Jerome Valcke: The End Of An Era… Sort Of
Say “Fifa corruption” and, if they don’t suddenly remember a prior engagement, people will almost certainly think: May 2015, the US Department of Justice indictment and arrested football officials wearing Zurich hotel bedsheets.
For me, though, a larger manifestation of Fifa’s grubbiness under gnomic, disgraced Swiss ex-Fifa boss Sepp Blatter, was Jérôme Valcke, Blatter’s secretary-general for eight years, the effective end-in-disgrace of whose football administration career was comprehensively confirmed in July by a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) arbitral award, published in September.
A CAS Panel ruled Valcke’s 10-year ban from football-related activity “wholly proportionate” for multiple Fifa Ethics Code violations. These involved “the resale of World Cup tickets”, “a transaction between Fifa and a software development company,” travel expense fiddles, “an offer of an improper benefit to a regional football union and failure to co-operate with the Fifa investigation.” The offences, CAS concluded, correctly, were “cumulatively of a serious degree of gravity.” And they weren’t Valcke’s first, or worst.
Blatter’s most brazen corruption, in a competitive field, was nominating Valcke as ‘his’ secretary-general, in May 2007. And not just because Blatter knew how fundamental the secretary-generalship was to ‘corrupt’ presidents, having fulfilled that role with corrupt ‘distinction’ from 1981 to 1998 under predecessor Fifa president, the late Brazilian lizard Joao Havelange.
Valcke became secretary-general on 27th June. And Fifa’s announcement was…wordy. As if the first draft was 50 words short. “In addition to his mother tongue French,” the announcement superfluously noted (its first word was “Frenchman”), “he also speaks English, German and Spanish.” Multiples of 50 words could have been written on how his previous job, Fifa marketing director ended. But that would have been…awkward.
Valcke joined Fifa from a French sports journalistic background, which WAS detailed in the announcement. He was no football fan, but he was effective in key Fifa ways, making money and as Blatter’s bagman and henchman.
Valcke restructured Fifa’s sponsorship programme to make desperately-needed money. The 2001 collapse of Fifa’s ‘marketing partner’ International Sport and Leisure (ISL) had a well-documented perilous impact on Fifa finances and reputation, (‘ISL’ became its own Fifa corruption story). And with Blatter having ‘adjusted’ Fifa’s finances to boost his 2002 re-election bid, Valcke was under pressure to deliver marketing successes to pay for that ‘adjustment.’
A 7th December 2006 (spoiler alert) court ruling demonstrated how fundamental the World Cup was to Fifa’s finances, quoting lyrically-waxed testimony from Fifa people about the monetisable attractions of the world’s “most widely watched, fanatically followed sporting event” and noting that Fifa “capitalizes on this fact.”
Unfortunately, this ruling, by New York Southern District Court Judge Loretta Preska, equally demonstrated how fundamentally dishonestly Valcke and ‘his’ marketing team dealt with established and potential World Cup sponsors/partners, financial services companies MasterCard and Visa International respectively.
To cut a gargantuan legal story short, Fifa should have negotiated with MasterCard and allowed them to say “How much? You’re KIDDING!” about any new sponsorship package before even approaching another company. Yet, it was admitted in court, that “somebody (had) it in for MasterCard.” Valcke’s team were prepared to clean-break agreements to engineer a deal with Visa. And Preska relished contrasting Fifa’s “fair play” slogan with negotiating conduct which was “anything but ‘fair play’” and “violated” Fifa’s “notion of fair play as explained by (Blatter).”
Preska continued: “Fifa’s negotiators lied repeatedly to MasterCard” and “repeatedly lied to VISA.” They kept VISA fully informed of all negotiations “while concealing from MasterCard both the fact of the Fifa-VISA negotiations and the status of those negotiations, an action Fifa’s president admitted would not be ‘fair play.’”
Valcke also “lied to both MasterCard and VISA.” Also, “when, pursuant to his engineering, VISA raised its bid” to match MasterCard’s, “he declined his subordinates’ suggestion to give MasterCard the opportunity to submit a higher bid.” And Preska said nothing to refute MasterCard lawyer Martin Hyman’s claim that Valcke “even lied when testifying about his lies.”
On 8th December, Valcke and co were out the Fifa door, a Fifa statement declaring that its “negotiations breached its business principles. Fifa cannot possibly accept such conduct among its own employees. The Fifa employees who had conducted negotiations…were accused of repeated dishonesty…and of giving false information to the Fifa deciding bodies in question.”
The statement didn’t quite read right, with its reference to Fifa business “principles.” But it was condemnatory enough to seem heartfelt, despite reports, in March 2007, in David Bond’s Telegraph newspaper ‘Inside Sport’ column that Blatter only “suspended” the team and left them “on full pay until June.” And Fifa settling with MasterCard in June for $90m seemed to acknowledge the misconduct. Which made Valcke’s re-emergence SIX…DAYS…LATER, as “world football’s number two” so galling.
Once settled as secretary-general, Valcke was unapologetic. “Chastened but aggrieved,” noted the Independent’s David Owen, that October. But Valcke wasn’t that “chastened.” He felt “clean.” And he would only “feel dirty if what I had done between Visa and MasterCard… had been always to push for a higher price. We just kept everything on track to make sure one company would sign”; a straw-man argument, willfully ignoring everything for which he was sacked.
“Not once,” he added, “have I received during negotiations an idea that potentially the guy would be ready to pay Fifa something or give me something to close the deal.” More straw-men. And he even insisted that he had “never seen in my four years at Fifa something where I could have said, ‘Oh, this is corruption’.” Which simply suggested his optician was a charlatan.
Valcke was as blind to corruption in the December 2010 vote for 2022 World Cup hosting rights, telling French sportspaper L’Equipe in February 2013: “We never received the least shred of proof nor suspicion of corruption.” He ‘explained’: “It was a mini-G20 in Zurich. Bill Clinton, the British, Belgian, Dutch and Spanish prime ministers. If there were the slightest piece of information about corruption, would we have stayed quiet about it?” (erm…). Yet, in 2015, he could see things that weren’t there, about the “2022 organisers upholding workers welfare, as promised.”
The Telegraph’s Oliver Brown labelled Valcke “an utterly brazen and ruthless operator” and (some achievement, this) “Fifa’s most Machiavellian courtier.” Brown declared it “time to focus our ire on the man who has conducted so much of (Blatter’s) slippery work, tried to ensure that Fifa executives arriving in Brazil for the last World Cup were lavished not just with one £16,000 Parmigiani watch, but two and said “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup.”
He concluded, appalled, that Valcke, “patronage restored by his good mate Blatter,” after MasterCard, “re-emerged as the power behind the throne, tricking football all over again with duplicitous double-speak. And football is falling for it” (although Fifa’s regime was probably more admiring of it than “falling for it”).
But Valcke was ready for regime change. Blatter “laid down” his presidential “mandate” in June 2015. And, in July, Valcke announced that “whoever becomes the new Fifa president should have a new secretary-general.” He claimed his administration was never “part of the stories around Fifa.” And concluded, breathtakingly: “I don’t think I am really involved.”
In a 24th July profile, ESPN’s Vivek Chaudhary agreed that “the writing may be on the wall given that whoever takes over is unlikely to want a No. 2 associated with the old regime,” adding prophetically: “Valcke is probably already plotting his next move.” He had been, long-since. But, as a result, on September 17th, he was “put on leave and released from his duties immediately until further notice” after “a series of allegations” which Fifa wanted formally investigated by their ethics committee.
Valcke was already under pressure because, among 94,000 other things, the US indictment referenced “a high-ranking Fifa official” who, from January to March 2008, “caused (three) payments” totalling $10m “to be wired from a Fifa account in Switzerland to a Bank of America correspondent account in New York…controlled by” the repugnant “Jack Warner,” the most disgraceful of a burgeoning number of disgraced former Fifa vice-presidents.
The indictment did not name the high-ranker and Fifa initially claimed it was (another) disgraced former Fifa vice-president, finance committee chair Julio Grondona who, being dead, couldn’t deny it (handy, that…it would be in bad taste to say if we weren’t talking about Fifa.
But on 2nd June, Valcke was linked to the $10m by the ‘failing’ New York Times. And harder evidence emerged within hours that he knew of it, via a 4th March 2008 letter to him from South Africa’s FA, which was tweeted by the Press Association’s Martyn Ziegler and included all the payments’ details. Yet Valcke saw “no reason (why) I shouldn’t remain secretary-general. I have no responsibility. I’m beyond reproach and I certainly don’t feel guilty. So I don’t even have to justify that I’m innocent.”
Underneath the letter’s cover story, the $10m was an alleged bribe to support South Africa’s 2010 World Cup hosting bid and was proven dodgy beyond reasonable doubt by the words “Jack” and “Warner.” And the allegations which emerged in September concerned the, trademark Warner-esque, unauthorised sale of World Cup tickets.
Benny Alon of Fifa ticketing partner JB Sports Marketing (JBSM) claimed that he and Valcke arranged World Cup 2014 ticket sales at multiples of face value and to subsequently split the profits. Alon further alleged that Valcke agreed to swap them for, essentially, Brazil and Germany tickets, when the draw left JBSM with less attractive tickets than envisaged. And that he demanded a “50% kickback on the profits” for his trouble.
Valcke allegedly viewed this as a “pension fund.” And Alon claimed references to “documents” in e-mail exchanges with Valcke meant “cash” for said fund. Valcke counter-claimed that the “documents” were “sensitive information” on “alleged irregularities” with 2006 World Cup tickets “used by Alon to blackmail Fifa in 2010.” Grubby, either way.
Valcke’s New York-based lawyers, Kramer Levin, “unequivocally” denied the “fabricated and outrageous accusations,” claiming he “never received or agreed to accept any money or anything else of value” from Alon and that “Fifa’s agreement with (JBSM) and Fifa’s subsequent business dealings” with Alon were vetted and approved” by “Fifa and its legal counsel.” However, vetting and approval by a reputation-shredded Fifa hardly suggested innocence.
It wasn’t just tickets. Fifa Ethics Committee investigations uncovered numerous potential Ethics Code violations. Between 2012 and 2015, Valcke took private trips of varying glamour, on expenses. to St Petersburg, the Taj Mahal, Qatar and…Manchester. And he allegedly tried to wangle a job for his son, Sebastien, at “virtual reality software developer” EON Reality.
On 5th January 2016, the Ethics Committee suspended Valcke for 90 days and recommended that he be banned for nine years. Kramer Levin’s Barry Berke (snigger!) called this “self-serving public relations” and “a desperate attempt to prove Fifa can police itself,” probably correctly.
Current Fifa president Gianni Infantino swerved sanctions for taking similar liberties, with a private jet trip to the Vatican grabbing particular headlines. But Valcke had no room for manoeuvre without Blatter. And within four days, Valcke was out the door once more, because of the alleged ethics code violations. ‘Sources’ said the ticket stuff hastened, but didn’t cause, Valcke’s departure. However, the Ethics Committee’s 12th February announcement of a 12-year ban was a greatest hits package of all his dastardly deeds.
These involved the repugnant Warner again, to whom Valcke tried to sell the Caribbean’s 2018 and 2022 World Cup media rights for “far below their market value.” Warner characteristically hissy-fitted throughout negotiations, prompting Valcke to inadvisedly remind him that “it is a gift and you know it” (“it is evident that this constitutes a gift because Valcke described it as such,” noted a disbelieving CAS Panel). Oh…and Valcke “deliberately tried to obstruct” proceedings “by attempting to delete or deleting several files and folders relevant to the investigation.”
Valcke’s ban was cut to 10 years on appeal in June 2016 because “mitigating factors” concerning the media rights sale “had not been fully assessed” (he’d been dealing with Warner, remember). But on 3rd June, there were revelations from an internal investigation by Fifa lawyers Quinn Emanuel of “a coordinated effort by three former top officials,” including Valcke, “to enrich themselves through annual salary increases, World Cup bonuses and other incentives” since 2011.
Valcke received an eight-and-a-half-year contract extension just before 2011’s Fifa presidential election, which Blatter was “uncertain” to win. This gave Valcke, inter alia, a “big increase” in “base salary and bonuses” and “generous severance terms that guaranteed full payment” if his “employment is terminated,” which “was likely should (Blatter) not be re-elected.”
These revelations were undoubtedly timed to distract from contemporary Fifa governance issues, with Fifa’s announcement (over) stressing its “commitment to cooperate with the authorities” and its “zero tolerance for wrongdoing.” But Valcke’s “pension fund” desires clearly pre-dated his ticket touting. And the ‘likelihood’ that his employment would be terminated post-Blatter told its own story.
Despite everything, Valcke appealed his ten-year ban, via CAS, in February 2017. But because of everything, it was comprehensively dismissed. The CAS Panel repeatedly and gloriously “personally convinced to its comfortable satisfaction” that all the allegations of Alon et al were true.
And the allegations continued. In October 2017, the Guardian’s David Conn reported that Paris Saint-Germain chairman Nasser El-Khelaifi was “accused of bribing Valcke” over “TV rights for the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.” El-Khelaifi’s Qatari broadcasting company, beIN Sports, “bought the rights to broadcast those tournaments to the Middle East and north Africa.”
Conn added that Swiss authorities had “opened criminal proceedings against Valcke and an unnamed figure in the sports rights business” over bribes for future World Cups’ media rights. Valcke was “suspected” of accepting “undue advantages…related to the tournaments,” Switzerland’s Attorney-General’s office noted. This week, though, the prosecutor leading these proceedings, Olivier Thormann was…yes…suspended. So…AAAAAARGH!!!!!
Still, Valcke should never approach football again. CAS said outright that during one bout of personal unethics he “conducted himself without credibility and integrity and awareness of the importance of his duties and concomitant obligations and responsibilities.”
Valcke’s departure is closure of sorts for ‘the old’ Fifa. Although final closure can only be achieved once Blatter and the repugnant Warner face justice. As Valcke said to Norwegian newspaper Nettavisen, in August 2017 (correctly for once) he “never signed a single important deal without Blatter knowing about it.”
For instance, CAS noted, Valcke only entered into ticketing arrangements with Alon in the first place “following the instructions of…Blatter.” And, as English comedian John Oliver noted of Valcke’s 2015 suspension, on his US cable-TV show ‘Last Week Tonight’: “Of course he was…he worked under Sepp Blatter…the Pepe Le Pew (a 1950s Warner Brothers’ cartoon skunk) of soccer. Boundary-less, aggressively European and, if you’re anywhere near him, his stink will get all over you.” Nonetheless, even if Valcke was ‘only obeying orders,’ he did so with arrogant relish
Mercifully, the new Fifa has moved on from the old Fifa. Gone are the days of damning revelations from media outlets such as German news periodical Der Spiegel…wait…what? Oh…