Hosting rights for the coming FIFA World Cups are tainted by corruption. Australians are driving reform of soccer’s governing body. By Matthew Hall.

Tackling FIFA’s World Cup corruption

International soccer powerbroker Chuck Blazer, now an FBI informant.
International soccer powerbroker Chuck Blazer, now an FBI informant.
Credit: CORBIS

The scene playing out on Manhattan’s busy Upper East Side was as comical as it was dramatic. On a cool November night in 2011, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service were chasing Chuck Blazer, an obese international soccer powerbroker, as he rode his mobility scooter down Fifth Avenue. Blazer, who until 2013 sat on the executive committee of soccer’s world governing body FIFA, was on his way to dinner at Elaine’s, a famous celebrity hangout.

The agents stopped Blazer and his scooter before he made it to the restaurant. Their ultimatum was blunt: “We can take you away in handcuffs now – or you can co-operate.”

Blazer, a 69-year-old who played a key role in deciding where the 2018 and 2022 World Cups would be held, had failed to pay a decade’s worth of taxes on a multimillion-dollar income. His opulent lifestyle had included $US29 million in credit card charges and two apartments in Manhattan’s Trump Tower – one of which was reserved solely for his pet cats.

Blazer co-operated with the FBI. He turned informer for an international investigation that would also involve Football Federation Australia and its chairman, Westfield boss Frank Lowy. The FBI does not comment on ongoing cases but the New York Daily News claimed Blazer agreed to allow the FBI to secretly record meetings the American held in London with Lowy and Peter Hargitay, a Swiss-Hungarian who directed Australia’s failed bid for the 2022 World Cup.

The Fifth Avenue FBI pursuit and subsequent undercover investigation – including the covert scrutiny of Australians – underlines the broad global interest in alleged corruption at the top of world soccer. The spotlight on FIFA’s way of doing business was turned up after the decision to grant hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup to Russia and 2022 to Qatar. From the FBI to grassroots activism, that spotlight is unlikely to be turned off.

Australians are deeply involved in a lobby group aiming to reinvent the tarnished organisation and flush away alleged corrupt practices – including how World Cup hosts are decided. Led by British member of parliament Damian Collins, New FIFA Now is a global coalition of politicians and individuals who demand top-level reform and transparency from soccer’s governing body.

Alongside Collins is Jaimie Fuller, chairman of Australian-owned sports apparel company Skins, and former FFA executive Bonita Mersiades, who worked on Australia’s taxpayer-funded World Cup bid. Mersiades was clumsily exposed by FIFA as a whistleblower in the aftermath of a report by former US attorney Michael Garcia – commissioned by FIFA – on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process where she clashed with consultant Hargitay about Australia’s bid strategy. Hargitay is a controversial figure in the sport, but retains prominent influence. At a Moscow university conference last month, he shared top billing alongside FIFA’s director of communications and public affairs, Walter De Gregorio. The presentation was titled “Crisis Communication of Governing Bodies in Sport”. Hargitay was billed as “Special Communications Advisor to the President of FIFA”.

1 . Sponsorships withdrawn

Fuller’s desire for reform is formed by his view that sport – after family and alongside media and music – is the most influential factor on the shape of society. “Once you understand the role that sport plays, and the influence it carries, I believe very strongly that comes with a position of privilege. There is certain obligation and responsibility. The global governing body is the guardian of the sport and the objective of FIFA is not to put as many zeroes on the end of the bank account as possible.”

Fuller played a key role in lobbying for reform to the administration of professional cycling after widespread doping allegations. His company cancelled its sponsorship deal with rugby league team Melbourne Storm after it was revealed to have breached the salary cap. With New FIFA Now, Fuller’s strategy is to engage FIFA sponsors such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola and call on those companies to withdraw sponsorship dollars until FIFA commits to reform.

Larrikin in nature, Fuller anointed Skins as “official non-sponsor” of FIFA and took a full-page ad in FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s local paper in Switzerland, calling for reform. He admits he’s yet to receive a reply from letters written to FIFA sponsors but points out the correspondence did trigger revelations in the media about the state of FIFA’s sponsorship agreements.

In January, reporting on the New FIFA Now campaign, British media revealed Castrol, Johnson & Johnson, and Continental tyres had quietly ended relationships with FIFA, joining earlier moves by Sony and Emirates.

“No one announced it and FIFA continued to acknowledge them as sponsors,” Fuller says.

In January, New FIFA Now hosted its first summit, at the European Parliament in Brussels. The event was chaired by Collins, a Conservative Party MP and vocal FIFA critic. The list of attendees also included football insiders such as Lord Triesman, the former head of England’s Football Association; Jérôme Champagne, a former French diplomat and FIFA executive; and Chilean Harold Mayne-Nicholls, who led the ignored technical inspections in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid process.

Also on the guest list were European MPs of various political hues and among the audience was Australian Remo Nogarotto, CEO of corporate and political strategist consultancy Crosby Textor. Nogarotto’s résumé includes stints as a former state director of the NSW Liberal Party and chairman of the now-defunct Soccer Australia.

“New FIFA Now is trying to achieve a more democratic, more transparent, more accountable governing body for world football,” says Mersiades, who worked for Australia’s World Cup bid as an executive before parting ways after disagreements over strategy. “This is about being on the right side of history and history does show that when you are trying to do the right thing, things do change.”

2 . Garcia Report

Mersiades became a key figure in the FIFA-commissioned Garcia Report into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids, released late last year, alongside Phaedra Almajid, who worked as a communications adviser for Qatar’s successful bid.

Almajid claimed she was pressured to retract allegations about Qatar’s bid, and both women claim FIFA breached confidentiality in all but revealing their names when the organisation released a summary of the report. Further muddying the waters, Michael Garcia denounced FIFA’s summary of his report, while FIFA discredited evidence supplied by Almajid and Mersiades as “unreliable” and “inaccurate”. Almajid has since said she fears for her safety while Mersiades has had to combat attempts by FIFA to smear her.

Why, though, should Australians care so much about backroom deals and bickering between colourful and questionable characters from countries on the other side of the world, especially in a sport that is not always in the forefront of local minds? Mersiades says, besides Australian taxpayers fronting $47 million for a flawed and failed bid for the 2022 World Cup, Australia should be a leader in accountability.

“We expect the highest level of accountability and transparency in our governments and institutions,” she says. “Being part of a democratic society, we should care. As a mother and as someone who has been involved in the sport all my life, whether as a volunteer, an amateur or as a professional, I don’t want to see decisions made behind closed doors. It was never a question of if the Berlin Wall would fall; it was a matter of when and how.”

Mersiades is circumspect about the prospects of reform. She doesn’t expect FIFA to change in her lifetime, but she is certain it will change eventually. “It is not just little old Jaimie Fuller and me,” she says. “There are people with extraordinary expertise worldwide saying these things.”

Mersiades has previous form in regime change. In 2001, she launched a coalition of disparate interests that successfully persuaded Frank Lowy to return to head Australian soccer. That covert campaign saw Mersiades lead a delegation to meet Lowy in his office at Westfield headquarters in Sydney and ended with a government inquiry into soccer’s administration, Lowy luring John O’Neill from the Australian Rugby Union to head a new administration, the creation of the A-League, and World Cup qualification.

3 . FIFA presidential election

On May 29, FIFA’s 209 members will meet in Zurich to vote on whether to re-elect 79-year-old president Sepp Blatter for a fifth term. First elected in 1998, Blatter faces challenges from Luis Figo, an iconic former player with Real Madrid and Barcelona from Portugal, as well as Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a member of Jordan’s royal family, and Michael van Praag, head of the Dutch Football Federation. Blatter’s rivals, conscious of FIFA’s tarnished image, have all embraced some form of reform.

Football Federation Australia has one vote in the election. In a statement to The Saturday Paper, an FFA spokesperson said its “board is yet to make a decision on which candidate to support in the FIFA presidential election. The matter will be on the agenda for the next board meeting in May.” They did not explicitly respond to questions about whether they would support Blatter.

“It would be very disappointing if FFA again supported Blatter,” Mersiades says. “They have three other candidates who are standing in various degrees of a reform platform and who are very conscious of some the issues. As Australian football fans we should be asking who FFA is voting for, and if they are continuing to vote for Blatter, the next question should be why. ”

Adds Fuller: “FIFA is feeling pressure … You cannot have reform with the same leadership when you have cultural issues of a toxic nature. To really fix it you have to start at the top. FIFA has let this happen with men like Chuck Blazer and Blatter sitting at the top. It has got to change.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 20, 2015 as "Tackling FIFA ".

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Matthew Hall covers international politics, business, technology and sport from New York.

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