Thursday 22 March 2018

End of the line for gravy train

FIFA's endemic culture of handouts cannot survive US indictment, writes Dion Fanning

Sepp Blatter was bullish after being re-elected for a fifth term as FIFA president, but the US Justice Department’s indictment has left football’s governing body in crisis
Sepp Blatter was bullish after being re-elected for a fifth term as FIFA president, but the US Justice Department’s indictment has left football’s governing body in crisis
'For so long, the cops had wooden legs but now FIFA face a more dystopian vision'

Dion Fanning

When Brazil played Russia at the 1982 World Cup in Spain, the FIFA president Joao Havelange realised that the 400 tickets he had been allocated placed him and his extended entourage behind the goal and not, as he naturally had expected, in the VIP tribune.

Havelange paid a visit to the man in charge of ticketing for the tournament, an overweight official called Raimondo Saporta who suffered from a heart condition. Saporta told Havelange there were no tickets left, there was nothing he could do but sit behind the goal and enjoy the game. Havelange reportedly closed the windows in Saporta's office, drew the blinds and locked the door before, according to author David Yallop, telling him: "I can stay here for 72 hours without having a piss, a shit, food or sleep. You, on the other hand, might well die because I am not going to let you leave until I have got my tickets in my hands." In football, as Eamon Dunphy once wrote, hard men rule.

On Friday afternoon in Zurich, the hard man who rules FIFA was becoming giddy. He had been re-elected for a fifth term and it was time to look to the future. "I am president of everybody," Sepp Blatter said. This wasn't another maniacal land-grab but an expression of his deeply felt desire at that moment to unite FIFA, to unite football as Sepp Blatter believes only Sepp Blatter can.

"We will put FIFA's ship back on the right course in clear, transparent waters. We need some time to do it, but we shall do it," he said too, except Blatter had said those words in 2011 when he was elected unopposed (a few associations had abstained to register their opposition) after his opponent Mohamed Bin Hamman was forced out of the election following bribery allegations. In 2011, Blatter said the resolutions passed by congress had given him "the instruments needed to restart the credibility of FIFA".

Whatever Blatter had been doing with the instruments, they hadn't done much to restart the credibility of FIFA in the four years between his re-election in 2011 and the raid last Wednesday morning at the Baur en Lac hotel in Zurich which brought about FIFA's latest and most serious crisis.

Fourteen people - seven of whom were detained in Switzerland on Wednesday - were indicted by the US Justice Department on 47 counts which included racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. "The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States," US attorney general Loretta Lynch said at a press conference in Brooklyn.

On Friday, Richard Weber, the head of the IRS unit into criminal investigations, said he was "fairly confident" there would be another round of indictments. In Britain, the Serious Fraud Office said it was ready to assist in any international investigations.

While the Swiss police were apprehending officials in the five-star hotel, the attorney general of Switzerland was launching another investigation, which included a raid on FIFA's headquarters.

"The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) has opened criminal proceedings against persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 Football World Cups," its statement read. "In the course of said proceedings, electronic data and documents were seized today at FIFA's head office in Zurich."

The US charges do not relate to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which Blatter again said yesterday would go ahead as planned, but the 164-page indictment describes an organisation where all processes appear to have been tainted, where the culture can only function one way.

This was a world where allegedly there was money to be made from facilitating bribe payments. One man, according to the indictment, suggested in 2014 that he would receive a $150,000 annual fee and a commission of two per cent per payment.

If somebody wanted to behave differently in this culture, what could they do?

In his summary last year of the report by the investigator Michael Garcia (a summary described as 'erroneous' by Garcia) into the bidding process for 2018 and 2022, Hans-Joachim Eckert of FIFA's ethics committee noted the problems that bidding countries had. "The line between a bid team's conduct . . . and improper conduct is a very fine one. From which point on lobbyism must be considered as improper conduct is, for example, not always clear."

Since Havelange took over in 1974, football had grown into a global industry, driven by the engine of television. FIFA exploited the desire of multi-national companies to be associated with the World Cup and those sponsors who issued careful statements last week were again finding that it was difficult to benefit from the carnival of football without being sucked into a grubbier land as well.

Havelange was the president who brought Sepp Blatter to FIFA, where he became general secretary in 1981, replacing a man who had an irritating and time-consuming habit of wondering where the money was going. Helmut Käser would pester Havelange with his endless questions, many centring around Havelange's per diems. Blatter took over from Käser in 1981 and two years later the new FIFA general secretary married Käser's daughter. Blatter didn't invite his predecessor to the wedding.

For most of this time as FIFA grew, the money was spread around the world. This process has accelerated in the 17 years of Blatter's presidency and, in theory, this was a good thing. "If there was a FIFA for water, there would be no more drought," Jerome Champagne, the one-time presidential candidate, said when he announced his campaign in 2014.

Champagne didn't sound like the president for a confederation like UEFA when he launched his bid by talking about inequality in football and referencing Thomas Piketty. When he withdrew earlier this year having failed to secure the nominations he required, he complained that the "institutions have mobilised to eliminate the only independent candidate".

Champagne saw FIFA as a force fighting against injustice as it took money from the richest and distributed it to the poorer countries.

This was the FIFA that appealed to the best instincts of those who voted for Blatter on Friday but it has also become a federation unwilling or unable to do much about the worst instincts where the line between conduct and improper conduct was so fine as to be imperceptible.

Jack Warner turned himself into the authorities last Wednesday, spending a night in a Trinidad jail before being released on bail, at which point he referenced Gandhi, Castro and Mandela as other figures who had spent time behind bars.

The US indictment alleges that Warner, once a FIFA vice-president, "began to solicit and accept bribes in connection with his official duties, including the selection of the host nation for the World Cups held in 1998 and 2010, which he participated in as a member of the FIFA executive committee."

The indictment alleges that $10m was paid by South Africa to Warner, who then paid Chuck Blazer. Most damningly, it is alleged that when South Africa didn't have the money to pay Warner, it was transferred to him instead from a FIFA account.

Blazer became an FBI informant after he was pursued for unpaid tax, and he used a wiretap hidden in a keyring to record meetings at the London Olympics, among other places.

The damning allegations in the indictment framed the congress in Zurich last week, even if it was the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar which has, in the public imagination, become the moment when the game was up.

John Delaney and UEFA led the opposition to Blatter last week but UEFA's president Michel Platini was among those who voted for Qatar and there is such suspicion of UEFA from members of other, poorer confederations that they were never going to be seen as football's saviours.

Yesterday Blatter denied that he had been the official who authorised the $10m payment to Warner. Few people expect any evidence to be found of Blatter's personal corruption. Despite his vast undisclosed salary and expense account, he hasn't been in it for the money. His glee at his re-election provided a glimpse at what Blatter wants from FIFA: love, adoration and power. If others get rich through corrupt practices, what could he do? He was just one man standing in front of congress asking them to love him.

Those associations who voted for him on Friday have benefited from FIFA's payments around the globe, and his opponent, Prince Ali, wasn't talking about changing that, not when he wanted votes from those who would lose out in any change.

Yesterday Blatter again promised to continue to fight corruption. "We have tried to eliminate these elements," he said. On Friday, he again promised to pick up the instruments to restart FIFA's credibility.

"At the end of my term of office, I will be able to hand over a solid FIFA, a FIFA that will have emerged from the storm. A strong FIFA." These are only words. Some anticipate that Blatter will be gone within two years but he will hope that the traditional methods will ensure his survival.

FIFA have done their best to create football's Big Rock Candy Mountain. It was a place where not only did the handouts grow on bushes but few people appeared to be too bothered where the handouts went.

In this world, for so long, the cops had wooden legs but last week FIFA were faced with a more dystopian vision. This hellish place was a land where the jails weren't made of tin and you couldn't walk right out again as soon as you were in.

Last week, the FBI made it clear that this was just the beginning of an investigation that could culminate in a ruinous end for individuals and possible for FIFA itself. The hard men who have prospered during Blatter's time might not survive this examination. Blatter is the hardest of them all and he will hope this controversy, like so many others, goes away.

But this is different and Blatter might know it. Last week the US Justice Department effectively drew the blinds and locked the door. Like Joao Havelange in pursuit of tickets, Loretta Lynch isn't going to let anyone leave until she gets what she wants.

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