FIFA & Dark Arts – An Insult To Our Sporting Intelligence

by | Feb 17, 2016

The world is currently witnessing an American presidential election where candidate Marco Rubio, who will “protect the sacred rights of America’s gun owners” (his emphasis) when 1,366 people (my emphasis) were shot dead in America in the first seven weeks of 2016, is considered a “voice of reason”, while America’s version of Alan Bloody Sugar (to use his full title) tops most opinion polls. Yet despite the shite spouted by Republican presidential candidates (and that doddery old Democrat fool… you know… Hillary Clinton), Fifa’s presidential election is far grubbier. For instance, the Republican and Democrat candidates submit to public debates. The recent farce over the Fifa presidential debate set for the European Parliament in Brussels last month exposed four of the five candidates’ apparent aversion to such public scrutiny.

The depths to which certain people and organisations stooped to prevent or attempt to discredit such scrutiny were revealed by the Sporting Intelligence website’s James Corbett, whose coverage of the Fifa presidential election since November has been of unparalleled quality. Had the candidates wanted to appear in Brussels, they would have appeared. And the excuses offered for non-appearance lacked intelligence, imagination and integrity in equal measure. Not least the old canard about “political interference,” which Fifa claims to be against, a stance possibly at odds with one executive committee member being Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s… Sports Minister. The 27th January debate, organised by year-old Fifa reform campaigners NewFifaNow (NFN), was publicly announced two months ago. Yet only two days beforehand did concerns publicly emerge over its “political neutrality,” which left one candidate attending, ex-Fifa Secretary-General Jerome Champagne, himself an NFN co-founder.

Perma-misery Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa had Asian Confederation commitments, while Uefa General Secretary Gianni Infantino was, with some apparent success, lobbying for Central and South America electoral support. However, Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein told debate organisers on 25th January that he “was advised that the event as now planned may constitute a breach of Fifa election rules” as it had “undergone a number of changes of date, venue, make up and participants” and that “one of the three candidates not participating has made a complaint to the Ad-Hoc Electoral Committee.” The second claim was plain wrong. And the third was curious, as when Ali withdrew, only Salman and Infantino were “not participating,” with both denying being the complainant. South African candidate Tokyo Sexwale was “on his way to Brussels” and only headed home (as “it made no sense to attend with only one other candidate confirmed”) after Ali withdrew.

So the candidates were unwilling to publicly debate with each other or get their stories straight (“sources close to Ali” since suggested that the complainant was a European FA). And things got stranger when event co-organiser Damian Collins MP, NFN co-founder and long-respected campaigner for fundamental world football governance change, asked Domenico Scala, Fifa’s Ad-Hoc Election Committee (AEC) chair, what the problem was, in an email exchange revealed by Corbett. “Sources close to” the AEC reportedly said there were no complaints about the event and “it was hard to see how (it) would break election rules.” So Collins asked Scala the following day to “confirm that you have received a complaint” and asked why, remarkably, “no official response” would be “forthcoming until after the event.”

Collins found this “incredible” as “invitations were sent out months ago” and “ridiculous for someone to assert that an informal debate in a body which has no executive powers relating to sport constitutes political interference.” The event’s cancellation, he concluded, “will add to the impression that Fifa do not want open discussion about the future and reform.” Scala’s response was pure Fifa: “We can only reply in abstract and general terms as we need to remain neutral on specific cases. We oversee the electoral process and applicable regulations,” the very regulations Collins wanted clarified. “If asked whether a candidate attending a particular event would be in breach of Fifa’s rules, surely it is possible to give an answer,” Collins added, accusing Fifa of “effectively supporting those who do not want to see these events take place.”

Scala noted, irrelevantly, that “rulings are not foreseen because the conduct of each candidate is governed by the ethics code.” Exasperated, Collins asked if it was “correct” that “a complaint about our event has been made to Fifa and that no guidance will be given on it one way or another.” It was. ESPN had planned to televise the debate. And BBC plans for a similar debate this week were scuppered, without Scala’s “help.” As presenter Victoria Derbyshire tweeted, with familiar Fifa-induced world-weariness: “We’ve pulled our live head-to-head TV debate with FIFA Presidential hopefuls. After one declined, some others wanted to, um, move the goalposts.”

However, the scuppering of NFN’s plans may have been part of more general plans to discredit organisations critical of Fifa, to judge from an article which appeared on my twitter timeline last week. The relevant tweet came from Patrick Nally, a veteran, and early beneficiary, of Fifa’s descent into rampant commercialism since Brazilian Joao Havelange became president in 1974 (see David Yallop’s book How They Stole the Game for details). Nally credits himself as the “founding father of sports marketing… now leading global promotion of poker as a mind sport.”  On February 11th he tweeted emotively: “Swiss paper uncovers a dirty tricks campaign, funded by NewFIFA backers, to destroy FIFA – not helpful or ethical.” The tweet linked to a story from the InsideWorldFootball (IWF) website, which has a number of respected contributors but has not shied away from a Sheikh Salman-favourable perspective on events.

For example, a November 8th article headlined Bahraini players refute torture allegations and Salman involvement by Paul Nicholson declared that “the stories currently circulating in western media” about Salman’s alleged involvement in identifying footballers who took part in pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011 “are all re-hashed from articles penned two years ago.” And on November 25th, IWF ran an interview with Ala’a Hubail, the highest-profile Bahraini footballer arrested and imprisoned in the wake of the protests, who declared that Salman “was not involved in the political decisions” and that it was “not in his character to do anything like this.” Hubail also backed Salman for president as “he would be the first Arab president” and, not unreasonably, “that makes me very proud.”

However, both articles ignore what brought this Salman story back into the news, the discovery of Bahraini News Agency reports of a special committee set up in 2011, including Bahraini FA (BFA) president Salman, to identify protesting sportsmen, including footballers. Salman denied involvement as Bahrain’s constitution barred the BFA from such activities. However, Salman was not accused of involvement as BFA president but as a Bahraini royal. The “new” story, also penned by Nicholson, was emotively headlined Swiss paper uncovers Aussie-led group funding campaign to destroy Fifa. And it referenced, only slightly less-emotively, Swiss weekly newspaper Weltwoche’s publication of “damning detail of an Australian-led campaign to attack Qatar, destabilise FIFA and fund a disinformation campaign against Sheikh Salman,” a “funded” campaign (as opposed to unfunded?) with the “ultimate objective” of “dissolution of FIFA as an organisation” (said like that is a bad thing).

Weltwoche reveals International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow as “at the centre of the campaign” joined by NFN co-founders Jaimie Fuller and Bonita Mersaides and Deborah Unger of anti-corruption group Transparency International, all witnesses at the Parliament Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s September 16th hearing on “The Future of Fifa.” That co-founders of NFN (the “NewFifa” of Nally’s tweet) should be involved in a campaign to dissolve Fifa is hardly a revelation. There’s a clue in the name, for the especially hard of thinking, in addition to their public and transparent comments on the matter over many months. Indeed, the article’s early paragraphs beg the question: “So what?” which the later paragraphs almost entirely fail to answer.

A September 9th email from an ITUC-hired PR agency does suggest financing “a disinformation campaign against Salman.” If you were being facetious (perish the thought) you could argue that spreading disinformation about Salman is a duplication of effort, given his own disinformation track record.  However, the article does not record a response, a glaring oversight given the volume of email correspondence it does record. And these other communications are only sinister if you consider campaigners’ publicly-declared aims to be so. For instance, Fuller responds to the idea of “a TV debate between the candidates” by proposing that they are invited to a meeting, with the TV debate proposal kept “secret” until “the appropriate time…so no-one who has promised to attend can turn back due to schedule conflicts.” Given the fate of the Brussels event, this was sound thinking.

The article concludes with quotes from campaign critics “within the ITUC’s own ranks and union representatives in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, the main suppliers of labour to Qatar’s (World Cup) construction sites,” the strongest hint of the motivation for the article. Again, though, there is nothing sinister about ITUC vice-president Sanjeeva Reddy, president of “India’s largest trade union,” warning that ITUC campaigning against Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup could mean “the workers they were trying to protect in the first place could in fact end up being the most harmed” and “endangering thousands of jobs.” This matches concerns from my civil service union days about the effect on Ministry of Defence jobs of anti-nuclear campaigning. But the article takes an appalled tone, the closing sentence being “Where will this all end?”

Nally was similarly appalled. Yet, despite his promotion of Poker as a “mind sport,” he missed the mind sports behind the article which, Corbett tweeted, was “based on hacked and doctored emails no-one else would touch.” And even if the emails were neither hacked nor doctored, there is little in them to discredit the ITUC or NFN. Corbett’s tweet linked to a January 29th ITUC statement headlined Disinformation Campaign against the ITUC, which said: “The ITUC has for some time been facing a disinformation campaign by unidentified persons, in connection with our campaign to defend the rights of migrant workers in Qatar including those preparing infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.”

The ITUC “received confirmation that ITUC email accounts have been hacked, and falsified material inserted into emails” and anticipated “that this campaign may intensify…with the election of a new FIFA President due.” Yet Nally tweeted on February 12th, in response to articles questioning Salman’s links to match-fixers while BFA president, that “when you read such articles, having read about a funded group to blacken Salmon’s name, you do have to wonder” (yes, blackening “Salmon’s” name…very fishy…oh, come on, I wasn’t going to let that pass…). Admittedly, the more Nally tweets you read, the harder it is to attach credibility to him. He dismissed one athletics-related article as “amusing but Irish,” when the nationality of the source, the Irish Times’ newspaper’s Brian O’Connor, had no bearing whatsoever on the opinions expressed.

However, the last stage of the presidential election has begun with a welter of dirty tricks allegations. These have mostly involved Salman and his “people,” either as instigators or subjects, which is not unconnected with Salman being the widely-acknowledged favourite to win. So the opinion of a Fifa old-timer such as Nally carries some weight. Of course, “proper” election campaigns these days almost always incorporate dark PR arts. And some observers regard their late appearance in Fifa’s poll as indicative of a “proper” election and progress from the wheeler-dealing within and between Fifa confederations which has made numerous headlines since the turn of the year. But the campaigning for Fifa reform looks set to continue out of necessity, as none of the candidates appear sufficiently committed to the organisational reform (or “re-form”) required to prevent future repeats of past abuses of power and patronage. And if dark artists are hard at work against genuine campaigning groups such as the ITUC and NFN, then football’s administrative future will continue to be dark indeed.

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