Fifa events moved quickly and, in certain individual cases, refreshingly downhill last week.
New arrests were promised by United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch; although the journalists at her September 14th press update on Swiss/US Fifa investigations frustratingly failed to establish whether new people were to be called in for a chat, especially a gnomic Swiss septuagenarian whose name rhymes with ‘flatter.’ Then, on Thursday, Fifa Secretary-General Jerome Valcke, was suspended after allegations of his involvement in an aborted World Cup ticket scam. This was reportedly (and in rather more detail on mainland Europe than here) designed to top-up his proverbial pension plan as he doesn’t see a personal Fifa future beyond the reign of the aforementioned short Swiss.
In such interesting times, Wednesday’s parliamentary events were overshadowed. However, much of what was discussed during an 85-minute Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee hearing into “The Future of Fifa” may prove as important to that future as other events may prove to Fifa’s past. In July, the new post-General Election Committee agreed to sequel its inquiries into World Cup bidding processes by inviting oral evidence from three representatives of “various bodies…campaigning for changes in governance and accountability to remove corruption from sport.”
Deborah Unger manages Transparency International’s (TI) “Corruption and Sports Initiative.” Bonita Mersiades was fired as Football Federation of Australia (FFA) corporate and public affairs chief in January 2010 for airing concerns about Peter Hargitay and Fedor Radmann, “consultants” to Australia’s 2022 bid. Jaimie Fuller chairs Australian sportswear firm SKINS and is a prominent campaigner against sports governance corruption, having focused on cycling and cricket before aiming for Fifa. And in January he co-founded the New Fifa Now (NFN) campaign group, alongside Mersiades and others, including Conservative MP and CMS Committee member Damian Collins, an articulate long-time campaigner for improved football governance.
Mersiades declared: “We will not get change at Fifa unless there is a push for independent reform of the organisation,” top of NFN’s wish-list. She dismissed Fifa’s “so-called independent reform commission” as “full of Fifa and sports insiders,” “circling the wagons” and “doing the bare minimum to ensure that they can say they’ve ‘done reform.’ She explained Australia’s use of consultants as trying to “buy-in” influence they lacked through not having Fifa Executive Committee (ExCo) representation. But, as she understated hugely, the strategy “didn’t work too well,” as Hargitay was paid AUS$1.45m and “we only got one vote.” Committee chair Jesse Norman could not mask his disbelief at this, while Collins joked that it was “almost as good value as the England bid,” which briefly hired Hargitay.
Indeed Mersiades revealed Hargitay’s “few months’ work” for Qatari bid fixer Mohammed Bin Hammam, for which he received “340,000 Great British Pounds.” Little wonder it “was not clear to me as a senior executive member” of the bid “what exactly we were doing.” Little wonder she asked questions. But little wonder that “It got to the point where it was them (the consultants) or me.” And little wonder, as she’d exposed secretive activities, that “I was the loser.” She believed consultants offered “plausible deniability” of underhand work by bid teams, although she actually said “deniable plausibility,” a Freudian slip which perfectly describes Fifa’s defence against ALL corruption allegations.
She also introduced the phrase “tick and flick” (Australian for “box-ticking”) as she noted the change in former US attorney Michael Garcia during his two-year investigation into World Cup bid corruption. Garcia had clearly found “troubling” things but his Fifa experience, controversial and well-documented elsewhere in equal measure, wore him down as it wore on. As she said: “Anyone who has been around Fifa for a while would be glad to wash their hands of it.” However, if Fifa thought NFN were “going to go away and keep quiet, we’re not,” until there is “an Independent Reform Commission…that can completely review, overhaul and develop new constitutions, statutes, policies and electoral processes.” Which is almost everything except the President’s wardrobe.
Unger was the quieter witness. TI initially welcomed, but quickly withdrew from, Blatter’s 2011 “reform” process. And there was a world-weariness in her declaration that Fifa have subsequently “talked reform and done virtually nothing.” She too accused Fifa of wagon-circling and not wanting the transparency brought by genuine reform, which she suggested was “not really rocket science.” She called on financial authorities to use “other tools within anti-corruption processes.” For instance, organisations such as the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) could usefully pursue “politically-exposed people” (PEPs), a formal term for individuals entrusted with public functions, whose position and influence present a particular risk of involvement in financial corruption.
She was particularly keen on what she twice termed the “follow-the-money trail,” adding that PEPs’ transactions “anywhere in the world should come under greater scrutiny” and that “the heads of sporting organisations within Switzerland” were “now being called PEPs.” Fifa is headquartered in Zurich. In Switzerland. By the way. It was “really important,” Unger insisted, for organisations to have their “tone at the top” right and “the tone at the top at Fifa has been wrong for so long we almost can’t hear it anymore” (which I’m not sure is quite how tone and pitch work, but the point was clear). As she noted in response to concerns about the governance of national FAs: “Fifa has the power, the position and the global name to lead by example. It’s not doing that.”
Both Mersaides and Unger had plenty to say and said it well. However, Fuller was the undoubted star. In a hearing which was constructive but largely predictable to followers of Fifa’s travails, Fuller provided a…well…fuller perspective (sorry, but he did), even offering legitimate praise to part of Fifa’s business model. No, really. He would make mincemeat of Blatter in open debate, as too would Mersaides and Unger, which is precisely why such events will never happen.
Fuller didn’t hold back. Fifa were a “joke” and a “mess.” Fifa Reform Task Force chair Francois Carrard’s endorsement of Blatter as “being clean” was “a most stupid thing to say if you are trying to pass yourself off as independent.” And he won the cliché war by adding “re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic” to calling Fifa reform proposals “circling the wagons,” which by now seemed like a contractual obligation. He surprisingly suggested that “Blatter has held onto power through…a very positive philosophy in sports governance, equal distribution of funds.” However, in case Blatter thought of sticking this quote on future presidential campaign material (don’t rule it out), Fuller added: “Of course, he’s not doing it to make sure money finds its way to where it should be spent. He’s doing it to buy patronage.”
Fuller re-employed this oratorical device, declaring himself a “big advocate for a World Cup in Qatar,” citing the opportunity for “employment for the lowest rungs of society,” before the caveat “done in the right way.” He slammed ExCo members’ priorities as “how much money they’re going to make, where they’re going to be able to skim it, what sort of hotel will I be in and what sort of fast lanes will I be able to drive down with police escorts.” This meant Fifa “handed over a World Cup to a nation (Qatar) that practices indentured slavery.” He also questioned whether confederations “should exist,” citing world basketball’s elimination of such structures. Meanwhile likening Fifa reform to a “moral” administration process surely brought hollow laughter from any Rangers fans listening.
Fuller made the key point better than anyone that Fifa’s past and future should be treated discretely. Reform proposals (a “once in a multi-generational opportunity”, presumably Australian for “once in a blue moon”) must be “forward-looking.” The past belonged to the “Department of Justice and the Swiss federal prosecutor.” Norman looked way too self-satisfied after he asked what the “incentives” were for national football associations to embrace reform and Fuller replied “good question.” But whatever the merits of the question, the answers were terrific. Fuller proved fluent in Fifa’s native tongue. “With a properly-run organisation, there will be more money to distribute,” he noted correctly, listing the financial improprieties which would be stemmed by proper accountability, including “broadcast rights in Switzerland given to a gentleman whose last name is Blatter,” (presidential nephew Philippe). “But the price will be you will be accountable for that money and if you don’t do it right, you won’t get another cheque next year.”
He returned to this theme when Norman asked why sponsors hadn’t “been tougher” with Fifa and hadn’t done more “or indeed anything much.” Fuller called this “the nub of the issue.” But there was unintended irony in telling a Tory MP that sponsors “look at it through a commercial lens” and that “the money we’re making” was “the lens through which they measure success.” He was dead straight, though, when asked why there was also a lack of political will to force change. In Australia, this was because FFA chairman “Frank Lowy is a huge donor of funds to the two main political parties.” Fuller explained the “Hypocrisy World Cup” campaign, launched in May to highlight the chasms between sponsors’ “aims and values” and “what is being done by the organisations (they) sponsor.” And twice he referenced the advances in social media which made sponsors far more accountable to customers and the general public for their actions.
But Fuller is no graduate from the University of Life-is-simple. “As long as Fifa have the support of 105 of the 209 federations, they don’t care what you or I think,” he noted, correctly, even if “it is becoming harder and harder for them” every time scandal breaks. Fuller wasn’t shy in directly referencing what was way-back-then the latest such scandal, Blatter’s World Cup broadcast rights deal with repugnant Fifa ex-vice-president Jack Warner, from which Warner profited hugely. He also cited a land deal with Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund from which Cypriot former Fifa ExCo member Marios Lefkaritis profited more hugely. And he excoriated the system which allowed “more than 60 international federations headquartered in Switzerland” classification as “quasi-charitable” organisations which enjoyed “tax-free status” and had the capacity for “maximum opacity.” Thus “we don’t even know how much Sepp Blatter is paid,” which sent the committee into stunned silence, even when he said it again.
CMS committees have had little recent success in advancing solutions to football finance and governance problems, domestically and internationally. They have had talking-shop levels of effectiveness, albeit intellectually-impressive talking shops. However, those committees have usually heard from competing interests. Here, the witnesses were all of one mind. And while last week’s hearing was ironically submerged by yet more Fifa financial scandal, the Committee have a continuing role in a wide-ranging, intelligent, well-informed campaign for a “New Fifa Now.” And wherever Jaimie Fuller is speaking on sports governance, make arrangements to listen.
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