PtG Comment 12.07.2012

Unanswered questions and unsung heroes

Comment: The publication of the ISL dossier leaves FIFA with a number of inconvenient questions, including the most sensitive: Can FIFA accept a president who allowed his allies to steal massive values from his own enterprise?

Tuesday the 3rd July 2012 is a date worth celebrating in world sport and in the surrounding society. On that day it was decided by the highest judicial authority in Switzerland, The Federal Court, that the autonomy of sport does not allow independent associations to serve as protected playgrounds for greedy individuals and outright crooks.

The Federal Court’s decision which was made public yesterday the 11 July confirmed lower court decisions that the public has the right to know the so-called ISL dossier and the names of some of those individuals who benefited from the biggest corruption scheme known in sport so far. 

It is therefore now an established fact that it was the former president and still honorary president of FIFA, the Brazilian João Havelange, and his former son in law, the recently resigned Brazilian football president and FIFA Executive Committee member Ricardo Teixeira, who unsuccessfully tried to block the publication of this 2010 settlement between the Swiss public prosecutors, FIFA and themselves.

We also can state with absolute security that Havelange and Teixeira had obvious motives to keep the matter secret, because they – as most observers were suspecting – are named as important beneficiaries of this massive corruption system. In total, the two cashed in between 14 and 22 million Swiss Francs in bribes.

Moreover, the documents reveal that the ISL affair is somewhat bigger than assumed until yesterday. The total value of the bribes paid by the ISL company to sports officials in return for broadcasting and marketing rights rose yesterday from 140 million Swiss Franc to 160 million in the years 1989-2001 – even by the exchange rates of the past it now sums up to over 100 million euro.

As the 96-year old Havelange had to leave the IOC in disgrace last December, a few days before he would have been sanctioned for his ISL involvement, and as Teixeira has resigned under equally humiliating circumstances, you might think that this is the end of the story. But it should only be the beginning of the end. The ISL dossier brings about a whole range of questions, and many of them lead directly to FIFA’s headquarters and its president Sepp Blatter.

Inconvenient questions

In a press release, FIFA tried to welcome the The Federal Court’s decision as if it was inspired by FIFA itself, although FIFA and Sepp Blatter has fought with all legal and political means at their disposal to keep all ISL information secret for more than a decade. This PR gimmick cannot conceal that FIFA President Sepp Blatter has more to worry about than the reputation of his old Brazilian friends.

Though the Federal Court decided to anonymise the names of third persons who did not directly receive bribes, it is relatively easy to identify Sepp Blatter as the person called “P1”. The court papers show with unmistakable clarity that FIFA and P1 knew everything about the systematic bribery scheme, and that FIFA and P1 until the very last moment tried to protect those who benefited from it.

The 2010 settlement was agreed by FIFA only on the condition that the Swiss authorities would not prosecute Havelange and Teixeira. In other words, Sepp Blatter has for many years, as Secretary General and President of FIFA, allowed that friends and political allies stole money that belonged to the company whose well-being he is entrusted.

Play the Game has consistently argued that a fight against corruption in sport should not focus on persons, but on structures and systems. This position is no longer tenable.

So FIFA does have a range of inconvenient questions to answer, and so do other sports organisations including the International Olympic Committee:

  • Can FIFA be governed by a person who knowingly and over many years has allowed tangible values to disappear in a massive, carefully orchestrated system of corruption?
  • Can FIFA have an honorary, life-time president whose greed and bribe-taking is now established by court documents?
  • Can FIFA live with the fact that more than 100 million Swiss Francs paid out as bribes from its closest business partners are not accounted for, or will FIFA open its archives and the memories of its chief officials and be honest about the past?
  • Can other sports federations with business relations to ISL, like ATP in tennis, IAAF in athletics, FINA in swimming and FIBA in basketball, accept that some of their present leaders may have been part of this corruption system?
  • Can the IOC tolerate that Blatter has flagrantly violated its code of ethics, or should he be shown the back door like Havelange?

Sending Blatter on immediate retirement will of course create trouble for FIFA for some time, and the current governance reform process may be disturbed.

However, it must be possible to identify other political talents in the ranks of world football, even if it would take an extraordinary congress to appoint a intermediary caretaker. And by the way, the FIFA constitution allows vice-presidents to step in. 

World public allowed insight into dark side

The long-term impact of the ISL documents remains to be seen. Today, we can celebrate that the world public has been allowed insight into a dark side of sport politics. 

Without public insight and without public pressure from many sides, the systematic malpractices of some sports leaders that have flourished since the late 1970s could have continued for another generation more. The times seem to be changing. It is a good moment pay a tribute to those unsung heroes who brought us this far. 

I am not, as you may believe, thinking of the usual Play the Game suspects - the investigative journalists - although their hard and sometimes ungrateful work during more than a decade has been decisive and deserves full merit. Without reporters like Andrew Jennings, Jens Weinreich, Thomas Kistner and Jean-François Tanda there would be no talk of FIFA reform. 

It may seem strange to list only the four names. But they stand out not only from the mass of obedient reporters who will copy any press release as long as they are welcomed to the big football party, but also from those of us who play the role of criticial observers and pundits from a safe position behind our desk.

These four reporters have brought something invaluable into the FIFA debate: Facts and documents. They have been accused of exaggerating, but reality show that they were not: They have consistently under-reported the scale of corruption that they covered. 

Also, the credit today does not primarily go to the unyielding investigative judge Thomas Hildbrand, who has been relentless in his efforts to draw FIFA executives out of their own fictionary bubble of absolute power and freedom to abuse, and back to the worldly realities of transparency, democracy, social responsibility and the rule of law.

He has ignored all the kind of pressures that FIFA is able to build up in Switzerland and beyond and has through meticulous and persistent scrutiny provided as much truth and justice as one can possible expect from a public servant.

The difficult choice to blow the whistle

No, my main hommage today goes to people whose name we may never know. Those individuals who one day discover that their work place is on the wrong track, that they are supporting a system that is not compatible with their own moral values, that they are part of a corrupt system. They make the difficult decision to break their loyalty to their colleagues, to their bosses and to their enterprise, and they do so at great personal risk. 

Instead of bowing their heads and protect their personal safety they decide to blow the whistle, delivering the photocopies, the emails, the testimonies that make it possible for investigative reporters and prosecutors to do their part of the work.

They will never receive awards or other recognition than their own conscience can give them. But they have been the true guardians or the values of sport, and they deserve our warmest thanks. For them, and for everybody who else believe that sport should serve mankind and not a little group of self-serving top executives, Wednesday the 3 July was a day worth celebrating.

Read also The Guardian's article with link to Thomas Hildbrand's full legal document. Jean François Tanda's article in the Swiss newspaper Handelszeitung. FIFA's press release.