Australia must tread carefully in search for identity, says Johnson


Australia must resist the temptation of trying to 'cut and paste' the structure of successful football countries in its quest to establish a clear and lasting culture and identity.

This is the candid opinion of Football Federation Australia chief executive James Johnson who has the onerous job of steering the pandemic-hit game to safety and mapping out its long-term future.

One of the points of the FFA's discussion paper on 11 key principles of the game's development centred on its need for a proper identity.

Australian football for decades has been yearning for an identifiable culture that is distinguishable from other sporting codes in the country but Johnson is not a fan of importing a thriving foreign model without considering the domestic needs.

"If we look at football organisations around the world, they often have a very clear identity of what they are. I like to compare Germany and England, two very strong but very different football countries," Johnson said.

"The German model is domestic focussed. They have a federation that works very closely with the league because they both understand that they need each other to create a very healthy ecosystem. They believe that if the national team is doing well the league is going to benefit and vice-versa.

"They have rules around ownerships that stipulate, for example, that the community must own 51 per cent of the clubs because they want to be a domestic brand.

"They also have rules on how they share broadcast revenues where an 'x' percentage of revenue is distributed to clubs that play young German players as part of (protecting) the German football identity.

"In England, on the other hand, they have the highest number of foreign owners in the world, their sponsorship is very foreign and there is quite a detachment between the Premier League and the national team.

"The league is focussed on the global broadcast rights so its identity is very global.

"The point I am trying to make is that there are pros and cons but they are both very good football nations with a very clear identity and the discussion paper is asking the question of who we are as a football country.

"Our unique strength is our base with lots of diverse participants. Our national teams also give us access to the rest of the world. We now have two competitive professional leagues that act as a bridge between our domestic game and Asia. It would be nice to be able to craft an identity of who we are.

"I don't think we should cut and paste models from other countries. We should be learning from different models from around the world but we need to understand why they are the way they are. When we implement change it needs to be done in a way that meets our specific challenges.

"The best way forward for Australian football is to take what's good from other countries, merge it with what we do well here and come up with a solid mixture."

Winter football

Another key element of the discussion paper was the topic surrounding the A-League's move to winter to align itself with the game's lower levels and with Asia.

The issue has divided public opinion, mainly because of the difficulties of competing with the Aussie rules and rugby league juggernauts for stadiums, sponsorships and media space in winter.

"The decision we took for the next A-League season is temporary so we get to test what a better aligned season looks like," Johnson explained.

A-League Rd 24 - Western Sydney v Sydney
Keanu Baccus of the Wanderers is challenged by Rhyan Grant of Sydney FC
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"We will have challenges with stadia and the pitches will not be as good. I understand these arguments but we also need to look at what is in the game's interests.

"Will we be able to convert more participants into A-League fans if the seasons are better aligned? Will we be able to provide participants with a better experience if they can participate and watch top-tier football at the same time? If we are serious about transfers can we have such a system when the seasons are split?

"We just have to look at our challenges and what our game needs and I would be more concerned if we were other sports particularly when it comes to that conversion between participants and fans because we have more participants than any other sport in the country."

World Cup legacy

The availability of facilities and venues has been football's Achilles heel for many years and already the FFA have been urged to lobby for a 2023 World Cup legacy from which the whole game will benefit.

It has been claimed that football gained very little from the 2000 Olympics and 2015 AFC Asian Cup.

"For a start, the Asian Cup and 2023 World Cup are different competitions and we have to look at the success stories from the 2000 Olympics," Johnson said.

Rebekah Stott Steph Catley Women's World Cup bid
Stephanie Catley of Australia and Rebekah Stott of New Zealand
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"They had a future fund that was developed and that is something I'd like to be developed from the 2023 event so the next time we have a crisis like the current pandemic there are funds to support the sport.

"When it comes to infrastructure and stadia we want to make sure that the investment that goes into the World Cup will benefit our sport for years to come. We need more facilities, more pitches and a home for ourselves.

"It is always a struggle (to obtain government assistance ahead of the AFL and NRL) but you get a women's World Cup once every century if you're lucky so I hope we get the help we need."

The historic vote

Johnson also spoke about the circumstances leading up to the historic FIFA vote that gave Australia the right to hold the women's World Cup in three years.

Johnson knew all along that a lot was riding on last week's ballot but he also knew that he could count on FIFA's reforms that made the bidding and voting process more transparent.

Was he worried that those council members from north and central America and Africa who said they would vote for Australia and New Zealand might not keep their word?

"Any time in a vote you never know 100 per cent until the result is announced," Johnson said.

"We were very confident we had the best bid. We put our faith in the process. Our message to the council members was simple: there was an objective report, we scored high and we want you to support the best bid. We were told by council members before and after the report that that is what they were going to do. It was a good win."

'Football man'

Johnson took up the chief executive position early this year and his reputation as a football man was hailed as a masterstroke by the FFA that had been criticised over the years for giving the game's most important role to officials from other sports who had no football background such as John O'Neill (rugby union), Ben Buckley (Australian rules) and David Gallop (rugby league).   

However, his reputation is a double-edged sword because as a 'football man' who understands our game and its issues he is expected to get it right. If James Johnson cannot fix football we're in big trouble, the fans might say.

Johnson admits that he feels extra pressure to deliver because of his background.

"It does put pressure on me because it is not just about the job," he said.

"You want to deliver for the community that you come from. I just spend my days trying to understand what's happening on the grounds, with mothers driving the children around to football matches all weekends and fathers being on the sausage sizzle and working the canteen. This is a really important part of our game.

"I'm trying to marry this understanding with the knowledge and experience of administration I have obtained in Asian, European and global football. That's what I try to do each day.

"I am a football fan in an important position."