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Look down under, revolutionaries - Ottawa Citizen


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Richard Starnes

The Ottawa Citizen

Saturday, September 01, 2007

If you were driving through downtown Ottawa earlier this week and you heard a loud bang followed by huge clouds of black smoke, it was because the roof had just caved in on the Canadian Soccer Association's Metcalfe Street headquarters.

Colin Linford's abrupt and unhappy resignation had sent and still is sending waves of disgruntled reaction through soccer circles, not only in Ottawa, but also across the country.

Revolt was in the air. How to be revolting, though, that was the question?

Then, on Thursday night, I found a blue print for change from Australia, a country that until Jan. 1, 2005, ran its national soccer association in very much the same way as Canada does.

State associations ran their states and held all the power at the national level, too. It was a recipe for mediocrity and conflict, and Australia was, indeed, a mediocre soccer nation.

Just like here, there was mass support for the game at the grassroots, but it never translated into national success. Just like here, Australia -- the Socceroos as they call them -- was condemned to international backwaters.

How familiar that sounds.

The Crawford Report -- ordered by the Australian government and completed by four independent committee members, including the retired national chairman of KPMG -- was the catalyst for change.

The report said a series of incidents had highlighted the critical state of soccer in Australia: the Socceroos failed to qualify for the World Cup or Confederations Cup because there was no money to bring European-based players back for matches; an Australian Broadcasting Corp. investigation found conflicts of interest and mismanagement at board level; constant in-fighting between political factions and concentration of power in a relatively small number of people; overt resistance to accept the inquiry and an initial refusal to accept its conclusions.

Without going too deep into things, the system was radically overhauled. Resistance was broken when the Australian Sports Commission threatened to withdraw funding to Soccer Australia. The entire board resigned and an independent board headed by wealthy businessman Frank Lowry took over.

Today, 21/2 years on, the newly named Football Federation of Australia is financially stable.

It oversees all Australian national soccer teams and national coaching programs. It co-ordinates state and territorial governing bodies and the national club competition.

The new stability and the elimination of bickering and vested interests has also restored the confidence of the business community, so sponsorship money is flowing in.

And the Australian national team is thriving. So can this sort of approach work in Canada? Certainly the unrest is out there.

Websites are abuzz with "I told you so" comments about the power wielded by presidents of provincial and territory soccer associations that has stifled growth of the national game for at least 25 years.

The rank and file are saddened at Linford for giving up in his efforts to drag the game out of the dark ages so we can have national teams to be proud of.

The Voyageur Canadian Soccer Supporters website has plenty to say, none of it complimentary. There is fury and a growing swell of support behind any sort of movement to oust those in control.

There is even a suggestion that every fan wear black when Canada's men play Costa Rica in Toronto on Sept. 12.

I know how I feel. I have a clear understanding of how Colin Linford feels. I wish I knew how Fred Nykamp, who quit as head of Basketball Canada to take over as chief executive officer of the CSA and now appears to have no job at all, feels. And I know how fans feel. We're all disgusted.

I hate even thinking this, but it's time for a full-scale revolt if we want to rescue our international future.

If this had happened with Hockey Canada, there would have been blood on the streets.

The most pressing question remains how receptive the present CSA board would be to change, to an independent review. Who would call for it? Who would run it? Would government step in?

I would love to believe that the provincial presidents would count it a blessing to be left to run their own provinces, which, after all, they perhaps rightly consider to be their primary mandate.

Wearing both hats has built in conflict-of-interest problems that is more the fault of the system than the individuals. So let's change it. Let's be proud of our national teams again. That was what Linford wanted all along.

He tried radical reform in the most open fashion possible and paid a penalty he never deserved. He was left to fight alone to steer the CSA away from the "kitchen-table" organization it has always been and into the professional, business operation it needs to be.

He began with unbridled enthusiasm that he could turn Canada into a respected soccer nation, a World Cup final regular, not an international embarrassment. It was too tough a fight for one man.

Richard Starnes' Beautiful Game column appears Saturdays. Send comments and suggestions to rstarnes@thecitizen.canwest.com or sportsletters@thecitizen.canwest.com .

Find his blog at ottawacitizen.com .

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