A hint of significant change at FIFA?
Posted by John Beech on October 8, 2011
Well, don’t hold your breath, but there is just a possibility.
The conferences I usually attend are for academics, and any confrontation is usually so subtle that it needs to be decoded. Which is one reason I particularly enjoy the two-yearly Play the Game conferences, with their exciting mix of investigative journalists, academics and sports practitioners. The latter group normally does not include anyone from FIFA, but the conference which has just finished in Köln proved to be a notable exception. The Play the Game organisation, for those unfamiliar with it, describes itself as “an international conference and communication initiative aiming to strengthen the ethical foundation of sport and promote democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in sport” (1).
Sepp Blatter had been invited, but with stunning predictability he turned the invitation down “due to a great amount of similar demands” (2). If he meant demands that he face his critics over the way FIFA is mismanaged, that’s probably understandable.
On Thursday, however, in a joint session with presentations by the indominatable Andrew Jennings, long-time scourge of FIFA, and his opposite number in Germany, Jens Weinreich, who should be in the audience but Walter di Georgio, FIFA’s newly appointed Director of Communications (now there’s a job I wouldn’t want!), sitting just two rows behind me.
Confrontation was inevitable, especially when Jennings, produced a list of what he said was 167 bribes recorded by the Zug Prosecutor’s office, which he (Jennings) is fighting to get published (3). Di Gregorio took understandable exception to Jennings’s assertion that FIFA had the classic characteristics of a Mafia family. Worse was to come when Jennings and di Georgio clashed over the reason for Jennings being banned by FIFA from its press conferences; this concluded with Jennings shouting “Liar!” from the podium.
It will be interesting to see whether di Georgio comes good on his offer to speak to the next Play the Game conference in 2013. Apart from anything else, he will no doubt have to survive a post-conference debriefing with Blatter, which I’d love to be a fly-on-the-wall at! Assuming Jennings is finally successful in publishing the Zug court documents – there is a slow Swiss legal process to go through yet – we will have to see whether Blatter survives.
Among other football-related topics discussed at the conference was a two-hour session entitled Financial fair play, or football’s foolish plan, chaired by Supporters Direct Europe’s Antonia Hagemann. Speakers were, in order, Sefton Perry (UEFA’s Benchmarking Manger for Club Licensing), Professor Stefan Szymanski, myself, and Christian Müller (until recently the Chief Financial Officer of the German Football Association [DFL]). The four presentations and the following discussion can be viewed here, following an incongruous 30 seconds beer advertisement. My own contribution is at about 40 minutes in.
The final session of the conference turned to a key issue for all sports today, that of ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodies?‘ or ‘who guards the guardians?’. The outcome was a call to the IOC to gather all stakeholders to draft a code for good governance in sport (4). While I welcome such a move in general, I have a problem with it being under the auspices of the IOC. How likely is this to find a positive response from ‘barely Olympic sports’ such as football and tennis, and non-Olympic sports such as F1, the rugby codes, North American sports and golf? At the heart of this is the fact that the major professional sports do not fit well with the sports already engaged with the IOC. And of course there is, for English football, the whole ‘Home Nations’ issue, an already touchy subject.