One day, someone interviewing Fifa president-for-life-at-this-rate Sepp Blatter will try this trick. And Blatter’s expression when he falls for it, which is borderline-inevitable, will provide screen-saver material for football fans everywhere. He/she will say: “Mr. Blatter, you were ‘shocked’ by suggestions of Fifa corruption; you are ‘fighting to clean Fifa;’ your ‘number one priority is to rebuild the image of Fifa’ which you have ‘already started;’ you will operate a ‘zero tolerance’ policy towards corruption and you will set up a body ‘from outside Fifa’ to ‘ensure there is no corruption at Fifa.’” Blatter will agree, doubtless using flowery language about family and ship-steadying. And the interviewer will hit back with: “But Mr Blatter, you said all these things in 2011. And nothing has happened. So. Are you a failure or a fraud?”
Transparency International’s audibly-wearied Deborah Unger noted in parliament recently how “exactly” we are now where we were four years ago. And trawls through media archives of Fifa stories exposes just how remarkably 2011 has replayed. In 2011, in the wake of Sunday Times newspaper allegations of Fifa corruption, Blatter claimed that if there are “two, three, four alleged corruption activities…it is not possible to say everything is corrupt in Fifa” and that it was “difficult to manage” Fifa because its “executive committee (ExCo) is not selected by the same entity as the president.” Those who saw Blatter’s recent interview with the BBC’s Richard Conway will recognise the sentiments and almost all the words.
In 2011, a lawyer resigned from Fifa’s ethics committee because “responsible persons in Fifa have no interest in resolving, punishing and avoiding violations against Fifa’s ethics regulations.” For Gunter Hirsch then, read Michael Garcia last winter, railing spectacularly against the executive summary and non-publication of his full report into allegations of World Cup bidding process corruption. Even when the ethics committee did “punish violations” in 2011, it was almost exclusively against Blatter opponents, most (in)famously Mohammed Bin Hammam, who “won” the World Cup for his native Qatar against considerable odds and so, Blatter reportedly reasoned, would find the Fifa presidency well within his (and his money’s) capabilities.
In 2015, Chilean FA president Harold Mayne-Nicholls’ brief potential candidacy was such a threat that he was banned from football for seven years by the ethics committee for “repeatedly asking favours” of Qatar-based Aspire Sports Academy, a trivial, trumped-up and utterly nonsensical charge, as in his role as 2022 World Cup bid inspector, Mayne-Nicholls criticised Qatar’s bid to what would have been a fatal extent had Fifa’s ExCo remotely cared about anything beyond, “what’s in it for me?” In 2011, calls grew for Fifa to undergo an International Olympic Committee-style reform process, as the IOC had made fundamental and workable changes after scandal engulfed America’s Salt Lake City and its successful bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. These precise calls are still being made.
Pressure from UK and European Parliaments emerged in 2011 in the wake of more controversies over the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid processes. Deja-vu again in 2015, especially for Conservative UK MP Damian Collins, who in 2011 was calling for an “independent commission to lead an inquiry into Fifa and then ensure all Fifa proceedings become transparent” and in 2015…er…still is. The only difference is that in 2011 he was “working with campaign group ChangeFifa.” In 2015 he co-founded campaign group “NewFifaNow” (NFN). Major Fifa sponsors got twitchy in 2011. Coca-Cola expressed “full confidence in Fifa’s management” but called corruption allegations “distressing and bad for the sport.” Other leading sponsors also expressed concerns, though largely in terms of how allegations might affect their bottom-line. In 2015, NFN have found that the same sponsors still view their relationships “through a commercial lens.”
Then, after Blatter’s unopposed re-election in 2011, his reform proposals proved “independent” only of common sense and potential to succeed. His “committee of the solutions,” including Henry Kissinger and…Placido Domingo, pulled off the neat trick of simultaneously coming off the top of Blatter’s head and out of his arse. In 2015, Blatter’s personnel choices were less crackpot but no likelier to produce credible solutions. Appointed chair Francois Carrard dim-wittedly confirmed when he claimed that “there is something unfair in the way (Blatter) is treated.” And, not that we needed further proof of his idiocy, Carrard added: “I say that with complete independence.” Whether this was before or after he received his first pay cheque from new employers…Fifa isn’t recorded.
The final echo was Blatter declaring “these will be my last four years for which I stand as a candidate,” which was already a repeated insistence in 2011. Whether we are currently in his “last” five months as a president remains uncertain. The first thing more cynical observers sought from Blatter’s post-“resignation” interviews was a reference to calls for him not to go. And there it was, tucked away in Dutch newspaper De Volksrant’s August interview, designed as a “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it revelation: “Many football associations are asking me to stay on.” So, was Andrew Jennings right to tell United States senators in July that Blatter had “laid down his mandate” as president but “can pick it up again”? Was Blatter’s curious phraseology for a purpose? Will Carrard be as useful now as Domingo would have been in 2011? Will anything be different this time?
Well…yes…but encouragingly so in that last instance. While ChangeFifa remains active on social media, campaigners for genuine Fifa reform have been organising more widely since NFN was launched on January 21st at a Brussels summit hosted by Belgian Social Democrat MEP Ivo Belet and English Conservative MEP Emma McClarkin and addressed by NFN co-founders and long-time campaigners Jaimie Fuller, Bonita Mersiades and Collins. I’ve come late to NFN. I followed them on Twitter for two months largely as a research tool for future Fifa articles (bet you can’t wait). I was only awoken to the organisation’s actual work by Mersiades’ and Fuller’s parliamentary contributions two weeks ago.
The summit produced a “Charter for Fifa Reform” which Mersiades outlined to parliament’s Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee helpfully including Collins. It called for “the establishment of an independent Reform Commission (IRC) led by an eminent person” to “review and develop” all Fifa structures and “conduct elections for an ExCo, including a new President.” As ever with such things, those charged with selecting the “eminent person” need to be trusted to make the right choice. Blatter and Fifa have consistently shown themselves unworthy of that, or any, trust. NFN want their IRC chaired by a complete outsider and to include “other eminent persons from the judiciary, corporations, government and sport”, a call since adjusted to “experts in governance and anti-corruption” who are ”independent of football and sports governance.” NFN also published “guiding principles” which were “intended as a basis for discussion and consultation for the (IRC)” and detailed the structures they’d like to see deliver on the main principles of “democracy, transparency and accountability.”
Wearied by years of Fifa reform talk, many journalists reacted patronisingly and sceptically to the summit. The Guardian newspaper’s Owen Gibson wrote that NFN had “talked a good game” and “their aim is a noble one” but “it was easy to imagine Blatter laughing at the collection of usual suspects gathered in front of the western European media to denounce him. They will not be quaking in their expensive shoes in Zurich.” Gibson suggested that “they will need to build a broader coalition than the mainly male, mainly white, mainly western European consensus represented (in Brussels).” And if what he called “the latest attempt to foment revolution” is to succeed “it will need a long-term view.”
World Soccer’s Keir Radnedge spotted early divisions in the ranks, “a marked divergence between all-out foes of FIFA and Blatter and critics rather of the game’s governance structures.” Yet Radnedge’s report of the guest speakers, two then-potential presidential candidates Jerome Champagne and Mayne-Nicholls, didn’t fit that narrative. Both speakers criticised “the game’s governance structures” but Mayne-Nicholls echoed NFN’s charter with his call for “honesty, solidarity, transparency, equity and playing fair.” And while they both “argued for a progressive reform of FIFA and the structures of the world football pyramid rather than an overthrowing of the entire edifice,” this still echoed many of NFN’s guiding principles.
Both Gibson and Radnedge under-estimated the practical importance of Fuller’s presence, despite both referencing his “key” (Gibson) and “leading” (Radnedge) “role in effecting change in cycling after the Lance Armstrong dope scandal.” But no-one at NFN under-estimates the need for a “long-term” strategy. They seek support from national FAs, broadcasters, fans and sponsors. And their subsequent work has focused widely, imaginatively and often entertainingly. The title of Fuller’s personal blog on January 11th, Bugger off Sepp, time for a change, hinted at the direction of one strand of NFN’s strategy. And other irreverent publicity activities (stunts would be an unfairly crude description) included an International Herald Tribune newspaper spoof handed out at Fifa’s May congress to the ExCo members and national FA delegates not already in Zurich nick. It contained “the type of headlines and news that football fans have long been hoping for” regarding genuine Fifa reform, and a series of articles mocking Fifa corruption. Unfortunately, if magnificently for NFN’s aims, the real headlines and news were even more what “football fans have long been hoping for.”
To supplement more traditional campaigning, including the inevitable petition, NFN targeted the 73 national FAs who voted against Blatter in May, highlighting the group’s “transformative vision of FIFA as a principled, trusted and credible organisation” which, crucially, would not change the distribution of Fifa’s wealth to all associations equally.
Fuller’s “Hypocrisy World Cup” initiative reminded Fifa sponsors of how their proclaimed aims and values differed from the practical consequences of Fifa actions and, for example, to “accept their corporate responsibilities and challenge human rights abuses at World Cup infrastructure sites in Qatar.” However, sponsors were also targeted on their own terms, reminded that “your money directly funds the continued existence and operations of football’s governing body. Are you satisfied with how it operates and governs?” while receiving a touch of ego-massaging (“you are in an incredibly privileged and influential position”).
NFN’s cause was advanced hugely by the US Department of Justice’s 164-page intervention on May 27th, an indictment of Nobel Prize material. And one sentence including the word “Blatter” from a Swiss Attorney General is worth a hundred days’ campaigning. However, NFN’s moral, practical and persistent campaigning continues to play an important role. There is no room for complacency over the demise of the Fifa Blatter and predecessor president, Joao Havelange have developed through covert commercial activity and impenetrable self-defence. Blatter has bullshitted his way out of trouble far too often to make his departure or indictment remotely inevitable. NFN righty emphasis that much more than a balding, delusional 79 year-old blocks effective Fifa reform. If Blatter was “meet the new boss, the same as the old boss,” after 24 years of Havelange, so is Platini, more so now than ever as he fumbles to explain the two million Swiss Francs he received from Fifa in February 2011. This despite Blatter’s (and, allegedly, his office’s) strenuous recent efforts to portray their relationship as broken by Platini’s betrayal.
Echoing 2011, again, all potential presidential candidates advocate reform…they could hardly not. But as Mersiades and Fuller told parliament, the issue is not finding “the right man for the job,” but “systemic change to governance arrangements” from the ‘Fifa way.’ And as Collins wrote in January, “NFN’s agenda is not to talk about what is wrong with Fifa, as we all know this, (but) on what mechanisms can be employed to make real change happen.” NFN’s Charter and Guiding Principles for Reform is a clutter-free nine-page document. Its website provides similarly clutter-free access to group statements, details of its campaigning activities and, yes, the petition. Both NFN’s and ChangeFifa’s Twitter timelines and Facebook pages contain regular Fifa news and comment updates.
It is “time for a New Fifa Now.”
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