Andrew Warshaw: Going bananas but not slipping on the skin

As Sepp Blatter strapped in his seatbelt, lay back and sipped his first drink, alcoholic or otherwise, as he flew out of Morocco following one of the most tempestuous weeks of his 16-year FIFA presidency, he probably allowed him a wry smile.

Job well done, he may have mused. Another masterful display in canny face saving. The work of the ethics committee will go on – even without its resentful joint chairman. Crisis over. After all, Christmas is coming.

Not quite so easy, Sepp.

The veil of secrecy over one of the most controversial sporting bid processes ever staged may have finally been lifted in Marrakesh last week but it still left a swathe of questions unanswered.

Why, for instance, did the FIFA president initially oppose making Garcia’s 430-page World Cup report public and how far were the executive committee minds changed by public pressure to do so? Would publication of Garcia’s dossier have been approved if the American attorney had not taken it upon himself to walk away over FIFA’s apparent intransigence? And when the report ultimately does see the light of day, what more will we actually learn?

Rarely, if ever, has there been as much tension and expectation surrounding a single FIFA press conference as last Friday. FIFA had abandoned its usual practise of live streaming, giving a unique opportunity to those of us who were there to watch proceedings unfold before our very eyes.

Blatter knew, perhaps more than ever before, that he had to convince a sceptical media and public that his executive committee were all singing from the same hymn sheet. He had arrived in Morocco only to be confronted with the breaking news that the man tasked with cleaning up FIFA had turned his back on the organisation and denounced the way it operated.

Garcia had dropped his bombshell with deliberate timing, maximising FIFA’s embarrassment just when it was about to hold the year’s final gathering of its inner circle.

Sunil Gulati, the president of US Soccer, had described Garcia’s resignation as “backward step” for FIFA. UEFA boss Michel Platini called it “a new failure”, mirroring the views of many when he said the ethics committee was created to increase the transparency of FIFA, but instead “just caused more confusion.”

Blatter had to act fast but he had a problem. Theo Zwanziger, FIFA’s German exco member who had been charged several months ago with keeping an eye on how Qatar was improving workers’ rights, had proposed a vote on whether Garcia’s dossier should be released in full.

Blatter knew this would mean trouble. In order to promote transparency the result of any vote would have to be made public, with the knock-on effect of even more adverse publicity being heaped on FIFA and especially on anyone who opposed publication.

Blatter simply could not let this happen. Somehow he had to engineer unanimity.

Enter Domenico Scala, the independent chairman of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee, for an assessment of the best way forward. The refreshingly approachable Scala, who has the rare ability to explain things clearly and concisely without assuming there is some hidden agenda, made it clear to the exco that the difference between Garcia’s report and the summary of it by German ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert had been overstated by the American.

There was nothing in Garcia’s report, Scala said, that could incriminate 2018 and 2022 hosts Russia and Qatar. Therefore, since the ethics code could only sanction individuals, Scala recommended publication, stressing that the identities of witnesses would be protected and, critically, that release of the report would not take place until separate disciplinary proceedings into five senior officials, including three current exco members who voted back in December 2010, had been completed, giving FIFA crucial protection from the threat of libel action by anyone named in the file.

As a result of Scala’s timely intervention, no vote took place, music to the ears of Blatter. But not everyone was quite so compliant.

It is understood that Spain’s FIFA vice-president Angel Villar Llona made it clear in no uncertain terms how unhappy he was that his name had been exposed as one of the exco members being investigated. “He went bananas”, is how one of his exco colleagues put it to me. Cue, according to a number of sources, a long lecture from Blatter about the need to crack down on media leaks and how damaging they were to the organisation.

Interesting because Villar Llona, remember, is understood to have been one of those who tried and failed to halt the Garcia inquiry earlier this year.

Interesting too because the Spaniard’s own behaviour came very much under scrutiny during an at times far from harmonious exco session. In his resignation statement, Garcia revealed that the FIFA executive committee tried to have disciplinary proceedings opened against him in September for allegedly violating the Code of Ethics for speaking out.

This was odd since FIFA had never once made reference to this in any of its media statements. Now we know why. It wasn’t the exco who reported Garcia to the disciplinary committee. It was one man alone and that man was Villar Llona, acting unilaterally. As a result, according to several high-ranking exco sources, FIFA were forced to change the minutes on Friday morning.

“The exco were not collectively responsible and some members were livid,” said one well-respected exco source. “They did not at any time want Garcia reported to the disciplinary committee. Only one individual within the exco did.”

If the Spaniard had nothing to hide, why did he throw his toys out of the pram? Unless he had done nothing wrong, of course. But for Blatter the bottom line was achieving the consensus he (and the organisation) badly needed, not only to show he was in charge but also so that his path is smoothed when it comes to next year’s presidential election.

The last thing Blatter needs as he plots his next move is for the saga to keep hitting the headlines during election time. The public version of Garcia’s report will be the subject of intense legal scrutiny to make sure no evidence can be seen to lead to a particular official. Depending on how long the individual investigations take, it is more than possible, if you include appeals, that they may not be concluded until after FIFA’s Congress next May when Blatter is likely to be re-elected as president for a fifth term.

“The report is about history and I am focused on the future,” Blatter triumphantly declared. Telling, or what? You should have seen the stony faces of three of the FIFA reformists sitting in the second row of the press conference when Blatter uttered those words. They and others, now openly aggressive in their opposition to Blatter going forward, are furious with the way the veteran Swiss trumped them all – not for the first time in this political game of cat and mouse (it is a shame the real issues sometimes get lost in the race for power). Privately, there was even more head shaking at the way he somehow managed to manipulated proceedings to suit his own ends.

But don’t for moment assume that it’s all over. Another chapter may be closed but it won’t be the last. The Swiss justice authorities are conducting their own investigation as, it is understood, are the FBI. Dark forces are at work and there is still considerable resentment at Garcia’s decision to quit in protest, citing “a lack of leadership – much of it directed at Blatter himself. “The mood throughout the week was strained to put it mildly,” one exco member told me.

Whether it ends up forcing the hand of anyone seriously thinking of taking on Blatter next May remains to be seen. It all depends, perhaps, on what comes out – and when. “This is not over yet,” another exco member said as he left Marrakesh.

“It was a positive step for FIFA but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t more to come. Maybe there are individuals of a more serious nature who have not yet been exposed. And look closely at Scala’s recommendation. It says ‘at the current moment in time’ there is no need to re-open the bid process.

“That doesn’t mean never.”

Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at [email protected]om