FIFA’s invisible transparency reforms
“If we want everything to stay the same, everything must change.”
Though the President of FIFA, Joseph S. Blatter, may not appear as the archetypical young revolutionary, the words of the young 19th century rebel Tancredi in the Italian novel ‘The Leopard’ may have resounded in the corridors of FIFA in the weeks leading up to the much anticipated meeting in the Executive Committee on the 20-21 October.
Like on many other occasions in the past year, Blatter had promised radical reforms, but not one single decision taken by the ExCo last week will have immediate effect and it remains to be seen if there will be any effect at all.
This will all depend on the future work of four commissions (three of which were established during the ExCo meeting) and on the creation of a good governance committee, a modified version of the ‘solution committee’ proposed by Blatter by the beginning of the year. See more details at here.
The good governance committee composed by all relevant stakeholders is a positive step which also Play the Game has called for. However, for such a committee to be efficient we need much more information about its real mandate.
The good governance committee no longer aspires to draft humanitarian idols like the former US minister of foreign affairs Henry Kissinger or governance experts like opera star Placido Domingo, but should include more credible representatives of stakeholders in football: Players, sponsors, clubs, leagues, NGO’s and even women and undefined representatives of civil society.
But it is an open question which working conditions this committee will get. It will refer directly to the Executive Committee (ExCo) whose own reputation is highly contested. And if it is not equipped with sufficient statutory independence as well as administrative and budgetary resources, it will end up serving as yet another fig leave for the administrative sins of the FIFA leadership, just like the present and past Ethics Committees have done.
In spite of several calls from governments and national football federations for FIFA to act urgently, the ExCo has given itself a generous time frame for the reforms which do not need to be fully implemented until the FIFA Congress in June 2013.
A time frame “which, coincidentally, should give any dodgy dealer all the time he needs to make a graceful exit from the upper echelons of world football” as the AIPS football chairman Keir Radnedge writes.
The open question is if the dodgy dealers in FIFA’s decision-making bodies will really be forced to retire as a consequence of the vague reforms. So far the ExCo backed the proposals unanimously, and were according to Blatter “relaxed and happy”. They may have every reason to be so.
Not only will all inconvenient decisions still lie with the ExCo. At the concluding press conference, Blatter stated that the ExCo had shown strong will “not to dwell on the past” and repeatedly said that FIFA was now moving forward.
This must be sweet music in the ears of the 24 ExCo members, for by definition the massive corruption charges that disturbs FIFA’s reputation belong to the past.
When challenged directly by the German journalist and blogger Jens Weinreich about how trustworthy the ExCo members were as masters of the reform process, Blatter denied the fact that at least 11 of them are subject to serious and mostly well-founded corruption allegations. (If you read German, you can check Weinreich’s list at www.jensweinreich.de)
He did however admit that he might be able to give a better answer to the question next March. This mysterious hint could mean that a promised screening process may become effective before then, although this is a highly optimistic vision.
ISL still not for the public eye
Some British media – seemingly inspired by FIFA communication officials – had announced that Blatter would make a drastic U-turn and publish the poisonous information in the so-called ISL dossier, revealing names of some of the FIFA ExCo members that received parts of the 140 million Swiss Franc handed out as bribes by the ISL company from 1989-2001.
But the media reports proved wrong. No breakthrough was achieved on this point either.
Instead Blatter restricted himself to promising that the ExCo would reopen the ISL documents at its next meeting in mid-December. The dossier might then be handed over to what Blatter cryptically called “an independent body chosen in an independent manner”.
So there is still no certainty that the public – including the 300 million members of the ‘FIFA family’ that Blatter evoked over and over again – will be allowed to know who took the bribes. Lifetime Honorary FIFA President João Havelange, Brazilian football president Ricardo Teixeira, South American confederation President Nicolás Léoz and African confederation President Issa Hayatou all deny the allegations against them.
Blatter pointed out that no Swiss citizen had been mentioned in the ISL affair. But should the foreign names be confirmed in public, Blatter will be affected even if he did not have his owns hands in the ISL money chest. Before becoming FIFA President, Blatter served his predecessor Havelange for 17 years as Secretary General, and it is hard to believe he was completely unaware about the dealings of Havelange. And as a president he has used much energy in protecting the culprits for years.
Opening the ISL dossier may also lead to more practical challenges for FIFA if Ricardo Teixeira has to be excluded from football. As the almighty ruler of Brazilian football Teixiera plays the lead role in organising the next World Cup 2014 in his home country, and the arrangement is already so troubled by delays that it does not need further turmoil.
Nevertheless, just as FIFA held its meeting in Zürich, the Brazilian chamber of deputies decided to establish a committee to investigate Teixeira. It is not the first time, but unlike before he may not escape unhurt. There are indications that the new Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff will be more than happy to shake hands with another football president at the time of the Opening Match in 2014, so the so-called ‘football bench’ in the Brazilian parliament may not be able to save him.
Reforming the image of the president
It would be unfair to say that no reform is taking place in FIFA here and now. One reform became very apparent in the course of the press conference Friday: That of Sepp Blatter’s personal image.
Several times and often unprovoked, Blatter referred to his own uneasy position, making a clear point of distancing himself from the ISL affair and from the Executive Committee. He reminded that his fellow ExCo members are not elected by the congress like himself, but by the continental federations.
“We have to take in FIFA those who have been elected,” Blatter said about his partners through a decade or two.
The story that FIFA tries to sell, surprisingly backed up by Transparency International, is that Blatter is now on his last term, has nothing to lose and wants to leave an honourable legacy.
“I have to defend the institution, but also to defend myself,” as Blatter put it.
This trust in Blatter may of course become justified, but the opposite might as well happen. Blatter already wowed in 2002 that he was serving his last mandate, but since then he has been perfectly able to find good reasons for running again and again.
If by 2013 he succeeds in repairing his own image and maybe even that of FIFA, and if his health allows, wouldn’t it then be a great risk for FIFA to let such a strong reformer go?
Will TI soften public pressure?
The fact that Transparency International (TI) is not only acting as internal adviser for FIFA, a practice that is fully in line with the normal working methods of TI, but that TI also actively contributes to the current PR campaign with joyful statements to the media, is a matter of concern.
As of today, TI is definitely in a strong position with little or nothing to lose. The image of FIFA can’t get much worse, and almost any step will look like a step forward. But the way TI lends credibility to the process is likely to soften the same public pressure that has been the one and only reason for FIFA to act.
As an excellent PR operator Blatter of course understands the value of TI’s brand in building public trust for FIFA, and at the press conference he explicitly courted TI several times and offered them a key role in the continued process.
What if this appeasing strategy succeeds while the reforms are still only half-way through: What if public pressure eases, if governments return to the old laissez-faire politics vis-à-vis FIFA, if the media falls asleep again as so often before – will FIFA then be willing to continue its reforms? And will FIFA still feel that it should lend transparency experts an ear?
There is a real risk that providing a shield for Blatter and FIFA against public outrage may lead to a poorer end result for the much needed reforms.
Because even if Blatter has really changed his mind as his advisers claim, the reforms will affect a number of shady individuals whose reputation and personal income is at stake. Will they sit on their hands and wait for their former political padrino to kick them out?
Of course not. Already now, the ousted vice-president Jack Warner and the banned ExCo member Mohammed Bin Hammam are fighting back in different ways. And there are all reasons to believe that the next targets – Havelange, Hayatou and Teixeira – will do what they can to retaliate and show the world that if they are guilty of anything, Blatter served as their most helpful protector for the past 30 years.
Blatters lack of comprehension
In a response to the new proposals at the BBC, the former English FA chairman Lord Triesman asks if Sepp Blatter really understands what is going on in the world around him.
The press conference gave little hope that Blatter’s new mood is based on a renewed understanding of FIFA in the world.
Like he has done since the corruption scandals broke one year ago, he compared FIFA with a country of 300 million inhabitants and said that there would inevitably be corruption and other vices among so many people. But no, football players around the world do not feel citizens of FIFA, and no, it is pure demagogy to claim that millions of players are accused of anything.
The charges are directed at FIFA’s top which consists of only 24 men who could easily wipe out corruption in their own ranks if they wished so.
Blatter was also asked if he felt comfortable knowing that a group of Caribbean football officials would soon return to their posts after being suspended for taking bribes offered by Mohammed Bin Hammam earlier this year.
“It is exactly like in society,” Blatter answered. “When you have been in jail and served your sentence, you can come back.”
No, President Blatter: In the real world, a minister, a bookkeeper or any public servant who steals money is not invited back to his former job. It is only in football that men who abuse their position to enrich themselves, can go immediately back to their old executive posts and continue to steal.
Time is running out for FIFA to be believed
In a very personal appeal the new communications director of FIFA, Walter di Gregorio, repeated the appeal to the media that he also brought to Play the Game 2011 lately: Give us credit, judge us by the facts.
That is a very legitimate claim. But it is up to FIFA to start providing facts instead of doing everything in its power to conceal and manipulate facts. At this stage we have heard so few new facts that there is no basis for renewing the judgments.
Time is running out for FIFA to be believed. Blatter gave a hint that the independent body which will perhaps be chosen to look at the ISL files will also be able to deal with other matters that FIFA’s own legal bodies cannot deal with.
We can only hope this hint will become reality “before the end of the year” as Blatter said.
No reform of FIFA will be successful if it is based on oppression of facts and attempts to push inconvenient stories into oblivion. The ghosts will return, sooner or later, if not exposed to daylight.
So far, the fact you can derive from the press conference is that FIFA is singing the same refrain as it has done every time corruption charges have become too serious to ignore: Change will come. Once in the future. Commissions will work. Trust us.
As also Lord Triesman notes, the only difference is that a prestigious NGO like Transparency International is adding a clean voice to the choir.
The constant postponement of change has led to a breakdown not only of FIFA’s credibility, but also of the proper functioning of its whole political structure. The risk of internal rift is still imminent.
The Italian proverb might fall out quite differently for FIFA:
If nothing changes, nothing will stay the same.
Jens Sejer Andersen is International Director at Play the Game.
Watch an on-demand streaming of the FIFA press conference.