In a surprise announcement yesterday, John O’Neill quit as chief executive of Football Federation Australia (FFA). In Sydney, the 55-year old O'Neill said he would finish his tenure when his contract expires in March. He turned down the option of staying on for a further four years by mutual agreement with the FFA. Chairman Frank Lowy said "I expected him to sign a new contract for the next four years but he has indicated his need for a change of direction, which I respect.” John O’Neill was appointed in 2004 and oversaw a revolution in the sport of football in Australia.
John O’Neill was an executive at the NSW State Bank before he was appointed managing director and CEO of Australian Rugby Union in 1995. In eight years at the helm, ARU revenues increased seven-fold from $10 to $70 million while participation grew 50% from 100,000 players to almost 150,000. He was named the Sport Executive of the Year in 2002 for securing Australian sole hosting rights for Rugby World Cup 2003 which was initially due to be shared with New Zealand. The event itself in November 2003 was hailed as a great success and made a profit of almost $90 million. At the time O’Neill said the tournament's success had returned Australian rugby to financial health and stated that "Seven years ago we struggled to pay our electricity bill.”
Just as he did yesterday, O’Neill resigned as rugby boss unexpectedly in December 2003 after a falling out with his employers, the ARU. There were serious concerns within the organisation that he had turned the World Cup into "the John O'Neill show". This was due in part to a TV documentary on the event where O’Neill had the starring role. He was also criticised for spending too much time with Prime Minister John Howard and not sharing the plaudits of the successful organisation of the tournament with other key officials. His relationship with team captain George Gregan was also poor. O’Neill wanted to replace him as captain and he was forced to deny claims that he was the source of leaks to the News Limited media to destabilise Gregan.
In June 2004, the new football supremo Frank Lowy hired O’Neill to be his chief executive. The job was considered one of the toughest in Australian sport. Sectarian and ethnic rivalries, financial crises, state jealousies, poor attendences and bad administrative practices had left football in ruins. In 2003, the situation was so bad that the Government instituted the Crawford Report to investigate the problems. This inquiry (named after its chair David Crawford, retired Chairman of KPMG) recommended a series of reforms to the game. The board of Soccer Australia resigned en masse and billionaire business and football fan Frank Lowy was appointed chair of a new board charged with implementing the Crawford reforms.
The appointment of O’Neill was a crucial factor in improving the governance of the game. Under the Lowy/O’Neill axis, the old National Soccer League was abolished and a new A-league was planned with major corporate sponsorship and live TV coverage. The foundation clubs had no ethnic-based affiliations and required proof of start-up capital of at least $1 million before gaining entry to the league. The inaugural 2005-2006 A-league season was considered a slickly-advertised success with average crowds of over 10,000 in large well-appointed stadia. The next major achievement of O’Neill was overseeing the move of Australia into the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). This has long been a dream of Australian football - they and New Zealand were both rejected Asian membership in 1964. The change of confederation had two benefits; it would ease the torturous World Cup qualification path and also gain access to lucrative Asian markets and tournaments. Australia officially resigned from Oceania in March 2003 and were accepted as a new member of the 45-country AFC.
The third plank of O’Neill’s success was the hardest of all to achieve. Australia had not taken part in a FIFA World Cup finals since its sole appearance in 1974. The intervening years had seen nothing but quadrennial heartache including the most infamous loss in 1997 when Australia threw away a two goal lead to crash out to Iran in front of 100,000 people at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In 2005, Lowy and O’Neill appointed highly respected Dutchman Guus Hiddink as team coach. Hiddink duly provided the miracle as Australia qualified by defeating Uruguay on penalties in November. Hiddink continued to work miracles by coaching the team to a last 16 finish in the World Cup itself. Football achieved its highest ever profile in Australia during the World Cup with massive media coverage and huge crowds in all major cities attending open-air TV screening in the small hours.
With Hiddink and now O’Neill no longer in the picture, Lowy will need to act decisively to ensure that Australian football does not lose its hard-won gains. Like Hiddink, the master administrator O’Neill leaves the Australia job with his already glowing reputation greatly enhanced.