The politics of football have long been rife with allegations of corruption, hypotheses, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and a fair share of proven malpractise.
You only have to look at the number of powerbrokers who have left the game in disgrace in recent years to figure out what a murky world they inhabited.
Sometimes, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Sometimes, amid a “you scratch my back, Ill scratch yours” culture, it is hard to know who to believe.
Never more so than now.
As the campaign to elect a new president of FIFA gathers pace, with the collective brains of those involved focussed on May 29, so the process is conveniently deflecting attention away from FIFA’s in-box tray that has a number of distinctly thorny unresolved ethics issues to address, not least the fallout from the Michael Garcia anti-corruption inquiry.
At the top of that list, perhaps, is the ongoing case of Angel Maria Villar Llona, Spain’s seemingly untouchable FIFA vice-president.
It is now almost six months since the man who led the joint Spanish-Portuguese doomed bid for the 2108 World Cup was reported as being one of one of five individuals facing formal disciplinary action as a result of Garcia’s probe.
Several months earlier still, in March 2014, Villar Llona was exposed by this website and two other media organisations as one of the old guard who allegedly tried and failed to shut down the Garcia probe whilst it was in full swing and “reported” him, by all accounts, to the FIFA disciplinary authourities just as the former US attorney was in Zurich privately interviewing exco members as part of his brief. If Villar Llona had nothing to hide, why did he attempt to ambush the probe?
Garcia is no longer involved at FIFA, of course, having resigned as head of its ethics investigatory arm. Let’s not revisit that. We all know about the spat with ethics adjudicatory chamber chief Hans-Joachim Eckert.
Yet it’s impossible, in one way, to totally move on. As we await publication of the redacted version of Garcia’s report (if and when it happens), we still have no fresh information about the status of Villar Llona’s case. It’s all gone quiet. He seems to have disappeared off the radar, to have jumped through every hoop.
Which raises important questions about the whole issue of good governance. As head of FIFA’s legal committee (a job he couldn’t do, incidentally, if he was out of the picture), Villar Llona surely should be leading the way as far as necessary reform is concerned rather than seemingly attempting to put the handbrake on it.
Let’s backtrack a little, shall we. In fact let’s backtrack all of four years when Blatter himself freely admitted that Spain-Portugal and Qatar had done a deal (yet broke no election rules) regarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups but that it had made little difference to the outcome of the joint December 2010, ballots, won by Russia and Qatar respectively.
This is what Blatter told the BBC at the time, on the record. “I’ll be honest, there was a bundle of votes between Spain and Qatar. But it was a nonsense. It was there but it didn’t work, not for one and not for the other side.”
Well it certainly didn’t work for Spain who were ultimately crushed in the race to stage 2018.
Now fast-forward to that summary of Garcia’s report, published by Eckert.
On page 19 we are informed that “with regard to one specific bid team the report noted that the relevant federation was particularly uncooperative” with the investigation into possible wrongdoing.
Most observers have long concluded this refers to the Iberian bid which was led by Villar Llona. Yet no action has so far been taken.
If that wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, then surely this is: Former German icon Franz Beckenbauer was suspended by FIFA apparently for similar non-cooperation, albeit only provisionally until he played ball. Why was that case fast-tracked yet there is no outcome of Villar’s?
Michel d’Hooghe, FIFA’s medical commission chief, has made no secret of how unhappy he was at being another of those investigated. The veteran Belgian was recently cleared by FIFA’s ethics committee of any wrongdoing but not before saying it was the toughest period of his life.
Why was there enough information to wrap up that case too but Villar’s is still ongoing? Were Beckenbauer and d’Hooghe mere scapegoats in a wider game?
FIFA, for their part, are giving little away.
More than one source has claimed that Villar has not yet even been interviewed by Cornel Borbely, the man who took over from Garcia after the latter resigned from the ethics committee.
As a result, I emailed Borbely’s office asking for clarification and received the briefest of replies from his media adviser.
It read as follows: “I can confirm that the FIFA’s code of ethics does not allow to comment on any pending (or not pending) investigation. This is why I am unable to answer none of your four questions.”
Fair enough but hardly revealing. Maybe that’s because the last thing Blatter needs as he plots a course for a fifth term of office is for any new negative stories to emerge from the Garcia inquiry in the coming weeks. Maybe because disclosing what Villar actually did wrong, if anything, would re-ignite the whole debate over the 2018 and 2022 process and, by association, fuel calls for a possible revote.
Before anyone suggests I am accusing FIFA’s ethics process of a cover-up, consider this.
A couple of weeks ago at their annual Congress in Vienna, UEFA, who love to portray themselves as the opposite of FIFA – in other words in their view transparent, united, modern and forward-thinking – had a perfect platform from which to at least consider bringing in fresh blood to replace Villar Llona, their own long-standing representative as FIFA vice-president who has run Spanish football for over a generation.
Instead he was very much the elephant in the room as Michel Platini was re-elected UEFA president by acclamation and several new members of the executive committee were voted in.
Villar Llona had come to the end of yet another term of office. Yet despite the fact that he is being investigated for a possible ethics breach although he has not been charged, no-one at UEFA appeared to think that was serious enough to put up a candidate against him.
Instead the very body that purports to be the face of transparency and progressive reform allowed arguably its most vehement anti-reform campaigner to be given carte blanche and sail into another four-year mandate as FIFA vice-president unopposed without so much as a single raised hand.
When it came to challenging arguably the most conservative figure within their own ranks, where were the straight-talking reformists who are so keen to promote the highest standards of integrity?
When UEFA itself had a chance to take the bull by the horns and put forward a rival to Villar as FIFA VP, none of its member federations opted to go down that road. Interesting, especially since in a separate vote there were a handful of them who failed to back his re-election for a place on UEFA’s executive committee. His 42 votes (UEFA has 54 members) suggested there were at least some who were uncomfortable with him carrying on.
The only conclusion one can reasonably draw is that it was just too hot a topic to address this side of the election. Platini, in fact, admitted as much.
“Everybody knows that until the elections there will be nothing,” he told reporters immediately following the UEFA Congress when discussing unethical behaviour against individuals not being followed through by FIFA. ”We are not stupid. Everybody knows.”
Those who attended that briefing formed the opinion that Platini was implying that Blatter had somehow engineered a situation whereby no heat came out of the ethics committee this side of the election. What Platini didn’t explain, however, is why UEFA were so happy not to rock the boat themselves. Innocent until proven guilty was presumably their thinking.
But was part of the reason too that Villar Llona heads one of the so-called ‘Big Five’ federations and as such wields too much influence? Or maybe because UEFA needs the Spaniard on side in order to support their vehement opposition to Gibraltar’s membership.
Whoever is responsible for kicking this into the long grass, the bottom line is that a serious case of alleged non-cooperation into the World Cup bid process is being allowed to drag on and on. Some might go as far as to suggest it has even been shut down.
Neither of those scenarios is healthy for the future of FIFA whoever wins the election on May 29.
FIFA’s ethics committee might act independently but there needs to be an outcome – or at least an update – sooner rather than later. If only to give credence to those who incessantly bang on about the need for transparency, credibility and accountability.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org