James Johnson's Football Journey: The Quiet Achiever

He doesn't have the financial war chest of Gil McLachlan, nor the pitbull-like public persona of Peter V'Landys. He's almost a decade younger than the AFL chief, and gives away twenty years to his NRL equivalent.

Yet James Johnson - CEO of Football Australia - is the quiet achiever, and he's packed an awful lot into his career already.

Which other Australian sporting administrator - before the age of 40 - has helped solve a sporting civil war in Indonesia? Run legal cases against some of the most powerful men in world sport? Held a leadership role with FIFA? Been charged with getting a seat at the table for the City Football Group, alongside the establishment clubs of world football?

Johnson has done it all - and now comes perhaps his biggest task. Steering the game in his homeland back into calmer waters. Already he's helped secure the hosting of the FIFA Women's World Cup in 2023, and "unbundled" the professional leagues from the governing body's orbit. All in the middle of a global pandemic.

Not bad for a kid who grew up in regional Queensland, where the football bug first bit.

"I grew up in a football community in Rockhampton. I played for a club called the Berserker Bears. My dad was a coach of that team. Every other weekend we'd go to Maryborough or Bundaberg, and that was our life until I was twelve or thirteen. Then it became more serious. You get to a point when you have to move to Brisbane, otherwise you aren't going to progress" says Johnson.

The Johnson family upped sticks and moved south. There, he played for Mt Gravatt, alongside future Socceroos, Jade North, Jon McKain, Matt McKay and later met Wayne Srhoj where they were all at the QAS together. In 1999, Johnson ended up part of the Joeys squad ahead of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, to be held in New Zealand.

Johnson was a hard-running defensive midfielder, and although he grew up a Manchester United fan, his playing heroes were closer to home.

"I followed Brisbane United in the NSL, and Gary Phillips was my idol because he was playing in my position. He was small like me, so I really admired him - he ended up being my coach for some years, which was awesome" says Johnson.

Johnson was selected for a pre-World Cup tour of South America, but the trip was to be the start of a succession of injuries that would hamper his playing career - and meant he missed the Joeys famous run to the final.

"The boss - Les Scheinflug - played me a lot, but normally when others were injured. We were due to play the Argentina Under-18 team that included the likes of Javier Saviola, but I tore my quad in a training session. That was the last game before the World Cup" says Johnson.

"I travelled with the team and I was given a medal to feel a part of it. But it was tough to deal with, very emotional. Other people were upset for me, which made me feel worse" he adds.

After the World Cup, Johnson returned to Brisbane, training at the QAS, essentially the youth team for the Brisbane Strikers. But he found first team chances hard to come by under then-coach, John Kosmina.

"I couldn't break into the Strikers squad, and an opportunity came along to go to Vietnam. I played a season and a half for Denang in the V-League. That was an amazing experience, the level really suited my style. But in my second season, I tore my ACL, and ended up back in Australia trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life" says Johnson.

Johnson had good reason to thank Les Scheinflug for taking him along to New Zealand. There, he had come into contact with several colleges in the United States, scouting for players.

Johnson would go to Boston University to study finance and play college football. He did so well that once again, the professional ranks beckoned. He began training at MLS outfit, New England Revolution, under former Liverpool star, Steve Nicol.

But the injury curse struck again at the outset of his senior year - so Johnson opted to come home, continue his studies at Bond University, and play part-time for Brisbane Strikers. Even then, the professional ranks continued to circle.

"There were discussions with Miron (Bleiberg) when he was at Brisbane Roar. I trained with the Roar every now and then, and North Queensland Fury was being discussed too. But by then I really did not have enough drive. I was focused on becoming a lawyer. I could have been in the A-League as a squad player for a couple of years, but I was half-hearted about it." says Johnson.

It was at that point that his career in football properly launched - off the field with the PFA.

"I was working as a first-year lawyer, and I was introduced to Brendan Schwab. He liked my skill set - industrial relations law, ex-player. He was a sports lawyer, and a really good one. This role came up with the PFA, which was really legal counsel/player relations. Schwabby would negotiate with Ben Buckley - I would organise the players. He took me under his wing & taught me a lot." says Johnson.

As part of his role, Johnson did some work with FIFPro Asia, acting on behalf of players in Malaysia, Japan & Indonesia. When Australia was awarded the Asian Cup hosting rights for 2015, another opportunity presented itself.

"The AFC were looking for a young Australian lawyer that could do all the commercial work for the Asian Cup. So, I moved to Kuala Lumpur, and that's where things went crazy. Mohammed bin Hammam announced he was going to stand against Sepp Blatter for the FIFA Presidency. But he got suspended by FIFA after his infamous trip to the Caribbean. That meant he couldn't carry out his AFC duties. So, Zhang Jialong became Acting President, Prince Ali, Prince Abdullah (current Malaysian King) came in. The whole management team at AFC were removed. They were looking for people to step into roles. I had just rocked up - and they threw me a big project." says Johnson.

"Indonesia was a mess. The President of the Federation had just come out of prison. They had two leagues, two associations, two player unions...the army on one side, the police on the other. I went to Indonesia, and we kind of solved it - or as much as we could. The new leadership were happy, so they elevated me into a director role." he adds.

Johnson's focus shifted to the professionalisation of club football across the region, with his brief also including International Relations, FIFA & Confederations relationships - and crucially, the legal cases which were being prepared against the likes of bin Hammam and Sri Lanka's Manilal Fernando.

"We hired the Freeh Group, whose Principal was Louie Freeh, a former FBI Director to support us. Michael Garcia oversaw the investigation who was the FIFA Ethics Chair (later to author the Garcia Report). It was a really challenging period, as the judicial issues were being interfered with by the politics. So Michael, by then the Ethics Chair at FIFA said to me “JJ, you are coming to Zurich - I am going to second you. You are going to run the AFC cases from there” says Johnson.

bin Hammam was eventually banned from football for life - and Johnson moved into a full-time job with FIFA, ultimately as Head of Professional Football. But the politics was to follow him around.

"The organisation itself was very well managed. The problem for FIFA was at elected level, where all the politics was done. I got to see a little bit of that, and from my time at AFC I knew a lot of the people. That was the ugly side of it." says Johnson.

A lot of Johnson's work had been passed on to the FBI, and those matters came to a head on an infamous day in 2015, with a series of arrests made at a Swiss hotel ahead of a FIFA Executive Committee meeting.

"I remember at the time of the Baur-au-lac arrests, Sunil Gulati called me. He told me to turn on the TV, and I saw people being escorted out of the hotel. There were good people there, but there was so much going on in that ExCo at the time. Then Blatter goes, (Michel) Platini goes and there was a transition. Gianni (Infantino) comes in. He was seen as a non-political person, a cleanskin." says Johnson.

The incoming FIFA President promoted Johnson into a leadership role, and the pair remain in sporadic contact even today. But Johnson's stay at FIFA ended in 2018 when the City Football Group came calling.

"CFG were the new kid on the block - they wanted someone to get them in the room to shape discussions, to articulate positions of change on the financial system, the international match calendar, input into Champions League reform, the Club World Cup etc. It was amazing. At CFG, ideas are listened to, and there are resources to back them up." says Johnson.

So, when the CEO role at Football Australia was advertised in 2019, Johnson admits he didn't give the job much thought.

"The agent reached out and asked if I was interested, but I initially said no because of the timing. It was only six months after I'd joined CFG. In the end it was probably because I'd been overseas for ten years, and my wife and I were looking for a place we could call home. On the professional side, I saw a chance to do something good for the sport." says Johnson.

But with Johnson installed in December 2019, he set about trying to transform the game in Australia. Some items have already been ticked off - but much more remains to be done.

"I'm not here to administer. I am a big change agent. I try to surround myself with people who want to make good change." says Johnson.

"With the Channel 10 deal, government investment, the CBA, we've had a remarkable turnaround over the last twelve months. But we need a lot of money to run the sport, so we need a bigger economy. That comes down to selling a positive narrative. That's not easy sometimes, because our DNA is that we like to shoot ourselves in the foot. So, we are trying to reposition where we can talk to the football community and bring them along, but also be able to talk to corporate Australia, governments. These languages sometimes are different." he says.

But will his old bedfellow - politics - stymie those ambitions? It's an issue that has bedevilled the sport in Australia for generations.

"There was a major change with unbundling. The next one is to look at the structures. That doesn't mean we remove layers for example, but there's a lot of ways we can have better alignment on strategy. We have to split the political side of the sport from the administration." says Johnson.

"I want to get the pyramid in place on the football side too, including a second division. My only issue is making sure it's sustainable and practical. Having a second-tier functioning and putting the transfer system in place - that would be great." he adds.

If he can pull all that off in the next couple of years, and the Matilda's were to win a home World Cup, then perhaps Johnson will be a "quiet achiever" no more.

-Simon Hill

Get involved in Football. Find out how: