Four Corners: Missed Shots (Part One)

I’ll admit Four Corners was confronting viewing. It drew links between the A-League and some of the worst elements of global society. On the surface it was simply shocking.

Taking a deeper dive there was little to no new information that wasn’t already widely known. I mean heck, if I had a dollar for every time I said “City comes from dirty money” I’d have enough money for a house deposit.

Does that mean we look the other way with some of the big issues that are very real? No. But there needs to be context. Instead Four Corners served up this in between, no-man’s-land mesh of attempting to localise international issues. Issues that should be talked about in a global sense, drawing in FIFA and the further problems the mesh of sports, its governance and business brings. 

Rather what was produced was a fear mongering, half baked, hit piece that was a missed opportunity to really dive into big Australian issues. Those that focus on the changing ownership of clubs, football structure as a business and the evolving football landscape in Australia that is on the cusp of radical change. 

No I’m not saying “on the cusp of radical change” as a die-hard soccer hopeful. I say that as a reality. The competition structures are undergoing power changes with the rise of the Australian Professional League. More importantly I say that as Australia nears co-hosting a Women’s World Cup in 2023. An event that will draw international eyes on Australian football and more Australian eyes on the global game.

Four Corners has served up lazy journalism that got caught up with the big “wow” issues. It  would be considered clickbait if it was online. 

Still, that doesn’t negate the need for serious conversation about football ownership and the Australian landscape.

Melbourne City supporters have a greater story to tell of club transition and narrative than financial fair play problems Manchester City has faced. Picture: Aleague

Reality check

The ABC did well finding a well spoken football fan who had stuck through the Melbourne Heart to City transition. As a journalist I automatically think “good talent”. That’s why it’s mind boggling that the simple question of how the Melbourne club had changed since the switch in ownership wasn’t broached. At the very least it didn’t come across clearly on TV.

If this had been an investigation into the international scene, go on and talk about Manchester City’s fair play woes and the propaganda machine of the City group. That’s fair play.

However, this had been sold within in the Australian context. You’ve done the hard work of finding the talent (someone to interview), now ask the questions. Let’s talk about what the club transition meant. What did that actually look like season-to-season, on match days and in supporter groups. 

Talk about the angst that’s associated with the rebranding of a club. Talk about the change in chants and even the mixed emotions of supporters who’s club suddenly has tainted (very tainted) owners.

Trouble is that might not wholly supported the narrative of “City are bad”. 

“Bad City” pushes women’s football agenda

Before City took over Melbourne Heart, there was no W-League team associated with them. It did take another four years for a W-League club, but with it came something special.

In a juxtaposition of contrasting values, the club owned by a UAE sheikh pushed women’s football in Australia to levels previously unseen. It’s not by mistake that some of the world’s best players and many of our Matildas stars headed to City.  Their entry into the world of women’s football saw money funnelled into the game. This investment forced the hand of many other clubs to double down in an attempt to catch the leaders. Women’s football in Australia, particularly domestically, wouldn’t be where it is without this investment.

Don’t ask me how to make peace with how the club can be both massive supporters of women’s football while its money comes from a country that commits human rights abuses to women. It’s not an easy thing. Equally I don’t think we ought to be comfortable with this. But nonetheless, this is a reality.

Melbourne City has pushed women’s soccer in Australia to new heights. Picture: Daniel Pockett/Getty Images

Investment

There is one line that I had to chuckle with. When asked about why City cared about taking over an Australian soccer club, Bonita Mersiades replied it was to identify young talent and to move players about for further development and commercial value.

That’s global football.

On a player protection level, it’s far safer having your child play in Australia with a club that has global reach than farming them out at a young age to England, Europe or Asia in the hopes of glory. The scouting system is now global. Stronger A-League clubs for scouts to pick and choose up and coming players is a better system than the traditional narrative of farming out our youngsters to academies halfway across the world.

Professional clubs are businesses and even community-led clubs consider the commercial value a good youth and development system has. Just look at Ajax. One of the best clubs in Europe has traditionally and likely always will be a nursery of talented players who move on to bigger pastures before they hit their prime.

Clubs make connections across the world to make this easier. It’s comparable to any A-League team making partnerships with NPL or grassroots clubs in Australia. Clubs don’t work in isolation. It’s silly to think that should be the case. The City group just makes those links far more established and obvious to the everyday punter than other deals and agreements often struck between clubs in the name of player development.

Swatting at A-League trio

During the course of the Four Corners episode connections with three other clubs and their foreign owners was a topic of discussion.

The imagery used to talk about Sydney FC’s Russian owner was a low blow. You’d be hard pressed to find a Russian businessman who doesn’t have some links with Putin. The links to the “bad stuff” came across as second hand and a stretch after the initial “shocking Russian tsk” sentiment. Starting the conversation with those images and “background” undoes the reality that this wasn’t the first club he’s owned and that his family has strong Australian, and Sydney, ties. 

On most levels of fairness, to purchase shares in a club in that context is fair right? You love football, your daughter has settled in a new country and you’ve got money to burn. Heck if I had a spare $50 million I’d have bought a stake in a football club too.

Sydney FC has had considerable success across its history, with the club financially backed by Russian David Traktovenko. Picture: A-League

Then there was Adelaide United. Faceless, with ties to the Netherlands. Of course that’s when Four Corners drew out the jabs of organised crime’s connection with football. Reality check, organised crime has been associated with many sports, not just football. Ownership invisibility doesn’t automatically equate criminal organisations. Sure it might, but there needs to be further evidence to suggest this. Instead it was presented in such a way that led viewers to think “oh flip, I don’t know Adelaide’s owners, they must be crims!”.

Again football is a business. Football requires a lot of money. There’s so many reasons why an international conglomerate would want to stay anonymous.

Lastly was Brisbane Roar’s woes. Interestingly this was the last element. Maybe because the story isn’t associated with the “flashy” elements of a Sydney or City. Connections of environmental disaster to the ownership group and that being a “why” we shouldn’t trust them is far fetched. Heck major oil, mining and other companies causing serious environmental damage all sponsor major sporting events and teams. If that was the measure, many sponsorship deals and ownerships of most large sporting clubs would need to be brought into question.

The crisis and reputation damage, whilst quite old news, is something that needs to be talked about in a way to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Although once again, Brisbane isn’t the only club who has faced a crisis of being unable to pay their bills. 

Keep your eyes peeled for a Part 2 on timing, what could’ve been, entering a new era and the big conversations.

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