Fans suffer as Socceroos' soap opera plays out ahead of World Cup qualifier
This week's Socceroos camp has had all the markings of a soap opera. A plot twist came in the form of captain Mile Jedinak and star goalkeeper Mat Ryan withdrawing from the squad due to injury, but the real drama involved the ongoing power struggle between the governing body and the players' union.
Football Federation Australia (FFA) and Professional Footballers Australia (PFA) are bickering due to the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expiring on June 30. This protracted row has, of course, now impinged on Australia's second 2018 World Cup qualifier, which will be played against Bangladesh in Perth on Thursday. And nobody, it seems, is able to escape the turmoil.
Following a PFA directive on Monday which prevented Socceroos players from attending a public appearance, the FFA fired a warning shot, saying: "We deeply regret that many people will be left disappointed. The players are obviously acting under the direction of the PFA, but this manoeuvre is a backward step in the game's mission to maximise our commercial opportunities."
Highly respected national team boss Ange Postecoglou was asked for his opinion in the pre-game media conference the following day, and he, naturally, gave a pragmatic answer.
"I'm not happy it's getting played out in Socceroo camp," Postecoglou said. "I don't have the players often and when I have them, that time's precious. I don't want any minute wasted.
"If we think it's OK during the World Cup qualifiers to play out this scenario then I'm out of whack with everyone else because I think while the camp is on ... lay down your guns and pick them up as soon as it's over, and go as hard as you want. It's not good enough."
An understandable sentiment from a clearly frustrated coach trying to keep Asia's champions focused on the small matter of qualifying for a fourth consecutive World Cup. Or so it seemed.
On Wednesday, the plot thickened. FFA distributed a statement in which Postecoglou strangely retracted his comments, declaring a clear allegiance to his employer in this dispute.
"As a senior employee of Football Federation Australia I understand that my comments were inappropriate," said Postecoglou.
"I appreciate that I need to take sides on this issue. The commercial performance of the Socceroos brand directly affects the amount of investment in the match schedule, technical developments and sports science staff.
"In this case, the commercial boycotts imposed by Professional Footballers Australia will directly affect commercial partners and will inevitably hurt the Socceroos program.
"I made comments yesterday out of frustration. I acknowledge that the PFA initiated the regrettable situation that has distracted us in Perth. I understand that FFA was compelled to respond in order to explain its position to the game's stakeholders."
A more clear-cut case of words being put in someone's mouth you would struggle to find.
Underneath all this tension is a series of important factors being negotiated. These include national team match payments, the A-League salary cap and an alleged AUD$4.5 million in outstanding monies owed to domestic footballers.
All of these issues deserve due consideration and an appropriate resolution. Few could doubt that. Having a CBA in place prior to the start of the A-League season in October is a priority.
However, despite all the gamesmanship, it is hard to see how either side won any battles this week. This is particularly true when one considers that even a mildly interested football follower in Australia has known about the FFA-PFA negotiations for months. Why it had to come to a head as supporters were just getting excited after a lengthy off-season is a real mystery.
The PFA will feel that they must fight for the best possible conditions for their members, and their strength is in the players themselves. For the FFA, it is clear their goal is to have the game in a strong enough position commercially to negotiate a better television rights deal.
But for all the reasonable explanations and complex concerns on both sides, there is simply no accounting for the West Australian kids with unsigned Socceroos jerseys who will have to wait another decade for the national team to play in their state (Australia's last senior international in Perth was in 2005 against Indonesia). Ignoring them while debating what is best for the game does seem to be a glaring paradox.
Indeed, part of the reason this very winnable match against the 170th ranked Bangladesh is being played in Western Australia is to give back to cities outside of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. There has been plenty of taking, but precious little giving this week.
When the dust settles on Australia's opening home qualifier on the road to Russia 2018, it is likely that few will even remember the score. In honesty, a comfortable win is expected for the hosts.
What will stick in the memory is the ugliness with which the FFA and PFA have played out this PR war at a time when the game should have been coming together. That's not to mention the ridiculous situation Postecoglou was placed in as a result.
Three points would provide some sense of salvation in this story, but this tale sadly contains only villains at this point.
Rob Brooks writes about Australian football and the A-League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter: @RobNJBrooks