A question to president Blatter about bribes
02.06.2006By Andrew Jennings
One day in the winter of 1998, a letter from Union Bank of Switzerland arrives at FIFA headquarters. It is a standard USB form stating that the marketing company International Sport and Leisure (ISL) has transferred one million Swiss francs into FIFA’s account. It is meant for a senior official in football as a very fat ’thank you’. The money is immediately moved out of FIFA’s account to the man named on the payment order. But the record of transactions sits there and must be kept until the winter of 2008. For FIFA it is a ticking time-bomb waiting to go off.
Andrew Jennings goes on to tell the story of how FIFA President Sepp Blatter learned that his secret was out:
Tunis, Abou Nawas Hotel, 23 January 2004:
The reporters have come from Cairo and Cape Town, Yaounde and Nairobi, some wearing city suits, some in white desert jalabiyyas, others in colourful West African agbadas, all sitting in rows, notebooks at the ready, waiting for the words of the most powerful man in world football.
High above the podium in the brightly lit function room is the portrait that dominates the public buildings, restaurants and shops in this country. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stands erect and unsmiling, sports a helmet of implausibly jet-black hair and wears a long dress-coat, studded with medals. In the Tunisia he has led since 1987 no serious political opposition is permitted, no critical opinion tolerated, and hundreds of people rot in jail after unfair trials. There are elections here: Ben Ali wins them every time, claiming 99 per cent of the vote.
But his country always shows a happy face to tourists and, this week, to thousands of fans from Rwanda and Benin, Mali, Zimbabwe and a dozen other countries who’ve flocked to the stadiums on the Mediterranean coast for non-stop, stadium-shaking drumming, cheering and jeering at the finals of the 2004 African Nations Cup.
Here comes Sepp Blatter, taking his seat at the centre of the podium beneath Ben Ali’s portrait. He was general secretary, now he’s FIFA president with six years under his belt. Blatter admires Ben Ali as someone who has earned ’a lot of respect’ and praises Tunisia as ’an absolutely open country’.
To Blatter’s right sits our host, Issa Hayatou from Cameroon, president of African football for the past sixteen years. A big, broad-chested man, once a champion 800-metre runner, Hayatou looks tired but has a nod here and a smile there for the men he’s laughed and duelled with.
Eighteen months ago he challenged Blatter for the FIFA presidency. He promised to ’restore integrity and accountability’ to the organisation. Along with others, he wrote to Zurich’s public prosecutor accusing Blatter of corruption and demanding an investigation. Hayatou’s integrity campaign couldn’t beat Sepp’s charisma and Blatter won a second term as president. The prosecutor decided not to take Blatter to court, on the basis that there was insufficient evidence for a prosecution to proceed. No charges were brought.
Everyone knew Blatter would strike back. It’s his way: stand in my path and it will cost you. Yesterday, Hayatou stood for re-election as president of the African confederation. Blatter and his Zurich bag-carriers strongly backed the challenger, Botswana’s Ismail Bhamjee. But Hayatou is no pushover. He’d secured his base in the French-speaking countries from Morocco down through West Africa to the Congo, and Bhamjee, who never got any momentum, lost, 46 votes to 6. Still, Blatter’s a pro. There’s no trace of bitterness in his face. He touches Hayatou’s arms and the gesture says, We’re all friends again. The subtext: I’ll get you next time. […]
A difficult question to the president
At the Abou Nawas Hotel, a question from the floor. What does the president think of African football? Blatter smiles. He says with conviction, ’Africa is the future of football.’ (It’s a formula that works for him. About the women’s game? That firm voice: ‘The future of football.’ About Asia? ’The future of football.’) Blatter’s on good form, flashing his warmest charismatic smile. It’s a beautiful day.
But there is a party pooper. Me. I’ve got hold of the roaming microphone. ’A question to President Blatter.’ His smile fades, he draws up a fist to support his chin. I’m not his favourite reporter. I know about the ticking time-bomb and here I go: ’After the last marketing and TV contract was signed with ISL for 2002 and 2006, a secret payment of one million Swiss francs from ISL arrived by accident in FIFA’s bank account.’
I draw breath. Sepp’s eyes tighten a little. I’m off again. ’It’s alleged that you, as general secretary at the time, instructed it was to be moved immediately to a private account of a FIFA official.’ Then I ask him who it went to.
Blatter tenses up. Gazes down at the table before him and mutters something about the ISL company, now in the hands of a liquidator. Then, he says, frostily, ’I will not enter into discussion here in this press conference and I think also it is totally out of the matter we like to discuss today in Africa together with the African journalists for the development of football in this continent. I’m sorry, please accept this situation as it is and I am sure your colleagues from the African and international press here will agree with me.’
Outside, in an atrium dotted with tall potted palms, I sink into a soft leather settee, sip strong sweet coffee and chat with old acquaintances from the press-room at the previous World Cup. A tall white reporter from South Africa, hurrying to an interview, pauses, waves and calls cheerily, ’I always like to see some theatre!’ A lean magazine editor from the Gulf, casual in open-neck shirt and unbottoned sports coat marvels, ’Blatter’s face went green!’
’No,’ says a friend from the Kenyan Daily Nation, ’He turned yellow.’
Tick. Tick. Tick.
Read the full chapter one from Andrew Jennings' book on his website