FIFA battens down the hatches as allegations mount

December 1, 2010

SOCCER-WORLD/The chill winds of corruption allegations swirling once again around FIFA’s Zurich HQ have got world soccer’s bosses busy battening down the hatches in the forlorn hope that, if ignored, they will all just blow away.

But if they were to peep out of the windows of their ivory tower overlooking the Swiss financial centre they might see that, in the eyes of much of the world, it is their credibility that is blown and that the process of selecting the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals has been seriously tainted.

Allegations aired in a British television documentary by the BBC that three long-standing members of FIFA’s executive committee had received bribes from the body’s marketing partners ISL and that a FIFA vice-president had ordered World Cup tickets for himself to sell on to touts were bad enough.

Those claims followed hot on the heels of an entrapment operation on FIFA bosses by London’s Sunday Times. The newspaper sting resulted in two executive committee members being fined and excluded from office for indicating their willingness to “sell” their votes to the best bidder in Thursday’s ballot.

Though FIFA acted in that case, they did so through gritted teeth, complaining loudly about media practices. They then made absolutely no move to investigate the potentially more serious claims produced by the Panorama programme.

In June this year, a Swiss court found that unnamed FIFA officials had taken bribes from FIFA’s former and now bankrupt partner ISL.

Only a few weeks ago former FIFA general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen claimed to undercover reporters he knew which FIFA executive members were open to bribes for votes. FIFA, one might have thought, has reached its “Salt Lake City moment”.

The Salt Lake City scandal was more a hurricane than a whirlwind when it burst upon the International Olympic Committee in 1998. High-ranked whistle-blower Marc Hodler, the Swiss overseeing the coordination of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, made the stunning allegation that IOC members had received lavish gifts and bribes in return for the Utah city’s selection as host of the Games in 1995.

A major investigation revealing a culture of votes for favours followed, 10 IOC members were expelled and a further 10 were sanctioned and stringent new rules on the bidding process were introduced. Now, IOC members may not receive other than token gifts, nor may they visit bidding cities unless they are part of the IOC’s official evaluation commission.

In 2001 Jacques Rogge was elected IOC president on the back of a campaign for honesty and transparency. Most Olympic observers believe the IOC took the necessary steps to clean up its act and that the days of widespread corruption are over.

That lesson does not appear to be on any FIFA curriculum.

The IOC reacted to the Panorama allegations by declaring it would investigate the accusations against Issa Hayatou, president of the African Soccer Confederation, who is also an IOC member, even though there was no direct Olympic connection.

Hayatou protested his innocence to Reuters and said he did not receive bribes but one single payment of 25,000 Swiss francs from ISL which was a legitimate donation, approved by his confederation, for their 40th anniversary celebrations.

Unlike the IOC, FIFA chose not to react at all and have been blasted for it by much of the international media.

Paul Hayward of Britain’s Guardian newspaper wrote: “The modern FIFA is what happens when an administrative body mutates into a rampantly commercial animal. No longer mere custodians of the game they become deal-makers inflating the price of television contracts and fostering a what-have-you-done-for-me lately culture. Countries hoping to earn the ultimate honour of staging sport’s biggest event after the Olympics are encouraged to engage in a beauty contest which is so constructed to allow favours to be swapped, inducements to be laid out and — if the Sunday Times was correct — executive members to profit at the ballot box.”

These sort of sentiments are likely to persist unless FIFA decides on root-and-branch reforms. At this point there is little sign of that happening.

PHOTO: A man walks past a poster promoting the announcement of the decision for the hosts of the FIFA soccer World Cup in 2018 and 2022, in Zurich November 30, 2010. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

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