With the Australian A-League currently enjoying perhaps its most successful season yet, Football Federation Australia (FFA) and its chief executive Ben Buckley must have been quietly pleased with themselves last week.
Sure there were minor problems that needed to be dealt with, but on the whole attendances have been high, TV figures are promising and the quality of the league has impressed. Buckley and the FFA were probably patting themselves on the back for a job well done.
And then, all hell broke loose.
The last seven days have seen an almighty fiasco threaten the league itself and several clubs therein. And it all started, rather innocuously, with a 17-year-old midfielder being given the captaincy of his team for a game.
Gold Coast United’s Mitch Cooper was bizarrely made skipper for an encounter against Melbourne Heart last Friday. Making a teenager captain is strange enough, and with Cooper also debuting in the clash, United’s decision was heavily scrutinised.
One such figure to question the move was Gold Coast manager Miron Bleiberg. He commented that the role was only ceremonial and suggested Cooper would receive guidance from one of the more senior players during the match.
“He will toss the coin. Then he will ask Kristian Rees which way to go, and then Kristian will tell him what to do during the game.
These comments drew the ire of Gold Coast owner, Australian mining billionaire Clive Palmer, who promptly suspended Bleiberg. The captaincy saga was rapidly becoming very bizarre, and more was to come.
Palmer then spoke to The Sunday Mail, telling them that his club was insignificant and he didn’t even like football.
“I think it’s a hopeless game. Rugby League’s a much better game.”
He went on to call the A-League a joke and threatened the FFA with litigation if they revoked his club licence. All this from a man who had previously suggested he could become more involved in Australian football.
While Palmer has since suggested he was misquoted, and was instead directing his distaste at the game’s administration, the comments were met with anger from football fans.
He clarified that; “What I was saying was not that I don’t like the game and the playing of the game. I was saying that I don’t like the game the way it’s set up in Australia, and we could do a hell of a lot more and make the game more important and relevant to the Australian community.”
It was too little too late though, with his original statements attracting serious criticism from many on Twitter and Facebook.
Buckley hit back in a terse statement, but it was not until Monday night when things really got heated. SBS Television program The World Game convinced both Palmer and Buckley to appear on air, sadly not simultaneously, and the claws came out.
Palmer made wide and varying claims about the FFA’s failure, his litigation success record and his displeasure with the way Australia’s domestic competition was currently run. The mining magnate made a number of valid points, but they were predominantly lost among a number of erroneous statements and general bluster.
Buckley’s response was typical of the CEO. His retort lacked the requisite passion for the circumstances, but was otherwise solid if unspectacular. While there has been little word from either camp in the following days, hostilities are certainly not over.
Meanwhile, Gold Coast manager Bleiberg had reportedly resigned; quite understandable in the circumstances. Not to be outdone though, the club held a press conference to announce that he had been fired.
CEO Clive Mensink told the media; “The club can officially announce today that Miron Bleiberg, head coach of the club, has left. We want to put it on record that as of 6am today no resignation letter was received by the club.”
A bit petty really. ‘You can’t quit, you’re already fired!’
In a later interview with Fox Sports FC (http://www.foxsports.com.au/football/a-league/mir/story-e6frf4gl-1226277589930), Bleiberg revealed that the only reason he didn’t officially resign was because he would be in a better financial position if his contract was terminated.
Elsewhere, Gold Coast is not the only club considering legal action against the FFA, with Newcastle Jets apparently evaluating their options over claims they have been misled in the A-League licensing process.
The Jets said in a statement that they were, allegedly, the “only owners to be charged a multi-million dollar fee” for a licence.
With Palmer more than happy to initiate legal proceedings – the billionaire even bragged to The World Game that he was undefeated in 69 litigation matters, lawyers at FFA headquarters may be preparing for their week in court.
While litigation is expensive, it may finally give all sides the chance to air their dirty laundry. Several court cases are unlikely to be beneficial for Australian football, and may even lead to a WPS style cancellation of the league.
Whatever happens, interesting times are ahead in Australian football. And with one of the richest men in Australia on the warpath, it might not be pretty.
Australian journalist Kieran Pender is the deputy editor of news website Green and Gold Army and its online magazine I Told You So. You can follow him on Twitter here.