Sunday 23 October 2016

David Conn: Further drama is inevitable as the plot thickens

Reading like a film script, the FIFA saga has only just begun

Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30

'Euphoria in Europe at the perceived toppling of Blatter has quickly ceded to a realisation that the vacuum leaves enormous risk'
'Euphoria in Europe at the perceived toppling of Blatter has quickly ceded to a realisation that the vacuum leaves enormous risk'

The long Hollywood lineage of films about the FBI bringing rich, unreachable men to justice has lent a distinct movie-like quality to the crumbling of Sepp Blatter and FIFA, from the dawn arrests of accused high-ups at their five-star Zurich hotel, through the criminal confessions of Chuck Blazer, to the still pinch-yourself moment the president announced his fall.

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Yet no scriptwriter of such a crime and corruption movie would have dared to so overdo the hubris as to have the president topple himself in the very week FIFA released its own actual movie in America, of self-glorification and Blatter sanctification.

This, for FIFA, has been meta-hubris, a story you couldn't make up, in the 10 days since the hotel arrests shattered Blatter's serene re-election.

By the time of the last of his four previous elections, in 2011, which he won as the only candidate on the ballot paper after his rival, Mohamed bin Hammam, had been banned by FIFA for handing out $40,000 stacks to voters in a Trinidad hotel room, Blatter and FIFA were held in widespread suspicion and contempt - yet he pronounced it his solemn duty to serve.

Some close to Blatter have given a flavour of the discussions they had in the days after he won, saying they urged him to stand down early. They say it was not, as the FA chairman, Greg Dyke, is alleging, because Blatter feels vulnerable to the FBI investigation, or to the scandal over the $10m FIFA paid to the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf), which Chuck Blazer claims was a bribe to have him and Jack Warner vote for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup.

Blatter is said, rather, to have been wounded by the worldwide media ridicule and criticism, including in his comfortable Zurich home turf, by the heated contempt from European football associations and the rumblings of sponsors.

The pleas for him to stand down, including by FIFA's head of reform, Domenico Scala, and Blatter's daughter Corinne, are said to have been framed to appeal to the 79-year-old's health and to some extent his vanity: that it was the only way he could still have some legacy recognised.

The US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, alleged "rampant, systemic and deep-rooted corruption", making it clear their investigation is in its early stages, despite six guilty pleas including Blazer's and the extraordinary bribery, fraud and money laundering charges in the indictment of 14 others.

Yet still seemingly undaunted, Blatter had proceeded to his coronation. He knew then that the men charged included long-term executive committee members Warner, Blazer's former boss as president of Concacaf, and the Paraguayan Nicolas Leoz, for 27 years president of the South American Football Federation (Conmebol).

Leoz is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes for the granting of Copa America TV rights to the media company Traffic, beginning as long ago as 1991. Leoz was, in 2013, exposed for receiving huge bribes between 1992 and 2000 from the ISL group, to which FIFA had sold its marketing rights.

Ricardo Teixeira, the former Brazilian football federation (CBF) president now under investigation in his home country, another long-term exco member, was also found in 2013 to have received a number of multi-million pound bribes from ISL, as did his former father-in-law, FIFA president and Blatter mentor, Joao Havelange.

Blatter, general secretary to Havelange at the time, was found to have been aware of a 1.5m Swiss franc payment to FIFA addressed for Havelange, but said he did not suspect it was a bribe.

The US indictment added to those veterans three current exco men, including the two who replaced Leoz and Warner. The Uruguayan Eugenio Figueredo, who became Conmebol president and Fifa exco member after Leoz resigned in 2013, Jeffrey Webb, Concacaf president since Warner went, and the Costa Rican Eduardo Li, newly elected to the exco in April, are accused of sharing with Leoz and Jose Maria Marin, the current CBF president, a staggering $110m bribe agreement with the media company Datisa for the sale of TV rights to the 2015, 2019 and 2023 Copa America, and the 2016 Copa America Centenario.

Figueredo is also accused of having lied in his application for US naturalisation then citizenship in August 2006 by falsely stating he was suffering from severe dementia. He joined FIFA's exco seven years after that declaration.

Blatter's stunning announcement came a day before Blazer's testimony was due to be published in the US, which led to speculation that it would contain a bombshell for Blatter, an inference his aides rejected. They turned out to be right: the transcript only confirmed Blazer's own admitted felonies.

Blatter loyalists have always said he did not help himself in the bribery culture, that his hapless handling of the Havelange ISL bribe encapsulates his general approach to those raking it in on his watch. They say he has always loved football and cherished his position of running the game, and despite the vast pork barrel opportunities of his Goal development programme, distributing munificence in $500,000 chunks to football associations around the world, point to the tremendous global spread of the game in his tenure.

Blatter seems also to have come round to the realisation that FIFA needs to be reformed into a modern organisation with systems for earning and spending its money properly, and introduced the experienced Swiss plc chief executive Scala to oversee it.

Euphoria in Europe at the perceived toppling of Blatter has quickly ceded to a realisation that the vacuum leaves enormous risk. There is no guarantee that what comes next will be better than Blatter, although such gluttonous corruption will surely be more difficult.

Like many sequels after a sensational first movie, the next episodes could be procedural and dull. Great effort needs to be made to ensure this unbelievable story has a decent ending. Observer

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