Next to the conference room in Fifa’s eight-year-old Zurich headquarters sits what’s often described plainly as a quiet space. In reality it’s the height of opulence, a vast and towering room of carved stone that glows green and looks like the set off a big-budget sci-fi movie. Standing in its centre, Sepp Blatter once described it as “a corner where silence should prevail; a place for meditation when I want to be alone and just think about the problems”. If only we knew what thoughts he’d had there in recent days. Although, as one of the great sporting sagas begins rather than ends, you sense the FBI have an idea as reports claim he’ll be part of their investigation into corruption and bribery.
It’s a building that says so much about Fifa. When it was finished in 2007, Blatter would note the architectural design as reflecting transparency and when asked why just three of the eight floors were above ground he added: “Places where people make decisions should only contain indirect light because the light should come from the people themselves who are assembled there.” Yet entering the €230m palace, you’ll be asked to sign legal nondisclosure agreements and as you descend into the bowels, mobile phones cease to be useful. Cynics aren’t left short of ammunition, even those in Ireland as in the fallout John Delaney now must cling to his own power amidst Irish football being paid off in what Spanish newspaper AS described as a “bribe” and what could easily be seen as hush money by way of a €5m loan to stop a bizarre legal action over a refereeing mistake.
But against a background of such shady and dodgy dealings that the world and even its football-avoiding mother knew about, what a week. Tellingly, Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Calvert – who along with Heidi Blake had done so much to rip the lid off the septic tank that is Fifa – described himself as “stunned” by it. You’d have thought he’d have heard enough to never be stunned again. On Tuesday, as Blatter called a nondescript press conference, you almost expected him to announce a state-of-the-art all-weather five-a-side-pitch for the Caymans. And then, at an event that was on and off to such an extent that only 12 journalists were actually present for a massive moment in sports history, he shook the planet. His rationale for his resignation was that while he’d been given a mandate in Friday’s election by national associations, he didn’t have one from clubs, players or fans.
But he’d have known that when celebrating 96 hours earlier so what exactly happened in between?
Before his mammoth decision, there’d been a lot to take in. In what seemed a flicker, US prosecutors arrested some of Fifa’s high-ranking untouchables after a long-running investigation. Perhaps caught out at doing so little, Swiss authorities announced their own investigation into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar with reports suggesting they now want to talk with Blatter. Soon after, FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke was linked to a $10m payment from the organisers of the South African World Cup to accounts controlled by since-disgraced powerbroker Jack Warner, claims South Africa later batted away with all the authority of a man swinging a toilet roll at a cannonball. Fifa’s stock response was denial but by early Tuesday, a leaked letter allegedly showed Valcke knew about the payment, which was transferred to Warner via FIFA’s own accounts.
Some suggest that, given Valcke’s position on Blatter’s right shoulder, it was the straw that broke his back. But after everything, it was hard to imagine he was anything other than an invertebrate. Others suggested it was the pressure from sponsors with the likes of Visa leading the mumbles, but that too is hard to fathom given that not long ago they themselves were in on Fifa’s practices. After all, when Valcke was making a deal with long-time sponsors MasterCard, he fed negotiations to Visa who eventually got the contract. MasterCard sued with a US judge writing in her 2006 verdict that: “FIFA’s conduct in performing its obligation and in negotiating for the next sponsorship cycle was anything but fair play.” Valcke was very briefly removed only to be promoted upon reinstallation.
So what was it that caused Blatter to go against a lifetime of power-seeking and power-protecting? Will we ever find out? Do Uefa know something we don’t or do the United States authorities have something we don’t? And if we are to discover all, will it come freely from Blatter himself, will it come about from Blatter saving himself or will it come via Blatter being finished off by authorities?
That’s the problem so many sports writers faced because we simply don’t know. Normally in a story you reach for the contacts book but who do you contact here? Your FBI source? These areas aren’t for those who speculate in press boxes, they’re for the select few who’ve made a career hanging about hotel lobbies at conferences, being fed private phone numbers and documents that need the screening of entire legal practices before print. But the fate of Blatter is just one element of this vast uncertainty we now enter and just one of a seemingly endless list of questions we seek answers for.
If his resignation was the sport’s beaches-of-Normandy moment, now we await its Yalta. How will the ruins be cleaned up or will they merely be carved up? Vacuums are dangerous places in power plays, especially after such a lengthy term of rule. We can joke that Sepp Blatter resigning was the fulfilment of his promise to root out corruption in Fifa, but in all reality the urge to save football is almost always only a false face for the urge to rule it. That’s the fear here. All is not suddenly well for 133 of the 209 national associations were behind Blatter despite all we knew last week, and they are still filled with the types who’ve been in this for their own gain all along. They won’t change their very fibre so any overall change has to somehow come about by them being banished.
Take the Qataris as the perfect representation of the denial and delusion that has trickled down from Blatter’s presidency. Sources told Heidi Blake in a BuzzFeed article that their bid officials had been advised by lawyers not to travel to the United States for fear of arrest. Their response was to threaten legal action against her. Then, when English FA Chairman Greg Dyke suggested they should be on edge over whether they’ll be stripped of the tournament, they joked, noting that he should concentrate solely on making England competitive for a tournament that will take place there.
What was most disconcerting was that they weren’t throwing up smokescreens, rather they simply couldn’t understand why anything was wrong in the first place and what all the kerfuffle was about. This after their most senior football official, Mohamed bin Hammam, waged a multi-million euro vote-buying campaign to rig the ballot in his country’s favour although their official bid committee denies any wrongdoing while conveniently adding that he simply was not working on their behalf.
But given the extent of the goings-on and the longevity, we shouldn’t be surprised at the brazen nature of so many within football that see themselves not only above laws, but above basic morality. When Michael Garcia, a former United States Federal Prosecutor, was hired in July 2012 and produced a 400-page report on both Qatar and the 2018 Russian World Cup bids, Blatter refused to publish it in full, saying it cleared both nations of wrongdoing. A furious Garcia resigned in a rage. Granted, even Blatter’s original rise to the position of president was uncomfortable with talk of bundles containing €50,000 each being passed to African delegation before the 1998 vote in Paris.
His opponent that day Leonard Johansson later added: “They talk about seeing envelopes being handed over from one to the other. They were sure that this was meant to make the vote in the right direction, which was not for me.” Nothing came from it but similar accusations of vote-buying stuck to and destroyed his enemies. In 2011 when his one-time ally Bin Hammam challenged his authority, it came to light days before the presidential election that he’d been handing out stacks of hundred-dollar bills totalling $10,000 a go to delegates at a Caribbean Football Union gathering.
Considering Blatter was so astute at retaining power –by its modern definition that’s what made him a brilliant politician – it’s impossible to believe he was so incompetent that he didn’t know what was going on. Rather than being out of it, Occum’s razor would say he was the loop. Nowhere better showed that than North and Central America. Just two months ago, at the annual meeting of Concacaf, he was compared by the region’s big players to Moses, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill and Jesus Christ. He’d helped them via his rotten-borough strategy that meant Guyana has the same vote as Germany, Aruba as Argentina. In return, they voted for him. Thus his demigod status there came about from the$330m given to 35 countries in the region while he added: “The forecast for the next four years is about $150m to $180m”.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with promoting the game in such places and in funding those places that have been left behind. But it’s the how and why that matters here. The previous head of Concacaf Warner – one of seven former high-ranking Fifa names put on a wanted list by Interpol this week – owns a sports complex and conference centre in Trinidad, largely built with $26m of Fifa money that he transferred to his own companies, while the wedding room is known as Sepp Blatter Hall. When he was forced from Concacaf in that Bin Hammam vote-buying scandal, he was replaced by Jeffrey Webb who was head of the Cayman Islands, a man Blatter even touted as his successor.
Webb spent a decade as deputy director of Fifa’s internal audit committee while his own businesses were tangled with Fifa contracts and money. It was under his watch too that the Cayman treasurer Canover Watson was moved to FIFA’s audit and compliance committee but in November he was charged in his home state with money laundering and fraud while in his role as chairman of the Cayman Islands Health Services Authority. Then there are the tales behind such missing millions.
A brilliant article on Bloomberg in April entitled “A League of His Own” highlighted one such case. At the time of the Haitian earthquake, Fifa claimed to send $250,000 in aid to Warner in his role as head of Concacaf while a contributor from South Korea sent an additional $500,000. Yves Jean-Bart, over Haitian soccer, told Bloomberg: “We got a small shipment of rice, but if you count it up it was worth less than $10,000”. He said further assistance brought the total to just $429,000. Bloomberg’s investigations showed an internal audit listed receipts of more than $229,000 for generators, food, blankets, and other supplies from a Trinidad company whose address doesn’t exist while Haiti said they never received any of that. Meanwhile $366,222 went toward bringing two Haitian soccer teams to Trinidad and other countries for matches with flights arranged by a Warner family travel agency, and their lodging was at Warner’s conference centre—the one he built with Fifa money. Realise that’s just one story from one federation and you get a scale of what Fifa now faces.
During the last four years of Blatter’s reign, $1.56bn was spent on solidarity programs for member associations, including $1bn for football fields, local coaching and other handouts. Meanwhile football politicians who played the game were looked after in terms of big handouts for daily business, five-star hotels and first-class flights. The amount of back scratching removed all but the thickest of skin and amidst the celebrations over Blatter’s demise, this culture that is still left.
So rotten has been the organisation that decapitating Fifa hasn’t stopped the body slimily crawling along and won’t without the entire association being deconstructed. Indeed over all the talk of Fifa’s reputation being damaged with its sponsors, it’s their own brand they now need to worry about. And with the current electoral process, those same countries and continental confederations will hold power come the ballot box early next year. Ask yourself, do you trust them to suddenly do right? And if not, who do you trust? Big names now entering the race include those like Uefa president Michel Platini who was one of the proponents of a World Cup in Qatar to begin with.
It’s a job that may go beyond the reach of anyone who has survived within the football family under Blatter’s regime as such was the dirt, very few can pronounce themselves clean. Then again it’s a job that may go beyond the ability of anyone at all considering the scale of the clean-up operation Fifa now faces. What do they do about the scale of corruption far below Blatter? What about rogue associations and confederations? Who can handle the role of replacing Blatter and how? Does Fifa need to be reinvented under a different name? What about that 2022 World Cup? And why stop there, what about Russia or are there scales of corruption and where is the line? What if Ukraine quality for that World Cup? What if a player of size of Russia was stripped of hosting it? Who could step in? Would it cause a diplomatic incident? What of the sponsors were a World Cup to be in Russia given the sanctions against the nation? What of sponsors touching Fifa in general..?
The questions and fears go on and on. As will the legacy of Sepp Blatter, for many years to come.
Sunday Business Post
7 June, 2015