How can FAI ensure blockbusting drama will have no sequel?

No sports organisation has a monopoly on triumph or failure. There are tensions, difficulties, disputes, failures, and much else in every sport in Ireland. Running sport is an inexact science and the human capacity for miscalculation is real and undiminishing. It is inevitable that the leadership in every organisation will make poor decisions and do things that they later come to regret.

But why is it that in Irish soccer, the bad decisions always seem to cause such turmoil?

In the FAI, things unravel in the most spectacular of ways and the elements of overblown soap opera never seem too far from flaring into full public spectacle.

When you think about it, the mundane chore of running an association just should not be capable of manufacturing such absurd scenarios and, in the process, exciting such general interest.

It is to state the blindingly obvious, but when administrative intrigue so frequently overshadows the playing of games, you know that there is something significantly wrong.

How can the FAI ensure that its current blockbusting drama sees no sequel?

The answer is a boring one: it lies in a series of basic actions and in a remaking of structures.

Firstly, there should be a forensic independent audit of everything that has happened over the last decade and more. It may be that there is nothing significant to emerge from such an audit — that has to be the hope. The sense is that it is a hope that will prove forlorn.

That the auditors, Deloitte, have sent a report to the Companies Registration Office, saying that the accounts of the FAI are not being properly kept, is a damning indictment of the way the finances of the Association have been run.

The fact that there is open speculation that the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement could investigate the FAI is both entirely in keeping with the way this story has developed, and stunning in its own way.

Clearly, now is the time to pull everything out of the closet.

This would serve two purposes: demonstrate a determination to draw a line under the past and ensure that there is no ongoing drip-feed of stories to undermine progress in the months and years to come.

Indeed, things have now got to the point where not only is this desirable, it must be the mandatory foundational step for all that needs to follow.

Secondly, the FAI needs to appoint a new chief executive who has a mandate to build clear, accountable structures that ensure that all parts of soccer in Ireland — local leagues, children’s leagues, the women’s game, the League of Ireland, and the national teams — are treated with respect.

There is a splintering in soccer in Ireland that ensures the game is not even the sum of its parts. Where is the genuine structural connection that creates a sense of belonging between the disparate sections of the game?

It is never straightforward to manage the relationship between paid officials and volunteers in the administration of sport. The dynamic requires care and understanding, the multifarious interests of all sections must be accommodated.

Striking just the right balance here is essential to harmony and progress; it is unrealistic to expect that there will never be strains, but such strains must be managed and minimised with pragmatism and understanding.

The FAI has singularly failed to meet this challenge; the discord has played out too often and too publicly. It will be fundamental to the ambitions of any new chief executive that their vision binds into the Association all parts of the game.

John Delaney.

Thirdly, appointing a new chief executive will require a new board. That the current board has offered to resign en masse is an indication of just how quickly they have lost control of events.

It is understandable that, over the past weeks and more, people have been demanding that the existing board should be exiled in one fell swoop.

Apart from John Delaney’s monastic silence at the Dáil Committee on Transport, Tourism, and Sport last week, what has been most jaw-dropping has been the extent to which so many officers have appeared so in thrall to Delaney.

It reinforced the idea that the governance of the FAI is flawed in the most fundamental of ways. And it absolutely highlighted the sense that the former chief executive of the FAI had come to embody Irish soccer and that its future could not be imagined without him.

Ordinarily, it would have been helpful if a new board could have evolved over time. But this is no ordinary situation and the position of all board members became more untenable by the hour.

Any new board must include the appointment of at least two independent members who are not drawn from inside Irish soccer, but who can bring outside expertise into the FAI without the burden of being associated with one element or another.

It will take time to ensure the board is filled with the right people, but better to prioritise that the job be done properly than immediately.

It is the weights and balances and checks on power that ordinarily stops any institution lurching into crisis. The right people working in the right structures is the Holy Grail.

Fourthly, a key task will be the management of the process of appointing a new board and a new CEO.

Who will lead this process? What might the state be expected to do?

This whole sorry debacle has cast an unfavourable light on the relationship between the state and sport. Indeed, in the interface between the state and sporting organisations, there are profound structural weaknesses.

The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has only limited capacity; it devolves much of its power and ambition to Sport Ireland.

But, to put it mildly, Sport Ireland have been slow to move on the FAI — did it simply have no idea what was happening, or does it not have the requisite powers to act?

Whatever the answers, the bottom line is that Sport Ireland has been giving money to an Association who were not keeping proper accounts.

Given the emphasis that is placed on the ability of the sporting organisations of the country to deliver the expressed sports’ policy targets of the state, this should not be happening.

Allowing for all of that, within Sport Ireland there is expertise in the governance of sport. They must now provide assistance on the identification and installation of both a new CEO and attendant structures.

The thing is that there is an awful lot that is positive about soccer in Ireland. At every level, there are people who demonstrate the type of commitment that can only be born from the love of a sport. It is a commitment that should underpin everything that happens in the coming years.

Levels of participation in soccer are high and there are obvious areas of potential growth. For example, the recent improvements in the League of Ireland hint at the type of development that a properly functioning FAI could make real.

There is also an unparalleled access to money. The international television deals have seen unprecedented sums of money redistributed across national federations. Ultimately, any association with an annual turnover of €50 million does not have a problem raising money — what it has are decisions to make on how to prioritise spending.

Those decisions cannot properly be made without the clarity of purpose that comes from having a vision of what you wish to be. The bottom line is that there are certainly challenges to be met and to suggest it will all be easy would be nonsensical, but this crisis creates now the opportunity to begin afresh. Such opportunities have been squandered before; this time can be different.

The lessons of history are unambiguous. Do the boring stuff: run proper appointment processes, build sensible structures, sort out the fundamentals of governance, let the game become the story.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin

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