It was in the Fishmongers Hall, yes the Fishmongers Hall, chasing investigator Michael Garcia through tables of lunching American lawyers, that the World Cup bid story reached the level of high farce.
Consider the scene. A lawyer who, perhaps advantageously, knew little of football when he took on the independent investigation into the 2018/2022 bid process. Hired, to its credit, by FIFA. Telling his dining peers endearingly that the only live football he had watched was his daughter’s year 12 games.
And while addressing these peers, the grand walls of London Bridge’s Fishmongers Hall were lined with ‘fishermen’ – or a cast of familiar sports news journalists hoping to finally catch something big having been fed tiddlers by FIFA in the interests of ‘confidentiality’.
Except it was our job to seek as much clarification as possible from Mr Garcia as he departed the lunch. And so unfolded what must have been a bizarre sight for the average american lawyer if there’s such a thing. A shoal of journalists and cameras and wires and microphones weaving through tables of unfinished desserts.
Garcia had said all he could, certainly all he would, at this juncture, and bobbed his way down the stairs through the lobby and into a taxi, still encircled by journalists. As the great poet artist and philosopher Eric Cantona, also a footballer, said wistfully:
“When ze seagulls follow ze trawler zay expect sardines to be thrown into ze sea”
Mr Garcia talked like a lawyer at the lunch. Which is both predictable and sensible. Any jury would be clear about his conclusion; transparency is the path to justice:
“The value of transparency is evident from the experience of other sports organisations. Look at the IOC, where allegations concerning Salt Lake City were addressed and published and the IOC moved forward. Without transparency, problems and scepticism have lingered.”
Garcia finished his speech with what came across as an important message to President Blatter:
“What an institution like FIFA needs to meet the challenge of ethics enforcement is leadership. An ethics committee is not a silver bullet. What is required is a leadership that sends out a message it wants to understand and learn from any mistakes the ethics committee may identify.”
Does he mean Blatter needs to raise his game or more pertinently change his game? A fish rots from the head down? That’s how it came across to me in the room.
As I said when covering the Executive Committee meeting in Zurich last month, this is a ‘political football being kicked between Garcia, FIFA and its Ethics Committee’. It seems Garcia at least realises that transparency is a must to give FIFA any chance of restoring its reputation with the fans. As Garcia told the lawyers: “A lack of transparency might be ok for an intelligence agency but not a governing body.”
“The Fishmongers Hall” the umpteenth act of “FIFA, the bid process” was black humour rather than genuine slapstick. If you are tiring of this story – goodness knows that’s forgivable – consider the actual importance of it.
Host nations, bid nations, major football executives, and many important figures OUTSIDE of football, BIG fish, will be desperate to know what Garcia knows about them.
People flippantly calling for a World Cup revote before we know what’s in Garcia’s report care not about the geopolitical mess that would involve, the legal implications. There is too much supposition at the moment. We need to know facts.
It’s not often journalists are praised, but as long as we play fair, it’s the first time for a while I’ve felt proud of the sheer stoicism of the figures who have been covering this story for years. Reduced to swapping one-liners about fish while waiting for lawyers to finish lunch.
But I wonder whether we’ll look back at Garcia’s address here and realise how telling it was. How close it came to attacking his ’employers’. How it wasn’t a ‘red herring’.
Because If HE is not advocating confidentiality, why should FIFA?
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport