fans to take over the Sydney airport is remarkable when you really think about and is what gives hope that football is a sleeping giant in Australia, much to the dismay of mainstream media in the country.

The other Australian sporting codes to see scenes such as those can only dream to have it for their games at the stadiums, let alone greeting their teams at the airport.

“Any future of this sport has to really consider not just things like player development and long-term strategies and diversifying and being clubs for whole communities, but also how fans are folded into that process,” Fennell said to ABC Sport.

“Because fans are engaged with a club, it’s an experience unlike anything else. To be there in the midst of some of those games felt bigger than a Taylor Swift concert, but when they go, the whole thing just deflates.

“Whatever comes next, they have to consider how active support and everyday fans are part of the process of the club, the energy of the club, because that’s the value of it. There is absolutely a link between success and fans, and if you’re not doing well, it’s clear how that diminishes.”

Despite the club’s decline in the past decade following that remarkable achievement, “Came From Nowhere” underscores the fundamental essence of success in football. It urges current decision-makers to refocus on these core principles as they endeavour to rejuvenate a competition that many feel has passed its prime.

AIA Australia CEO Damien Mu on Tottenham’s visit to Melbourne and Ange Postecoglou impact

Before Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United’s pre-season friendly match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, football codes came together on the day to test their skills in a first-ever junior clinic.

Hosted at Collingwood Football Club’s training facility of AIA Vitality Centre, the Aussie Rules AFL team was joined by the visiting Spurs.

Across two sporting codes, a common denominator is that AIA proudly supports both and through the affiliation, combined for a once in a lifetime coaching clinic.

Tottenham and Collingwood players were in attendance, along with AIA Ambassador and former Hawthorn premiership player Shane Crawford.

Junior soccer and AFL club players were treated to a memorable day of fun and skills training, aimed at promoting AIA’s vision of communities living happier and healthier lives. This included specialised drills, authentic coaching and a Q&A session for all kids to learn and benefit from.

AIA is a long-time partner of Tottenham, while their recent front-of-shirt deal with Melbourne Victory further emphasised their support for Australian football.

A day of fun at Collingwood FC’s AIA Centre.

Speaking to Soccerscene, AIA Australia CEO Damien Mu reflected on a hugely successful day for participants.

“The AIA junior clinic was fantastic, it was all about giving an opportunity for kids to get active and participate in training with Tottenham and Collingwood coaches,” he said.

“We thought it was a rare opportunity and fantastic way to really promote active participation in sport.

“At AIA, we encourage people to live happier, longer, and better lives and being active is one of those – with other important choices such as what you eat and looking after your mental wellbeing.

“We’ve sponsored Tottenham since 2013 and the fact they’re out here with Ange taking over was an opportunity we couldn’t miss.”

“We also sponsor Collingwood and most recently Melbourne Victory, so we thought what a great way to get the three clubs together and Collingwood were fantastic in hosting at the AIA Vitality Centre and getting behind it, with all three teams giving back to the community.”

It was a momentous occasion for Victorian fans, as Ange Postecoglou has completed his first full season at the Spurs.

Mu shared what the excitement was like on the day.

“Undoubtably, having Ange had a huge impact,” he said.

“We’ve been fortunate to have Tottenham come out a few times – in Sydney and then Perth last year – it’s always a massive buzz and gives such a good lift to football.

“With Ange now there, it’s given that a super boost and the energy that’s around him, along with having two EPL teams in town, which is why just over 78,000 people went to the MCG on a weeknight.

“All of this is a great way to get kids attached to the game and have active participation post-World Cup, rather than being stuck on smart devices.”

Crawford (far right) chatting with Tottenham representatives.

Melbourne Victory, who were preparing for the A-League Men’s Grand Final against Central Coast Mariners, were backed by AIA as a Finals Series sponsor.

Mu described what he and AIA saw in Victory leading up to the deal being struck.

“Melbourne Victory have had a great season, been long-standing as one of the original clubs in the A-League and a cornerstone of the league from the start,” he said.

“It was a great opportunity that arose given our affiliation with football globally through Tottenham.

“We had ongoing conversations with Victory about how we can partner up, and it seemed like a great way to support them at a time when they were seeking that support going into the finals.

“They’re a great club – it really is about family, community and business coming together. Even Ange touched on the community feel, all the way back in his South Melbourne days.

“We definitely love the community aspect of what Victory are trying to do and how they like to get out there and promote the game as well.”

Reflecting on the community theme, Mu added what he sees in collaborating with sporting organisations.

“When we think partnerships, we want them to be purposeful,” he said.

“It’s great to be on the shirt, but it’s more about what we do with clubs in relation to health and wellbeing.

“Our sporting clubs are great because it provides genuine role models to cheer on within family and friends.

“It allows us to get really meaningful health and wellbeing content from the players and coaches that we know fans and members absolutely love, rather than a company with three letters on it telling you what we do.”

Collingwood FC’s Will Hoskin-Elliott (left) with Tottenham goalkeeper Guglielmo Vicario.

From a long-term perspective, AIA are hoping to maintain their presence in Asia and Oceania.

Mu shared the overall success of the junior clinic where we can expect more to come.

“We’re really lucky with the partnership through Tottenham where there’s coaching clinics right across the markets we operate in Australia and New Zealand,” he said.

“The clinics are really important as they get out to schools and the clubs, especially at grassroots level.

“When the whole team comes into town, you get a boost, but this is something we’ve been doing for a while and part of the collaboration with Tottenham where we are proud to do these clinics in Australia and New Zealand.”

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