Monday 23 October 2017

Tommy Conlon: Five million good reasons for the FAI to endure some bad PR

Like a moth to the flame, FAI chief executive John Delaney couldn't resist getting close to the heat. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Like a moth to the flame, FAI chief executive John Delaney couldn't resist getting close to the heat. Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Tommy Conlon

In an ideal world, the money would've come from someone with the sainted reputation of a Mandela or Mother Teresa.

Instead it came from FIFA, an outfit that Transparency International says "has overseen a sordid empire of corruption".

But this isn't news. Anyone with a passing interest knew what they were like when The Irish Sun first revealed, in July 2014, that the FAI had received a mysterious €5m donation from FIFA in January 2010.

Eleven months ago, few people batted an eyelid at the revelation. The story stayed in its blocks. Ten days ago it took off, like sprinters at the crack of a pistol. Context is everything and now it was swept up in the forest fire sparked by the FBI's spectacular raid on senior FIFA personnel in Zurich on May 27.

Eight days later John Delaney ended up getting third-degree burns. Like a moth to the flame, he couldn't resist getting close to the heat. He turned up on Ray D'Arcy's radio show for a chat. Presumably he had his own reasons for talking. Sepp Blatter had by this stage announced that he was resigning as FIFA president. With Blatter finally on his way out, Delaney evidently felt free to do a bit of dancing on his grave.

The subject of the anomalous €5m was also on the agenda. The FAI's chief executive spoke about it in breezy tones, sounding in fact quite pleased with this particular piece of business. It was one in the eye for the sleazy dictator of this nefarious corporation, the tin pot Duce who'd belittled us in front of the world. It was a victory for the small guy who fought back.

Most of the rest of the world saw it as a grubby little stitch-up, typical of the chicanery that had become routine among FIFA's ruling junta. In Ireland specifically, the deal became another stick with which to beat the divisive CEO.

Delaney has brought much derision upon his own head. The man has promoted the cult of his own personality. The self-important salary, the addiction to publicity: it is all a monument to his own hubris. He seemingly has little taste for discretion, for quiet authority, for modest presentation.

At the heart of this is perhaps not pride or arrogance, but naivety. Because there is something innocent about someone who apparently cannot see the damage that this ongoing performance is inflicting on his own reputation. He badly needs to hear stern and candid advice, delivered without fear or favour to his face.

Because Delaney is also the sort of capable and decisive character that Irish football has chronically lacked in the past. Confidence and competence were often in short supply among the FAI's governing class.

And if one were to strip away the hostility that his personality generates, and examine this infamous FIFA deal in a neutral climate, the reality is that Delaney has a strong argument to make in defence of his decision.

And this despite the fact that the deal was inherently distasteful in its provenance. It was a clandestine arrangement, negotiated behind closed doors and maintained in secrecy for four and a half years. There is no getting over this.

But was the secrecy a good enough reason to abort it? We don't think so. The FAI, and therefore Irish football in general, was deep in the red. Its 2010 accounts showed it was carrying a debt of €63m. Its total contribution to the Aviva stadium, said Delaney in 2011, would be €89m. And this financial crisis was happening in the midst of a catastrophic national recession.

The CEO was therefore between a rock and a hard place when FIFA magicked up the €5m in early 2010: damned if he did, damned if he didn't. Or maybe for him it wasn't a dilemma at all; maybe he couldn't believe his luck when Blatter started talking compo with him.

Delaney after all hadn't a leg to stand on, despite his recent rationalisations in various public statements. Thierry Henry had handled the ball, the ref hadn't seen it, end of story. Blatter could've told his Irish CEO to whistle a tune: Delaney had no leverage that we know of, legally or politically.

But Blatter, for whatever reason, decided to assuage him with a bit of patronage; or maybe he just felt like patronising little old Ireland with some loose change from FIFA's vast corporate fortune. Autocrats, after all, enjoy their arbitrary dispensing of largesse; this was just another one.

And at least the five million ended up in bricks and mortar; a football facility; a fixed asset. Who knows where it might otherwise have finished up around the world, or in whose pocket?

And had Delaney turned it down, as night follows day he'd now be accused of financial negligence or misguided honour: a beggar with holes in his socks too proud to accept charity from a passing fat cat.

There's no doubt that many Irish people found it all a bit shabby.

"We have been able to hold our heads up high," said Keith Andrews, one of Ireland's heroic players that November evening in 2009.

"That was the one comfort we all had from that night in Paris and now I think that has been taken away from us."

Maybe so. But, as the fella said, no one ever choked swallowing his pride either.

thecouch@independent.ie

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