Sometimes, sleeping pills aren’t necessary. Just read these fifteen words: “The United States Senate Commerce Sub-Committee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security.” The current FIFA scandals may seem tenuously linked to the US Senate. But football fans can thank a Republican US Senator (a sentence you’ll not have read often) for making that link…and to investigative journalist and now world-famous FIFA scourge Andrew Jennings for energising such a dull-sounding committee. On Wednesday July 15th, the committee talked “soccer” during a two-hour hearing designed to “Examine the Governance and Integrity of International Soccer.” This, naturally, was FIFA scandal-dominated but it touched on the alarming pay disparity between the United States’ World Cup-winning women’s team and their less-successful but four times as well compensated men’s team. And Kansas Senator Jerry Moran, the chairman, had pressed for the hearing because of globally-expressed concerns over the health and human rights of migrant workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Moran feared that “the issue of loss of life” (the deaths of hundreds of migrant World Cup construction workers) would “get lost in the discussion about governance.”
These fears were legitimate. The stars of the “show” were Jennings and his “straight man,” US Soccer Federation (USSF) CEO and secretary-general Dan Flynn. Jennings tore into the age-old FIFA scandalmongers: President Sepp Blatter and former chiefs of the North/Central American regional federation Concacaf, the spheroid American Chuck Blazer and the repugnant Jack Warner. And he was just as contemptuous of Flynn’s professed ignorance of long-term corruption at Concacaf. Handily, two witnesses separated Flynn and Jennings, or Flynn might have more ‘directly’ confronted Jennings. Next to Flynn was Michael Hershman, “fresh” from two years on FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee. He was as damning of FIFA as Jennings, as befits a long-standing campaigner for proper governance who, in 1993, co-founded “Transparency International – The Global Coalition Against Corruption.” Hershman was also an advisory board member to the “International Centre for Sports Security,” (ICSS) which was launched in… Qatar in 2011. However, Hershman was one of the good guys, as confirmed when Jennings called him “Michael.” Even though he suggested America should “build a coalition” to force reform on FIFA. Because American coalition-building has worked so well over the years.
He insisted sponsors and media outlets had to “take a stand” against FIFA. When scandal strikes sports stars, he noted, “the first thing that happens is the sponsor walks away from the relationship.” And he audibly despaired at FIFA sponsors’ inaction, despite “scandal after scandal after scandal” being “swept under the rug” (no “carpets” in America, I’m assuming). His FIFA committee had left its mark. FIFA was “like no other organisation I’ve had to consult with on governance and compliance,” with “the irresponsible notion that it was autonomous and did not have to adhere to modern standards of transparency and accountability.” It had “a small clique of very powerful individuals whose self-dealing was kept very secret.” And “recommendations I considered to be no-brainers because they are common standards…including transparency of compensation” were “turned down.” “It was no surprise to me,” he added, offering rare sympathy for Flynn, “that…US Soccer didn’t know…what was going on” when “one man controls the organisation… Seff (sic) Blatter.” Fortunately, Hershman had the answer, with the ISSC’s own, “Sports Industry Transparency Initiative.” The sales pitch lasted 90 seconds. I didn’t take notes.
Alongside Jennings was Sunjeev Bery, advocacy director of Amnesty International (AI) USA’s Middle East and North African division, which in May produced a report entitled “Promising Little, Delivering Less” into “the massive problem of labour exploitation in Qatar.” He stated that when FIFA accepted the Qatari World Cup bid, they also “took responsibility for the human rights impacts.” These “impacts” had already proved fatal for hundreds of migrant workers, despite official Qatari claims last month that “not a single worker’s life has been lost, not one” on World Cup construction projects. Bery said “FIFA’s actions fell far short” of requirements and that the bidding process should have forced Qatar to enact its labour laws “such as they are.” Alas, Bery seemed unaware that the bidding process, such as it was, involved FIFA ExCo members voting for whoever paid them the most. Qatar was selected despite ExCo-commissioned reports identifying it as the biggest security risk, with the worst infrastructure. Reports into bidders’ human rights records would likely be treated with similar disdain.
AI’s report identified “nine key labour exploitation issues.” Qatar had taken limited action on five and none on four. Thus it was “not enough for Fifa to accept verbal commitments from Qatar.” And what better organisation than Blatter’s FIFA to know the worthlessness of verbal commitments. Of all the causes brought to the hearing, Bery’s were the most important but the most “lost.” On the Senate side of the committee room, Senator Moran was joined by Connecticut Democrat senator and ex-state attorney general Richard Blumenthal. Flynn was also questioned by Montana Republican senator Steve Daines and Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar. Klobuchar’s concerns over the gaping pay disparity between the genders in football were as clearly from the left as her party’s name, the “Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party,” suggests. “In tennis, they have equality,” she noted. “Wimbleton last year decided to have equality and Wimbleton seems pretty old school while soccer is nouveau and upscale.” Good old “Wimbleton,” eh? Moran and Blumenthal’s questioning styles bordered on “good-cop, bad-cop,” with Blumenthal definitely the latter. His first words were “I want to say very bluntly.” And he did. But Flynn and Jennings were unquestionably top-of-the-bill.
Their contrasting styles and fortunes were reflected by the women in camera shot behind them. Flynn’s neighbour looked pensive and occasionally exasperated, while Jennings’ screen companion mixed smiles with desperate but failed attempts to suppress laughter. Flynn was deeply unimpressive, not so much parking the bus against attacks on the USSF as commandeering a whole fleet and lining them up so that Evel Knievel could break a few bones trying to leap over them on a motor-bike (ask your Dad). Despite fifteen years in senior roles, Flynn protested ignorance of the Concacaf corruption recently exposed by the US Department of Justice and the FBI. “I knew nothing,” he began, as Fawlty Towers fans everywhere thought “Manuel,” all at once. “I wasn’t involved.” He simply had “moments where I had a ‘level of discomfort,’” an oft-repeated non-answer which produced many more such moments. Flynn “wouldn’t say evidence” caused this discomfort. Bizarrely, “it was a comfort level” which caused it. He wouldn’t say when. “Years before the indictment? Months?” a frustrated Blumenthal asked. “I wouldn’t say years,” Flynn replied. He “wouldn’t say” what discomfited him either, mumbling about how Warner ran meetings. “These were the kinds of discomfort that led me to some discomfort,” he concluded. Uncomfortably.
Blumenthal addressed Seep (sic) Blatter’s future: “Will US Soccer take the position that he should be excluded from FIFA?” Flynn avoided the question, addressing opposition to Blatter rather than the exclusion of him: “Our position was clear when we nominated Prince Ali” (Ali bin Hussein, the Jordanian who stood against Blatter for the FIFA presidency in May). He acknowledged that this opposition imperilled America’s chances of hosting the 2026 World Cup and that “opting-out” of Fifa came “with far-reaching ramifications for the business model of (American) soccer” (trans: it would cost us money). Moran said that if Flynn was “worried about a vote on the chairmanship (sic) of FIFA having an effect on site selection (for the World Cup), that suggests you are aware something is not above the board.” But Flynn meekly said: “It reflects a management style.” Jennings watched, head-in-hands, reflecting the mood of the room. Blumenthal likened Blatter’s “management style” to a “mafia-style crime syndicate” and successfully grabbed global headlines with: “My only hesitation in using that term is that it is almost insulting to the mafia.” He demanded: “Who knew about this criminal wrong-doing, when did they know it and why did they not act?” And having failed to get Flynn past “discomfort”, Blumenthal declared: “You made no effort to investigate in light of the comfort level that you had.” And he wanted to know “very bluntly why (USSF) officials did so little” until the FBI indictments. Flynn, again, wasn’t saying. He took some whispered advice from a woman sat behind him before regurgitating more “discomfort.” “Repeat the same old crap until they fall asleep” appeared to be the gist of said advice.
Blumenthal also asked why America’s Fifa ExCo member Sunil Gulati “declined the invitation to be here.” “It was determined by outside counsel that I appeared here,” was how Flynn avoided that question. So Blumenthal, ever the lawyer, asked it again. Flynn suggested that USSF had “anticipated rather broad and specific questions,” (which covers all questions, surely?) and that there was (yep, you guessed it) a “comfort level that I had more knowledge of the day-to-day operations (if) the questions related to that.” Jennings noted: “Mr Flynn has talked a lot about the organisation of American football… soccer. Not particularly relevant to… corruption at FIFA.” He then laid into the “massive, massive deficiencies of the USSF, frightened to upset Sepp Blatter’s corrupt FIFA while enjoying the elite lifestyle he provides.” “We’re here to discuss how American soccer relates to FIFA,” Jennings said. He too referenced Gulati’s absence: “He… takes American values, supposedly, to FIFA and to CONCACAF and he’s not here.” This “rather undermines the whole process,” he added, correctly, accusing Gulati of treating the senators and “the whole sport with contempt when he can’t come here and defend US Soccer’s activities in FIFA and Concacaf.” He claimed that if Flynn, Gulati and colleagues “had taken action when they should have done, Blazer and Warner would be in jail, Blatter would be seeking asylum in Zimbabwe and the 2022 World Cup would be hosted by the USA, not some graveyards in the Gulf.”
When Flynn again cited a lack of “cold, hard evidence regarding corruption,” Jennings cited Jack Warner’s World Cup “ticket rackets,” which were “public knowledge going back to 2002.” It was “richly documented that racketeering was a way of life at CONCACAF but apparently that news never reached the Chicago offices of the US Soccer Federation.” Flynn retorted with the USSF-led “sweeping” and “real” CONCACAF reforms. But Jennings was “quite astonished” that CONCACAF were having “reform” meetings. “That’ll be the third one, wouldn’t it? (The last time) they pledged transparency and brought in… Jeffrey Webb from (the) Cayman (Islands) and Mr Sanz from Traffic, the corrupt sports marketing company. “A few years later, the FBI are going ‘can you step this way please sir?’ – having seemingly employed Dixon of Dock Green for the task (ask your Dad… again). “I hear about reforms,” Jennings sniffed, “I don’t believe it from CONCACAF.” And when Flynn claimed for about the 94th time that the US was merely “one of 209 member associations in FIFA,” Jennings “suddenly learned that America is a terribly unimportant little country that’s terrified of countries… not agreeing with it.”
Jennings accused the “cowardly” USSF of “looking the other way” when told of Blazer’s financial misdeeds. “US Soccer HAD to know,” he insisted, “that Blazer and his fellow crook Jack Warner, with the approval of Blatter, were looting regional football and evading rightful taxes.” By contrast, “Peter Jenkins from St Kitts, not a powerful country, had the guts to stand up and say ‘Jack Warner is stealing tens of millions of dollars of FIFA money that should be developing the sport in the Caribbean.’ Where was America?” Jennings’ despair at Flynn was twice caught on camera. Flynn’s face while Jennings tore into him would doubtless have betrayed a haemorrhoidal “level of discomfort.” However, Jennings saved some top material for Blatter and FIFA. One US reporter noted: “Seldom do you hear people described as “dirty slimebags” at a Senate hearing.” And Jennings also described senior FIFA executives as “these sleazebags,” and “lowlifes,” “bunch of crooks”, while FIFA itself was a “smelly shell.”
Focusing on the theme of his latest book, Omerta – Sepp Blatter’s organised crime family, Jennings declared that “Blatter’s FIFA ticks all the boxes defining an organised crime syndicate.” And when he was invited to meet FBI “organised crime” agents, he knew “I wasn’t alone anymore. The real people had arrived.” “Blatter’s determined to stay in power,” he advised, “Don’t believe this nonsense about he’s going. Watch his words carefully, ‘I’ve put down my mandate… but I’ll pick it up again!’” Indeed, Jennings’ “own enquiries” revealed that “there are no congress facilities booked for the rest of the year by FIFA in Zurich.” Blatter’s “hitmen are working to eliminate his rivals” (PR “hitmen”, presumably) while “his hand-picked Ethics Committee obey his instructions” and his “PR operation briefs the wire services that he’s innocent.” Warming to his task, he declared it “a dirty decision to put the World Cup on a strip of sand that was broiling. People would die if there was a summer tournament there. FIFA knew and you have to wonder why certain people voted for the World Cup to go there.”
Of course, you didn’t “have to wonder” at all. Jennings had lambasted the English FA for bidding for the 2018 tournament, getting “into a race where you get bribed off the planet.” And, addressing the subject of the 2022 tournament’s putative move to November/December, he told the senators that “if you want to die young, stand outside (English) grounds (and tell fans) ‘Hey, we’re going to stop you having football for seven weeks because Jack Warner took the money.’ I hope it’s a painless death.” Jennings insisted that “FIFA’s got to be dissolved, they don’t want reform.” Returning to his mafia theme, he likened FIFA to former crime family boss John Gotti. “You don’t go to John Gotti and say: ‘Mr Gotti, there’s too much heroin on the streets of New York, could you cut back on it a bit.’” And he told ex-lawyer Blumenthal: “That’s not how you dealt with the mafia in Boston. You went after them.” Blumenthal moved swiftly on to another witness. But the point was made.
Entertaining and incisive though Jennings was, this hearing will surely only play a small part in forcing Blatter and co out the gate. Time-upon-time, Blatter has crawled from seemingly impossible situations, thanks to bought-and-paid-for obsequiousness from supportive national association chiefs, garbled nautical metaphors and pure frontier gibberish at press conferences. None of his escape strategies have made sense. But they haven’t had to. Being morally sound isn’t enough. Jennings is right that splitting from FIFA, and persuading sponsors and broadcasters (i.e. The MONEY) to do likewise, is the only way to deal with the current situation. Hershman and Bery agreed. Flynn’s “seat at the FIFA table” approach and discomfort suppression were exposed by Jennings as feeble excuses for inaction. In the meantime, the fallout from the FBI indictments continues. And given Jennings’ crucial role in them, we will surely hear a lot more from him. On the evidence of this hearing, that will be something to savour.
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