Minister Shane Ross came to Government via the independent route and based on a reputation built first and foremost as a media commentator.
He has always retained a column in the Sunday Independent newspaper and used that vehicle this weekend to launch a scathing attack on the appointment of Noel Mooney on a six-month secondment from UEFA to serve as General Manager for Football services and Partnerships.
Eleven days ago we wrote here that “It will be important, as is the case in all diplomacy, to listen to what is being said between the lines as well as in the text of statements in order to avoid the ultimate sanction (of removal from international competition).”
This was in response to the FIFA delegation that arrived in Dublin led by senior Executive Bjorn Vassallo, saying that “FIFA’s objective is to safeguard the autonomy of the FAI.”
Quite how Vassallo and his colleagues back in Switzerland will take the words of our Government Minister over the weekend must now be of real concern.
They will be aware of the massive unease there has been around governance, finance and the appointment of new leadership. They will be doubly concerned at the high profile which the FAI has in relation to hosting games in next season’s Euro 2020 Finals and as potential bidders to stage the World Cup, in partnership with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2030.
They have offered a line of credit, through UEFA, to see the Association through the coming months and they considered the imposition of temporary direct control over the running of the FAI.
Instead, the dance of diplomacy led to senior UEFA Personnel including Mooney and Finance Director Josef Koller being seconded in full in the case of Mooney and on a part-time basis in the case of Koller to oversee a transition back to sustainable autonomy.
They met with Sport Ireland and representatives of Government and both sides stated their concerns over the running of the FAI on one side and the need to allow football to be run autonomous of Government influence on the other.
Minister Ross states in his column twice that “We would prefer not to be involved in the antics of the FAI because we fully respect their autonomy – but we partially fund it.” and that “We will not interfere with the operational independence of our national football body but we must move urgently to restore public trust in its activities,” but it is the two ‘but’s’ that will no doubt cause some degree of alarm in Nyon.
Nobody will argue with the statement that “The FAI needs an independent chief executive, a troubleshooter without links to the FAI board, selected in an open, transparent process.” But if the Board is to be a new one after the AGM, and Mooney’s appointment is limited to a maximum of six months then why wield a sword with such vehemence.
Mooney was appointed on the basis that he will ‘initially assess the FAI’s requirements and will co-ordinate future support and expertise in finance and other areas from UEFA and FIFA’.
Minister Ross has accused this as being just ‘spin’ but the connection back to world football makes it more than just a local appointment.
He raises concerns over statements made by Mooney at FAI AGM’s in the past and yes they have created a hostage to fortune but the Minister himself is not immune to praising those who he may one day come to cricise.
Speaking on Newstalk at the end of last year he said that “There’s a lot of criticism about John Delaney, my own experience is that when I go to these local games in the constituency on the ground, is that I see John Delaney and representatives of the FAI all the time. They’re always on the ground doing things, relating to those really important things that young people are doing.”
Test of Time
We all say things at times that may not stand well the test of time but you make a call based on what you know at the time and in the context of some degree of understanding about what you are commenting on.
That applies to Noel Mooney, to Minister Shane Ross, to the media and to the fans.
What matters most is how those comments can shape the events themselves on which commentary is being passed.
The column goes on to suggest that it is “the real heroes” of Irish football that should be rewarded with seats on the board and while there is no issue with that call arising from Friday’s Stakeholders Forum if that is to be the case, there is danger in it coming from Government.
We need to step back and look at the language being used as if it were coming from a less democratic state on the other side of the world. Would view it as seeking to influence the future of a local football body, I fear we would.
I fear as well that FIFA and UEFA will be reviewing the Sunday Independent over their continental breakfast.
They may decide to let it pass and ride out the ever shorter news cycle relying on their own secondment of trusted executives to clear up whatever is needed to be cleared.
They may decide to wait on the reports of the independent financial experts who are poring over the documents and financial trails to see what and where lines were were crossed and what repercussions transgressions will have.
We need to be careful though and they may decide that a line has been crossed and that if the FAI is no longer considered in charge of its own destiny, that it should be removed from international competition.
It has happened in Europe as recently as 2011 when Bosnia Herzegovina was removed for a period of six months.
It remains unlikely, and would only ever be a last resort. It is, however, a little more possible after yesterday.
The FAI Stakeholders Forum will take place at Dublin’s Mansion House on Friday.
Read more: FIFA Eyes are Watching Ireland