Commentary

Sepp and the gang that can't shoot straight

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

Not a day goes by, it seems, without some more craziness from FIFAland.

On Monday, the German magazine Spiegel reported that at dinner with Norwegian soccer federation officials in October, Sepp Blatter had ripped into the Qatari World Cup organizers, saying Arabs were "arrogant" and they thought they "could buy anything with their money." What did that mean for Qatar and 2022? Blatter supposedly answered by saying that Qatar provided financing to the Islamic State and, well, "The World Cup will not take place in Qatar."

Blatter's dinner conversation has shades of Mitt Romney's dinner remarks about the tax-dependent 47 percent that got him in hot water during the 2012 presidential election. Missing from the Oslo dinner, however, was a bartender taperecording Blatter's remarks.

Spiegel's report was based on "first-hand sources." FIFA's response to the allegations, from its communications director Walter De Gregorio, who was at the dinner, was to dispute the "content of the discussion as it has been conveyed." Spiegel asked the Norwegian federation for comment. Its position was that the dinner was a "private atmosphere" and would not comment on what was said, though after publication of the article, Yngve Hallen, president of the Norwegian federation, came out and said he did not recognize the remarks Spiegel attributed to Blatter.

So what happened? Did Blatter actually make these remarks or something close to them? Or does someone have it out for Qatar 2022 or Blatter? (More likely the latter.) Blatter, now 78, does have a reputation for -- how shall we put it -- opening his mouth at the wrong time and not knowing when to shut up. His relationship with Qatar is complicated. The then-Emir helped get Blatter elected FIFA president in 1998 -- he provided Blatter with a jet on his campaign tour -- but Blatter did not vote for Qatar 2022. He has since said it was a "mistake" to go to Qatar but he has never indicated the Qatar 2022 train should return to its station.

We're used to all this from Blatter -- only last year he gave his famous talk to Oxford students ripping Cristiano Ronaldo -- but what should we make from Thursday's shocker?

Just hours after the release of the long-awaited findings of FIFA ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert (PDF) into how the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids were conducted, FIFA ethics investigator Michael Garcia, a former Federal prosecutor, issued a statement slamming the report as containing "numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts and conclusions detailed" in Garcia's report and saying he intended to appeal the decision to the FIFA Appeal Committee.

Eckert's 42-page report presented an overview of Garcia's 430-page report on how the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids were conducted. Not just the winners, Russia and Qatar, but all nine bidders (well, actually eight, since Eckert somehow left out any reference to Spain/Portugal, at the center of allegations of collusion in the 2018 and 2022 vote-trading).

There were, frankly, few surprises in the report. No smoking guns. A decided lack of cooperation, bordering on the comical. The Russian bid committee couldn't provide access to its computers because it didn't own them -- they had been leased and -- well -- in the meantime they had been destroyed by their owners. But at least a few Russians came forward to cooperate, unlike, apparently Spain/Portugal, whose refusal to cooperate allowed it get off from any sort of rebuke. (Even the USA was marked off for a few minor transgressions.) A half dozen FIFA executive committee members who took part in the December 2010 decision did not testify -- two because investigators could not track them down. Imagine that?

We'll probably never know if the bid committees of Qatar or Russia or any other country bribed anyone -- Eckert himself said proving corruption is inherently difficult -- but we do know that they were ready to game the system. Sources told the London Telegraph that Garcia's biggest beef is that Eckert watered down his findings and did not put fault at the door of the executive committee for its “culture of entitlement,” an “attitude that the rules don’t apply” and its members’ “failure to properly consider their obligations."

Perhaps the most stunning numbers from Eckert's report were contained in a tiny box charting the increase in FIFA revenues -- from almost $308 million in the cycle leading up to the 1998 World Cup to more than $4.1 billion in 2011-14 -- an almost 14-fold increase. With few rules in place for how FIFA officials could or could not conduct business, it is no wonder corruption within FIFA was rampant.

Qatar spent tens of millions of dollars on its bid and assorted lobbying efforts, often bordering on the illegal, but its position has been that if FIFA didn't want its executives doing certain things -- related to the bidding decisions or otherwise -- it should have prohibited those activities. (In another example of Eckert's living up to his reputation of going by the letter of the law, he said Australia could not be admonished for the behavior of two bid consultants because the consultants had not been informed of the FIFA bid rules that were indeed in place.)

Eckert was at it again with his technicalities when Qatar 2022 was left off the hook for its sponsorship of an African soccer confederation dinner to the tune of $1.8 million because the confederation is technically independent from FIFA. If anything has polluted FIFA more than the greed of its executive committee members it's the greed of the confederation presidents -- usually one and the same. Of the six confederation heads, all members of the FIFA exco, who were supposed to have voted on the 2018 and 2022 decisions in December 2010, only one has been found to have not taken or offered to take bribes: UEFA president Michel Platini.

There's been lots of turnover on the FIFA executive committee since the 2010 vote, but has really anything changed? It all still comes down to the tone its executive committee wants to set. At the 2014 World Cup, FIFA's 28 executive committee members were presented goodie bags from the host Brazilian soccer federation. Among the gifts was a watch, a "classic soccer present," as one executive committee member later put it. But they were not just any watches. They were Parmigiani watches valued at $26,000 apiece. Such gifts are banned under FIFA's ethics rules but that didn't stop the recipients from keeping them. Just three out of 28 executive committee members refused to accept them: Australia’s co-opted member, Moya Dodd, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan and Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer.

The FIFA executive committee and its "culture of entitlement" lives on.
8 comments about "Sepp and the gang that can't shoot straight".
  1. Tom G, November 13, 2014 at 8:57 p.m.

    so Sunil Gulati,will u speak up and defend the USA and speak out against corruption and lead change to clean up this FIFA stinky house.???

  2. Allan Lindh, November 13, 2014 at 9:07 p.m.

    There is an obvious solution, Gulati and Platini announce that the US and UEFA, and those of like mind who wish to join them, will hold an alternate WC in 2018. FIFA is too corrupt to fix, Russia is currently waging a naked war of military aggression against a neighbor, Qatar has supported ISIS, time to be rid of them all. Europe and the US provide most of the advertising money, form a new organization with a transparent governance structure, and leave these sorry fools behind. FIFA does not own soccer, the people of the world own soccer -- they deserve better that this sorry band of corrupt fools.

  3. Pat Sharp, November 13, 2014 at 9:18 p.m.

    You said it so well, Allan! It won't happen that way, but yours is the perfect solution! Thank you!

  4. Ken Jamieson, November 13, 2014 at 11:33 p.m.

    Did we expect anything different from an internal review of the bidding process by FIFA? It's frustrating that the beautiful game has such dirty people running it.

  5. Michael Borga, November 14, 2014 at 10:09 a.m.

    Has everyone forgotten a guy by the name of Blazer? Wasn't Gulati's running for president of USSF backed and set up by Chuckie? USSF does not appear to be exactly a paragon of correctness when it comes to corruption.

    Even with that said the idea of FIFA being consigned to the trash bin of history is very tempting.

  6. Gus Keri, November 14, 2014 at 11:28 a.m.

    Let's face it. Corruption is every where. FIFA is no exception. there is a case to be made that bribery was tried by every bidding country to win the right to host the world cup. The only difference is that Qatar poured an unbelievable sum of money, it took every one by surprise. Arranging a parallel world cup, like Allen suggested, is not possible. Let's focus our energy on reforming FIFA and changing the process through which the future hosts are selected, and keeping the pressure on both countries, Russia and Qatar, to improve their human rights records.

  7. beautiful game, November 17, 2014 at 8:37 p.m.

    FIFA has been bought and paid by Russia and Qatar. Instead of bringing the game into the 21st century, it has become a regime of good old boys.

  8. Rick Estupinan, November 17, 2014 at 9:15 p.m.

    Why don't the main World Football Federations get together and declared the actual leaders of FIFA,incapable of being in charge of this World wide organization,and therefore oust them by unanimous decision ?.

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