It was supposed to be all about closure for FIFA. Done and dusted. No more subterfuge. No more finger pointing. Time to move on. After all, there’s a presidential election next year.
Instead, with the two main men handed the task of upholding its code of ethics seemingly at each other’s throats, it is as far from closure as Sepp Blatter’s organisation could possibly have imagined in its bid to put an end to the suspicion and mistrust surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.
Whichever side of the political divide you sit on – and we know most everyone has an agenda – even by FIFA’s track record of attracting criticism (not always fairly it should be noted), Michael Garcia’s decision to appeal against the published summary of his own findings by his so-called “colleague” Hans Joachim Eckert, denouncing the latter’s work as containing “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations”, was a quite extraordinary twist.
In one fell swoop it undermined the very idea that FIFA’s moral arbiters were singing from the same hymn sheet. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that FIFA is now at war with itself. Late on Thursday, US Soccer boss Sunil Gulati and CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb released a joint statement that again pressed FIFA to release Garcia’s report in full “to ensure complete transparency.”
“This can be done with appropriate redaction to protect any confidentiality required by the FIFA Code of Ethics. Providing the entire independent report for inspection is in the best interest of the game and FIFA.”
Maybe so but it is unlikely to happen, officially at least, because of the confidentiality pledges made to witnesses but let me nevertheless take you back to a sports business conference in London just a few weeks ago.
Addressing a distinguished panel of delegates, FIFA’s marketing chief Thierry Weil, when quizzed about his organisation’s perceived lack of transparency, said it was unfair to pass judgment until Eckert had delivered his findings. “Then (I’d be) happy for you to say FIFA wasn’t transparent,” Weil told attending scribes including this writer. “Let’s wait and then maybe criticise once the facts have come out.”
Little could Weil have predicted the unravelling of events over the last 24 hours or the debatable rationale in some of Eckert’s conclusions, coupled with Garcia’s remarkable assertion that what was released is not in fact what he submitted in his detailed 430-page report.
For the moment we don’t know exactly which parts of the summary are allegedly erroneous and misleading. But there are some burning questions to be asked, not least of which is this. Why were beaten 2018 contenders Spain and Portugal not taken to task by Eckert, as others were? On page 19 of the 42-page summary we are told that “with regard to one specific bid team the report noted that the relevant federation was particularly uncooperative in responding to [our] requests.”
If, as seems almost certain, that paragraph refers to the joint Iberian bid, why was it not identified? Interestingly, the bid was led by prominent FIFA executive committee member Angel Villar Llona, one of the old guard who is understood to have been among those who tried and failed to and shut down the anti-corruption probe and remove Michael Garcia from the process back in March just as the former US attorney was in Zurich privately interviewing exco members as part of his brief. This website was one of three media organisations who broke the story.
This, in one sense, explains the English FA’s reaction to being singled out. The language they used may have been somewhat haughty and over-the-top but there is a legitimate case for saying that the English bid team, however incorrect some of their dealings in trying to woo support might have been, at least appear to have co-operated fully with the investigation.
At the heart of the debate perhaps is what does and doesn’t constitute legitimate above-board lobbying. If there is one lesson to be learned, it is that in future bidding nations must ascertain in advance exactly how far they can go in the schmoozing stakes and learn not to tread too dangerously when it comes to trying to secure votes.
Qatar’s deal that secured exclusive rights to promote their bid at the 2010 African Football Confederation Congress in Angola to the exclusion of all other candidates was mentioned by Eckert but was not deemed to have compromised bid rules, presumably because this commercial sponsorship did not involve direct communication with individual exco members. Whereas England’s favour-currying relationship with Warner was said to have damaged the process. I am not suggesting one was any more contentious than the other. Rather that it’s all about judgment calls in what is clearly far too grey an area. Which is exactly why the rules need to be tightened up.
Looking to the future, therefore, what is and what is not acceptable will surely be a key factor when countries consider bidding for World Cups. Another will hopefully be exco members giving some credence to the recommendations of FIFA’s technical inspection team which, in the cases of both 2018 and especially 2022, were largely ignored.
Most crucially of all – and perhaps the strongest reason we are where we are – never again should Fifa take the foolhardly step of staging simultaneous ballots, with the obvious wiggle room for vote-trading.
As these pages have said before, it was bound to end in tears. FIFA thought this week those tears had dried up for good and that a path could be cleared to choose an exact date for the Qatar World Cup next spring without the distraction of their credibility being called into question.
No such luck. To general disbelief, the weeping has resumed in buckets. Given how long it could take Michael Garcia’s appeal to go through the relevant channels, coupled with his desire to see his entire file published (which won’t happen unless ethics rules are changed and even then surely can’t be applied retrospectively) we could still be no closer to a solution several months down the road.
Many of FIFA’s federations who rely on its financial support may not care a jot about the Garcia-Eckert spat. But the longer the 2018 and 2022 saga drags on, the harder it will be for FIFA, while often unfairly attacked for being dysfunctional, to show it deserves the world’s trust.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at [email protected]om