FOX Soccer Exclusive
FIFA under the global microscope
It was an unintentionally revealing moment as Claudio Sulser, the man tapped by FIFA to clean up the latest mess, wearily told reporters in Zurich, “I never thought I would have to deal with this many cases.”
Sulser, and FIFA, indeed have a lot on their plate. The latest concern came Wednesday, after a hastily-convened meeting of the Ethic Committee, when FIFA suspended two members of its Executive Committee and four others.
It is just the most recent in a string of embarrassing incidents that threaten the stability of the world governing body of football.
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FIFA President Sepp Blatter was forced on Wednesday to angrily deny that FIFA was “a corrupt organization,” and he pleaded for time, patience and trust.
He’s unlikely to get any of those.
The current scandal was kicked off when two senior members, Nigeria’s Amos Adamu and Oceania’s Reynald Temarii, were videotaped in a sting orchestrated by the Sunday Times of London offering to sell their votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid for $800,000 and $1.5m, respectively (Adamu denied any wrongdoing in a prepared statement on Thursday ... Temarii has also said he is innocent).
Four others were also caught on tape. CAF’s Slim Aloulou, also a member of the Dispute Resolution Inspection Committee; Mali’s Amadou Diakite, also a member of the Refereeing Committee; Tonga’s Ahongalu Fusimalohi; and Botswana’s Ismael Bhamjee, all appearing to trade cash for favors.
In the sting, the Sunday Times pretended its reporters were acting on behalf of the American bid to host 2018. There has been no evidence or suggestion that any American officials were either aware of the sting, or involved in any dubious activities (the Sunday Times is owned by News Corporation, the parent of Fox Sports. In addition, Fox Soccer Channel is a USA Bid partner).
Adding to their woes, FIFA confirmed that it is investigating what Jerome Valcke called “rumors” that two bidding nations were colluding with regard to the upcoming competitions.
The USA is not one of the bid nations under investigation; the bids being examined for collusion are the joint bid of Spain and Portugal and the bid from Qatar.
That investigation was prompted by comments made by AFC president Mohammed bin Hammam which appeared to confirm that votes would be traded. He told journalists at the Leaders in Football conference that, “All the bidders are telling me, “If you vote for me I’ll vote for you.” Bin Hammam is from Qatar, one of the bid nations.
The crisis is not the first to hit what has been an intensely competitive process for the rights to host the forthcoming World Cups, inarguably the planet’s biggest sporting event and a potential cash cow for host nations.
FIFA has been the subject of a number of stunning allegations of corruption and ethical misconduct. Several cases have ended up in court, and FIFA has been forced to discipline members in the past. There was the collapse of International Sports and Leisure (ISL) which sparked a fraud investigation in Swiss courts; the reprimand given by FIFA to CONCACAF president Jack Warner for illegal ticket reselling; the MasterCard sponsorship negotiation scandal that ended up in a New York court; on top of persistent questions over kickbacks.
Claudio Sulser, chairman of FIFA's ethics committee, answers a question during a press conference in Zurich, Switzerland.AP Photo/Keystone/Steffen Schmidt
Just this year, the often opaque bid process has been hit by a string of claims and counter-claims:
* In May, the then-head of the English bid committee, Lord Triesman, made explosive allegations that Russia and Spain were attempting to bribe referees at the World Cup. A FIFA investigation concluded the allegations were groundless and Triesman was forced to resign. England is bidding for the 2018 World Cup.
* In July, Australian officials were alleged to have given gifts and jewelry to FIFA members (including Warner) by a prominent Australian newspaper. The Australian government exonerated the Aussie Federation (FFA), which then sued the newspaper for defamation. The newspaper has not retracted its claims, and has continued to follow up with documents it says implicates Australian lobbyists in trading promises for votes. Australia is a bidding nation for the 2022 World Cup.
* At the same event where Bin Hammam made his statements, Korean Federation President Chung Mong-joon accused the United States bid of creating "an atmosphere of lingering suspicion,” and implied that the United States was working in concert with Chinese officials to destabilize an Asian 2022 bid and focus instead on a China bid for 2026.
USA Bid officials today declined to comment on any of the issues, but an insider, who would only speak if unattributed, said that the allegation that they are working with the Chinese FA is absolutely false.
The USA of course hosted the 1994 World Cup, a tournament that arguably began the big-money era in modern soccer. Even then, hosting the Cup was a political decision. But Scott LeTellier, the former U.S. Soccer counsel, and the major behind-the-scenes force in that bid, said tonight that despite the politics, things were very different then.
“The overwhelming importance of this decision, and the massive increase in the dollars has made [bidding] so different,” said LeTellier. “I was unaware of any irregularities anywhere [in 1994,] and there certainly was nothing untoward on our end. We played it straight up. Remember, the USA were decided underdogs. We just kept doing things the way FIFA asked us to do them.
LeTellier continued, “From time to time, people would say things and raise questions, but there was no evidence of anything. And I think, since I was involved in so many different aspects of the '94 Cup, that I suspect had there been anything wrong I would have heard something. It would also surprise me greatly if there’s anything going on in the USA Bid now, especially after the Salt Lake City [Olympic bribery scandal].”
It’s an open question if FIFA really has the will to clean house. Already this week, anti-corruption groups have lit into the organization, with Transparency International calling for an independent inquiry.
That’s unlikely to happen. Blatter, in his plaintive, sad speech seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would think FIFA is corrupt, despite of this outfit’s checkered history. Blatter, blaming “devils” for the recent troubles, sounded, at the most charitable, like a man in denial.
Still, questions remain ...
How does this affect the American bid?
It doesn’t. There is no indication that the USA’s bid for 2022 is in any jeopardy. Aside from Chung’s comments, there also has been no suggestion or evidence that the USA’s bid has engaged in any sort of horse trading or unethical behavior.
Are votes being traded?
Yes, clearly. This shouldn’t be a surprise as the World Cup award decision results from a political process. What seems to have irked FIFA more than anything is that people are talking about it openly. Two bids are indeed under investigation and other sources have said that the Russian bid is being examined after statements made by bid head Alexi Sorokin that appeared to run afoul of rules preventing nations from disparaging one another. Sorokin criticized London’s “youth crime rate” and alcohol consumption in an interview with a Russian daily.
Will the World Cups be awarded on December 2nd?
At this point, yes. However, pressure is clearly mounting on FIFA, and it is unclear with new revelations emerging each day whether he organization’s attempts to police itself will satisfy the increasing calls for transparency.
Who are the front-runners?
In 2018, it’s a straight fight between England and Russia. England has the infrastructure in place but is not popular among the voters who actually decide who gets the tournament. Russia is seen as a strong candidate and is arguably the front-runner.
However, they have a problem that not even their massive cash reserves can solve. The time difference between Russia’s cities and the Americas makes a Russian World Cup less attractive to the USA broadcasters that foot a significant part of the bill. Spain/Portugal and Belgium/Holland are seen as dark horses because of FIFA’s perceived unwillingness to support joint bids after the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup.
2022 is seen as the USA’s to lose. The USA has the facilities, the fans, and most of all, the cash. TV starting times are not an issue: Daytime games in America will air in prime-time for Europe. The only knock on the USA’s bid is the summer heat in American cities.
The closest competitor is Australia, which has a strong argument in that the World Cup has never visited that continent and that it would be a magnet for Asian interest and money. The other three nations -- Japan, Korea and Qatar -- are seen as non-starters for various reasons.
Qatar’s climate is inhospitable in the summer, while Japan and Korea are seen as being unable to host a tournament independently.
However, the current antipathy towards American politics and policies will play an enormous role in whether the World Cup comes here. As Chicago learned in its bidding for the 2016 Olympic Games, the Americans are simply not popular, and the wave of anti-immigrant and far-right political talk may not help sell the bid to members from African, South American and European nations.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions Leauge.