In November 2006 Ben Buckley was unveiled as the new Chief of the Football Federation of Australia.
At that press conference he was quoted as saying he wished to take the game to the level it has promised for so long. “That’s the aim to put it right up there as one of the pre-eminent codes, if not the pre-eminent code. I believe we are dealing with massive untapped potential”
He went on to state “It’s not about setting deadlines as to when. It’s about getting the fundamentals right and making sure the elite level of the game acts as an inspiration to the youth.”
These words were uttered post World Cup 2006 where a Socceroos team with players at their peak managed to progress through to the second round, and had it not been for a clumsy Italian falling over, may have progressed to the quarter finals.
The euphoria in Australia, and the interest in the game that this generated, was not capitalised on by his predecessor John O’Neill. However O’Neill’s task when he joined football was setting up a national league and making sure Australia qualified for the World Cup. He achieved those goals.
Four years on, is the FFA and the relevant state administrators around the country ready for the increase in interest after this world cup? If they are not they should hang their heads in shame. Australian football missed the opportunity in 1974, but at that stage they never expected the upsurge in interest. In 2006 they should have anticipated it, however with a fledgling Hyundai A league underway, they may have lost focus. This time around there is absolutely no excuse.
Buckley’s four-year deal comes to a close at the end of the year, around the time that Australia will discover whether their dual bids to host the World Cup in 2018 or 2022 have been successful. Should he pull this one off he will undoubtedly go down in the history of Australian football as a legend and his tenure a success.
When he was appointed to the post former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, warned Buckley that ‘he’ll be dealing with some pretty focused minds in Australian Soccer and he will need to develop from a good administrator into a top notch leader.”
Looking back over the past four years has Buckley been the leader that everyone hoped he would be, has he managed to maintain the levels of interest that John O’Neill and his team created?
They have been without doubt different times, yet the achievements of Pim Verbeek in steering an ageing squad to a second World Cup Finals has been a wonderful achievement, although this campaign in South Africa will be a far tougher one than 2006.
Football has started evolving in the second phase of its re-birth and with that has come problems, a great deal of them not the fault of Buckley or his staff at the FFA.
There have been areas that if we look back over the past four years could have been handled better and maybe Kennett was right, Ben Buckley is too nice a guy.
When Hiddink resigned should Graham Arnold have lead the Socceroos in Asia? Most people know that this was a financial issue but did it sidetrack the progress being made?
The development of the Hyundai A league from eight teams to ten so soon is proving a miscalculation, and like the English Premier League is raising questions about the FFA carrying out due diligence on those who wish to own clubs.
The appointment of Archie Fraser as head of the A league in February 2009 looked to have been a good one as he had a background in football, having played for Greenock Morton, but his resignation just over a year later, does not reflect well.
The development of Australia’s youth is a major concern to many who have one eye on the future. Our youth teams have not been performing on the World stage to the levels they had in the past, the AIS were one of the poorest teams in the National Youth League, and they are supposedly the cream of Australian football. Without that talent on the conveyor belt, there will be no inspiration for the youth that Buckley spoke about when he took on the role. You cannot purely focus on the top end, the Socceroos. They may be your brand, but your brand can lose market value if the quality drops.
The World Cup bid for 2018 and 2022 has also not been a smooth ride, with allegations of poor communication, and the departure of Media Manager Bonita Mersiades, along with the simple fact that outside of Sydney no one has been part of promotion to host the world’s greatest sporting event.
When he was appointed Buckley was described as an ‘emerging visionary’ who had demonstrated his marketing acumen with Nike and the AFL.
Buckley was without doubt handed one of the toughest jobs in Australian sport, at one of its most pivotal times. His predecessor knew how to keep the media talking about the game, with great sound bites. Buckley has been more careful with what he says, which may be the influence of Frank Lowy, but it has meant the profile has dropped.
The challenges Ben Buckley took on were immense, yet the rewards have the ability to be unparalleled. The big question is will he stay to continue to steer the game on the path he has set come November this year, and can Football afford another change in CEO?
Whatever the outcome there is no doubt that the World Cup bid will be the moment on which rightly or wrongly Ben Buckley’s reign as head of football will be judged, and could also determine his future.