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What happens in CONCACAF, stays in CONCACAF….

May 5, 2011

Visitors to the Marriot Marquis Hotel in downtown Miami on Tuesday were greeted by a typical conference ‘Welcome Desk’ in the hotel’s spacious lobby area. Behind the desk was a banner declaring the 50th Congress of CONCACAF – the governing body for football in North and Central America and the Caribbean was gathering, along with FIFA president Sepp Blatter, to review the year, discuss key issues and – top of the agenda – to decide whether to back Blatter in June’s FIFA elections or to support his opponent, Asian soccer chief Mohamed Bin Hammam.

It was the first time I had seen the logo of the congress. There had been no promotion of the event on the Confederation’s website, no communiques from CONCACAF inviting the press to the gathering and, somewhat strangely, the three seats at the welcome desk were empty. A rather odd ‘welcome’ to what was, in world soccer governance, a crucial meeting.

It was a crucial congress not only because of the agenda but because it was the first gathering of CONCACAF’s membership since the World Cup vote when, their bid, for the U.S to host in 2022, was defeated, sparking anger and bitterness in the American soccer community.

When FIFA awarded the hosting rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, after a selection process which had been heavily criticised in the media and was subsequently attacked by some of the losing federations, particularly England‘s, there was a huge amount of pressure on soccer’s global governing body to increase its transparency and accountability. The secret voting, the endless lobbying meetings and the impression that financial weight rather than purely the merits of the bids was a key factor, created a mood of frustration and anger amongst fans, especially coming after reports of votes being sold resulting in the suspension of two members of FIFA’s executive committee.

There was talk in the British press of the United States, England and Australia, all embarrassed by failure for their World Cup bids, heading a new reform movement to transform FIFA. In the United States, anger at the outcome led one of the country’s best known soccer writers, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, to declare himself as a potential candidate, largely as a platform to rally opinion for reform or revolution. Other internet-based campaigns, such as Change FIFA, sprung up and it was asked whether FIFA had reached it’s ‘Salt Lake City moment’ – the point where corruption around the Olympics was fully exposed.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter implicitly acknowledged the problems his body faces when he talked recently of following the example of the International Olympic Committee and reforming the voting process by giving all members a say in the selection of World Cups rather than just members of the executive committee.

Many of the attacks on FIFA have missed a crucial point – the modus operandi of world soccer is not purely the result of decisions made by Blatter in Zurich. FIFA is a sum of its parts and its decisions reflect a culture of governance that exists at continental, regional and national levels. That includes bodies such as CONCACAF which wields significant power with its 35 votes. The presence of a German television crew, filming what promises to be e a hard-hitting documentary on the FIFA elections, showed the event mattered – at least to foreign media.

The congress had initially appeared to be an election campaign showdown between Blatter and Bin Hammam but the day before the event, it was discovered that Bin Hammam had not been able to secure a visa from U.S authorities in time to attend.

“Very strange,” one congress delegate said to me with a smile. “It’s quite interesting isn’t it?” said another. There has been no suggestion from Bin Hammam that there was any foul play involved (and only the most lurid conspiracy theorist could believe U.S. Immigration is working for Sepp Blatter) but it tells you something about the atmosphere inside CONCACAF that some hinted, with those comments, that there might be more than just an administrative problem involved.

I can’t tell you what went on inside the CONCACAF congress because, I wasn’t allowed in. Originally, the event was to have had a short ceremonial opening session which the media could attend but that decision was reversed 24 hours before the start and the entire congress was closed to journalists. Reporters would get a chance to ask questions at a post-congress press conference and one of the first put to CONCACAF president Jack Warner was precisely about the decision to keep out the media.

“It’s a private meeting of associations,” replied the 68-year-old Trinidadian, who just shortly before had been re-elected, unopposed, unanimously.

But FIFA doesn’t consider its congress to be private. As at UEFA in Europe and at the Asian Football Confederation congresses, reporters are invited in, handed the congress report, given access to the financial accounts and allowed to hear any debate or dissent. Why then does CONCACAF want to keep the press out?

Warner is hardly someone who welcomes media inquiries. He was reprimanded by FIFA after reports of his family selling inflated 2006 World Cup tickets through a travel agency they were involved in and Warner has been at the centre of a long running legal battle with the Trinidad and Tobago national team about outstanding payments the players say were promised to them.

At the press conference the main issue was whether CONCACAF had voted, as it has in the past, to support Blatter as president of FIFA. Warner said no decision had been made due to the absence of Bin Hammam. It would be “fair play” said Warner to wait until members had the chance to hear the Qatari before any vote – the members would get that chance in Port of Spain next week, he said.

Blatter described the organization as his ‘base’ and said he was confident of their support. Indeed, somewhat embarrassingly for Warner, he told the reporters that the CONCACAF president had told him “you don’t even need to campaign”. Warner said that merely reflected the fact that everyone in the region already knew Blatter but the Swiss certainly gave the impression it meant that he had the 35 votes.

“When you get the message you don’t need to campaign and (are told) to use your time to go somewhere else – you cannot be more clear,” said Blatter.

But was that really confidence from Blatter or was it a reminder to Warner that he needs to deliver? One can never quite be sure in the world of soccer politics. Was CONCACAF delaying its vote merely out of courtesy to Bin Hammam after his unfortunate administrative problems with a visa? Or was this an opening to the Qatari – a chance for him to take Blatter’s base from him?

The only way to find out was to talk to delegates themselves before they dashed off to their lunch after their two hour congress. Such conversations are almost always off-the-record at these events and in four separate discussions with delegates I was told that support remained strong for Blatter. But it wasn’t easy to find people willing to go into any depth about the congress discussions or decisions. During one conversation with a delegate, a high-ranking Central American CONCACAF official stepped close by and gave us a cold stare which resulted in the delegate swiftly ending the conversation. Message received.

Warner had confirmed that CONCACAF’s vote at FIFA would, as always, be a block vote. Rather than each member association submitting their individual vote, all would follow the majority line, even if they disagreed with it. Lenin called this method ‘democratic-centralism’. I wondered if this was something the United States Soccer Federation was comfortable with and searched out Sunil Gulati, their president. Gulati is usually a media-friendly figure, happy to hold teleconferences with American reporters, always around with a handshake and a chat at national team games, particularly during the failed bid to bring the World Cup back to the States.

But in the CONCACAF environment, where he is also an executive committee member, he is very different – I asked him about the block vote and the level of support for Blatter and he replied “You’d have to ask Jack about that, I know what we are doing” before he hurried into an elevator and was gone.

‘Ask Jack’ – it could be CONCACAF’s motto. Warner controls the organization through the firm support he has built up from the 25 members of the Caribbean Football Union, the island nations which make up a solid majority in the confederation. The United States and Mexico may be the two strongest soccer nations, the richest and the most successful on the field but they have as much say in CONCACAF as the Cayman Islands and Bahamas and listening to the way some of the Caribbean delegates talk it is clear that when it comes to matters of FIFA politics they look for guidance from their leader.

I did learn that CONCACAF representatives will meet again with Blatter in Zurich, shortly before the vote and that the confederation’s caucus would only decide on it’s block vote, formally, the day before FIFA’s June congress.

But what else did the congress discuss? What opinions were expressed? How much money did the body make and spend last year?

If you want to know any of that, you’ll have to follow Gulati’s advice: “Ask Jack”.

Photos: Blatter and Bin Hammam by Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters and Jack Warner by REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

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