Football, bribes, and rock ‘n roll

Jesse Fink

Photo by Amy Janowski.

Jesse Fink’s work has spanned the football and rock ‘n roll worlds. His most recent book, The Youngs, is about, well, we give it away in the first question. Jesse spoke with Thin White Line’s editor, Ian Kerr.

Let’s start with your recent book on AC/DC, The Youngs. The band wore the Scotland football kit on stage in Glasgow in 1978. What was AC/DC’s link to Scottish football?

The famous Glasgow Apollo gig where they played ‘Fling Thing’ and ‘Rocker’. Not every day you see a football kicked on stage. As I don’t need to tell you, the Youngs are from Glasgow. Bon Scott was from Forfar/Kirriemuir. Malcolm was a handy player in his own right. Had he not conquered the world with his Gretsch, who knows how far he could have got with his left foot? You might have seen the footage of Mal in the film Let There Be Rock: striking, simultaneously standing in goal and celebrating on the run with a beer in hand. Complete with cheesy sound effects. Dig it out. It’s really very funny. There are also a lot of photographs of AC/DC park games floating about on fan forums. I’ve seen a photo of Angus in a New York Cosmos shirt. In my opinion that Apollo show in ’78 was probably their finest moment live. I watched a lot of their concerts on YouTube writing The Youngs.

If the Young brothers were Rangers fans, then that almost makes them the anti-Rod Stewart, doesn’t it?

Hahaha. True. What really happened to Rod Stewart? I ponder this question frequently. AC/DC still rocks hard. Rod’s doing god-awful, cut-rate Michael Bublé sludge. He’s not that much older than Mal and Angus. There was a time in the 1970s, of course, when he was doing superlative rock: Faces, the solo work. He even did a cover of Stevie Wright’s ‘Hard Road’ (a George Young–penned track) on Smiler, which was a ripper. I listen to it regularly. The guy used to have so much soul. Listen to ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ off An Old Raincoat Won’t Ever Let You Down. Amazing. Now? Truly unbearable. A talent wasted.

The Australian video for the World Cup bid was terrible.  This is what happen when creatives are allowed to work without artificial stimulus. Even if a truckload of cash had been funnelled through a Jordanian trucking company, there was no way Australia could have won.  There’s no question here.  I just wanted to point out that the video was terrible.  I show it to my friends to give them a laugh.  (Until I tell them that their taxpayer dollars paid for it.)

These questions are great, by the way. Can’t help but agree. We’re talking about the one used for the final presentation with the animated kangaroo stealing the World Cup from Zurich? Yes. What a load of steaming camel shit it was. Every cliché you can imagine. It was like Finding Nemo meets Water Rats meets Yoram Gross. I couldn’t even recognise Paul Hogan he’d had so much work. Oh god, it was bad. What on earth were they thinking?

It has been widely reported that just before the vote on the 2018 World Cup host, Sepp Blatter reminded delegates of the negative stories published in the English press about FIFA.  Is muzzling the press a price worth paying to win the right to host a World Cup?

Interesting question. No. FIFA is the Death Star of world sport, as far as I’m concerned. We should all be working to bring transparency and accountability to FIFA and its officials, no matter if hosting a World Cup is at stake. I did my best when I was at SBS, getting stuck into Blatter, and later with some stories on executive committee member Worawi Makudi. He was cleared by FIFA. Not a lot changes at FIFA, sadly. But kudos to Oliver Fowler and David W. Larkin at ChangeFIFA, Andrew Jennings, Jens Weinreich, Jean Francois Tanda, Lasana Liburd, Philippe Auclair and other writers for taking up the fight to them. I admire all of them. There aren’t enough journalists in this country working to expose the goings-on at FIFA. It’s fundamental to the future of the game to ensure we have the right people running it. It’s time for a new generation of Australian football writers to step up and have the courage to take on FIFA.

If Australia had won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, would the disquiet over the huge amounts of taxpayer money spunked on the bid have evaporated in the euphoria?

We never stood a chance, mate. It’s a scenario that is almost pointless talking about. The whole strategy was wrong. The execution was poor. The people behind it – bar one or two individuals – weren’t up for the job. The Americans had the best bid and I said so at the time, even though I couldn’t write what I wanted to write for SBS. The whole Australia 2022 campaign just struck me as a Frank Lowy vanity project.

Frank has enough money in the bank. Why didn’t he bankroll it himself? Why was it up to us, the taxpayers, to cough up $45.6 million? Did the FFA really think there wasn’t going to be critical analysis of how the money was being spent? If they wanted to keep the details secret and away from the scrutiny of journalists and writers like me, they could have funded it privately. They had the choice. Instead they asked taxpayers to fund it. And as a taxpayer I was mad at the decisions they were making and how our money was being frittered away. I was also annoyed that there were elements within SBS’s sport department that, as I saw it, appeared to be suppressing criticism of the bid.

Does football in Australia handle criticism well?

Well my response to that is what is football? The FFA or the ‘football family’? The FFA doesn’t handle criticism well at all. I think it’s been established that they didn’t like what I was writing for SBS. They couldn’t stand the fact my column was the most read on The World Game website. I heard all kinds of things from people connected to the FFA or SBS about the sort of ructions my views were causing inside FFA HQ. Apparently things were even mentioned to FIFA. I didn’t give a damn what they thought. I think that’s what ‘Half-Time Orange’ readers responded to most. Even the section of the readership that frequently disagreed with me, even lampooned me for some of my views, at the end of the day still respected my right to have a forthright opinion. It was a conversation, a dialogue. Nothing more. Some people take the game far too seriously. I can’t believe some of the idiots out there and the way they carry on. I love football but there’s much more to life. I was happy to walk away from that side of the game and not look back. For me, a healthy football nation is one where all views can be expressed openly and without fear of sanction. I’m not really sure we can do that in Australia.

World PartyYour new e-book, World Party, isn’t about Karl Wallinger at all – it’s about the 2006 World Cup.  What motivated you to write the book?

I’m a huge admirer of Karl Wallinger; the title of the e-book is a sort of homage to him. I even used a World Party song called ‘Way Down Now’ to open one of the chapters in my 2012 memoir, Laid Bare. One of the greatest but unrecognised musical talents of the last 30 years.

As for football, from the early 1990s I was right at the coalface working to give the game the respect it deserved. At the time football was regarded as a joke. I could see its potential and was deeply infuriated by the contempt it received in the mainstream press: especially the Murdoch papers and commercial television. In the late ’90s I worked with a guy called Matthew Hall on a short-lived magazine called TotalSPORT and we both had this mission to promote and defend the game whenever we could.

When I became a book editor, I commissioned Robbie Slater’s The Hard Way and Matthew’s The Away Game. I was also introduced to Frank Lowy and worked with Frank on his biography, Frank Lowy: Pushing the Limits. Frank and I sort of became friends during the process and I used that personal connection I had with him to get a group of football VIPs into his office and ask him, straight to his face, to save Australian football. What happened is not very well known. But there were some very important figures in the room that day. So I like to think I played a small part in what came later. We all had a shared purpose: to get Australia to the World Cup and destroy the last vestiges of the old guard that was keeping the game in the dark ages.

Later I became deputy editor of Inside Sport and took it upon myself to write or commission as many pieces about football as I could. I remember very early on suggesting a profile of Lucas Neill, who was then at Millwall, but he wasn’t regarded as popular enough by the magazine’s executive editor to warrant a full feature. I think he got about 1500 words or so. At the time the magazine was wall-to-wall rugby league and AFL. That soon changed. I personally wrote full-length profiles of Mark Viduka, Harry Kewell, Tim Cahill, Pim Verbeek, Mark Schwarzer and a bunch of others. Whenever there was an opportunity, I commissioned a football story.

When I left Inside Sport I became football columnist with Fox Sports Australia and my column, called ‘Half-Time Orange’, just hit a nerve. It was riding the football zeitgeist and I took it to SBS. I wrote my last one in 2011 after falling out with management over my coverage of FIFA issues and the Australian World Cup bid. During that time I was also writing about football for Fox Sports Asia, The Roar, Tribal Football and many other outlets, so for a long time football was my life and my passion.

It pretty much all came to an end with the SBS business in 2011. I wrote my last football column for Fox Sports Asia in July 2013. I spent a lot of time writing about Worawi Makudi, who I mentioned before, and other FIFA officials in Asia who warranted close scrutiny.

The e-book is essentially the first half of 15 Days in June, a book I wrote in late 2006 and early 2007. It’s now out of print and hard to find. That book was divided into two parts: World Cup and Asian Cup. The second part hadn’t aged as well as the first. But I was still getting emails from readers and football people telling me how much they loved the story of the Socceroos’ campaign in Germany and I went back recently to read it again and was transported back to that unforgettable fortnight in 2006. It’s an important story and I wanted to introduce it to people who might have missed 15 Days in June and new fans of the game. We’ll be setting the price low because we’re not doing it for money. In my opinion it’s a record of the moment Australia became a football nation. I’d love for it to get out to as wide an audience as possible before Brazil 2014.

Truth be told, for many years I didn’t want to even look at 15 Days in June. Just before the book launch in 2007, my wife and the mother of my daughter walked out of our marriage and I blamed myself for not seeing the warning signs: I was spending too much time on the book when my personal life was crumbling around me. I didn’t see it at the time; I was too engrossed in the work. I can look back on that period now and see where I went wrong. Time gives you that clarity.

But I’m really proud of what I wrote and to bring out World Party. I’d just make a few different decisions if I had my time over again. As I’m sure Tim Cahill would marking Francesco Totti.

Jesse Fink is the author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC (Random House), Laid Bare: One Man’s Story of Sex, Love and Other Disorders (Hachette) and World Party: The Inside Story of the Socceroos’ Greatest Campaign (Xoum). For more details on World Party, check out www.xoum.com.au/shop/world-party/ and follow The Youngs on Facebook at www.facebook.com/youngsacdc