The United States and football – sorry, soccer – have a curious relationship. The Americans have never quite taken to the sport the way they have to their own version of football or baseball, and in return the game has never truly embraced them. But it could just be that it is the United States that come to save the football world from the symbolically corrupt FIFA.
With Michael Garcia, the head of investigations at FIFA, resigning over the handling of his report into the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, another possible avenue for resolving the problems within the organisation was shut down. Now it seems as though one of the only routes left, and perhaps the most plausible, is the one being taken by the FBI, whose investigation into those two controversial World Cup hosting decisions is gathering pace.
Garcia’s resignation comes after his appeal against the summary of his own report was rejected with FIFA saying that Hans Joachim Eckert, the adjudicatory chamber head, was expressing an opinion and so there is no grounds for an appeal. Which begs the question, if in Garcia’s opinion Eckert’s opinion does not reflect his opinion, then whose opinion should we trust? Presumably the man who wrote the report in the first place, and who has described the summary as materially inaccurate. But then this is FIFA-land. And having rejected Garcia’s appeal, they have now agreed to release his report in full. Of course ,they could have done that in the first place and avoided all of the ugly, public infighting.
The problem FIFA have come no closer to shutting down though is the ticking timebomb that is the Qatar World Cup, which only has so long left to run. At some point it will explode, with notable powers in Europe against the tournament, along with powerful allies such as the United States and Australia. The next FIFA presidential election, where Sepp Blatter will be challenged by Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, which is only half a year away, may trigger the explosion, but so could the FBI investigation at some point – or perhaps the simple publishing of Garcia’s report will be the catalyst.
FIFA is clinging desperately to its past – and the symbol of that is Blatter. The Swiss is a superb politician, swift to recognise danger and discard former allies when necessary, and ally himself with the accusers, rather than the accused. There is not a single allegation that can be made against Blatter that could be stood up on the evidence available. No one has ever been able to prove that Blatter has been involved in underhand dealings. Having interviewed some of the sharpest minds in the world of corporate governance such as Lord Goldsmith and Michael Hershman, who were called in to help FIFA clean up its act in recent years, it surprised me how even they were convinced that Blatter is genuinely trying to reform the organisation after meeting him.
Yet for that supposed reform, Blatter has still been discredited by the corruption FIFA has been engulfed in. There have been some steps made towards genuine reform of FIFA’s governance but not enough, with term limits and age limits being steadfastly opposed. And most troubling of all, Qatar remains the host nation of the 2022 World Cup.
Has there ever been a more startling error of judgment than Qatar? It sums up Blatter’s canny political instinct that he backed the United States, and not Qatar, for 2022. It typifies how nothing appears to ever stick where the 77-year-old is concerned.
UEFA President Michel Platini, who of course admitted voting for Qatar, is no doubt waiting for his moment to capitalise, convinced that defeating Blatter at present is not possible next year. But his future, as well as FIFA’s, appears to be very much interlinked with the fate of the 2022 World Cup, remarkably handed to the oil rich Qataris just under four years ago.
While there have been genuine changes since 2010 to FIFA’s executive committee who made the decision that December, almost half have left since. Jack Warner, Mohamed bin Hammam and Ricardo Teixeira have been forced out by their own corruption, but more importantly for aligning themselves against Blatter. Others, such as Chuck Blazer of the United States, quit. Former President Joao Havelange, the former father in law of Teixeira, whilst not active in FIFA but representative of all that many see as being wrong with the organisation, was finally proven to have taken bribes from FIFA’s former marketing partner ISL whilst President of FIFA.
Another member of the ExCo in 2011 was Julio Grondona, who died recently. The Argentine’s South American colleague Nicolas Leoz, the other member of the South American axis, left after being accused of bribery in relation to the ISL affair. Issa Hayatou was also named and shamed as a guilty party in the ISL affair, but has hung on. Reynald Temarii and Amos Adamu were both banned from taking part in the vote on who got to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups after being caught by a Sunday Times sting being willing to take bribes in exchange for their votes. Jacques Anouma was also accused of taking bribes. Manilal Fernando, banned for life last year, was a key ally and associate of Bin Hammam before his downfall.
Of the others who voted in 2018 and 2022, Angel Maria Villar Llonar was accused of being involved in collusion between the Spanish-Portuguese bid for 2018 and Qatar’s 2022 campaign. Cypriot Marios Leftkarias allegedly benefited from Qatari gifts, and even Platini has an interest given that his son Laurent was employed by the Qataris as a lawyer. Others avoided scandal and conflicts of interest because their nations were bidding to host the tournament – England’s Geoff Thompson, Belgium’s Dr Michel D’Hooge, Russia’s Vitaly Mutko, Japan’s Junji Ogura and South Korea’s Chung Mong Joon.
Once those members are stripped out, we are left with the few members of the committee not to have been involved in any scandal and who can also be said to be genuinely impartial in this affair – Worawi Makudi, Hany Abo Rida, Senes Erzik, Franz Beckenbauer and Rafael Salguero. Five out of 24.
That taken into consideration, it beggars belief that a decision made by a group of men of whom 80 per cent were implicated in some kind of scandal or had a conflict of interest, and of whom most have left, should stand. The votes for 2018 and 2022 are discredited on the basis of who was involved in making the decisions.
What are the prospects now? 2018 looks likely to remain in Russian hands, with Vladimir Putin one of the few men – or perhaps the only one – to have Blatter wrapped around his finger. But who knows where the 2022 World Cup will eventually take place. The FIFA executive committee has changed since 2011, with a raft of new faces in the shape of Sunil Gulati, Prince Ali of Jordan, Jeffrey Webb, and the first ever female member of the ExCo, Lydia Nsekera. It is possible that enough of a coalition of sensible men – and enemies with a grudge such as the US and England – with the power to make such a decision could actually strip the competition from Qatar.
Remember a while ago it was being dismissed completely that the World Cup would take place in winter. Now FIFA is set to approve such a decision. The idea of stripping the tournament from Qatar completely is not so far fetched if a major revelation was made against them. The rumblings of discontent in UEFA are only likely to get stronger, with Platini’s prospects of election doomed until Blatter finally calls it a day, despite the Swiss promising to stand aside in return for Europe’s support four years ago. UEFA may not have enough support in terms of numbers in FIFA to push Blatter aside, but the prospect of the most important football nations in the world from a financial perspective – the US, England, Germany – leading a revolt could have serious consequences and force the issue.
Blatter is fond of his iceberg metaphors, and likes to compare himself to a captain steering a ship through troubled waters. Perhaps he should go below deck and keep an eye on the Qatari timebomb his colleagues have created – this one appears likely to get bigger before it explodes. Although knowing Blatter, it will probably happen on someone else’s watch.