Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

It’s Blatter’s turn

It seemed only a matter of time before the huge FIFA corruption scandal reached the organisation’s big boss himself, Alaa Abdel-Ghani writes

Al-Ahram Weekly

Coming shortly after the close of a two-day meeting of the FIFA executive committee, the press conference called for by Sepp Blatter was supposed to address the discussions of the day. In his 17 years as FIFA supremo, Blatter had held hundreds of such conferences and in normal times, this would have been just one more. But these are not normal times in FIFA. The press conference was expected to be closely watched, No 1 because both the US and Swiss justice departments are carrying out major investigations into corruption at FIFA, world football’s governing body. And it would have been Blatter’s first opportunity to face the media following the suspension a week earlier of Jerome Valcke, FIFA general secretary, who was shelved over allegations that he was part of a black market ticket selling scheme. Valcke was Blatter’s right-hand man and his suspension was a further blow to Blatter following the eruption of the corruption scandal in May that has engulfed Blatter and FIFA. But on Friday Blatter was in for much more.

Initially due to start at 1200 GMT, the press conference was delayed for one hour before being cancelled altogether. The much-anticipated conference scheduled in Zurich on 25 September never happened. That’s because something very big happened. In a dramatic escalation of the corruption scandal, Swiss investigators accompanied by Swiss police swept into FIFA’s headquarters on Friday, placing Blatter under a criminal investigation. The Swiss attorney general’s office said Blatter was questioned, his office was searched and data was seized.

Ever since May, when the arrest of senior FIFA officials in dawn raids in Zurich plunged world football’s governing body into crisis, the world of sport has wondered whether the scandal would lead directly to Blatter. On Friday it did.

The attorney general said Blatter was suspected of two things. The first was making a deal “unfavourable to FIFA” with the Caribbean Football Union, and in doing so “violated his fiduciary duties and acted against the interest of FIFA...”

Earlier in September, the Swiss broadcaster SRF uncovered a 2005 contract between FIFA and the North American Football Association (Concacaf) for the sale of the rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups for $600,000. Concacaf’s president Jack Warner, once famously close to Blatter and was well known as one of world football’s leading powerbrokers, then reportedly sub-licensed the rights to his own company before selling them for about $18m in 2007 – not a bad profit.

The deal does seem to show that FIFA had grossly undervalued its own TV rights. By anyone’s calculation, this would be an “unfavourable” deal for the company.

Essentially, FIFA owns the rights for the World Cup as a whole, but doles them out to individual regional associations to sell them on to broadcasters. The associations then keep the profits. The implication is that Blatter allegedly sold the rights for less than their market value in order to win favour with the Caribbean. That allegedly resulted in a multi-million pound profit for Warner’s own company.

Then there is the alleged “disloyal payment” made by Blatter to UEFA president Michel Platini totalling $2.1 million. That payment was alleged to have been made three months before Platini announced he would not run against Blatter in the 2011 FIFA presidential election. Perfect timing.

Platini defended the payment he received in 2011, claiming the amount related to work which he carried out under a contract with FIFA between January 1999 and June 2002. But when Platini, too, was questioned in Friday’s probe, he could offer no explanation as to why the payment had arrived almost a decade after the work had been completed.

These are stunning developments -- criminal proceedings opening against the man who still runs world football and the man who is favoured to replace him. On the other hand, perhaps it should come as no surprise that investigators have now trained their sights on Blatter and Platini. The inquests come after months of probes following raids in Zurich which led to the indictment of 14 officials from around the globe on racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. It did appear it was Blatter next. After all, Blatter has been at the helm of FIFA since 1998. He’s become symbolic of the many corruption allegations that have swirled around the body and some thought it was simply a matter of time before investigations by the FBI and Swiss criminal authorities would implicate him.

FIFA is dropping like a rock and the unravelling can probably be traced back to the extraordinary decision to award the World Cup to Qatar. And inevitably these latest developments will raise more questions over the process that led to Russia and Qatar becoming hosts of the World Cup. A Swiss investigation is focused on whether bribes were paid during bidding for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively. If clear evidence of misconduct emerges, both countries could be stripped of their hosting rights.

That would bring to an end the dynasty of Blatter who spearheaded the drive for a Russia and Qatar World Cup. Although Blatter announced he was stepping down back in June, he decided to hang on as president until February next year. That now seems highly unlikely, with calls for him to resign immediately bound to intensify.

Platini’s hopes of being elected to replace Blatter next year were damaged by Friday’s revelations. Platini took a serious blow by even being mentioned in the Swiss statement. If Blatter is finished now, the heir apparent now appears close behind. Platini has been dragged into the scandal, and after so many years as a Blatter confidante, is no longer credible.

Platini must also answer to what he recently told the Associated Press, that he “might have told” American officials he would vote for the United States bid for the 2022 World Cup, but changed his mind after a November 2010 meeting hosted by Nicolas Sarkozy at the then-French president’s official residence in Paris and also attended by senior Qatari officials. Platini said it was not anything pre-arranged and he has defended the integrity of his vote, which went to Qatar.

How long the 79-year-old Blatter will hold on, and whether Platini, his 60-year-old former ally, still has a chance to take his place are the current million dollar questions. The pair were questioned Friday immediately after the close of the executive committee at lunchtime. Apart from the criminal case investigation they face the possibility of referrals to the independent ethics committee of FIFA which is expected to meet over the coming week, and suspension from their duties pending the outcome of further inquiries.

So, sport’s biggest ever scandal has just gotten bigger.

Blatter denies any wrongdoing and his lawyer says he is co-operating fully. The presumption of innocence applies to Blatter, as to all the defendants.  But it appears Blatter’s time is nearly up. His position is not sustainable.

What is important is for FIFA to change, to get a solid reform programme up and going. FIFA has in fact already changed -- by the scandals that have broken it and cast a cloud over the entire organisation.

Football is the biggest and best game in the world, but it’s got the worst leaders. It deserves much better.

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