PtG Article 31.10.2007

FIFA - unfit to manage football?

Play the Game took a critical look at the workings of football’s  governing body, including the remit of its ethics committee, the World Cup bidding process and alleged corruption.

FIFA is rarely out of the headlines. Whether the story relates to player transfers, big matches or the World Cup bidding process, it is a rare day that football’s world governing body is not featured on the sports pages. However, according to investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, FIFA should be making headlines for more sinister reasons. While it spoon-feeds positive stories to complacent journalists, his address to Play the Game argued, corruption, fraud and perjury remain endemic in its ranks.

What should England and their bidding rivals do to show they can host the 2018 World Cup, Jennings asked. Demonstrate excellent sporting facilities? Lasting benefits to the local economy and the grassroots game?  Actually, he said, bidding nations must display a willingness to tow the line. A willingness to play unwanted moneyspinning friendlies against poor teams. A willingness to send their biggest clubs to play in FIFA tournaments instead of national competitions. And not least, a willingness to indulge FIFA officials.

Jennings gave Play the Game an account of his ongoing investigations into alleged corruption at FIFA’s highest levels, including what he saw as the organisation’s increasingly desperate attempts to cover up bribes paid to the bosses of a now-defunct Swiss marketing company, International Sport and Leisure (ISL).  According to Jennings, FIFA worked hand-in-hand with ISL for a number of years, trading exclusive international marketing contracts for kickbacks and favours.

ISL went bust in Spring 2001 owing 50 million pounds to FIFA, and few were surprised when FIFA sued. However, according to Jennings, the legal action was more of an attempt to legitimise FIFA’s position and distance itself from ISA. However, leading ISL official Jean-Marie Weber – a man Jennings referred to as the “architect” of kickbacks” – was not named in the indictment. A fact, said Jennings, that is highly significant.

However, he continued, Weber and his colleagues may soon be forced to defend themselves in court. A Swiss police investigator, Thomas Hildebrand, is leading an investigation into ISL that has begun to implicate FIFA itself. Despite the fact that FIFA withdrew its lawsuit against ISA and called for the investigation to be halted, Jennings said Hildebrand went on digging and in May 2005 indictments were issued against ISL executives. In November 2005 a squad of detectives raided FIFA-owned houses and seized documents. A  second investigation was underway, it seemed, this time into FIFA itself.

In April 2006 Hildebrand appeared in a court in Vaduz, Liechtenstein in a case concerning a company allegedly set up by ISL to pay kickbacks and whitewash money. Although nothing has yet been proven, Jennings alleged the existence of a paper trail leading from Switzerland to Liechtenstein and onwards to an offshore tax haven in the British Virgin Islands.After more than 30 months of what he described as “digging into garbage” Jennings said, Hildebrand and his Swiss investigative colleagues are now planning a series of indictments that could result in long prison sentences. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, said Jennings, likes to give the impression that he is determined to stamp out corruption – but if Hildebrand finishes the job, this image could be destroyed forever.

Jennings was followed on the Play the Game podium by former Newcastle and Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, who spoke fondly of a career which culminated in Premier League football and representing his country in the 2006 world cup in Germany. Hislop also spoke of his admiration for football’s inherent “autonomy” and the threat posed by its  “perversion”. When this autonomy becomes a topic for discussion, he said, it is usually because there is something wrong. Sport and politics have always been intertwined, he said, but as football’s relationship with big business continues to test the bounds of morality it is becoming less autonomous and more autocratic. Footballers are by no means blameless, he added, as they often distance themselves from the less savoury aspects of the game, preferring to reap the rewards it offers.

He then went on to describe his sometimes-stormy relationship with Jack Warner, president of CONCAEAF and a powerful executive at the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association. In August 2006, Hislop said, Trinidad and Tobago’s players were told that they would receive a mere $800 per man in World Cup bonus payments – much less than they had originally expected. Those players who threatened legal action were threatened with being blacklisted from the national team. An application for FIFA to refer the matter to its ethics committee was subsequently turned down.

Jennings also levelled strong criticism at FIFA’s new ethics committee, which is to be chaired by former Olympic gold medallist and 1500m record holder Sebastian (now Lord) Coe. According to Jennings, Coe has agreed not to look at any allegations occurring before his appointment, meaning a whole host of vote rigging, corruption, ticket racketeering, bribery, perjury and espionage charges will be swept under the carpet.

View Andrew Jennings’ website at