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Australia embarrassed as FIFA steps in to resolve dispute

The snow-covered landscape is reflected in a logo in front of FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/Files
The snow-covered landscape is reflected in a logo in front of FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann/Files

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian soccer faces an embarrassing intervention this week as a joint FIFA-Asian Football Confederation delegation arrives for talks aimed at ending a bitter power struggle that has plunged the domestic game into crisis.

The governing Football Federation Australia (FFA) has been at loggerheads with the country's 10 professional A-League clubs, and come under pressure from FIFA, to expand membership of its 10-member Congress into a more democratic model.

The Congress, which elects the FFA board, has representatives of the country's nine states and territories but just one delegate for all 10 clubs in the top-flight A-League and none representing the players.

The FFA have proposed a 13-member Congress, offering two additional votes to the clubs and one for the players, but this has been rejected by both the clubs and FIFA.

The clubs, who say they generate 80 percent of revenues for football in Australia, want at least five seats but the FFA, led by chairman Steven Lowy and CEO David Gallop, have dug their heels in.

Lowy has been vocal about his distrust of the clubs' intentions and, like his billionaire father Frank Lowy, who was chairman before him, has rejected calls to allow an independent commission run the A-League.

"Club owners have made no secret of their demands for more power, and more money. They seek an independent league, run by them for their benefit," he said in a 2,000-word communique addressed to the 'Australian football community' over the weekend.

"But it’s worth noting that more than half of the clubs are wholly or majority owned by foreign individuals and organisations with little or no connection to Australian community football or our national teams."

'DISGRACED ORGANISATION'

Apart from more Congress votes, the clubs have also demanded more money from the FFA. They have rejected the governing body's offer of A$3.55 million in annual distributions following the record six-year, A$346 million ($274 million) television deal announced in December.

The clubs have demanded up to A$6 million, a figure the FFA has said would damage the grass roots of the game and cut deeply into funding to the national teams.

With the dispute rumbling on throughout the year, the FIFA-AFC delegation is set to arrive to hold talks with local stakeholders over the next two days in Sydney in a bid to end the impasse.

Without resolution by a Nov. 30 deadline, FIFA will disband the FFA board and install a 'normalisation committee' that would effectively take over governance of the sport.

That it has reached the point where FIFA has intervened is seen as another black eye for the FFA, which was embarrassed by the Garcia report into the World Cup bidding process for the 2022 tournament won by Qatar.

The report found "strong evidence" that the FFA had made payments to influence one of FIFA's voting members.

Australia's failed bid, which employed over A$50 million in government funding but secured only a solitary vote, has long overshadowed the FFA's stewardship of the game.

In addition, the ongoing power struggle has revived memories of the strife-torn National Soccer League, which collapsed under a weight of debt in 2004.

The idea that FIFA, an organisation still buffeted by corruption scandals on a number of fronts, could take over the running of the game is scarcely believable to many in Australian football.

"It makes me sick to think (FIFA) are here doing this," Jack Reilly, a former FFA board member, told local broadcaster SBS.

"They are a totally disgraced organisation."

($1 = 1.2617 Australian dollars)

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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