says the FAI must open up in order to renew trust and confidence.
Just over three months ago, it was announced that Sport Ireland had suspended its funding of the FAI after a series of revelations. In response to that development, FAIPresident Donal Conway issued a statement which included the following message: “… the Association is keen to restore trust and confidence and rebuild the relationship with Sport Ireland as soon as possible”.
Unfortunately for the FAI President, it is not just Sport Ireland with whom the FAI needs to rebuild a relationship. Serious and careful rebuilding of relations needs to take place with various groups from within its own footballing community.
The tennis balls thrown onto the Aviva during the senior men’s international against Georgia in March revealed real discontent among a sizeable contingent of supporters of our men’s national team.
Similarly, there have been few tears shed at the FAI’s crisis among League of Ireland supporters, many of whom have long criticised the Association for what they view as enduring neglect of its clubs and players.
The appalling treatment of our women’s national team who (as recently as 2017) justifiably felt that they were being treated like ‘fifth-class citizens’, was another shameful example of how the FAI have often lacked the ability to look after their own.
Many members of the Schoolboys’ Football Association of Ireland (SFAI) have also grown disenchanted with the way the national underage leagues have been implemented. Equally, Irish soccer writers had grown frustrated by, among other things, the elimination of press questions at annual FAI AGMs, and they are unlikely to be have dispatched many letters of sympathy to Abbotstown.
But if Donal Conway and the FAI are keen to rebuild a relationship with these stakeholders, they have a funny way of showing it. The Soccer Writers’ Association of Ireland hit the nail on the head earlier in the week when requesting permission to attend today’s FAI EGM, stating that: “… in this era of transparency, as advocated by the FAI, we feel that to prevent members of the media from reporting on the EGM would go against the entire tenor of the association’s promised reforms”.
Their public relationship may have played out like a feud, but some credit must be given to both Noel Mooney, in his temporary role with the FAI and Minister Shane Ross for gathering stakeholders together and rebuilding some positive relations for the future. But the concern is that the real decisions will be made elsewhere.
Step away from the continual daily updates on FAI affairs, and the fact remains that Sport Ireland did not suspend funding because of the discontent of a sizeable proportion of the Irish soccer community.
They suspended funding because the FAI breached its funding rules. The resulting Governance Review Group recommended 78 proposals for FAI reform. Adoption of these proposals is a perquisite to restoration of funding.
Donal Conway’s recent comments that he “… could not over-emphasise the importance of our members voting in favour of the proposed resolutions at the AGM, and separately at the EGM”, hints that failure to adopt the proposals could be fatal to the FAI.
That the situation may have become a matter of ‘life or death’ for the FAI might also be construed from the words of Sport Ireland’s John Treacy, speaking at an Oireachtas Sports Committee meeting on Wednesday when he said, “I would hope that Uefa would bail them out… It’s not in anyone’s interest that a national body would go under”.
It is true that nobody wants to see the FAI go down. For one thing, it employs roughly 200 people, many of whom are fantastic at what they do. But the changes at the top level, should they be passed and implemented, will need to be accompanied by a drastic change in the culture of the organisation and its treatment of its stakeholders.
In 2003, the Australian government, after years of similar problems with football, bit the bullet and commissioned its own report into the overall structure, governance and management of soccer. The report provided a “critical assessment of the existing governance, management and structure of soccer in Australia” as well as “solution-based recommendations”, so as to deliver a “comprehensive governance framework and management structure” that would address the needs of all stakeholders into the future.
It was carried out by a committee of government-selected experts that included top business people, external legal counsel, experienced sport administrators from other codes and a former national team player. It was subsequently deemed a huge success with many commentators in Australia suggesting it led to a complete turnaround in the fortunes of Australian soccer.
My view is that even if the FAI survives the next few months, a broader government-commissioned report on the overall health of Irish football is required, one that provides solution-based recommendations addressing the needs of all stakeholders.
The FAI will need to implement and embrace the recommendations arising from such are port (as well as those on good governance) to show that they really have the ability to reform and drive Irish football into the future.
Only then will trust and confidence in the FAI be restored.