New Zealand Soccer In Crisis

Wellington Phoenix

A bullying, selfish FIFA Confederation President pursuing his own agenda to the detriment of the development of the beautiful game?  No, not Jack Warner, but AFC boss Mohamed Bin Hammam.

That, at least, is the perspective of much of New Zealand’s soccer media this week, following the AFC’s ultimatum to New Zealand’s Wellington Phoenix, who play in Australia’s A-League: become a lot more Australian, or else.

The AFC has said that if Wellington don’t severely limit the number of non-Australian players in their team, the A-League will lose its two AFC Champions League spots from 2012 on (after the expiration of the A-League’s current participation deal with the AFC). This would classify players from New Zealand as foreigners on a team based in New Zealand.

The following demands were reportedly sent by the AFC to Football Federation Australia (FFA):

  • Wellington Phoenix FC should be officially registered as a commercial entity in Australia under local law.
  • To comply with the provisions of the Regulations, the number of foreign players (non-Australian) in Wellington Phoenix FC should be the same as in other clubs participating in the A-League. In case Wellington Phoenix qualifiy for the ACL, the 3+1 system should be implemented by the club according to the ACL Regulations.
  • Otherwise, Wellington Phoenix FC should belong to the second division of the A-League, which should be newly created by the FFA.

The 3+1 rule was instituted by the AFC earlier this year, limiting teams in the AFC Champions League to a maximum of four foreign players in a game, with at least one player from an AFC member association, and the AFC are pushing its leagues to adopt it domestically. The ACL regulations mentioned limit A-League teams to a maximum of five foreign players, but for Wellington, players from New Zealand (pretty logically) are currently classified as domestic.

In a post typical of the reaction, Michael Brown of the New Zealand Herald says Bin Hammam is “bullying” Phoenix.

Despite the uproar and outcry, it’s hard not to see that the AFC have a point. After all, Wellington play in Australia’s A-League, which is a little incongruous not only because Wellington isn’t in Australia, but because New Zealand and Australia aren’t even in the same FIFA Confederation, following the latter’s move from Oceania to the AFC in 2005.

But the AFC have handled the dispute abysmally, with the news report from the Confederation on the issue removed from their website a day after publication, with no explanation provided.

A severe limitation on the number of Kiwis on Wellington, or their departure from the A-League, would be a serious blow to the development of the sport in New Zealand. Ricki Herbert is the manager of both the Wellington Phoenix and the New Zealand national team, with many core members of the team playing for him at both club and country. Perhaps a little generously, the Sydney Morning Herald calls Wellington the best-run club in the A-League:

No Phoenix, no World Cup qualification. This is the pathway that was missing in 1981, the pathway that could take football across the Tasman to places it could only have dreamt of before property developer Terry Serepisos had his famous epiphany in a barber’s chair in early 2007 and bought a licence no one else wanted.

Serepisos is the best owner in the A-League, but now his $10 million investment is under threat. The A-League operates under the umbrella of the Asian Football Confederation, and AFC boss Mohamed Bin Hammam has never liked having a team from another confederation in his midst. For the past 18 months, he’s been white-anting the Phoenix, and now he’s finally made his move. Sooner or later, this had to come to a head.

The paper also points out that the competing World Cup bids of Australia and Qatar for 2022 could be at play here, in terms of the considerable pressure on the Australian federation to make nice with the AFC. Australia will need the support of their confederation for their bid; and many point out that a competing World Cup bid is, coincidentally or not, from Bin Hammam’s Qatar.  But the fact remains that there is a legitimate issue to resolve with Wellington the only club in the world to play in the top flight of a confederation their own country is not part of.

The FFA and Wellington ought to be able to find a work-around for this, but it may require the involvement of FIFA to solve a dispute between confederations, meaning the politics will only get an awful lot messier.

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