Meet the team: Q and A with James Johnson

For our latest Q and A, we spoke with James Johnson from our expert advisory board. James is someone who truly has football running through his veins, and who has seen - both as a player and in subsequent governance roles - how the game can make a difference beyond the pitch. In this Q and A, James tells us about how football was part of his family and how, even from an early age, he was aware of how it could unite communities and change lives.

football charity, community development

Q1. James, you’ve been involved with and passionate about football for many many years – both as a player and as an administrator. Tell us about how it started – what are your earliest memories of the game?

I feel like football has been in my blood from an early age – certainly as far back as I can remember. Growing up in a small country town in Australia, both my parents were involved with football. My dad was the coach of the local team and my mum worked alongside him as an administrator. My parents encouraged me to participate on and off the field and I became aware, growing up, of the role that football could play in a small town like ours by bringing different people together and fostering a sense of togetherness. Already I was aware of football as something that was more than just a game and could perform a valuable social function – even if I didn’t yet recognise it in those terms.

Q2. You’ve had an eclectic career – playing club and youth international football as a player, working at FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation. I’m sure it’s hard to choose, but what are some of your standout highlights?

It certainly is hard to choose! I’ve been fortunate, not only to have been involved with the game on and off the pitch, but also to have worked with so many driven and committed people who share a belief that football can be more than just 22 people kicking a ball round a pitch.

At FIFA I enjoyed working behind the scenes to improve the structures of the organisation and ensure that key stakeholders could be part of a more accountable and diverse decision-making structure. This included the establishment of something called the Football Stakeholders Committee, which has a wide-ranging remit to advise on professional game matters, such as the player transfer system and match calendar. It might sound dry, but the net result was a system in which a much wider set of stakeholders participated in the FIFA decision-making process, a distinct improvement over the previous strict ‘pyramid’ model, where FIFA would only talk to national football governing bodies. I guess I am a governance geek, but I got a real buzz out of that!  

Q3. You’re obviously passionate about football as a force for good. What have you seen in your working life that showed you that football was more than just a game and could help change lives?

In 2015, there was a crisis in Indonesian football, which effectively brought the domestic league to a standstill. On any given weekend you can expect Indonesia’s domestic league television audiences to be upwards of 50 million, as well as annual match day attendances to be upwards of 12 million. To put this into perspective, Indonesia’s annual match day attendance is comparable to the English Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga which all sit between 10 and 14 million. This crisis that began as a football issue soon became a national political issue as millions of Indonesians were deprived of their favourite pastime. I was privileged to be a part of the negotiations, which resulted in the domestic league resuming. The negotiations were conducted with some of the highest offices in the country, including the Indonesian President, Joko Widodo. The Indonesia experience reinforced to me that football is more than just a game – why else would Indonesia’s head of state directly involve himself in negotiations to ensure football was again played? 

The work done by HRH Prince Ali on the campaign to lift FIFA’s hijab ban also stuck in my head. It showed that change can happen from within, but that the right people needed to be round the table to find real solutions. It also showed me the strength of Prince Ali’s belief that accessibility is key to social progress theories of football. The lifting of the ban in 2010 was a great moment and one which continues to have ramifications to this day.

Q4. Tell us a bit about your involvement with AFDP Global

I am happy to be involved because I think there is enormous potential for AFDP Global to make a meaningful contribution. I think there is a gap in the football world for an organization – one not beholden to any stakeholder – to think objectively and independently when deciding where and how to share expertise, provide material support, as well as to bring stakeholders together and advocate for good causes. Prince Ali has assembled a highly skilled team with different skills and expertise. This, together with Prince Ali’s vision and belief that football can create opportunities that have value well beyond the pitch, equips AFDP Global to fill this gap.

Q5. What do you see the future holding for AFDP Global?

If the reaction to the launch and the enormous amount of goodwill seen since is any indication, I have no doubt that it will go from strength to strength.  People across the game and beyond have really come around to the idea that there is more to football than just 90 odd minutes of escapism. Football can create real opportunity and help overcome division even in the most trying circumstances. It’s now up to us to leverage this goodwill, to build a reputation as a constructive, as well as trusted, actor, and most importantly just make things happen. I am not interested in chit chat!