17 November 2015
by Jill Margo

Witness to a World Cup charade: how Frank Lowy was played in Zurich

Frank Lowy, right, practicing his speech to the FIFA executive committee in his suite at the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich. Pictured from left to right are Mark Ryan, Lowy advisor, Jill Margo, Stuart Taggart then FFA's World Cup bid, Phillip Noyce, Australian film maker directing the World Cup presentation, Andreas Abold, German consultant hired by Australia, and Mardi Rens, Lowy's personal assistant.

Exactly five years ago, as Australia's team was preparing to depart for the Fifa World Cup bidding season in Zurich, cameraman Paul Costello and I received good news.

Football Federation of Australia and Frank Lowy had agreed to allow us to film the last days of Australia's ambitious bid to host the 2022 cup.

It was quite a coup. There would be plenty of official footage but we would be in Lowy's hotel suite where his advisors, consultants and, later his sons, would meet to strategise and to hope.

Failed bid: FFA chairman Frank Lowy arrives for Australia's presentation at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, in 2010.

We wanted to go because we were high on magical thinking. An irrational optimism had taken hold and we thought Australia had a chance. If we won, our footage would be gold for the FFA.

It turned out to have a different value. Today it shows the huge discrepancy between the contest Australia was optimistically entering and the ugly reality of what we now know was actually happening.

It portrays a genuine, if naive, Australian bid that went ahead even though the winner had been decided before Lowy and his team got to Zurich.

The contest had been ratcheted up several levels. Where traditionally it was fought out between football federations now, for the first time, it was a battle between sovereign states.

Early optimism: Frank Lowy, right, with then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and FIFA boss Joseph Blatter in 2009. Blatter had promised his vote to Australia.

Countries like Australia, the United States and Britain were running on the old rules, behind their federations. Qatar, on the other hand, was doing state to state geopolitical deals.

Indeed, Fifa president Sepp Blatter recently disclosed that all along, the executive committee had privately agreed to give the 2022 games to the United States but a secret deal between the French and the Qataris scuttled it.

These revelations make the footage all the more poignant.

Sepp Blatter reveals Qatar as holders for the 2022 World Cup in Zurich in 2010. Australia received just one vote, claimed by both Blatter and German representative Franz Beckenbauer.

Lowy was staying in the elegant Baur Au Lac Hotel, which sits in a private park beside Lake Zurich and is the traditional meeting place for the political elite of world football.

Only football's aristocracy were staying in the hotel, which was strictly off limits to the press. So the press camped on the pavement opposite, with telephoto lenses trained on the forecourt whenever a motorcade of Mercedes', with darken windows, swept in.

Out would step dazzlingly wealthy sheikhs, their robes threaded with gold, heads of state, prime ministers, presidents and princes. When Prince William arrived to support England's bid, he was shown to the corner suite directly below the one occupied by Lowy.

The other British "prince", David Beckham was in the hotel too as was British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Amid all this cameraman Costello switched off the red light that showed his camera was active and, over a couple of days, swung through the hotel. Inside Lowy's suite, he became quietly invisible.

Lowy invested everything he had in this bid. Apart from "the hundreds of thousands" he says he used to cover his own expenses, he was totally devoted to winning. At 80, he hardly slept, not wanting to waste an opportunity to gain a slither of an advantage.

The mood in the suite was reminiscent of a leader's office in the dying days of a tight election. Hope continued to prevail over despair with faint signals of support being read as genuine commitments.

Lowy described the mood as 'cautiously optimistic.' After all, Australia's bid had been judged technically excellent and he thought he could muster the requisite four or five votes to survive the first round of voting, after which the game would change.

But when his sons David and Steven arrived they brought a much-needed dose of reality, the kind that could only be delivered by those who hadn't been intimately involved in the campaign.

Astute enough not to torpedo all hope, their questions reflected a level of scepticism that Lowy had not permitted among his team in the last days. David, a veteran pilot, who had flown himself into Zurich, casually reported the Qatari team had nine aircraft on the tarmac.

On the morning of the final vote, 2 December 2010, Lowy woke with a bad feeling. He sensed something was turning against Australia but kept his feelings to himself.

That afternoon everyone dressed for the final announcement at the Zurich Exhibition Centre, which would be the biggest media event in Switzerland's history with 70 TV stations reporting live and 1000 fully accredited reporters.

As the press went in one direction, the international delegates went into a lavishly appointed VIP waiting hall where each country had its own designated area.

I'd managed to obtain a seat with the Australian delegation and watched as the space began filling with Oscar-winning actors, presidents and billionaires. Filming was prohibited but Costello had given me a very small movie camera that I used from under my jacket.

Although he mingled a little, Lowy was quiet. I caught him sitting alone on a bench deep in thought.

As he filed into the auditorium, Frank's worst fears were confirmed. "I walked past the executive committee members who had voted. We had some 'friends' among them but when I looked at them and they didn't look back squarely, I knew we were gone."

My seat was at the back of Australia's delegation and as I sat down an Australian television journalist leaned over the barrier that separated the press from the delegates. With tears in his blue eyes he said Qatar had won for 2022.

Al Jazeera had received the news and was preparing the broadcast. This was odd as the formal opening was still 20 minutes away and given the results for 2018 would be announced first, there would be a further 20 minutes before the 2022 bid was reached.

Al Jazeera had the jump on everyone else by at least 40 minutes. I sent the news down the Australian delegation. At the same time other information confirming it was travelling back up.

This left the Australians to sit through the next hour as the choreographed charade rolled on.

Much of the early support and encouragement for Australia's bid had come from Lowy's friend, Mohammed Bin Hammam, president of the Asian Football Confederation, but in the last couple of years he had turned.

While he told Lowy upfront he could no longer support Australia's bid, clandestinely he actively white-anted it.

As he sat through the show, Lowy figured out that he had been played. But then, as the delegates rose to leave, he did something remarkable.

Holding his shock at bay, in the crowd he sought out his nemesis. He touched Bin Hammam on the shoulder, turned him around and embraced him. I filmed astonished. Was this the acme of good sportsmanship or was this keeping your enemies close?

Afterwards Lowy blamed himself. He did, however, repeatedly say "the last word has not been heard" on the matter – it's something he continues to say.

Over the next five years, he was accused of having wasted $43 million of Government funding on a hopeless bid that received only one vote.

His response is that it often takes several attempts to win the right to host an international event. Australia tried three times before it secured the Olympics. This bid was Australia's first. It put the country in this international arena for the first time and many lessons have now been banked for when it bids again.

Immediately afterwards, both Blatter and Germany's football hero, Franz Beckenbauer, claimed to have placed the sole vote for Australia. Lowy will never know.

After Zurich, Costello and I returned downhearted. We handed over the footage to the FFA and forgot about it.

But this year, large chunks began falling off the Fifa edifice, exposing rank corruption at its core and making it abundantly clear Australia never had a chance.

As Paul watched, he remembered our footage. We hauled it out and it became a centrepiece of an hour long documentary, with Leigh Sales from the ABC. It's called Played: Inside Australia's Failed World Cup Bid.

* ABC will broadcast a documentary, Played, using Jill Margo's footage tonight at 8.30pm. Margo has written two biographies on Frank Lowy. In her latest, A Second Life, Lowy provides a mea culpa about his management of the bid.