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Diego Maradona’s doctor investigated by Argentinian police after football legend’s death


Argentinian police have searched the home and office of one of Diego Maradona’s doctors, taking away medical records as part of investigations into the 60-year-old’s death.

Neurologist Leopoldo Luque told reporters he had given investigators all the records of his treatment of Maradona, as well as computers, hard drives and mobile phones.

Weeping at times, he defended his treatment of the troubled former footballer, who died of a heart attack last week following a brain operation earlier in the month.

“I know what I did. I know how I did it…. I am absolutely sure that I did the best for Diego, the best I could,” Dr Luque said.

The search order was requested by prosecutors in the affluent Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro and signed by a local judge, according to a statement issued by the prosecutor’s office.

“By virtue of the evidence that was collected, it was considered necessary to request searches at the home and office of Dr Leopoldo Luque,” the prosecutor’s office said in the statement.

The prosecutor’s office provided no information on what prompted the investigation.

A football fan cries in the street.
Mourners visit Diego Maradona’s coffin in Buenos Aires.(AP Photo: Rodrigo Abd)

Dr Luque said he was not Maradona’s chief physician, but part of a medical team.

Court investigators have been taking declarations from Maradona’s relatives, according to a statement from the San Isidro prosecutor’s office, which is overseeing the probe into the medical attention Maradona received before he died.

Maradona had suffered a series of medical problems, some due to his excessive use of drugs and alcohol. He was reportedly near death in 2000 and 2004.

Dr Luque said he was a difficult patient and had kicked the doctor out of his house several times.

“Diego did what he wanted,” Dr Luque said.

Tens of thousands of weeping fans lined up to file past Maradona’s coffin before his burial in Buenos Aires last week.

Some of them clashed with police, who fired rubber bullets and tear gas as they tried to maintain order.

Wires



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Sarah Fuller becomes first woman to play major American college football conference game, kicking for Vanderbilt


Sarah Fuller has become the first woman to play for an American football team in a major conference, donning the pads and cleats for Vanderbilt University.

Unfortunately, Vanderbilt was beaten so soundly by the University of Missouri — 41-0 — that she only got on the field for the second-half kick-off, but it was enough to make history.

Fuller, the goalkeeper for Vanderbilt’s championship-winning women’s soccer team, got the call-up from head coach Derek Mason.

Vanderbilt plays in the South-Eastern Conference (SEC), making Fuller the first woman to play for a team in one of the “Power Five” college conferences, which account for the biggest football programs in the country.

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Women have kicked for college teams in the past — including Liz Heaston in 1997, Tonya Butler and Katie Hnida in 2003, and April Goss in 2015 — but never for a “Power Five” school.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the organisation that runs the lucrative college sports scene in the US, described her as the first woman to play “in a major conference football game”.

“It’s just so exciting, the fact that I can represent the little girls out there who wanted to do this or thought about playing football, or any sport,” she said after the game.

“And [if] it encourages them to be able to step out and do something big like this [that’s] awesome.”

Vanderbilt place kicker Sarah Fuller (32) fist-bumps Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz ahead of their college football game.
Even the opposing coach had to respect Fuller’s history-making moment.(AP: LG Patterson)

Vanderbilt’s inability to get within field-goal range or within touching distance of the Missouri Tigers on the scoreboard meant Fuller’s only involvement was kicking off in the second half, with her team already trailing 21-0.

Wearing number 32 and with “Play like a girl” written on the back of her helmet, Fuller’s short kick-off was collected by the Tigers and she left the field.

Some looking to pillory Fuller on social media criticised it as a miscue, but as NFL coach Ron Rivera pointed out, it was a “perfect mortar kick” (also known as a “pooch” or “squib” kick) to try to catch Missouri off guard and avoid giving them a chance to return the kick in the open field.

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Superstar NFL quarterback Russell Wilson and US soccer legend Mia Hamm were among those watching from home who praised Fuller for breaking new ground.

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Soccer final more stressful for star goalkeeper

Despite admitting to feeling a responsibility to represent all women trying to break through in traditionally patriarchal fields, she said she was more nervous when she was in goal for Vanderbilt in their 3-1 win over Arkansas in last week’s SEC championship soccer game.

“Honestly, I was just really calm … I was really excited to step out on the field and do my thing,” she said of the outing in pads.

“I just want to tell all the girls out there that you can do anything you set your mind to, you really can. And if you have that mentality all the way through, you can do big things.”

A COVID-19 outbreak and potential replacement players leaving for their holiday break left Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason needing to “think outside the box” in filling a need, so he called up the coach of the soccer team, who put Fuller’s name forward.

“In practice, the guys were impressed the first day she came out, she put the ball through the uprights, she was fearless and she plays football the same way she plays soccer,” Mason said.

Mason also stressed that it was not an empty gesture to try and get publicity, but one of the university’s top athletes filling a need for the football team.

“She wasn’t trying to set some landmark event. She was just trying to help really where she could,” he said.



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Diego Maradona was God’s gift to a generation of sportswriters during his legendary football career


At first it might seem strange to note that Diego Maradona, who died in Buenos Aires this week at age 60, did not play muse to a notable cohort of writers in the way that other 20th century sporting greats were.

Where Ali had Norman Mailer, David Remnick and Mark Kram, and DiMaggio had Gay Talese and Richard Ben Cramer, there is no standout contender staking literary claim to the Argentinian hero.

One obvious explanation is that in both personality and playing style, Maradona was a figure too lurid and unbelievable for the restrained pens of respectable journalists and writers.

Also, there was his ubiquity in international football’s first era of blanket television coverage; his most outrageous moments were readily accessible and endlessly replayed, making them harder for writers to relay with any fresh new spin.

Some claim it is more a question of language barrier: the most insightful accounts of Maradona’s deeper significance simply weren’t written in English. Among those that were, old treasures remain.

How about Patrick Barclay on an 18-year-old Maradona’s evisceration of Scotland in July 1979, when the world first awakened to his genius.

“Maradona is formidable to even behold: dark, stocky and with a middleweight’s muscularity,” Barclay wrote.

“He moves so quickly that the spectator gets eye strain. You expect an Argentinian to have virtually total ball control, but few can dribble like Maradona whose brain, being capable of reading three opponents’ minds at once, can render even tackling in groups futile.

The Observer’s late, great Hugh McIlvanney seemed well matched.

During the 1982 World Cup, McIlvanney wrote: “The foul that caused Diego Maradona to be ordered from the field was so violent that it might have ended the sex life of Brazil’s Batista there and then … Maradona’s changes of direction are so devastatingly sudden and extreme that they must impose a huge strain on his lower body. Surely there has not been such a pelvis since Elvis Presley was in his prime.”

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Fans mourn Maradona in Naples, where he played in the 80s and 90s.

Two years later, McIlvanney could also see the dark side of Maradona’s fame.

“Outsiders are entitled to say that when your contract runs into the millions, even the hard times must be bearable,” he wrote.

“But a glance at Maradona’s 23-year-old face, which should still be that of a boy under the thick canopy of shining black hair, discourages such simplistic reactions. In Spain, probably to a greater extent than in any other European country, football exacts stiff payment for the cash fortunes it bestows.

“Annual salaries read like national budgets but the young men who receive the money can’t always be sure they will age just one year at a time.”

US fascination with Maradona

Of course, that celebrity was not confined to Europe.

In mid-80s America, Maradona pulled off a feat many thought impossible, commanding the cover of Sports Illustrated — a publication not known for its devotion to the world game.

One of the magazine’s legendary writers, Rick Telander, wrote of Maradona in 1990: “[He] is the best soccer player in the world, but he is also among the worst at dealing with the world.”

Telander’s Sports Illustrated colleague SL Price described Maradona’s career as “a war between a glorious body and a corrupted mind”.

Their heir, ESPN’s Wright Thompson, wrote: “Maradona is a modern-day saint, a vessel for hopes and dreams, and nothing he does can destroy the myth that millions of people want to believe.”

Yet sportswriters certainly tried to destroy the myth, or possibly just proved Thomas McGuane’s theory that the most memorable sports writing springs from avidity, not detachment; they were simply too invested in Maradona’s brilliance to accept his horrifying descent into the lifestyle that blunted it.

Argentina's Diego Maradona dribbles the ball against Italy at the 1990 FIFA World Cup.
Maradona faced a challenging time at the 1990 World Cup in Italy.(Reuters: Action Images)

Even McIlvanney decried his 1990 World Cup performance as “a histrionic insult to what he once was”. Never mind the constant, brutal fouling that had battered Maradona’s legs.

Even on the demise, opinions varied.

McIlvanney’s brilliant colleague Matthew Engel of The Guardian wrote of Maradona’s performance in that year’s World Cup final loss to West Germany: “His personality bestrode this match, not because of anything he did but because of what he is, has done and might have done.

“The Italians (excepting the Neapolitans) have elevated him into a hate figure of a kind not seen since they changed their mind about another domineering little man and hanged him upside-down from a lamp post.”

Maradona’s genius recognised

Naturally, the best Maradona writing of all sprang from Argentina’s successful World Cup campaign of 1986, and the acrimony that followed its quarter-final win over England.

Before it, McIlvanney had a prescient warning: “If there is an effective way of killing off the threat of Diego Maradona by marking him, it probably involves putting a white cross over his heart and tethering him to a stake in front of a firing squad.

“Even then there would be the fear that he might suddenly dip his shoulder and cause the riflemen to start shooting one another.”

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For many, Diego Maradona’s ‘Hand of God’ goal is the most memorable moment of his phenomenal career.

Rarely among his peers in the British press, McIlvanney later found it hard to condemn Maradona for his hand-ball transgression: “Considering the emotional intensity of the bond that links Maradona to the team he leads and inspires, it would not be astonishing if he preferred to risk condemnation from the rest of us rather than invite their resentment and disapproval … I hope he tears [West Germany] apart.

Novelists had a go too.

Colm Toibin once wrote a profile of Maradona for Esquire, which included lengthy digressions on the class divisions in Argentina, and the racist dismissiveness of upper crust attitudes to Maradona’s humble origins.

“His wedding was, in the words of one member of the establishment, perhaps the most vulgar occasion ever held in Argentina,” Toibin wrote.

To the Spanish novelist, journalist, poet and devout Barcelona FC supporter Manuel Vázquez Montalbán — whose fictional characters namechecked the Argentinian wizard — Maradona “epitomised the mystique of the working-class revolution: aloof and arrogant like the 1980s”.

Argentina captain, Diego Maradona, holds up the trophy after the 1986 World Cup final
Maradona was at the peak of his powers when he led Argentina to World Cup glory in 1986.(AP: Carlo Fumagalli, file photo)

Among historians, David Goldblatt captured Maradona’s appeal most evocatively, writing of his 1986 zenith: “It was the last World Cup where the crowd actually stormed onto the field at the end of the final.

“Maradona would be the last captain to hold the trophy aloft in not merely a scrum of FIFA bureaucrats and the global media, but with the people who came to see him. When they write his history again in future worlds, will writers be tempted to say that this was the moment of his ascent to another realm?”

‘Frighteningly brilliant’

Was Maradona or Pelé the best?

British sports writing great Richard Williams had a stab.

“Maradona bent matches to his will in the way no one had done before, and that if we were trying to decide on the very greatest, a stupid but fun thing to do, then this might be the truest measure,” Williams wrote.

In the end, it was Maradona’s opponents and teammates who produced the descriptions that will probably stand the test of time.

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Commentator Victor Hugo Morales dubbed him the Cosmic Kite after the second goal against England.

Of Maradona’s second goal in the “Hand of God” game — the goal many consider the greatest ever — England’s Gary Lineker said: “Heart-stopping, tremendous, frightening almost. Frighteningly brilliant, that is. Especially that first little pirouetting turn on halfway that set him up for the run. Your heart and mind could only erupt with applause at such a goal.”

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Yet it might have been so different if Maradona had followed through with a plan to pass the ball to teammate Jorge Valdano, who recalled the moment to the British writer David Winner.

“He told me that at that moment, he remembered a game seven years earlier at Wembley when he’d been in a similar position and had played the ball to (Peter) Shilton’s left and missed the goal,” Valdano said.

“He assessed the current situation and decided that he didn’t need me; he could solve the problem of scoring himself. In a quarter-final of the World Cup, after a 70-metre run, he was able to recall a situation from years earlier, analyse it, process the information and reach a new conclusion.

“And he did it in a fraction of a microsecond.”

Valdano later became a sportswriter himself and was well qualified to add a line employed by many colleagues before and since: “That is genius.”



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Australian football continues to disenfranchise its prize asset to cover for administrative failings


You only needed to watch Diego Maradona waddle his way through the opposition, turning even the greatest defenders into human training cones, to appreciate his sublime talent.

On any playground, pitch or back alley on the planet, Maradona’s dancing feet would have set him apart from mere footballing mortals.

Yet the timing of Maradona’s death this week prompted a thought beyond the many touching tributes to his genius and explorations of his very human character — would he have conquered the world if he had been born in Brisbane and not Buenos Aires?

Coincidentally, Maradona’s death coincided with the publication of two media reports that shone a now routinely unflattering light on the way football talent is identified and developed in Australia, and the administrators who oversee that process.

Argentina captain, Diego Maradona, holds up the trophy after the 1986 World Cup final
Would Diego Maradona have flourished if he grew up in the Australian football system?(AP: Carlo Fumagalli, file photo)

Sydney’s Sun-Herald newspaper ran an extensive story on the cutthroat process whereby children aged between 9 and 13 compete for sought-after places in club-based skills acquisition programs.

Entry to these mini academies costs $1,500 per season, with the Sun-Herald reporting parents at some clubs were told they must pay a $500 deposit on the spot if their child passed a trial — sometimes under the threat they would miss out if they didn’t cough up the cash immediately.

This was just the first step in a “pathway” where graduates of the ultra-competitive skills acquisition programs would then fight for places in the National Premier League clubs at a further cost of $2,650 per season.

Of course, only the added details will be surprising to any parent or player who has endured Australian football’s bottom-to-top financial model in which participants pay for funding shortfalls at local clubs, state associations and even in the national administration.

The relative expense of playing even the earliest levels of football — often three or four times as much as Australian rules, rugby league and cricket — has long been the hottest topic at football forums where fans are invited to air grievances about the game, but are seldom rarely heard.

“Financial wherewithal should never be an indicator of sporting achievement, certainly not in the simple game the very nature of which is more inclusive than other, just a ball and boots,” retired Socceroo Craig Foster told the Sun-Herald.

Equally concerning is that skill acquisition centres are creating survival-of-the-fittest programs for players at an age when young talent — yes, even “elite talent” — is best nurtured in an enjoyable non-judgemental environment.

You need only see the changes adopted by New Zealand rugby, Australian junior cricket and various European football programs to understand how this immersive philosophy is being successfully embraced, despite the lingering ill-informed school-of-hard-knocks myth that competition builds “character” and “resilience” in early-age juniors.

Juniors faced by fees hike

Also, this week the ABC’s 7.30 program ran a report about concerns that former politician Robert Cavallucci had been paid almost $320,000 a year to become Football Queensland (FQ) chief — double the wage of the previous CEO — after a recruiting process led by fellow FQ board member Ben Richardson at a cost to football of $44,000.

These claims were first reported by former FFA corporate affairs director Bonita Mersiades and are the subject of a defamation suit filed by Cavalluci and Richardson who are claiming $800,000 in damages against Mersiades.

While the FQ executives deny any wrongdoing, a subsequent hike in registration fees for Queensland participants — an extra $2.50 for juniors and $5.50 — almost precisely covered the new chief executive’s salary and his recruiting costs.

A woman stands at the corner of a soccer field.
Bonita Mersiades is the subject of a defamation lawsuit taken out by Football Queensland’s president and chief executive.(ABC News: Dave Maguire)

So regardless of whether FQ can justify the added expense by creating new funding initiatives, again it is the players at the bottom of the sport’s competitive pyramid who are asked to stump up the cash to get the ball rolling.

You could blame Australian football’s failure to gain substantial media rights money and corporate backing for the A-League and national teams, the cash and government goodwill squandered during the disastrous 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cup bid, or the continued inability to use a vast participant base as anything but a convenient cash cow.

Whatever the cause, Australian football continues to disenfranchise and disenchant its greatest asset — its legion of male and female players — by making even the youngest would-be star literally pay the price for continued administrative failings.

Which makes you wonder if there has been an Aussie Diego whose parents couldn’t fork out the $1,500 for an academy place; or who didn’t bring their wallet to the trial and put $500 in the hands of a club boss desperate to buy a striker for his senior team.

Would Aussie Diego’s talent have thrived in a system that risks taking the innocent joy from kids who should be honing their skills in a supportive environment, not learning to suppress their instincts for fear of officious technical judgement?

Has the money that should have been allocated to Aussie Diego’s development instead been lavished on local and even national administrators “earning” the kind of salary the game can only afford by taxing its participants?

The answer, of course, is that a talent as colossal as Maradona’s would surely shine through.

But the subsequent question the newly branded Football Australia must ask itself is whether an Aussie Diego would conquer the world because of his experiences here, or despite them.

Host Kelli Underwood and the Offsiders panel will discuss all the latest sports news and issues on Sunday at 10:00am on ABC TV.



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Border uncertainty drives Kaniva Leeor United Football Club out of SA’s KNTFL for Horsham League in Victoria


A Victorian country sports club has decided to leave its South Australian-based competition and decades of playing history behind due to uncertainty around state border restrictions.

The move comes just days before South Australia’s border closure with Victoria ends on Tuesday.

The regional town of Kaniva, 25 kilometres east of the South Australian-Victorian border, is to join the Horsham District Football Netball League.

Kaniva Leeor United Football Club President Jason Gordon said the decision to change competitions had emerged over a difficult six months.

“[We] had an extraordinary special meeting [this week], about the future of our club and where our members thought the best place, for the most chance to play in 2021 was for us,” Mr Gordon said.

“And [it] was decided that the Horsham District Football Netball League was the place that we could be a standalone club and not have to deal with the border issues that have been taking place.”

A white sign on some green lawn reads 'Home of the Kaniva Leeor United Cougars'.
Kaniva is about 25 kilometres from the South Australian border.(Supplied: Kaniva Leeor United Football Club)

The club did not play any football this year due to COVID-19 restrictions and changing border regulations.

Mr Gordon said it was a “huge decision” for the club to make, but it was the “best thing” for the club to do in the circumstances.

“The whole border issue has been wearing the people of the border community down,” he said.

Mr Gordon said the South Australian statewide shutdown last week, and Victoria’s 48 hour “hard border” response, reminded the club what was at stake.

“[It] just pricks everybody’s mind to thinking – if we go again, and playing in South Australia, it increases our risk of being shut down – because of that border issue.”

A small florescent green football lies on a football oval under lights in the foreground as men train in the background.
Community sport in border towns has had to contend with each state’s COVID-19 responses and changing travel restrictions.(ABC South East SA: Isadora Bogle)

Mr Gordon said the South Australian-based Kowree Naracoorte Tatiara Football League (KNTFL) competition had been “extremely generous” to the Victorian club.

“We have absolutely no problems with them or our opponents over there,” he said.

KNTFL President Peter McLellan said the competition supported Kaniva Leeor United’s decision “wholeheartedly”.

“We’re very upset that we’re losing a foundation club of Kowree-Naracoorte League,” Mr McLellan said.

“But realistically with COVID, this year’s proven there’s outbreaks and who can be 100 per cent sure next year that borders will be open, or not closed, or shut, at a moment’s notice?”

Only looking one season ahead

Mr Gordon said while the Horsham District Football Netball League had not yet accepted Kaniva Leeor United into their competition, the club was excited about its future.

“We get to play against new opposition, we get to meet new people, we get to do what you play country sport for,” he said.

Mr Gordon said club members wanted to get back to “some sort of normality” after a tough year on the border.

“That comes about from community sport and interaction with our neighbours and our friends and having a social life- having things that we look forward to.”

The sun shines down on a large and freshly-mowed tree lined football oval.
Kaniva Leeor United has been playing in the South Australian league for decades.(Supplied: Kavina Leeor United Football Club)

Mr McLellan said the club could return to the KNTFL in the future.

“They’re going have one year and we’re all hoping ’21 gets back to normal and if that’s proven right, well, hopefully, they can come back into our league and we’ll take them with open arms,” he said.

“We just wish them the best and hope they can come back to us.”



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Football legend Diego Maradona dies of heart attack at age 60



Argentina football legend Diego Maradona has died of a heart attack at age 60, his lawyer has confirmed.

The former midfielder and national coach had recently battled health problems and underwent successful surgery earlier this month for a blood clot on his brain.

He suffered a heart attack at his home on the outskirts of Buenos Aires on Wednesday, Argentinian media and acquaintances of the former player said.

He famously captained Argentina to victory at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, winning the Golden Ball as best player of the tournament.

The tournament also featured his infamous ‘Hand of God’ goal against England in the quarter-finals.

Although his reputation was tarnished by drug problems, off-field indiscretions and an ill-fated spell in charge of the national team, he remained idolised in soccer-mad Argentina as the ‘Pibe de Oro’ or ‘Golden Boy’.

Hospitalised and reportedly near death in 2000 and again in 2004 for heart problems blamed on cocaine, Maradona later said he overcame the drug problem.

Cocaine, he once said famously, had proven to be his “toughest rival”.

Argentine President Alberto Fernandez declared three days of national mourning after the news of Maradona’s death.

More to come.



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Football Queensland’s members’ fees only went up a few dollars, but they weren’t told where the money was going


The first thing Murray Bird saw in the budget meeting was the new boss’s salary and he was “horrified”.

Former politician Robert Cavallucci was hired on nearly double the pay of the last chief executive at Football Queensland (FQ) — almost $320,000 a year.

“No-one else that I know of involved in Queensland community sport is receiving that sort of money,” Mr Bird says.

The CEO was recruited via a two-month consultancy that earned the president of the board Ben Richardson $44,000.

When Mr Bird, the general manager of operations, found out weeks later about the discreet consultancy payment, he says he felt sick that Mr Richardson’s own board had approved his handsome fee.

“I felt duped because … here was a person who was purporting to be doing a voluntary role,” Mr Bird says.

A man in an indoor stadium with a Football Queensland t-shirt on.
Football Queensland chair Ben Richardson (left) and president Robert Cavallucci.(Supplied: Facebook / Twitter)

Speaking out for the first time, Mr Bird has given 7.30 an inside account of a salary scandal that has outraged high-profile national players, has led to the hiking of fees for all soccer players in Queensland young and old, and to an internationally known whistleblower being sued.

Former World Cup bid official turned activist Bonita Mersiades is currently defending an $800,000 defamation claim over a blog that revealed the payments in January.

She is “being sued for telling the truth”, Mr Bird says.

The regional sports officials have ignored calls by some of Australian soccer’s biggest names to drop the “spurious” lawsuit, which has sparked international attention and donations for Ms Mersiades’s defence.

Former Socceroo and national team coach Frank Farina says he thinks the lawsuit is “a joke, to be honest”.

A local soccer club with a 99-year history has also been threatened with deregistration over social media posts by its president in support of Ms Mersiades.

A young sports team stands frowning in front of a soccer goal.
The Football Queensland chief executive has threatened to deregister 99-year-old community soccer club, the Wynnum Wolves, over its president’s support of whistleblower Bonita Mersiades.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

‘The sort of money that’s paid to chief executives of pro clubs’

It had been a tough few months at Football Queensland.

The previous chief executive had been sacked.

The president, Mr Richardson, had come in a few days a week to help out.

A recruitment consultant by profession, he led the search for a new CEO.

The last time Mr Richardson volunteered his expertise to recruit the previous CEO, he sorted through more than 100 applicants.

This time it was an extensive process again but the successful candidate was found close to home.

Mr Cavallucci was a director on Football Queensland’s own board.

It was in Mr Cavallucci’s office at PwC Brisbane, where he was a managing partner, that Mr Richardson handed a termination letter to the previous CEO, who says he was given no reason for his sacking.

The previous CEO was on $168,950 a year with a Hyundai company car.

New CEO Mr Cavallucci drove his own Mercedes to work and earned more than he did as an assistant minister in the Newman state government.

His $317,002.50 a year salary was the first item on a spreadsheet in that budget planning meeting on October 28 last year, according to Mr Bird.

“Just flabbergasting … it was the sort of money that’s paid to chief executives of professional clubs, not at community level,” he says.

“But it wasn’t discussed. It was just there. No-one said anything. We moved on to other parts of the budget process.”

A Football Queensland board member at the time, Tony Davis, this week told the ABC the salary was justified for an executive of Mr Cavallucci’s calibre.

“Robert’s worth it,” he said.

Balancing the budget

12-year-old in uniform with the soccer ball.
Football Queensland is the governing body for community soccer clubs like the Wynnum Wolves.(ABC News: Christopher Gillette)

A 20-year veteran of grassroots sports administration, Mr Bird was one of four executives in the room with Mr Richardson, while they worked on balancing the 2020 budget.

With the CEO costing almost $150,000 more, and a new chief financial officer role costing another $150,000, Football Queensland ended up with a $300,000 dilemma.

“It was a rushed process, and a day-long process where increased executive salaries were put up, some cost savings were discussed, some new initiatives were added to the budget,” Mr Bird says.

“That was the last thing we discussed and the only way to balance the budget would have been to cut staff, cut programs, or increase the [player registration] fees — and it was decided to increase the fees.”

The cost of playing increases weren’t huge: an extra $2.50 a year for children and $5.50 a year for adults.

But spread across more than 70,000 registered players in Queensland, most of them kids, they added up to “about $300,000”, Mr Bird says.

“There was some debate about it, whether it was good timing to do it, is it the right thing to do? But [Mr Richardson’s] bottom line was we need to present a balanced budget to the board.”

Bird faces the members

Days later, Mr Bird thanked Mr Richardson for his voluntary work for Football Queensland in front of a room of 50 people at a zone presidents meeting at Brisbane’s Pullman Hotel.

The president departed, leaving Mr Bird to break the news of the fee increases.

“Some were angry. Some were mystified as to why Football Queensland would be increasing their fees at that point,” Mr Bird says.

“There was a lot of shaking of heads but there wasn’t a great outcry. They had no idea about the executive salaries.”

Weeks later Mr Bird discovered the president wasn’t helping Football Queensland’s recruitment process for free.

He saw Mr Richardson’s invoice for $44,000 for “HR/recruitment services provided September/October 2019”.

He also saw Mr Richardson’s email telling the finance manager the invoice wasn’t to be “discussed with anyone outside of myself… or the FQ board”.

“I felt sick because on three occasions, I’d actually privately and publicly congratulated him on his voluntary commitment to the code,” Mr Bird says.

“To find out that he was paid $40,000 to employ someone from his own board … made me feel sick.

“After feeling sick, I felt angry about it because I had gone to him with requests from staff — who were working 60 and 70 hours a week — for $5,000 pay rises and he’d denied those.”

Another Football Queensland insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, has backed Mr Bird’s account of executive wages contributing to the fee hike, and the belief among the sporting association’s executives that the president’s work was voluntary.

‘Might explain … why the price hike is needed’

A woman stands at the corner of a soccer field.
Bonita Mersiades is the subject of an $800,000 defamation lawsuit taken out by Football Queensland’s president and chief executive.(ABC News: Dave Maguire)

Ms Mersiades has taken on some of the most powerful figures in world soccer.

She blew the whistle a decade ago on World Cup bidding practices that led to a bribery scandal and the sport’s biggest corruption crisis.

“That put me into conflict with a lot of people, people in Australia who ran football at the time, people from the president of FIFA down and even nation-states such as Qatar, such as Russia,” she says.

Ms Mersiades lost her job as a national soccer official and found it “very difficult to get work again”.

“I think I’ve had a similar experience to what any whistleblower has. You get enormous blowback,” she says.

Now an influential football writer and activist, Ms Mersiades says she heard rumblings about an unexplained rise in fees paid by soccer mums and dads in Queensland last December.

She thought little of it until she found out about the payments and executive changes at Football Queensland.

In January, her website Football Today revealed the payments which, she wrote, “might explain … why the price hike is needed”.

She asked whether Football Queensland’s stated values of “transparency, accountability and no sweeping under the carpet” would help its officials justify the revelations.

Ms Mersiades says the officials, who hadn’t responded to her original questions, contacted her “saying I needed to take [the article] down immediately, because it was absolutely incorrect”.

“So I went back to them and said: ‘Well, please let me know which bits are incorrect and I’ll correct them’. But that’s not the course of action they took.”

Bird quits after Football Queensland’s denials

After Ms Mersiades’s blog was published, Mr Bird says regional officials peppered him with calls asking: “What the hell’s going on? How can we have a $320,000 CEO? How can the chairman pay himself $40,000?”

Sky News host Peter Gleeson wrote about the revelations in his Courier-Mail column under the headline: “Let’s tackle junior sport’s absurd fees.”

After Gleeson’s column, News Corp’s Queensland managing director Jason Scott got a call from Mr Cavallucci, telling him the piece was wrong. The publisher stood by the story.

Football Queensland geared up for a public relations crisis, hiring an expensive PR firm and writing to its members about “inaccurate media reports” that were “causing reputational damage to our sport”.

“In an attempt to intensify our community’s concerns, these articles sought to link these matters to the cost of participating in our sport,” Mr Richardson said in an email to members in February.

He wrote that “keeping registration fees fair and reasonable … is of the highest priority to Football Queensland” and Mr Cavallucci’s salary was justified and “benchmarked against comparable roles within the Australian market”.

“The board decided that given the big agenda we have for football in our state we needed to elevate the [chief executive officer] position from an administrative to an executive role,” he wrote.

“Rob’s suitability for the role and the appropriateness of his remuneration is further demonstrated by the fact he was shortlisted for the national role of Football Federation of Australia CEO (a much higher paying role).”

Mr Richardson said the board had “unanimously agreed for me to support the organisation on a short-term basis … given the potential risks posed to [Football Queensland] without senior leadership in place”.

For several days a week during September and October, he assisted the general managers at FQ’s Oogan headquarters while overseeing the recruitment of the CEO and CFO.

He said the role “involved considerable time, cost and workload” and his payment was “in accordance with our constitution”, and approved by the board after legal advice.

Watching Football Queensland’s PR response unfold after all that had happened in the months prior, Mr Bird says he was “overwhelmed by the lack of transparency” and left.

“That was enough for me. It was time for me to get out.”

‘$800,000 is a lot of money’

Composite image of Murray with a whistle and Bonita with a red card.
Murray Bird (left) and Bonita Mersiades have both raised serious allegations about the lack of transparency at Football Queensland.(ABC News: Daniel Fermer / Dave Maguire)

On a Saturday morning almost six months after her blog, while she was doing chores at home, Ms Mersiades received a legal letter.

Mr Cavallucci and Mr Richardson were suing her for defamation in the Queensland District Court, claiming $800,000 in damages.

She has never faced legal action before.

“I think everyone would agree that $800,000 is a lot of money. It would have an enormous impact on me, my family and my family’s future,” Ms Mersiades says.

Ms Mersiades is defending the case by arguing what she wrote was true, in the public interest and contained honest opinion.

“What they’re trying to do now is to ensure that someone who dares to raise uncomfortable issues, and uncomfortable questions is silenced,” she says.

In court filings, the two officials say they were falsely accused of corruptly removing the former CEO so Mr Cavallucci could take over “at an exorbitantly higher salary package” and Mr Richardson could score a “lucrative consulting gig”.

Ms Mersiades’s blog caused them “substantial hurt, distress and embarrassment” and “enormous damage” to their personal and professional reputations, according to their statements of claim.

They did not sue the Courier-Mail.

The legal action against a prominent football whistleblower drew the attention of sportswriters overseas, and public condemnation from a group of former Socceroos known as The Golden Generation, including John Aloisi, Lucas Neill, Craig Moore and Mark Viduka.

“We urge the board of Football Queensland to drop this spurious defamation action against Bonita or be forever condemned for failing to put football first,” the group said in a statement.

The officials updated their claims in a bid to hold Ms Mersiades liable for aggravated damages from follow-up stories by journalists in Germany and Ireland.

Those overseas journalists have claimed they were mysteriously hacked from an unknown computer in Brisbane while investigating the story about Football Queensland.

There is no suggestion that FQ or its officials are involved in the alleged hacking.

A key supporter of Ms Mersiades at a community club also came under pressure.

An older man stands in the canteen.
Wynnum Wolves president Rabieh Krayem set up a fundraiser for Ms Mersiades’s legal fees.(ABC News: Curtis Rodda)

Mr Cavallucci threatened to deregister the Wynnum Wolves, a club which has represented Brisbane’s outer-eastern suburbs, including its coastal edge overlooking Moreton Bay, for 99 years.

He claimed club president Rabieh Krayem, who posted support for Ms Mersiades on social media, breached Football Queensland’s requirement that officials don’t make “any adverse critical or disparaging statements or comments about FQ”.

Mr Krayem had set up a crowdfunding page which raised over $15,000 for Ms Mersiades’s legal defence against the Football Queensland officials.

“It’s surprising how many people — high-profile people within our game — who donated money, but remained anonymous,” he says.

“I think what we’ve created in football in Queensland is a culture of people who are scared to speak up.”

Those who put their name to donations include Frank Farina.

“I find it pretty crazy,” he says.

“We should be able to ask questions about governance, anything about the game.

“In my personal opinion, I find it a joke, to be honest.”

Man in a white shirt in front of community soccer players.
Frank Farina is one of the high-profile supporters of Bonita Mersiades’ reporting on Football Queensland’s governance.(ABC News: Curtis Rodda)

Mr Cavallucci, Mr Richardson and Football Queensland all declined interviews with the ABC.

In a statement, their lawyer Ashley Tiplady said the organisation followed an “independent process … including third-party involvement”.

He said that “in due course, we expect that we will receive instructions to investigate the catalyst for your investigations and the story to be run, including through the compulsory provision of documents to our clients”.

Mr Bird, now living in Melbourne running a sports tech outfit supplying AFL clubs, says he is speaking out “because it’s the right thing to do”.

“I’m across the facts — and she’s being sued for telling the truth,” he says.

“People shouldn’t be getting $40,000 on voluntary boards and CEOs shouldn’t be getting $320,000 a year to run what is basically … a community organisation.

Ms Mersiades says the insider’s account is “consistent with the questions I raised”.

“Generally, whistleblowers have been in the room,” she says.

“They know what’s happened because they have been part of that and so, therefore, they are people who should be listened to.”

Watch the story tonight on 7.30.



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Sydney Swans player helps Tipperary win Gaelic football title on anniversary of Bloody Sunday


Sydney’s Irish AFL defender Colin O’Riordan has helped deliver his Gaelic football side Tipperary its first provincial senior football championship title in 85 years.

The result was particularly poignant as it came the day after the 100th anniversary of the Bloody Sunday massacre, when 14 people were killed at a Gaelic football game between Dublin and Tipperary — including Tipperary defender Michael Hogan.

The Swans gave the 25-year-old O’Riordan special dispensation to play in the Munster Senior Football Championship final and he played a crucial role as underdogs Tipperary beat Cork 0-17 to 0-14 behind closed doors at Cork’s Páirc Uí Chaoimh stadium.

“It’s an emotional day for me,” O’Riordan told The Sunday Game post match.

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“A few weeks ago I didn’t think I’d be here and just to be out there with the lads, giving it your all for the sake of Tipperary — I can’t put it into words.”

“I get emotional even thinking about it but to me, it’s one of the best days of my life — [I’m] just over the moon.”

O’Riordan started and played the full game for Tipperary — his first inter-county appearance since joining the Swans in 2015 — while Collingwood’s Mark Keane came off the bench for Cork in the 59th minute.

“To me, it means so much to be able to put on the Tipp jersey,” O’Riordan said.

“It’s something I will never take for granted, it’s something I’ll respect to the day I die, that I had the opportunity to wear the jersey.”

Tipperary wore a special commemorative jersey, replicating the one worn on Bloody Sunday.

Teammates surround an AFL player who punches the air having kicked a goal.
Colin O’Riordan has kicked one goal for the Swans in his 23 matches.(AAP: Craig Golding)

O’Riordan, who has played 23 AFL games since making his debut in 2018, said he was “extremely grateful” to the Swans for allowing him to play.

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“They were 100 per cent within their rights to say no to me and to refuse me permission to play but they had no problem,” he said.

“John Longmire and all these lads over there with the Sydney Swans are an incredible organisation.”

The Swans tweeted their support for O’Riordan, saying they were “so proud and happy”.

Tipperary have now qualified for the All-Ireland semi-finals and will play Connacht champions Mayo at Croke Park on December 6, with five-time reigning champions Dublin taking on Ulster’s Cavan the previous day.

First to fourth-year AFL players are due to return to training with their clubs on December 7, with all other pros due back on January 6.

AAP/ABC



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Football player gets married in the morning, wins NPL Queensland semi-final in the evening


For most people, the last thing that should be on your mind on your wedding day would be playing football.

Yet that’s exactly what Lions FC goalkeeper Luke Borean had to deal with on Saturday, when he suited up in goal for Lions in the second-tier National Premier Leagues (NPL) Queensland semi-final, just hours after tying the knot.

The Boreans arrived at the ground in a Ferrari — with Luke still wearing his wedding suit and his new wife Ellen still in her wedding dress.

The scheduling nightmare arose as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic, which meant the NPL season was pushed into what would normally be the off-season.

Luke Borean looks over to the right of the screen, wearing a purple goalkeeper kit
Luke Borean has played with Lions for the past four seasons.(AQUA [PD]/Lions FC: Ian Judd)

When Lions qualified for the finals, coaching staff initially thought they would be without their star keeper, who had kept nine clean sheets over the course of the 24 matches this season.

However, Borean — and his incredibly understanding new wife — decided they could do both.

Borean even pulled off a spectacular save to keep his side in the ascendancy during the 4-1 victory.

Lions coach Darren Sime said Borean told him the week before that he would be alright to play.

“I had to ask him a couple of times to confirm,” Sime said.

“He turned up, fairly nonchalantly, at training on the Tuesday and I said I’d need him to help prepare [reserve keeper] Ryan Murphy for the match.

“Obviously the club would never, ever stand in the way of a player’s wedding, you have to celebrate those moments.

“But they chose to celebrate that moment with us, which we’re really thankful for.”

Luke Borean stands with his arms wide apart as players run towards him
Luke Borean kept nine clean sheets in the 2020 NPL season.(AQUA [PD]/Lions FC: Ian Judd)

Sime said the rest of the team were “stunned” that he still turned up to play, but were genuinely moved that he had done so.

“There were definitely some open mouths — they were genuinely shocked,” Sime said.

“We had a chat in the dressing room before the game about it, and there was some genuine love there for what Luke and Ellen had done.

Although it was certainly an unconventional way to celebrate your wedding, the 4-1 victory for Lions ensured that the night ended on a high note — and a trip to the grand final next week, where they’ll take on either Olympic or last year’s champions, Gold Coast Knights.

To those saying that the new Ms Borean is a keeper, well, they’d be right.

She also plays in goal, lining up for Souths United in the NPL Queensland Women’s competition.



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Actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney buy lowly Welsh football club Wrexham, vow to make it a ‘global force’


Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney have bought one of the world’s oldest football teams and plan to document their first foray into the sport in a fly-on-the-wall TV show.

In a pinch-yourself moment for success-starved fans of Welsh club Wrexham, Reynolds and McElhenney completed a $US2.5 million ($3.42 million) takeover of a team that plays in the fifth tier of the English game.

“This is really happening,” Reynolds, a Canadian-born actor best known for starring in the Deadpool movies, said at the end of a short video announcing the purchase of the 156-year-old club.

In a recent call with members of the club’s supporters’ trust, Reynolds and McElhenney described Wrexham as a “sleeping giant” and outlined their vision to make the team a “global force”.

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“You may have never heard of Wrexham, the Racecourse Ground or (sponsor) Ifor Williams,” Reynolds said during Monday’s announcement.

Putting on a Welsh accent, he added: “But you will.”

To increase the exposure of a club which is languishing in 14th place in the National League and has been outside English soccer’s four main pro leagues since 2008, the new owners are ready to use Wrexham in a behind-the-scenes TV series similar to those which have documented Manchester City, Tottenham and Sunderland in recent years.

“That’s happened. We’re documenting it,” McElhenney, an American actor and director who was behind the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, told supporters.

“We should be thinking about Wrexham the way Man U (Manchester United) thinks about Man U. Engage in club, communities. What a great way to do it,” McElhenney said.

A board shows the details for the next game for football club Wrexham AFC outside the home ground.
Wrexham’s home, the Racecourse Ground is not exactly Old Trafford — it has a capacity of 10,771.(Reuters: Phil Noble)

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Amazon Prime was among the first to reply to Wrexham’s takeover announcement on Twitter, sending its congratulations to the actors.

Wrexham, nicknamed the Red Dragons, has been a fan-owned club since 2011.

The club confirmed the RR McReynolds Company would take 100 per cent control — subject to confirmation by soccer authorities — following a vote among supporters.

The result was clear: 1,809 fans voted in favour and 26 against, with nine abstentions, giving Reynolds and McElhenney 98.6 per cent support.

“The Gang Buys A North Walian Football Club” read a tweet from Wrexham, a club from a town of about 65,000 people located near the north-west English border.

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Chris Jones, a member of the supporters’ trust, was on the recent call with Reynolds and McElhenney and said the actors knew all about the history of Wrexham — from the time in the 1970s when there were attendances of 20,000 spectators, to the 1990s when the team had some big wins in the FA Cup, including over then-English champion Arsenal at the Racecourse.

“They wanted a European club with potential, with history, one that was in a false position, but also one that was a huge part of the community,” Jones said.

“So they sent out advisors to find a club that fitted their criteria. And it’s us.”

An actor wearing a velvet jacket smiles and waves at the crowd as he takes the stage at Harvard.
Ryan Reynolds is better known for his on-screen work — now he hopes to be known for his new football club.(Reuters: Brian Snyder)

Jones said the new owners had a British-style sense of humour and were humble in talking about their hopes and dreams for Wrexham, which include improving the stadium and the playing squad, and also bringing in an experienced CEO to run the club.

“This is the absolute dream,” Jones said.

Fans aren’t currently allowed to attend soccer matches in Britain amid the coronavirus pandemic, but Reynolds has said he wants to be at “as many games as I can make”.

“We want to have a pint with the fans,” he said, adding he and McElhenney’s intentions were to be “great ambassadors for the club” and to “introduce the club to the world”.

AP



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