Andrew Jennings’ latest book The Dirty Game: Uncovering the scandal at Fifa, was something of a greatest hits’ package. Terrific stuff for those brought to Fifa’s corruption tale since the ground-breaking events in May while breaking little new ground for more seasoned observers. His latest BBC Panorama Fifa documentary, Fifa, Sepp Blatter and Me, threatened to be similar. Thankfully, though, it was a delight. Far more than just the film of the book. The United States Department of Justice (DoJ) summary of its latest Fifa indictments (forgive me for not yet wading through all 263 (!!) pages yet) stresses that the charges therein remain” merely allegations and the defendants are presumed innocent unless or until proven guilty.” Jennings had no such qualms, ending the documentary with a turn to camera and the words, about suspended Fifa president Sepp Blatter: “I told you he was a crook.”
Jennings presented the documentary from his spacious-looking rural Cumbrian abode. If we were to believe our eyes, an entire wall was covered with TV screens, a world map on a football pitch, a montage of newspaper cuttings and a (genuine rogues) gallery of the highest-profile Fifa indictees. The sort of montage an obsessive member of the public might hide away in a back room in a TV detective drama when they suspect dirty deeds and the cops don’t want to know. Place looked untidy too, with copies of Jennings’ Fifa books strewn all over the place in camera shot…there’s careless..ahem…) That, of course, is the position Jennings has been in for much of the last decade, not least when the BBC aired his 2010 doc Fifa’s Dirty Secrets three days before the end of the 2018 World Cup bidding process. We were reminded here of the England bid team’s anger at the doc’s timing. “At least BBC Sport is backing the bid,” noted Gary Lineker on-air that week.
In this doc, a repentant Lineker said: “If we’d know what we know now, I don’t think we’d have bothered (bidding for the World Cup) and we’d probably have tried to contribute to the Panorama programme.” Of course, Lineker should have known…because Jennings had told them in previous Panoramas. In such circumstances, Jennings’ smug, self-satisfaction was utterly justified. Fifa, Sepp Blatter and Me was very much in Jennings ‘idiosyncratic’ style, with his penchant for standing outside buildings he had no chance of entering, in search of interviews he had no chance of securing. This style remains an acquired taste and can be thought annoyingly pointless. But it worked well here. There was no way, for instance, that Jennings was getting access to former Brazilian football chief Ricardo Teixeira (probably the most popularly indicted official in last week’s batch). But Teixeira will have known Jennings was there, right outside his house. And Jennings reputation is now such that Teixeira would have known trouble awaited.
Jennings got brief access to some targets here, though, perhaps exposing a previously unthinkable laxity in Fifa’s personal security arrangements. “Ah, Mr Bedoya,” he exclaimed on sight of Colombian football president Luis outside Fifa’s September Executive Committee meeting. “Have you heard from the FBI yet? I gather they are very interested in you.” “Excuse me, I don’t speak Spani…er…English,” replied the apparently non-Spanish speaking Colombian, in tones Radio 4 would have difficulty rejecting. “That’s good English,” Jennings noted, mock-approvingly. Two months later, Bedoya pleaded guilty to racketeering and wire-fraud. He might well have decided to do so as soon as Jennings appeared. Jennings also spoke to Michel Platini, no less, and England’s Fifa executive representative, Geoff Thompson (less). A smiling Platini recognised Jennings from afar but only wanted to talk football: “4-4-2, 4-3-3, English team, referees?” Thompson simply said “I don’t know. I have no idea,” which cynics might claim could have been his answer to anything Jennings asked him.
Jennings was certainly at the heart of some of the action, with much of the filming done in September, as Blatter and his ultra-loyal secretary-general Jerome Valcke faced media exposure on consecutive days and the Swiss and US Attorneys-General wilfully implied at a joint press conference that Blatter was in their sights. The day before, Jennings had interviewed Swiss AG Michael Lauber and asked him if Blatter was “part of your investigation.” Lauber replied: “I would not exclude that” in a tone which said that he was very much Including that. “Fifa is falling apart in front of my eyes,” Jennings concluded gleefully. In hindsight, Jennings might have rued being in Zurich during one Fifa executive committee meeting not surrounded by executive arrests. And the latest DoJ indictments stole some of the doc’s thunder. Jennings “revealed” that Brazilian football chief Marco Polo Del Nero, South American confederation president Juan Angel Mapout and the aforementioned Bedoya were under FBI investigation (“we know who they’re investigating and what they’re investigating”). These revelations became last week’s news after the latest indictments were published and Mapout was arrested. But if Jennings was at all sore at this, it didn’t show.
Indeed, Jennings appeared to love every minute of the doc. “To understand the story you have to come to Brazil,” he noted. “Handy that,” you’d be forgiven for thinking as Jennings danced at a salsa club, tiptoed in the Atlantic by Copacabana Beach and saw a match at the Maracana Stadium (check next year’s licence fee for details). Admonishing the conveyor-belt of corrupt Brazilian football chiefs (their federation has become “a kind of rest home for criminals”), he said: “This is the passion that’s being exploited,” as the crowd shouted “puta” at some unspecific target. Passionately, though. He also delighted in the contrasting attention he received from the FBI and the US senate. “I’d like to think I played my part,” he said, recalling his semi-clandestine London meeting with FBI “spooks” (“with short hair, government haircuts”). “Suddenly, I’ve got people who are carrying guns agreeing with me,” he added, perhaps recalling his past mafia investigations where the gun-toters were probably less amenable. “I liked that.”
He positively revelled in the surroundings of this summer’s US senate hearing on Fifa (and a later Brazilian equivalent where he received unexpected birthday greetings from well-briefed senator and former Brazilian World Cup-winning striker Romario, although we could have done without a brief flash of Jennings in his hotel room in nothing but his…well…briefs (18 minutes in, if you want to fast forward…and you will). “I’ve got to be eccentric,” he exclaimed, as a Washington hairdresser threatened his “mutton chops.” And after the hearing, he told a waiting TV crew: “’I’ve been looking forward to the day when the Justice Department got hold of some collars in Zurich and said ‘get in the car, sir.’” Given his rightly-lauded evidence to the hearing, you could indulge his godawful American accent on that last bit.
On an, occasionally, more serious note, Jennings had new material on two of his favourite targets, Blatter and the repugnant Trinidadian former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner (“Warner has been involved in most of Fifa’s rackets”), and one of his pet subjects, the collapse of Swiss sports marketing firm International Sport and Leisure (ISL) and the bribes and kickbacks to spots officials which hastened their financial demise. Jennings’ 2010 discovery of the Fifa bribe recipients was “a massive, massive breakthrough.” And Blatter had always denied knowledge of them. “We don’t think that’s true,” Jennings said before revealing that the FBI had obtained a letter written by Blatter’s predecessor president Joao Havelange. “Havelange took organised crime to Fifa,” Jennings had earlier reported, referencing Havelange’s close relationship with brutal Brazilian gangster Castor Andrade.
But the letter’s recipient was not revealed. So it was not clear to whom Havelange emphasised “that Mr Joseph Blatter had full knowledge of all activities” and “was always apprised of them.” It smacked of Neil the hippy from 80s BBC comedy The Young Ones writing “it was not me, it was the other three” (ask your Dad). But Jennings took it as great news. And US attorney Robert Appleton seemed to concur. The FBI, he claimed, could “loop it all the way back to the beginning and charge that conduct as part of this racketeering conspiracy.” Or, as Jennings added: “the evidence could be used to prosecute him even though it happened years ago.” This was in delightful contrast to former FA chief Lord David Treismann’s understandably cynical contribution to the same segment of the film: “ISL’s scandal,” he complained, was a “very straightforward lesson that corruption was systemic within Fifa” and that “it doesn’t matter what you do, it will be forgiven, or forgotten, and at some stage you will be back on the gravy train.”
Another hint that such days may have had their day was Swiss TV’s discovery of a World Cup Caribbean TV rights contract signed by both Blatter and the repugnant Warner, “the first time Sepp’s fingerprints have been found on a dodgy document,” Jennings suggested. Fifa justified the contract, through which Warner bought the rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups for $600k and promptly sold them on for, ulp, $18m, by claiming they would receive half of Warner’s profits (which still made it a questionably lucrative deal for Warner). “Does it say that in the contract?” Jennings asked former Fifa TV deal negotiator Dominik Schmid, who had negotiated previous such deals with the repugnant Trinidadian. “No it doesn’t” Schmid almost physically stressed, calling the deal a “unique constellation,” which made the Caribbean “the only region in the world where the World Cup has become cheaper. Substantially.” For Qatar, the doc revealed, the 2022 World Cup was substantially dearer. Lord Treismann quoted two “sources close to British Intelligence” who “both had the same figure” of £117m, “six times what England spent” on their 2018 bid. Curiously, though, the doc at no time referenced the Qatari Fifa official most directly linked to the, cough, “unauthorised” portion of that spending. I smell lawyers. An odd omission, nonetheless.
Little else was omitted. Jennings’ own role in providing information on US former Fifa vice-president Chuck Blazer which turned the rotund clown into an FBI “supergrass.” (“Chuck lived with his pet parrot Max,” Jennings noted, a matter-of-fact revelation in this context). The missing football pitch on the Cayman Islands (“as you can see, it’s not there,” said Chris Johnston, the very English “local resident” of the Caribbean tax haven), the money for which allegedly found its way to Cayman former Fifa vice-president Jeffrey Webb.
The $500k donation made by South Korean former Fifa vice-president (what pattern?) Chung Mong-Joon for Haitian earthquake relief which ended up in Warner’s repugnant mitts. And plenty which word count limits do not permit. An action-packed hour, for sure. And a belting soundtrack too. Lots of cool jazz, a bit of the Smiths and the right amount of funk for any party. Jennings briefly let his joviality slip by admitting that after 15 years, it was “getting a bit tiresome” having to wait outside Fifa events from which he is “the only journalist in the world” to be banned. But his weariness was short-lived as Blatter became the subject of genuine criminal investigation (“news I‘ve waited a long time to hear”) and he could say of Blatter’s stand-in president Issa Hayatou “he’s got all the qualifications for the job…we have already exposed him for taking bribes.”
Despite his claims that this was “one last” investigation into Blatter, Jennings knows his work is not yet done and that he only had a metaphorical “couple of hours” in which to put his “feet up.” However, as he noted, the “fear” of Fifa “isn’t there” any more from “people who did business with them” and “were frightened that they’d get shut out and wouldn’t get contracts” if they breached the “great silence around Fifa.” As a result, “suddenly, we’re being offered information we would never have got on the record before.”
Another Panorama possibly awaits, then. “Football fans can only hope the feds finish the job,” Jennings said, although many fans hope that Jennings will continue to help. Before his memorable closer, Jennings declared: “One way or another, Sepp Blatter will finally be taking a rest from football, either in retirement or in prison,” clearly not fancying the Swiss gnome’s chances of grabbing the honorary presidency he currently craves. But whatever Blatter’s future, Fifa, Sepp Blatter and me will be hard to beat for both journalistic and entertainment value. Although if anyone can do it, Andrew Jennings can.
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