Tuesday 12 December 2017

A well-earned victory lap after waging war on forces of evil

Jennings got the goods on Blatter and a gallery of other gargoyles
Jennings got the goods on Blatter and a gallery of other gargoyles

Tommy Conlon

Ould dog, hard road. Earlier this year the veteran investigative journalist Andrew Jennings donned his battered old raincoat for one last showdown. In his time he had covered the heroin trade, Italian mobs and bent cops inside Scotland Yard.

Some 25 years ago he pulled back another manhole and lowered himself down into the sewers of corporate sport. His 1992 book Lords of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in the Modern Olympics was a sensational exposé of the plundering goons in the International Olympic Committee.

His public pursuit of FIFA president Sepp Blatter began with a brazen question at a press conference in 2002. "Herr Blatter," he shouted from the floor, "have you ever taken a bribe?"

Over the next few years he got the goods on Blatter and a gallery of other gargoyles with their snouts in the marble trough of football's world governing body. His 2006 book Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals was another sensation.

A series of television documentaries followed in which our hero was seen skulking around the luxury hotels of Zurich in his shabby mackintosh, waiting to ambush FIFA's tin-pot potentates with a microphone.

Last May, two days after the FBI had arrested seven FIFA officials, Jennings was back on the beat in Switzerland for Panorama, at the age of 72. The film was broadcast on BBC1 last Monday. "For the past 15 years," he says in his introduction, "I have investigated FIFA's dodgy decisions. Now the net is closing in, I'm leaving home in Cumbria for one last investigation into Sepp Blatter's FIFA."

But this documentary was essentially Jennings's victory lap. His work was already done. He'd put in the hard yards long before the FBI and the rest of the world's media came calling. So the programme had the jaunty, impudent air of a hack who was about to receive his vindication after labouring long in the shadows. It was as if the BBC had said to him, 'Go on, son, this one's on us, enjoy the lap of honour'.

So with his shuffling gait, his shock of snow-white hair and considerable paunch, Jennings resumed his dogged vigil outside FIFA headquarters. Naturally enough, he wasn't let inside the building. He's been officially banned by FIFA for the last 12 years. But a lot of other TV crews present wanted a word with him. "All empires collapse eventually," he told Swiss television, "and this empire is collapsing in front of our eyes."

Along the way we were treated to a series of his greatest hits from the archives; those moments caught on camera when he doorstepped everyone from Blatter down and hosed them with questions about bribes and corruption. Chuck Blazer, Ricardo Teixeira and Nicolas Leoz had all run the gauntlet of the grubby hack on their way to and from their blacked-out limousines.

But the exchanges with Jack Warner were particularly priceless. In a 2006 documentary Jennings had confronted the notoriously avaricious FIFA executive from Trinidad and Tobago. "If I could have spat on you, I would have spat on you," retorted Warner in this comical cameo. "I would not of course dignify my spit." "But why would you spit on me?" goaded Jennings, all innocence. "Because you're garbage."

In May of this year Warner was indicted by the FBI on bribery and racketeering charges. In September FIFA banned him from football for life. It's no wonder Jennings was in tip-top form on his last foray to the front-line.

His great coup had materialised in 2010 when he got his hands on internal documents that connected FIFA executives with a $100m web of kickbacks orchestrated by a Swiss sports marketing company, ISL. Jennings revealed the details in a BBC documentary later that year. "It was," he recalled in last Monday's film, "a massive, massive breakthrough."

But it took another five years before the spotlight penetrated FIFA's inner sanctum. The FBI raids in Zurich last May, the ongoing investigations by Swiss and American authorities, plus further media revelations, finally reached the king of Lilliput himself.

In September Jennings is once again hanging around the gates of FIFA like a bad smell. A major press conference is imminent. Inside the perimeter are dozens of camera crews and reporters deemed safe enough to be given accreditation. "It's becoming a bit tiresome," he sighs, "being the only reporter in the world excluded from Sepp Blatter's press conferences."

Lo and behold, the conference is mysteriously cancelled. "But then we find out why," reports Jennings, suddenly all chirpy again. "It's news I have waited a long time to hear." Swiss authorities announce that they've opened a criminal investigation into Blatter and his heir apparent, Michel Platini. Both of them are suspended from football, by FIFA, for 90 days.

The documentary ends where it began, back in Jennings' farmhouse in Cumbria. He has returned to this land of pastoral goodness, like Frodo Baggins returning to the Shire in Lord of the Rings, having waged war with the forces of evil in the world.

"One way or another," he concludes, "Sepp Blatter will finally be taking a break from football - either in retirement or in prison. After 15 years of chasing him, it's time for me to put my feet up."

And sitting in his comfortable armchair, he turns to the camera with a cheeky grin, and the final word: "I told you he was a crook!"

Sunday Indo Sport

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