You can take Thursday’s momentous events on both sides of the Atlantic one of two ways. Either you can argue that on the most eagerly anticipated day in its clean-up process, FIFA had its thunder stolen like never before and the rug humiliatingly yanked from under its feet. Or you can argue that the staggering scale and choking stench of corruption unveiled by US attorney general Loretta Lynch within hours of the game-changing reform measures being announced at FIFA headquarters only served to prove that world football’s governing body is at least looking to the future and acknowledges how desperately it needs a complete overhaul.
Unfortunately for FIFA, what happened in Washington was far a “sexier” headline-making story than what happened in Zurich. Lynch’s roll-call of shame, which brought to 27 those named since May accused of running schemes involving $200 million in bribes, money-laundering and fraud, was more damning than anyone could possibly have imagined.
Eleven current or former FIFA exco members now face charges. In one fell swoop, virtually a whole generation of individual South American federation leaders was wiped out, together with a healthy dose of the CONCACAF administration.
Along the way Lynch revealed that former CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb, a man touted as a possible successor to Sepp Blatter when he came to prominence exhorting the ideals of transparency and tolerance, had changed his plea to guilty.
Also named on the new list was Brazilian veteran Ricardo Teixeira, the former son-in-law of long-time FIFA president Joao Havelange who had tried over the years to convince anyone who would listen that he was clean despite having already been outed back in 2012 for taking kickbacks relating to the ISL scandal. You’d have thought he might have learned his lesson but here he was being formally exposed as an alleged crook. His downfall will be applauded by everyone he has tried to mislead, especially back home since the indictment alleged he, along with his two successors as head of the Brazilian FA, “conspired to intentionally create a scheme to defraud” the federation.
The lengths to which some people appear to be prepared to go to serve their lust for greed when they are already incredibly wealthy is staggering. As is their apparent belief that they are above the law and that anything goes when they have been part of a festering culture of backhanders, embezzlement and skulduggery. Take the cases of CONMEBOL and CONCACAF bigwigs Juan Angel Napout and Alfredo Hawit, arrested in the second dawn raid within six months on the Baur au Lac hotel.
Both confederations have recently been at pains to publicise the fact that they are cleaning up their respective acts after being plunged into ignominy and disgrace. Yet here we had the new men at the top (though in Hawit’s case for the second time as interim boss) allegedly tarnished with same filthy brush as their predecessors for ripping off their members, many of them tiny federations who need financial assistance just to survive.
“How can people who know they have done something wrong take the risk of coming here,” asked the Swiss taxi driver running me to Thursday’s press conference that followed the final executive committee session of the year. How indeed? And just think. Had they not been arrested under suspicion of accepting millions of dollars in bribes, Napout and Hawit would have been among those who approved the comprehensive reform package the same morning. If that’s not a scary thought, I don’t know what is.
As it happened, both ultimately missed the crucial session which rubber-stamped the full swathe of proposals drawn up and presented by Francois Carrard though everyone knows the brains mainly belonged to audit and compliance chairman Domenico Scala, aided and abetted by FIFA’s legal director Marco Villiger and interim general secretary Markus Kattner.
Not surprisingly, the dawn raid on the Baur au Lac, the now-infamous luxury downtown hotel long frequented by FIFA’s bigwigs, brought a sense of deju vu to the entire proceedings, mirroring as they did those initial May arrests just before the FIFA congress. Was the second raid, again carried out by the Swiss police on behalf of the US justice authorities, deliberately timed in order to upstage the reform process from gaining maximum publicity? The jury is out but you can bet there are a load of frustrated figures in the FIFA hierarchy – what’s left of it.
It didn’t help FIFA’s cause either to have Issa Hayatou take centre stage in front of the world’s media. As FIFA’s senior vice-president, Hayatou is in the hotseat while the ethics case against Sepp Blatter is concluded or until the February ballot to replace him – whichever comes first. To be fair Hayatou has not been well having suffered from kidney problems but nodding off on the podium as Carrard painstakingly explained the nuances of the much-anticipated reform measures did not send out a particularly enthusiastic message.
In one sense the measures – a new 36-member supervisory council (chosen, importantly, by direct elections rather than by the confederations’ own executive committees) and a maximum 12-year term limit for all senior officials – are undermined by having Hayatou at the helm, however temporarily. Firstly the African football supremo has been at FIFA for some 25 years. Secondly he himself was once warned by the International Olympic Committee for accepting cash from former FIFA marketing partner ISL and was accused, before a UK parliamentary session some years ago, of having taken a bribe to vote for Qatar to stage for the 2022 World Cup.
He denies both accusations but did himself and FIFA no favours with some choice, almost Blatter-style, remarks. “FIFA is not corrupt,” said Hayatou. “Do not generalise the situation.” The revelations in Washington a few hours later, combined with what we knew already, suggested a somewhat different viewpoint, at least when it concerns FIFA’s top brass from the Americas. The last three presidents of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL have now all been indicted. And don’t forget about Blatter and Michel Platini, conspicuous by their absence at Thursday’s exco due to suspension.
So on a day when FIFA hoped to trumpet the fact that it was doing its best to bring about root and branch change, many will take the view that the stable door has been closed after the horse has bolted. Especially after that remarkable intervention from Loretta Lynch and her mob.
“The message from this announcement should be clear to every culpable individual who remains in the shadows, hoping to evade our investigation: you will not wait us out. You will not escape our focus,” said Lynch. The fact that among those charged in the 236-page indictment were members of FIFA’s disciplinary and audit and compliance committees, the very bodies that are meant to clamp down on wrongdoing in the game, only added to the gravity of the situation.
The cast may have altered but the song, for now at least, remains the same. For all Carrard’s well-meaning pledges about concrete progress on governance, it smacked of other road maps down the years that led to dead-ends. For all acting general secretary Markus Kattner’s assurances that FIFA’s tainted past will give way to a “modern, trusted and professional sports organisation,” the sleaze, mistrust and profiteering runs so deep, we could be some way off from witnessing tangible change.
On the other hand, it’s clear there has been a concerted effort to create a workable blueprint for the way FIFA is run in future along more accountable lines. Let’s hope its 209 nations vote to give it a chance at February’s Congress.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org