The 783rd sub-plot to the current FIFA drama is possibly one of the smallest in pure financial terms, a €5m loan to the Football Association of Ireland (FAI). However, the “official” reason exposes yet again (again) FIFA’s appalling lack of spending control and discretion, as if it needed further exposure. FIFA thought it worthwhile to part with the money to dissuade the FAI from pursuing them through the courts. The legal dispute’s origins are well-known. On November 18th 2009 France were one-nil down in the second leg of their World Cup qualifying play-off with Ireland at Paris’s Stade de France, having won the first leg at Dublin’s Croke Park by the same scoreline. And in the 14th minute of extra-time, French frontman Thierry Henry momentarily thought he was playing scrum-half, which directly created William Gallas’s equaliser. France ran out 2-1 aggregate winners and qualified for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where they imploded to the delight of Irish football fans watching the tournament on the telly with Eamon Dunphy, Bill O’Herlihy (RIP) and co. All because of Thierry Henry’s handball. Or so they say.
I didn’t watch the Paris match and was reliant on the judgement and observational skills of BBC Radio pundit and Preston’s greatest living Irishman Mark Lawrenson for a guide to proceedings. This process has never ended well, and especially not that night, as Lawrenson berated the match officials for missing a handball that “everybody in the stadium” saw, two minutes after telling listeners that Ireland players were surrounding the referee complaining that the goal was offside. So it is on possibly flawed evidence that I formed my opinion of what would likely have happened had the referee blown for a free-out to Ireland at the relevant moment. Because my bugbear has never been about what Henry did, or the officials’ inability to see what Henry did. It has always been about the narrative which emerged even before the final whistle that night and even now permeates press coverage, the idea that Ireland were denied a place in South Africa by what Henry did.
Even FIFA, we discovered this week, fell for this narrative. Yet, on every conceivable level, it is bollocks. Ireland were not ahead in the tie when Henry handled. Indeed, they were ahead in the tie at no stage whatsoever. Nicolas Anelka scored the only goal at Croker. Robbie Keane made it 1-1 on aggregate at the Stade de France. And that was where things stood at the moment in question. The consensus from contemporary match reports, aside from references to France’s cheating in the “Stade de Fraud” (Henry Winter in the Telegraph newspaper), was that Ireland should have won the tie in normal time. However, they were not directly denied a place in South Africa by France’s equaliser. Assuming no further goals, they were denied a penalty shoot-out.
This makes the concept that Ireland had any legal case against FIFA for non-qualification for South Africa very difficult to understand, whether the required level of proof was on “the balance of probabilities” or “beyond reasonable doubt.” This in turn makes FIFA’s willingness to accept any sort of potential liability and deal with it, confidentially, in cash all the more…well…typical of FIFA at its most profligate and secretive. It also makes it a good bit of business by the FAI and its chief executive John Delaney. However, the concept of “credit where credit’s due” doesn’t apply to Delaney in Ireland for any number of reasons. Roy Keane doesn’t rate him, so that’s a chunk of Ireland lost to him immediately. The other reasons I’ll not detain/bore you with here. And the more of the truth of the loan emerges, the less credible many of the protagonists look.
Two days after the final whistle, the FAI had signalled their willingness to hold FIFA liable for events in Paris and take matters to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland. In response, somebody at FIFA must have decided that spending €5m was a better option than fighting a demonstrably winnable case. It is difficult to judge that call without full costings. Yet instinct suggests that €5m is, shall we say, expensive. So, was there something more to it than Ireland’s non-qualification? The just-published agreement between the FAI and FIFA, dated January 15th 2010, suggests not. The FAI’s claims are referenced as “in connection with and pertaining to the match and its subsequent failure to qualify” for South Africa. And the loan was written off because of Ireland’s indisputable failure to qualify for Brazil in 2014.
However, the FAI’s just-written statement on the affair suggests so. It states that on November 27th, the FAI “met with FIFA to raise the hurt caused to the Irish people by what had happened, the damage done to football in Ireland and world-wide and the changes the FAI felt should be made to prevent similar occurrences happening in the future.” And it adds that on November 30th “during a press conference, Sepp Blatter made a joke of the Association’s request to be the 33rd team at the World Cup. This was in direct breach of agreed confidentiality and subsequently brought reputational damage to the FAI.” The FAI statement does not reference the loan until its brief account of a January 12th 2010 meeting between FAI and FIFA bigwigs, called by FIFA, at which: “Blatter personally apologised to the FAI delegation for the remarks made about Ireland seeking to be the 33rd team at the World Cup…(and)…after negotiation, FIFA offered the FAI a €5m interest-free loan by way of compensation.”
Again, however, it is difficult to envisage €5m worth of “reputational damage,” let alone make a case for it being caused. And if it was “compensation” for such damage, as the FAI statement implies, it surely should not have been repayable on qualification for Brazil, as was subsequently agreed. So, did FIFA seek and obtain legal advice on the matter? Did that advice really say that it would be better to say “sorry, here’s €5m”than to fight and win any legal battle? FIFA’s director of legal affairs, Marco Villiger, was at the meeting, alongside Blatter and FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke. Did he conceive and/or approve the strategy? Or did Blatter decide that “hush money” was preferable to him being seen to have opened his gob and cost FIFA legal fees, whatever the relative costs?
Blatter would surely have had Valcke’s support for this, in the hugely unlikely event that the three-man FIFA delegation had put it to any vote. On June 21st 2007, FIFA paid putative sponsors VISA and Mastercard $90m to settle legal proceedings resulting from FIFA’s marketing director Valcke’s conduct in negotiations. In December 2006, Valcke was “released” from his role for breaching FIFA’s “business principles” – no, don’t laugh, it gets funnier. FIFA added that they could not “possibly accept such conduct among its own employees.” On June 27th 2007, Blatter appointed a new general secretary. His name? Jerome Valcke. However, if we are to accept that the FAI loan was financial extravagance and poor management by FIFA, does that necessarily mean that the FAI acted improperly in taking advantage of this by negotiating for the money, accepting it and agreeing not to talk about it thereafter?
Observers such as Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny have felt almost duty-bound to express some sort of attention-grabbing concern, if not out-and-out distaste. Kenny called the loan itself “quite extraordinary,” which was factually accurate as well as sufficiently disapproving. And the secrecy of the payment has attracted greater opprobrium still. Northern Ireland’s Jim Boyce, a FIFA vice-president and executive committee member from 2011 until his retirement at last week’s FIFA congress, was “absolutely astounded” by the “ridiculous” loan and called for a “full investigation into this and any other such arbitrary payments.” And these calls were un-necessarily given added weight by FIFA’s short statement on the issue when they referred to a “$5m” loan, and made vague reference to its use “for the construction of a stadium in Ireland.”
The difference between euros and dollars may be less than once it was thanks to continuing Eurozone economic nightmares. But it remained a basic factual error. And the latest stadium construction project in Ireland at the time of the loan was the Aviva Stadium on the site of the old Lansdowne Road ground, which in January 2010 was just four months from its official opening and therefore all-but-complete. The FAI’s clarification of the loan agreement suggested that while it was confidential, the money itself was hidden in plain sight “in the 2010 audited financial statements, under ‘Bank and other Loans’.” And the Association attached both the agreement and relevant bank statements to this clarification. The statements showed the loan’s deposit into “the FAI’s National Irish Bank account on January 20th 2010” and “payments to New Stadium Ltd (trading name for Aviva Stadium management company) on February 25th and March 26th 2010, totalling €6,772,711.25” for which the loan was used.
As things currently stand, then, the arguments against the FAI’s actions are largely ethical. The terms “hush money” and “bribe” permeate media reports on the subject, as if accepting the loan was as directly linked to the topical FIFA financial scandals as the granting of it. Fuelled by the natural cynicism of a football finances observer, I suspect there is more dark matter to this story. However, I’m not shaken from my initial reaction, that the FAI did a good bit of business. They chose to benefit from FIFA’s corrupt financial outlook. And, so far, my only question is “why not?”
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