View from Down Under

Rival codes' case of sour grapes

December 8, 2009
By John Iannantuono
(Archive)

It was only a matter of time before the Australian (Rules) Football League (AFL) spoiled the party. Well, tried to, anyway.

Frank Lowy
GettyImagesFrank Lowy (R) with FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

With the word in Cape Town that Australia has emerged as frontrunners to host either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup, you could smell the fear emanating from the AFL's headquarters at Docklands.

Last week in Cape Town, FFA supremo Frank Lowy and his 2018-2022 World Cup bidding team wowed anyone who cared to listen about Australia's World Cup hosting credentials. They spoke of Australia's success in hosting major sporting events - 2000 Olympic Games, 2006 Commonwealth Games, Australian Open Tennis, Formula 1 Grand Prix, Melbourne Cup Carnival - and then hypnotised audiences with a promotional video narrated by Australian Hollywood star Nicole Kidman.

In the space of a week, Australia's World Cup bid went from cutting oranges for the first team to being the key playmaker in the line-up, from being the bid rival bidders never rated, to the bid everyone now fears - particularly the AFL and the National Rugby League (NRL).

Since football in Australia got its act together in 2003 with the creation of a new governing body and national domestic competition, the sport has become a nagging thorn for the AFL. Whereas once it could contain the sport at arm's length, the AFL is now beginning to lose its grip on its growing rival - and it's beginning to panic. It's evident for all to see and hear.

In fact, the anxiety levels are that high that the AFL is probably having heart palpitations on the back of the FFA's successful lobbying last week in South Africa.

Both the AFL and NRL are not silly. They're well aware of what's at stake. They understand that interest levels in their respective sports at the grassroots level - particularly in development areas - may flounder due to an increased interest in the world game. They understand that they may lose financially, with corporate Australia set to invest millions of dollars to be part of the World Cup juggernaut, while TV networks may regard football's TV rights package as a more lucrative investment than that of their own. And in the AFL's case, it also understands that all of the above bundled together may ultimately lead football to seriously challenge for the billing as the nation's number one sport.

So, with the FFA on a roll in South Africa, the AFL's chief executive officer, Andrew Demetriou, played the classic card - 'Us and Them'. He went on radio expressing his grave concerns that some AFL clubs would dissolve as the 2010 AFL season may be cancelled due to the unavailability of the MCG and similar venues for 16 weeks. Honestly, could he have been more dramatic?

FFA chief executive Ben Buckley moved to refute his former colleague's remarks, stating that stadiums like the MCG would be required for up to eight weeks. That's significantly fewer than 16, Andrew. This type of scaremongering is nothing new from the AFL, or its mates in the press.

When Melbourne Victory entertained Sydney FC at Telstra Dome in December 2006, some 50,000 fans attended the fixture. It was a landmark event for the fledgling competition. Rather than talking up the positives of the occasion, certain media outlets with a bias towards AFL sensationalised a couple of crowd ejections and even alluded to mass riots. If you weren't there, you would've thought Telstra Dome was a war zone.

Sydney fans
GettyImagesThe Sydney fans support their side. But was it blown out of proportion?

One Melbourne daily newspaper even ran an image of a section of the crowd - Victory and Sydney FC fans seated side-by-side - on the back page to support the lead article on the so-called 'riots' at the game. Shame the image didn't really capture the violence and mayhem the article was trying to portray.

Instead, the image showed the two fan groups sitting harmoniously next to each other. Most of the fans in the photo were either watching the game, looking at their phones or picking their noses. As for those looking at their counterparts, some appeared to be laughing, others were daydreaming. Yep, fans out of control. Quick - get the pepper spray!

Since the A-League captured the imagination of Melbourne's sporting public, those media outlets no longer get away with misreporting. Converts to the game - converts who previously may have read a biased report and tarred every football fan with the same brush used on a Millwall fan - have quickly cottoned on to the media's agenda and know better. It's only a matter of time before the AFL cries wolf on one too many occasions.