The room where it happened: Inside Football Queensland's week of chaos

Representatives from Queensland's 10 zones met in mid-July for Football Queensland's Annual General Meeting. ESPN takes you inside the drama of the day, and the wider ramifications it will have on Australian football...

The meeting

The conference room inside Football Queensland's head office, located just south-east of Brisbane, falls to a hush.

Robert Cavallucci, the governing body's CEO, is standing quietly near the back of the room. Opposite him, on the main wall, a projector screen shows four faces: the candidates who are up for election to the board.

The rest of FQ's board are sitting behind a table off to one side. Among them is former international Amy Chapman, the only woman up for re-election at this Annual General Meeting. In front of her, scattered throughout the rest of the conference room, are representatives from each of Queensland's 10 zones, all of whom will be deciding on whether to extend her tenure until the 2023 Women's World Cup.

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One by one, each representative slips a piece of paper into a glass box: their votes for the new board directors. Every member gets to vote for their top two candidates. Chapman is expected to be re-elected without issue; she has been front and centre in much of Queensland's recent work in women's football and has developed strong ties with the state government. There was no reason to suspect anything was amiss.

The box is carried into a different room so that the votes can be counted. In the meantime, FQ chairman, Ben Richardson, introduces the first of three resolutions that representatives will be voting on at this AGM.

The first, titled "Resolution 6," contains several reforms around good governance, almost all of which are endorsed by Sport Australia: integrity measures around board eligibility, term limits, committee representation, director conflicts of interest, performance evaluations, and gender diversity. These are reforms that many other sports across the country have adopted, and which Football Australia, the national governing body, wants football's state federations to begin incorporating into their respective Constitutions.

But this is when the AGM took a dark turn.

The mood up until the vote on "Resolution 6" was already tense. Earlier in the meeting, a FQ employee presented a series of slides showing positive work in the grassroots space throughout 2020, including being the only state in Australia to increase participation numbers. But some of the zone representatives did not appear interested; they looked down at their phones, picked at their nails, or stared vaguely around the room instead.

After the presentations, once Richardson had formally started the AGM, representatives were invited to ask questions of the board; part and parcel of meetings like this. Rabieh Krayem, a board director at Football Brisbane, asked several questions regarding the governing body's annual accounts. He was joined by Football Brisbane president, Jeremy Medina, who probed the board about their finances, including legal fees.

Cavallucci was observing the meeting in silence. He and Richardson had just emerged from a legal case in which they claimed that a story inferred that there were irregular financial dealings involved in Cavallucci's hiring. The two men sued for defamation. The case was settled and a public apology delivered. As such, Football Brisbane's AGM questions appeared loaded, designed to test the CEO and chairman in the eyes of the other zone representatives ahead of the votes.

The atmosphere in the conference room, then, has grown increasingly uneasy over the course of the meeting. Following questions, the AGM moves into the voting stage. Representatives are handed red and green coloured cards that they will use to vote "for" or "against" three motions that FQ is proposing, starting with "Resolution 6," which is expected to pass without issue.

But that is not what happens. When representatives are asked for their votes, majority of the room raises their hands for "against." There is a long pause followed by a moment of shattering recognition. Some representatives furrow their brows and shake their heads, others exchange concerned or disbelieving looks. It has become clear that something else is happening beneath the surface; that there is another game being played.

Richardson, FQ's chairman, addresses the members. He reveals that the board had received information ahead of the AGM that a bloc position had been orchestrated behind the scenes; that deals had been done before the meeting to veto any and all proposals made by FQ, regardless of their merit or necessity. As such, the final resolutions of the day, 7- 9, were being taken off the table. Instead, the meeting would move straight to the outcome of the board director vote.

Cavallucci, who had said little up until that point, steps forward. He takes a deep breath as he looks out across the room; the result of the vote already sitting heavy in his throat. He announces that the vote has been won by two men, Nigel Fanning and Peter Brine. Chapman has not been re-elected.

For a moment, it feels like the air has been sucked out of the room. Some zone representatives turn to each other with wide eyes. Whispers of shock fizz around the room. Chapman takes one long look across the representatives in front of her -- just one woman sitting among more than a dozen men -- and drops her gaze to the ground.

Richardson, unprompted, stands up from his chair and addresses the room again, his tone incandescent.

"You should all be embarrassed about what's transpired here today," he says. "You should be disgusted that someone of Amy's calibre has been sacrificed for deals. You've just written off the biggest asset we have on the board to take us to the Women's World Cup."

Some of the members look down at their feet or at their phones; anywhere but straight at Richardson, Chapman, or the board. Richardson then rapidly closes the meeting, reiterating that this was "a disappointing day for football in Australia."

Almost as soon as the meeting concludes, several representatives immediately begin heatedly discussing what has just happened. Some had been completely blind-sided; others, in their guilty silence, appear to have been part of the bloc plans all along.

As Chapman stands to leave, a number of representatives gather around her, including some who had voted her off the board. But Chapman ignores the waiting members. Instead, she calmly steps up to Fanning, congratulates him on his election, and walks swiftly out the door.

The context

There is something unmistakably Shakespearean about Australian football politics: its shadowy intrigue and power-plays, its bloodthirstiness and spite, its disregard for the lives of innocent by-standers, the historical tug-of-war between the dusty status quo and the fresh winds of change.

To an outsider -- a state or federal government representative, say -- football's reputation and repeated displays of self-cannibalisation make it a sport difficult to care about, let alone fund with taxpayer dollars.

Queensland is not alone among football's state federations in its dealings with football's entrenched fiefdoms; the areas and zones that have made up the complex tapestry of the Australian game for decades. Nor is FQ alone in wanting to enact structural changes to ensure that situations like its most recent AGM -- where politics took priority over progress -- cannot happen as often or as easily as it has in the past.

Indeed, FQ's AGM is the perfect distillation of the problems with football's current governance model; proof positive of why it needs reform. Long criticised by players and administrators as creating unnecessary, duplicated layers and blockages, Australian football's "federated" governance model has now finally met its maker: Football Australia CEO James Johnson.

Having worked as the Head of Professional Football at FIFA, Johnson has first-hand experience of the various governance models used by leagues and nations across the world. This wide-lens perspective has been critical in his decision-making, and since joining FA in January 2020, governance reform has been high on his agenda.

As he told the Sydney Morning Herald in May: "The current structure of Australian football has been in place for a long time but the game, both domestically and globally, has changed.

"Our Member Federations have recognised that the time is ripe to review and modernise our structure so that as a game, we can be more effective, deliver greater efficiencies across the game and meet the challenges of modern-day football.

"This will require breaking down the barriers which currently exist across the layers of the game, seeking common ground and building bridges to align on overall strategy, direction and efficiencies. That, at the core of it, is what is happening in Queensland as the game there begins to contemplate what change looks like."

There is a long, messy history between FQ and its member zones; far too long and too messy for this article to adequately address. But in order to understand the events that unfolded at the recent AGM, this background context is crucial. Indeed, FQ's governance reform proposals -- like those included in "Resolution 6" -- are principles dictated by FA's own vision for how to take the Australian game forward.

As journalist Vince Rugari revealed in the SMH article, FQ is simply FA's messenger in this sense: the state that was chosen to pilot a nationwide program whereby the federated governance model transitions to one that is more aligned, cost-effective, efficient, and productive. For average football participants, this will manifest in reduced fees, a clearer chain of command, and smoother implemented changes from the top down.

This, then, is the backdrop -- the painted theatre set -- against which last week's FQ AGM was played out. Self-preservation, it seems, was the motivating factor for many of the representatives who voted down FQ's "Resolution 6": it was not about the reform proposals themselves so much as a final, desperate act of defiance against an authoritative body tasked with reducing their power.

When asked why he voted down the good governance and gender equality reforms in "Resolution 6," Football Brisbane's president Medina told ESPN: "Members of FQ were not entitled, and did not get the opportunity, to vote on separate proposed changes to the Constitution identified in Resolution 6.

"The Gender Diversity Proposal was wholly meritorious and overdue; regrettably, the legitimate opposition of members of FQ to other changes to the Constitution proposed by the FQ Board meant that the Gender Diversity Proposal was defeated with the contentious changes proposed by FQ.

"It would be wholly unfair to present the decisions made by members of FQ as some form of gender issue. Those decisions follow a long history of complaint about the steps taken by FQ in its poor attempt to introduce much needed reform of football in Queensland in a form determined by FQ. The failure to propose the Gender Diversity Proposal as a standalone resolution at the AGM is just the latest misstep by FQ.

"Football Brisbane and its representative members of FQ remain committed to improving gender diversity in football generally, and specifically support greater female representation and participation in both the playing and administration of football in Brisbane and Queensland."

When asked what particular reforms as part of "Resolution 6" the zone board took issue with or whether they would have voted differently had the reforms been unbundled, Medina and the FB board chose not to comment further.

Regarding Chapman's removal, Medina directed ESPN to a letter sent to all Brisbane clubs following the AGM: "We do not doubt [Chapman's] passion for the game, believe she is an excellent ambassador for women's football and believe she has a lot more positive contributions to make to the game we all love.

"Unfortunately, the vote on Directors means that Amy will not continue as an elected Director, but it is appropriate to record that that vote was not a vote against Amy or against women's football.

"It was a vote against a Board that has tried to bulldoze through a reform agenda without real consultation from zones and clubs and without transparency or detail and despite complaints by zones about the process being implemented. It was a vote by zones, on behalf of our clubs, to say we will not allow ourselves or our clubs to be treated this way by Football Queensland."

For Football Brisbane, in particular, this final act of defiance appeared to be the start of its own death-rattle. Moments after the AGM concluded, FQ's new-look board voted to restructure Football Brisbane into two new zones: Metro North and Metro South.

According to FQ, this was intended to better serve Brisbane's growing participation base and create more proportional representation in the state congress. Football Brisbane's board knew this was coming: it was the result of a 14-month consultation process across the state, as well as with Football Australia, as part of the publicly-available "Future of Football 2020+ Consultation Paper" proposal.

And yet, Football Brisbane would not go down quietly. On Wednesday, less than 48 hours after Medina and his board were informed of FQ's decision to divide their zone into two, Football Brisbane took to social media to announce that all matches in the Brisbane zone were immediately suspended, claiming that players were no longer insured due to the zone's break-up.

But that was not true. In fact, ESPN understands that Football Brisbane announced football's suspension despite the fact they had already been told by FQ and FA a day earlier that all insurance was intact.

After Football Brisbane's social media posts, FQ scrambled to reassure Brisbane clubs that all insurance remained valid and that games would be going ahead; a statement reiterated by Football Australia a few days later. And that is precisely what happened: despite the noise and the confusion, all scheduled games in Brisbane went ahead without disruption.

The consequences

Australian football is like an iceberg: most of what happens is beneath the surface. This is, in part, what makes it so difficult to understand; it is structurally obtuse, obfuscating and overwhelming anyone who attempts to unpick and lay it out clearly for all to see.

For those who have been paying attention to the Australian game for the past decade (and longer), the events that unfolded at FQ's AGM are, more likely than not, unsurprising. That, in itself, is cause for concern: that the game's glacial rate of change over the years has resulted in the disenchantment -- almost defeatism -- in many of its most valuable and passionate participants.

Indeed, it's an open secret that many experienced, qualified, and effective advocates are often chewed up and spat back out by the game. Over time, one begins to wonder whether Australian football is so entrenched in its ways that it is past the point of redemption.

The situation involving Chapman is the perfect example. While Football Brisbane's statement implied that gender was irrelevant when it came to their AGM votes, that is precisely the problem: the tunnel-vision that football's internal politicking cements in the minds of its decision-makers are such that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

In this instance, the bigger picture is the voting down of gender equality principles (including 40/40/20 board representation) and the removal of an influential woman leader at a time when Australian football -- and football globally -- is pushing in the opposite direction.

Queensland's chaotic AGM -- the orchestrated phalanx of opposing representatives, the voting down of much-needed reform, and the dismissal of a highly capable female leader -- provides its own evidence as to why these reforms being piloted by Football Australia and FQ matter.

While ESPN understands that Chapman will accept an appointed position back to the FQ board, the story here is about the toxic, politically charged culture and the counter-productive governance structures that resulted in her removal in the first place.

Queensland is just one of many other state federations and zones where such tradecraft is carried out; much of which, from a macro-cosmic view, accomplishes little more than reaffirming football's reputation as a self-consuming tangle of self-interested individuals and groups as they cling desperately to the last threads of power and influence.

It serves, as so many of Shakespeare's plays did, as a morality tale: about the corrosiveness of power, the myopia of greed, and the consequences of politics without the guiding principle of the greater good. There are many lessons that the rest of the Australian game can learn from Football Queensland's week of chaos; the question now is whether or not they will.