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Saturday, May 30, 2015


FIFA have not had an easy week of it, what with seven of its being arrested on corruption and bribery charges at the request of none other than the FBI, and Russian president Vladimir Putin getting his tuppence worth in about the ongoing opposition in many quarters to Russia's allocation of the 2018 World Cup Finals. The arrests were carried out the day before the beginning of FIFA's general congress in Zürich, which had the FIFA presidential election as its headline act. There was even an anonymous bomb threat at the congress venue, but a search was carried out and the venue was declared safe.

The arrests only added to the controversy surrounding the election, as much of the world's media and many football fans clamoured for the removal of Sepp Blatter as FIFA president, just as they have done for years. However, the expectation was that Blatter would be re-elected as FIFA president at the organisation's general congress, and the vote, which was held on 29/5/15, underlined this expectation.

The result, which saw Blatter collect 133 votes to 73 for his rival, Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan - there were 3 abstentions - was not enough for Blatter to claim outright victory after the first round of voting. However, Prince Ali declined to move on to a second round of voting and instead decided to concede defeat.

Still, the margin of victory may have displeased Blatter somewhat as it wasn't quite the near-unanimous vindication of his rule he had hoped for. Greg Dyke, chairman of the FA, said that FIFA needed a drastic overhaul and clean-up, but added that Blatter was not the man for the job. He addressed Blatter directly, according to a report from the BBC: "This is not over. A third of delegates say they've had enough of your failure to deal with corruption.. [FIFA] needs a change of leadership and root and branch change." Dyke added that the result will have come as a "shock" to Blatter.

However, Dyke and the FA have also come under attack during the course of the season just ended. The FA have not acted to force clubs to make match-tickets cheaper for fans, especially for those following Premier League clubs. Kick-off times for televised matches do not seem to take into account the inconvenience caused for many away fans. The demand for safe standing is growing, but this has been ignored thus far by the FA. There have been complaints that Arsenal and Aston Villa have each been allocated only 25000 tickets for the FA Cup Final on 30/5/14 and that ticket prices for te match are extortionate, and even that certain banners have been banned from the final. Perhaps change is needed within the FA as well as within FIFA.

The US Attorney's Office, in the person of  US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, delivered a 47-charge indictment on 27/5/15 against 14 individuals, charging them with (in the words of the FBI's own press-release) "racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracies, among other offenses, in connection with the defendants’ participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer." Seven of them were arrested at a hotel in Zürich that very morning.At the same time as the arrests were made, police officers entered the CONCACAF headquarters in Miami with a search-warrant.

The seven individuals arrested were:  Jeffrey Webb, a native of the Cayman Islands and president of the local FA, executive committee member of the CFU (Caribbean Football Union) and current CONCACAF president, who was tipped by Sepp Blatter to be a possible successor; Eduardo Li, president of the Costa Rican FA and executive committee member of CONCACAF; Julio Rocha Lopez; former footballer and current president of FENIFUT, the Nicaraguan FA;  Costas M Takkas, former secretary general of the Cayman Islands FA, attaché to Jeffrey Webb and CFO of Abakan Inc. a company dealing in metal coatings and components for the oil, gas, mining and defence industries, amongst other things; Eugenio Figueredo, FIFA vice-president, ex-Huracán Buceo player and former president of both the Uruguayan FA and CONMEBOL; Rafael Esquivel, president of the FVF, the Venezuelan FA, member of CONMEBOL's executive committee and the FIFA disciplinary commitee; and José Maria Marin, ex-president of the CBF who briefly played for São Paulo, and president of the 2014 World Cup organising committee.

Several other individuals were also indicted by the FBI on Wednesday, including an individual not exactly unknown to these pages:  our old friend Jack Warner, ex-vice-president and executive committee member of  FIFA, president of CONCACAF and the CFU, who turned himself in to the Trinidadian police upon hearing of the charges laid against him.  Nicolás Leoz, another former FIFA executive committee member, ex-president of both the Paraguayan FA and CONMEBOL, was also indicted.

Four of the defendants currently hold executive positions in the world of sports marketing: Alejandro Burzaco, CEO of Torneos (formerly known as Torneos y Competencias), a sports marketing company based in Buenos Aires; Aaron Davidson, president of Traffic Sports USA - based in Miami - which is a subsidiary of Grupo Traffic, itself based in São Paulo; and father and son team Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, owners of Full Play Group which is based in Argentina. José Margulies, a broadcasting executive and owner of Valente Corp. and Somerton Ltd., based in Brazil. Margulies was the supposed intermediary between the aforementioned four gentlemen and many of the officials mentioned above.

Chuck Blazer, whose name has also graced these pages on occasion, was the man whose testimony got the ball rolling, so to speak. Back in late 2013, he pleaded guilty to 10 counts of racketeering, tax evasion, "wire fraud", money-laundering and a failure to fill in a form detailing his foreign bank accounts. 

Two of Jack Warner's sons, Daryan and Darryl, were also arrested in 2013; José Hawilla, founder and owner of Grupo Traffic, was arrested in 2014. All three had charges made against them for money-laundering and the "structuring of financial transactions" (for example, transferring a large amount of money via many small-sized transactions in order to avoid creating specific records on bank statements; under American law, financial transactions of a value exceeding US$10000 have to be declared). Hawilla was also charged with wire fraud and racketeering. Daryan Warner was also charged with money-laundering. The three gentlemen pleaded guilty to all charges.

Around 24 hours after the arrests were made in Switzerland, Russian president Vladimir Putin, in a blatant case of double-standards not lost to those monitoring the situation in Eastern Europe, accused the US government of attempting "to spread its jurisdiction to other states" in carrying out the arrests and that, in doing so, they "illegally persecute people." Putin continued by saying that the arrests were a "clear attempt" to stop Blatter's re-election, and an attempt to wrest the 2018 World Cup away from Russia. 

Earlier that day, Swiss investigators launched their own investigation into whether, in the words of the LA Times, "inappropriate influence" was used to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the following tournament to Qatar, and will surely discover any cover-up, which will have seismic repercussions. The timing was ironic, coming on the day when Putin signed a decree proclaiming that all military deaths, in time of war or peace, will be classified as state secrets. If that wasn't enough, David Cameron performed another death-defying bandwagon-jump when he said that it was "unthinkable" that Blatter would be re-elected for a fourth time. (Now Cameron knows what many people in the UK think about his recent re-election as prime minister..) But that's enough of politics for now; this is an article about football - sort of..

Predictably enough, the media weren't long in reacting to Blatter's re-election; the British, American and Australian media all roundly condemned Blatter being voted in for a fifth term. Elsewhere, Roy Gachui, writing in Kenya's Daily Nation, said that Blatter didn't start the culture of corruption within FIFA, but merely "perfected it." He added that "mega-sponsors like Coca-Cola, Adidas, McDonald’s and Visa have made weak calls for the owner of world football to clean house and raise his ethical standards. This is just like animals in the jungle releasing a statement calling on the lions to eat healthy by becoming vegetarians."It could also be argued that some of FIFA's sponsors have themselves also had a rather chequered history, but that's another story.

Gachui's comments were echoed by an editorial which appeared on the Irish Times website: "Blatter’s re-election suggests that a majority of those with power within the organisation has no desire to see any..change. The tame expressions of concern from the organisation’s multinational sponsors do not provide much by way of encouragement either..Those who claim to love football must abandon the pretence that the sport can ever effectively police itself."

The Frankfurter Allgemeine's Eva Simeoni wrote that Blatter's "previous attempts at reform had not been enough by far" and that his power-structure  within FIFA had been based on "dependency, financial deals and knowledge of secrets." On the other hand, Simeoni was also of the opinion that the fact that the "majority of European football associations, including the German FA, supported a Jordanian, only shows how weak they are. No-one dared to take [Blatter] on, not even UEFA president Michel Platini." 

So, it's business as usual at FIFA, for now, at any rate. Despite Sepp Blatter's claims that FIFA is successfully tackling corruption, not enough evidence has emerged from within the organisation itself to convince those on the outside looking in. 

As it is, most of the rest of the world outside Europe voted for Blatter. Yes, there may have been backhanders, more than the occasional verbal faux pas from the diminuitive Swiss gentleman and so on, but it is hard to deny that FIFA has done much good work since Blatter became president in 1998, especially where the smaller countries are concerned. 

FIFA's lesser lights would possibly have had cause to be concerned if Prince Ali had been elected; each country, large, small or somewhere in-between, receives a grant of at least US$300000 per year from FIFA. Under FIFA's Goal programme, over 700 projects, ranging from technical centres in American Samoa and San Marino to artificial pitches in countries such as Djibouti, have been completed.

Contrast that with UEFA's approach; they were the first confederation to knock the smaller countries - its own - into a corner when they introduced the Champions League back in the early 1990s, and they have been kept there. There have been grumbles within UEFA, and louder complaints in sections of the European media, about voting rights within FIFA and the fact that votes cast by the smaller member associations have the same power as those from larger ones. 

Even erstwhile presidential candidate Michael van Praag, in an interview with Voetbal International before Christmas, found it unpalatable that a country "in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with three football pitches has the same voting rights as Germany or England." Sorry, but that's democracy for you, even within FIFA. Would the same people be pleased to wake up on the day of a general election and find that their vote only counted for half of what it did when they went to bed the night before? Disagree if you will, UEFA may well choose to leave FIFA and set up its own organisation, which would adversely affect football in the rest of the world, both financially and in a purely football sense.

The larger associations within UEFA have to realise that, although the majority of money - and the majority of debt - in the club game revolves around European club football, they are still out of step with the rest of world football. The footballing culture is different outside Europe, even the playing-season is different. Not every football fan residing outside Europe is a slave to the Champions League, La Liga or the Premier - to quote Brian Glanville, "Greed Is Good" - League, and many - also within Europe - will doubtless worry about the future for football in their own countries should an UEFA-centric candidate land the job of FIFA president at some point in the future. 

Unpalatable as it may be to those of us who want to see an end to corruption within football, in all its forms both within and without FIFA, Sepp Blatter is still the organisation's top dog, but perhaps this week's events will start a process which will ultimately show that no-one is untouchable. The FBI may only have acted because many of the offences under which the Gang of Fourteen have been charged took place on American soil and/or the transactions said to have taken place were performed using the American dollar as currency (which the media seems to have largely ignored), but it does give hope to those looking to for football to clean up its mess across the board. After all, we football fans will clutch at any straw offered to us..but we should make sure that we clutch at the right one.

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