So today and tomorrow, in Zurich, FIFA are discussing what – if anything – to do to rescue the reputation of its World Cup bidding process, a process which has descended very publically into the pettiest of playground squabbling in the couple of weeks since The Sunday Times first called its integrity into question with its allegations of cash-for-votes. I expect they’ll do the absolute minimum they think they can get away with – which might be as little as nothing, but will probably involve some token gestures, possibly including the delay of the 2022 vote until sometime next year.
But like everyone else I’m fronting on nothing here. Just guesswork, because FIFA are largely inscrutable, unaccountable and a law unto themselves. And it’s this inscrutability, of course, that’s at the heart of the problem. Unless one includes journalists armed with hidden cameras, it’s very difficult to see how there is any meaningful check on the 24 delegates who will (or at least, who are due to) cast the votes on 2nd December to decide the venues for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
There’s huge amounts of money at stake for the winning bidders, and indeed huge amount of money already invested in the bids alone. When 24 individuals hold all that power to tip the balance between one or another, and have all the time in the world to meet people and make deals free from supervision, how can you possibly hope to stop any suspicion of corruption? And how could you prove any such suspicion anyway?
It’s a near-impossible task, to be fair, it’s pretty difficult to see how you could design a system which would be wholly transparent and free from any such potential malpractice. Which is not, of course, an excuse to throw up one’s hands and say nothing can be done. If the organisation itself is at least clean and serious about tackling such corruption then there are at least many steps that can be taken, as the International Olympic Committee has at least gone to some effort to demonstrate in recent years.
But, this is FIFA.
In another article last month I cautioned against jumping to conclusions about the level of corruption involved in Pakistani cricket on the basis of one example. The same should apply here, I know. Even if we accept the Sunday Times’s scoop as straight up, and the two delegates concerned to have been caught red-handed we shouldn’t make the leap to the whole process being rotten and FIFA being institutionally corrupt. Unfortunately, there is rather more to go on. I may have been guessing, at the top of the article, about what exactly FIFA will do, and what announcement they’ll make tomorrow. But “the minimum possible” is hardly likely to be a bad guess given their track record at dealing with previous allegations.
For a start, to give just one example, one of the 24 delegates is Trinidad and Tobago’s Jack Warner, a man whose venality and financial rapaciousness cannot possibly have escaped anybody’s attention, even if you were to ignore the one occasion when he was actually caught bang to rights with his hands in the till, touting tickets for the World Cup in 2006. He was given a slap on the wrist and sent on his way, and remains in his position as one of the most powerful men in world football. He is not one of those currently under suspension and his place on the voting panel is unaffected.
It might or might not be coincidence that Warner is a strong supporter of FIFA President Sepp Blatter. But somehow, I incline to think not. Allegations of corruption at FIFA have in the past gone all the way to the top, and again little or nothing has been done to get to the bottom of them. In 2002 it was alleged by former CAF Vice President Farah Ado that a number of African delegates had accepted bribes to vote for Blatter’s first presidency in 1998. “The game is over. The whistle has blown. The players have returned to the dressing room.” was Blatter’s response to the allegations. Further allegations about financial misconduct were made by Michael Zen-Ruffinen in the lead up to the 2002 World Cup. Again, nothing came of it (other than Zen-Ruffinen losing his job), the FIFA investigation being halted for confidentiality reasons.
With such a stench of suspicion surrounding the organisation at that level, it’s hard to have much confidence in their ability to root out problems within the rest of it. Indeed, even the partiality of the current set of allegations has been called into question. Much has been made of the alleged pact between the Spain / Portugal and Qatar bids since, ironically enough, Zen-Ruffinen was filmed by the Sunday Times discussing it. There have been other rumoured pacts, including a suggestion of one between England and the USA, but it’s been quite convenient for Blatter to focus on the Qatari one, because Qatar’s Mohamed Bin Hammam is a political rival who has made noises about standing against Blatter for the Presidency.
For that matter, how do we know that the English media haven’t been selective in their acquisition of evidence? How do we know they haven’t been trying to pin allegations on those who might be standing in the way of an English bid rather than going after our allies? Once the whole process comes under suspicion, then even the process of tackling it comes into question. It leaves FIFA with a mess. The whole plan of holding two votes together was misconceived and only encouraged behind-the-scenes dealing, particularly once it became clear that the bidders were in any case dividing into two groups going for different tournaments. But it’s almost certainly too late to address that now, bidders have geared everything up (including their finances) to the arrangements as originally set.
So for all the hullaballoo, the two votes will probably go ahead pretty much as they would have done anyway, with or without Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii. If FIFA are serious about cleaning up its act we’ll just have to hope they make changes for the future – though given the next tournament to be voted on is another sixteen years away yet that seems a pretty academic point just at the moment.
And where does this leave England’s bid? Struggling, would be my guess. Notwithstanding that The Sunday Times are of course independent of the FA bid committee, Russia’s jibe that it was a sign of desperation might well have some truth to it – at least, given the criticism aimed at The Mail on Sunday earlier this year for damaging the bid with its stitch-up of Lord Triesman, it somehow seems unlikely that this latest story would have been run if the England camp were confident of victory under the set-up as it stood. Their technical bid will be excellent, or at least there’s something seriously wrong if it isn’t, but they seem to have something of a popularity hurdle to overcome, and it’s hard to see recent events doing much to help overcome it. Whistleblowers rarely prosper.
We’ll know more tomorrow about the exact procedure for the voting, and whether any significant changes are to be made given recent events. With that, the bid team will have a clearer idea about what needs to be done. Perhaps FIFA will surprise us all and take decisive action. But at this stage it’s hard to be anything other than pessimistic about the whole thing. In more ways than one.