Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Maybe now the stinking pile that is Blatter's FIFA will be brought down

From a professional point of view, I have great sympathy for Walter De Gregorio, FIFA's director of communications, who had to front a news conference this morning following the dawn arrests of seven FIFA executives on charges that they received bribes totalling $100 million.

FIFA clearly drew from the crisis management playbook by addressing the media so quickly, applying the rule of getting your arms around the problem as soon as possible in the hope of seizing some control over a story before it runs away from you. The trouble is, the anti-FIFA message has been running away now for too long, and the smell surrounding Sepp Blatter's organisation has grown ever more rancid.

"This is good for FIFA," De Gregorio maintained this morning. "It hurts, it is not easy, but it confirms we are on the right track." If he meant that FIFA had begun to self-investigate long-standing claims of corruption, then the resignation last December of Michael Garcia - who'd been commissioned by FIFA to carry out the investigation - saying that his report was altered before being published, suggested that there was still much doubt as to what the right track actually is.

Despite De Gregorio's insistence, this morning's arrests at Zurich's Baur-au-Lac hotel will have done nothing to sweeten the air around the FIFA, especially so close to the start of this year's FIFA General Assembly on Friday, at which delegates will vote on giving Blatter a fifth term in office.

Given that US investigators are, according to the New York Times which broke this morning's news, looking into allegations of money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud going back more than 20 years, with more FIFA figures likely to be charged, I find it incredible that the organisation should even consider holding an election. Defiantly, FIFA says it will go ahead as planned, with Blatter now only facing the challenge of Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein. Depressingly, it looks like the 79-year-old Swiss will retain the presidency. Blatter's Teflon-armoured position must, however, surely be untenable, but that is just wishful thinking on my part, although I'm pretty sure I'm not alone,.

Today's arrests came after the US Department of Justice announced an indictment covering 47 counts of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies in a 24-year scheme. "The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted," said New York's Attorney General. "It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks" adding that the charges related to actions "between the early 1990s and the present day".

Although the crux of the indictment focuses on alleged corruption around match and tournament media and marketing rights, the US investigation is said to also involve claims surrounding the bidding process to stage World Cup tournaments themselves. For the US to stage a criminal investigation into events which, let's face it, only enjoy passing interest in that country, this must count as significant.

"We're struck by just how long this went on for and how it touched nearly every part of what FIFA did," an unidentified US law enforcement officer told the New York Times this morning. "It just seemed to permeate every element of the federation and was just their way of doing business. It seems like this corruption was institutionalized.”

It's not the first time this sort of sentiment has been expressed, but never before has it come so explicitly from the law enforcement community. Time, though, will tell whether today's arrests lead to convictions, but there is certainly no doubt that FIFA's already sullied reputation has been damaged still further.

And while it is clear that today's dawn raids had nothing to do with either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup Finals being awarded, respectively, to Russia and Qatar, the suspicion and notable fattening of the evidence dossier against FIFA must surely call into question the next two tournaments. If nothing else, perhaps pressure on corporate sponsors like Adidas, Gazprom, Hyundai, Kia, McDonald's, Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Visa over the labour conditions - and deaths - of immigrant workers brought in to build the stadia for the Qatar World Cup might force a change of venues and, who knows, even a change of leadership culture at the very top of FIFA itself?

That must lie in the hands - and ballot papers - of those who will vote on Friday. All the talk is that Sepp Blatter will be re-elected without contest. One might hope, however, that with - now - criminal charges hanging over past FIFA practices in the Americas, the reputational stain must spread to the previously and apparently immune president who has overseen the organisation for the last 17 years.

"He has had 17 years to improve governance at FIFA," Eric Martin, head of the Swiss branch of the anti-corruption pressure group Transparency International told the BBC today. "I'm sceptical whether he will ever do it now".

Those who know Blatter say that he lives and breathes football and FIFA, and that his passion for the organisation is genuine. I don't doubt that, but when facts emerge as to how FIFA seems rotten to its core with the culture of corruption, any genuine immunity Blatter has is now useless. Reform of FIFA is needed, but clearly, too, so is regime change. As James Comey, the director of the FBI, no less, said this afternoon: "This may be the way things are, but this is not the way things have to be."

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