As corruption arrests shake global football body FIFA, Australia’s unwavering support for the organisation is in question. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Les Murray and the FIFA scandal

Les Murray, right, with FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Les Murray, right, with FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Credit: Jon Buckle / Getty Images

The three spoke regularly, conversing in their native Hungarian. They were tight – to some, impenetrable – as perparations were made for Australia’s bid to host the 2022 football World Cup finals. The billionaire, the doyen and the spin doctor. That sounds like the set-up to a joke, which the outcome of the plan would become. But for now they talked and talked, each lavishly confident in their influence.

The doyen was broadcaster Les Murray, who had introduced the spin doctor – an old friend – to the billionaire. The spin doctor, Peter Hargitay, was to use his connections to help in Australia’s effort to leave the Oceania football confederation and join the Asian one. Murray told me he introduced the two because he thought Hargitay would be “useful in helping Australia gain membership” of the Asian Football Confederation. “Which he was. I don’t believe Australia would have succeeded in that if it were not for him. For example, Blatter was against Australia joining Asia. It was Hargitay who turned him around”.

The reference is to Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president since 1998, who this week was re-elected for a fifth straight term and only days later announced he would step down. His re-election and resignation came amid the unprecedented tumult caused by the FBI and Swiss authorities arresting a host of top FIFA officials, all the way up to the executive committee, on a range of corruption charges normally levelled against Mafioso.

Back in Australia, Murray’s is a familiar face. To fans, Murray will be inseparable from his championing of football while a broadcaster on SBS. A passionate martyr who defended the game against indifference or bigotry. For too long in this country the sport had been crudely dismissed as the province of “sheilas, wogs and poofters” – as described in the title of the late Socceroo and broadcaster Johnny Warren’s memoir. Together, Murray and Warren fought against prejudice. It was admirable work.

The billionaire was Frank Lowy, who has made his wealth as a shopping mall magnate – a co-founder of the Westfield Group – and is the chairman of Football Federation Australia (FFA). The FFA has come to reflect Lowy’s own preference for secrecy, and they refused to respond to a series of detailed questions for this story. “Frank doesn’t like sharing information,” a former colleague of his told me. “Journos will be cut off with questions like yours. If The Saturday Paper was reliant upon Westfield advertising, well, you’d get
a call. And Frank will do things his own way – it’s his way, or the highway.”

Murray, however, tells me that he saw no issue of secrecy. “I never had a problem. Of course, it’s natural that a bid process is strategic and bidders rarely give things away about their tactics. I accepted that.”

1 . “Whatever it takes”

Lowy was determined to secure the World Cup for Australia with “whatever it takes”, according to sources. And so the FFA chairman anointed Hargitay as chief strategist for the Australian bid. Murray’s employer, SBS, ran this glowing “exclusive” announcing the decision: “In a major coup, Football Federation Australia have engaged one of football’s foremost political strategists to help their bid to bring the World Cup to Australia in either 2018 or 2022. The World Game can exclusively reveal that Peter Hargitay, one-time special adviser to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, and still a close confidant of football’s global boss, is now on the FFA payroll as its most important strategy consultant.”

Hargitay is described as “colourful”. He is unctuous. A man with no former experience running a World Cup bid – he abandoned an earlier English campaign when his lavish plans prompted a decision to re-tender the bid consultancy – he had ingratiated himself into FIFA’s power structures. Between 2002 and 2007 he served as Blatter’s adviser. Bonita Mersiades, a former executive at FFA who sat on the World Cup bid team, has now turned whistleblower about the process. As a result, she tells me, she has experienced “enormous vilification”. Of Hargitay’s appointment, she says: “We didn’t engage him because he was the best strategist in the world. We engaged him because he knew the right people to make deals with.”

Hargitay’s shadow precedes FIFA. In 1984, one of the world’s worst industrial accidents occurred in Bhopal, India. It was here that the US chemical company, Union Carbide, had built its phosphate factory – a plant that was negligently operated and that failed to detect a fatal gas leak. Today, the Indian government puts the accumulative death toll at 15,000. Union Carbide appointed Hargitay to help clean up its public relations mess, which was exacerbated by revelations the plant had also been dumping chemicals.

Hargitay had also served Marc Rich, a fraudulent commodities trader who made the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. When Hargitay arrived in Australia, a senior public servant said he was the only person he ever met who made him want to immediately wash his hands after greeting him. Mersiades has since written that in an early meeting with him, Hargitay glibly mouthed clichés and dressed up the obvious as profundity. He also referred to European football boss Michel Platini in condescending and derogatory terms.

At the same time as Lowy approached Hargitay to co-ordinate Australia’s bid to host the World Cup finals, the spin doctor was in the employ of a rival bidder – the now disgraced Qatari, Mohammed bin Hammam. He was also a confidant of former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, a man indicted on racketeering and laundering charges last week and placed on Interpol’s wanted list. It was in Warner’s personal account that $420,000 of public cash rested, after the FFA believed they were making a donation to Trinidad and Tobago’s football infrastructure. “Warner should give the money back,” Mersiades tells me. “Those dollars travelled all around the world. Bounced between a range of cities. Now, I can’t explain that. It should have been a simple wire transfer, but it wasn’t.”

The Australian Federal Police are currently investigating this payment.

2 . Murray on Ethics Committee

Today, Murray insists that Hargitay’s appointment as chief bid strategist was appropriate. Murray told me: “In my opinion he seemed a wise appointment given his network of acquaintances within FIFA’s top brass. He knew most of them. Other bidders were after him, too.”

If the junction of conflicting interests that had Hargitay in the employ of both the FFA and Qatar, a rival nation in the bid to host the World Cup finals, wasn’t enough, there is this: the doyen, Les Murray, was then sitting on FIFA’s ethics committee, the same committee that would later expel Warner and bin Hammam for corruption. He was also, of course, a senior broadcaster at SBS. “Murray will deny he had a role to play in the bid other than being a supporter,” says Jesse Fink, a football writer for SBS before his column was discontinued in 2011. Fink believes he lost his column because he was too critical of FIFA. “But [Les] not only recommended Hargitay to Lowy, but in my opinion he attempted to use his position at SBS to shape the editorial that was coming out of SBS to ensure it was favourable to Australia and negative towards those who were a threat to Australia winning the bid, like [US head of football Sunil] Gulati.”

Murray categorically denies this, as he has done consistently since allegations of interference were first raised in 2011. Murray says: “I never muted stories critical of FIFA, ever. Or of the FFA for that matter. I was an open supporter of the bid and never denied it. I was in the room when Bonita Mersiades addressed a group of journalists and asked them to be cheerleaders for the bid. I was a cheerleader. But I never instructed or compelled anyone on what opinions to express about the bid. I did suggest a column topic to one columnist once but he chose not to take my suggestion and I was fine with that. The columnist in question [Fink] later had his contract terminated and he’s blamed me and attempted to slander me ever since. Yet
I had nothing to do with his termination. I didn’t even recommend it.”

In 2011 Murray used his own SBS column to defend the reputation of the ethics committee. It was a peevish and patronising lecture to journalists who were treating the committee cynically. It came in the wake of British parliamentarian and former head of English football Lord Triesman alleging corruption among senior FIFA officials. “What I will say,” Murray wrote, “especially to the cynics and sceptics in the public arena, including the agitating media commentariat and the twitterati, is that in the event that the case [based on Triesman’s allegations] is brought before the ethics committee, it will be dealt with judiciously, justly and decisively (as were previous cases brought before it). Some media commentators have already suggested that handing these matters over to the FIFA ethics committee would be a case of the governing body ‘sweeping it under the carpet’.

“This is misinformed nonsense and a malicious slur on the 15 members of the committee. As a member of the committee since 2006, let me vouch that all of its members are utterly honourable and decent men and women.”

Murray is speaking of the same committee from which US investigator, Michael Garcia, resigned last year after FIFA refused to release his 430-page report on the World Cup bidding process, instead, he said, offering an “erroneous” summary of it. Garcia believed it misrepresented his findings. Murray says: “I stand by my defence of the committee from uninformed commentators. I am not sure what you mean by the Garcia revelations. Garcia’s report and investigations never implicated the ethics committee or its members.” Nonetheless, in leaving FIFA, the US prosecutor condemned the committee chairman, Hans-Joachim Eckert.

To me, Murray’s 2011 column betrayed an enchantment not with the beautiful game, but with the powerful corridors of its administration. And I’m not alone. One former colleague of his suggested to me Murray had become too attracted to power. Fink says: “One year I had a drink with Murray in the bar of a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur during the Asian Football Confederation Awards. I got the strong sense he loved being a FIFA ‘playa’: the trips to Zurich, all that bullshit. We were surrounded by a roomful of FIFA heavies who were drinking in the company of young, attractive women. One of them was Hargitay’s son, Stevie. Murray personally introduced me that night to Stevie.”

Last week, in response to a combative tweet that raised these conflicts, Murray wrote: “FYI, on ethics committee I helped bring down Warner, bin Hammam and about 30 others. Get your facts straight.” Murray was once a keen supporter of bin Hammam, then president of the Asian Football Confederation. Bin Hammam was integral in Australia’s shift from the Oceania confederacy to Asia’s, thereby all but guaranteeing our qualification for each subsequent World Cup finals. When bin Hammam came up for re-election on FIFA’s executive committee in 2009, Murray, Hargitay and the FFA strongly endorsed him. “There is no doubt that Australia supported bin Hammam,” Mersiades told me. “And of course, Hargitay worked for bin Hammam.”

It was around this time that Hargitay arranged an exclusive interview between Murray and bin Hammam, to air on SBS. It was prerecorded – not live – and bin Hammam unleashed upon his opponent in the executive committee elections, Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa. SBS lawyers were concerned the comments might be defamatory, and the interview was shelved. Murray had to call his friend Hargitay and explain it wouldn’t be broadcast. “Hargitay lost his shit,” said one insider.

Of the binned interview, Murray says that he saw no conflict of interest. “I did that interview wearing my hat as a journalist. That was my job and I still had to make a living. Immediately after bin Hammam made the allegations in that interview I reported them to the FIFA ethics committee as I was morally compelled to do. I assume the matter was then investigated but no proof was found.”

Murray is happy to admit his previous relationship with bin Hammam: “I was a supporter of his, I even liked him, years before that when he championed Australia’s entry into Asia. But that was before I found out he was a crook.” It was only after Australia’s embarrassing loss to Qatar in the 2011 voting to declare the host nations for the forthcoming World Cup finals – we received just one vote, likely from Blatter himself – that Murray began denouncing bin Hammam. The bid cost almost $50 million. Today, the man Murray once supported is claimed as a scalp of the ethics committee he sat upon.

It is astonishing that Les Murray might be offered now as an unspoilt sage. Astonishing that his proscription of Blatter’s soon-to-be-ended reign – 17 years after his appointment – might have been received as moral clarity. As it is astonishing to me, after surveying his blinkered views of recent years, that his authority might be unquestioned. Even solely judged on the perspicacity of his commentary on the events surrounding FIFA, we are presented with a stubbornly uncritical mind, seemingly incapable of yielding more than clichés on the darkest moments of his life’s great love. Murray has served our game, but in doing so he has also served FIFA, a body that has long been in disgrace in this country.

3 . FIFA’s faux funds

This week, United States and Swiss authorities revealed separate probes into decades of alleged corruption within FIFA. The Swiss arrested seven FIFA officials, and the FBI charged nine former and current officials and five people from outside the organisation, as well as naming a further 25 co-conspirators. Global disgust and incredulity made for a tricky stretch for Blatter, as well as reports that the FBI was investigating the man himself. His celebration at winning his fifth straight presidential term only lasted a few days, before he announced his resignation. His tenure won’t end until an extraordinary FIFA congress held at the end of the year, or early 2016. Given his reputation, we might be prudent to stay the announcements of his departure until a new president takes the chair.

Much of the world has rejoiced at FIFA’s sudden disgrace. For many years, it has been dogged by allegations of impropriety but few convictions ever transpired. An enormously powerful organisation, it has been seemingly invulnerable to correction or shame. But the dam is cracking. Former FIFA executive Chuck Blazer has turned informant, and in a 2013 trial – the transcript was only released this week – he admitted to accepting bribes for hosting rights of the World Cup finals as far back as 1998. That was the year, incidentally, that Blatter was first elected president, replacing João Havelange, a man FIFA’s own ethics committee found to have taken bribes throughout his tenure. Under Blatter, FIFA didn’t pursue repayment of the bribery money and Havelange was permitted to retain his honorary presidency until ill health forced his resignation.

FIFA presents a great challenge to journalists. So shamelessly exaggerated is its corruption that it mocks our felicity of language. Our adjectives are no match for it, and it becomes almost impossible to caricature. FIFA has already parodied itself.

As if to prove the point this week, its former vice-president Jack Warner offered a story published in satirical news site The Onion – a piece intended to lampoon the organisation – as evidence the FBI investigation was a witch-hunt. The Onion writers could never have been so funny themselves, such is the operatic venality.

FIFA’s headquarters contribute to this air of self-parody. Mostly below ground, the Tilla Theus-designed building is a pretentiously sterile cave for corrupt men. It’s all hard angles and steel and granite; meditation rooms and polished coffee machines. The conference room is hermetically sealed, and has been described as the lair of a Bond villain. Congratulatory grandeur is the theme.

As it is for the slickly produced film United Passions, a movie about – and made by – FIFA. Given their cash reserves – mysterious, but estimated to be $US2 billion – it might not surprise to learn that Gérard Depardieu, Sam Neill and Tim Roth appear as the three most recent presidents. Shown at Cannes last year, it has still not been widely distributed but gets its US release this week. Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw asked if it might be “the most intensely embarrassing film imaginable” and one wonders if its actors aren’t now gripped with regret. I didn’t hear back from Sam Neill. I tried watching the film, but after half an hour of actors sleepwalking through a fog of explication, I switched off.

4 . Future of FFA and FIFA

If all of this is jarring to some fans, the irritation might be in contemplating the relative health of the game in Australia – an improved A-League, successive qualifications to the World Cup finals, and our status as Asian champions. But we must be able to hold both things in our head simultaneously – the health of the game alongside the opacity of its administration. For too long we have ignored the means and favoured the ends – and yes, the ends have largely been good this past decade.

But the FFA has been a closed shop, one happy to oblige the global network of quid pro quo established by FIFA. Perhaps some favoured realpolitik. Perhaps some argued the destructive futility of our opposing Blatter. But it can no longer be ignored. FIFA doesn’t need to be cleaned up so much as revolutionised, and in the process we would do well to contemplate our own historic involvement. 

Clarification: On June 6, 2015, The Saturday Paper printed an article regarding Les Murray's involvement with FIFA. The Saturday Paper wishes to clarify that Les Murray had no involvement in any of the wrongdoing uncovered at FIFA, and that we made no such suggestion. Mr Murray was not formally involved in Australia's World Cup bid process.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 6, 2015 as "Les Murray and the FIFA scandal".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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