The suspension of Mohammed Bin Hammam and Jack Warner by FIFA's ethics committee at Sunday's meeting in Zurich can be interpreted one of two ways. It is either the work of an organisation which under current president Sepp Blatter has had an 'image problem' or suffered from instiutional corruption depending on your slant, and has finally resolved to sort it out. Alternatively, the move is a political one, motivated principally by Blatter's wish to be re-elected and remove his sole opponent in the presidential race from the frame.
Naturally, I'm more inclined to believe the latter explanation. It should be added that neither Bin Hammam nor Warner have been found guilty of anything, and that Petrus Damaseb, deputy-chairman of the committee, has merely stated that "we are satisfied there is a case to be answered." That case centres on claims that Warner and Bin Hammam offered kickbacks totalling $40,000 to Carribean Football Union members at a meeting on May 10th and 11th in exchange for supporting the Qatari's bid for the FIFA presidency.
Blatter found himself in front of the same committee after Bin Hammam's claims that he was aware of wrongdoing but had not reported it. No evidence was uncovered that confirmed this to be the case and as a result it would appear that the Swiss is to stand unopposed on Wednesday, securing a fourth term as FIFA's main man in the process. Bin Hammam had already withdrawn in the early hours of Sunday morning, claiming he "did not wish to drag FIFA's name through the mud" and stating that he would fight to clear his name.
The presence of the Trinidadian, CONCACAF president Jack Warner in the middle of the latest FIFA calamity is possibly the most intriguing aspect. Last year, the BBC ran a Panorama documentary in which it was claimed by investigative reporter Andrew Jennings that Warner had personally profited from ticket sales for the 2006 World Cup (the first for which Trinidad and Tobago had qualified) while also being partial to a bribe or two and participating in vote-rigging. Warner is visibly rattled when confronted by Jennings on the programme and even punches the journalist on one occasion.
Warner's private enterprise, Simpaul Travel, were later ordered by FIFA to make a substantial donation to charity to offset any personal gains which he may have made through selling travel packages that involved match tickets. This seems at best to be an interesting way of an organisation dealing with one of its senior members alleged to be on the make. If Warner was innocent, as he claimed he was, then a full and open investigation would have uncovered no wrongdoing. In the event that he had sold World Cup tickets on the black market, as FIFA appeared to indicate by ordering the repayment, then instant dismissal followed by prosecution for fraud surely ought to have been the outcome?
That Panorama documentary painted a picture which FIFA would surely wish to refute instantly - secret bank accounts, kickbacks and rigged votes, and a large amount of money that appeared in Blatter's personal account for which there was no rational explanation. Interestingly, Jennings was never sued by any FIFA employee for libel or slander and this prompted me to go out and buy FOUL!, his book detailing the findings of a long-running investigation into the governing body's methods and practices. It was basically 300+ pages of similar material, with some background history into how Blatter rose from backroom boy to FIFA's top dog. It also detailed his use of the Goal Programme and promised extra World Cup places to secure the votes of African nations in presidential elections, and told an amusing anecdote regarding Warner, who is said to have arranged for a friend, Neville Ferguson to vote on behalf of Haiti.
It is just possible that the perception of FIFA as a whole is noticeably worse than the reality - part of this would only be because no organisation could be seen as badly as they are at present. However, as is always the case, a clean organisation accused of possessing a culture that does not exist can demonstrate its credentials fairly simply with a swift and open disclosure of the facts. Alternatively, if anything untoward is uncovered, they can go down the route of the IOC after the Salt Lake City affair and weed out any bad apples, bring their house in order and move forward with a clean slate. Blatter has now been in charge of FIFA for over twelve years, and has contrived to ensure that neither has happened. 'Investigations' and 'Equiries' are secret affairs, with no questions permitted and the predictable end result of 'all is well and let's move on'.
This is why the temporary suspension of Warner and Bin Hammam would. in my view, owe more to political expediency than anything more altruistic. Warner is a former Blatter loyalist who appears to have found greener grass somewhere else. Bin Hammam remains a man well-connected in football, with immense wealth and influence across the globe. Of course, this became apparent when Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup, with the predictable (and as yet unproven) claim that oil money must somehow have been involved. Bin Hammam may well have stood a good shot at winning the vote this week but for Sunday's events, and perhaps Warner's move away from the Blatter camp reflected this.
Intriguingly, it is Chuck Blazer, an American and former Warner stooge, who has turned whistleblower and made these allegations against he and Bin Hammam. If there has ever been truth in the numerous previous claims of corruption against the COCACAF chief, then Blazer is as likely to know as anyone. It will be interesting to see how his role in the saga pans out in the next few months, and if some of the many whispers against Warner in the past are finally backed up by an 'I was there' testimony. However, it is hard to see how this can happen without severe damage also being done to FIFA as a whole.
And this is the central point - whatever happens from here, the conclusion that cannot be avoided remains:- in over twelve years as the president of a multi-billion dollar organisation, Blatter has failed to make it fit for purpose. Of all the scandals that have tarnished FIFA in the last decade, there is a good case for stating that this has had the most embarrassing and potentially destructive consequences. Whichever way one chooses to look at the situation, Blatter has been a disaster as leader of the football world, and upon anything resemling a bout of self-examination, would not be seeking a fourth presidential term. An incumbent with a record of such failure should have no place on the ballot paper, and the reduction of Wednesday's 'vote' to some sort of coronation represents a sporting and ethical travesty.
This leaves the FA and the associations of many football nations with two choices. One is to stay within FIFA and seek to influence it by diplomatic and political means. There certainly appears to be sufficient contempt for FIFA within the FA, ask Lord Triesman. Sports Minister Hugh Robertson has also insisted that, "there is a real political drive to reform sports institutions that are in Europe. I will be using all the international levers at my disposal to push for reform." However, the problem with this course of action is its likely futility. Blatter enjoys a great deal of support from some of the poorer members of what he nauseatingly refers to as "the FIFA football family." Getting a majority of the world's football brotherhood to support the reforms necessary to restoring confidence may prove near-impossible when a many African nations in particular have done rather well out of the Blatter regime.
So we come to what some have referred to as 'the nuclear option' - English withdrawal from FIFA. Canadian lawyer and former IOC vice-president Dick Pound put forward the case for this move on Sunday, stating, "If Fifa is not going to do the game any good, the game may have to do something to Fifa," before explaining what such a 'decapitation strategy' would involve, "You could withdraw from Fifa, for example, and say we're not satisfied that the organisation is not being properly run and it isn't a credit to the sport we know and love, so let's have an alternative. That's one possibility. It has been done in other sports." Indeed it has - darts to name one.
The obvious concern would be that of England going it alone and isolating herself from the rest of the world game. However, even if the FA were to make this principled stand by themselves in the first instance, the immediate damage done to FIFA as an entity would back other countries and their associations into something of a corner. Do they follow the English lead and team up to organise their own, corruption-free international tournament? Or stick with a brand that does not exactly inspire confidence in much of mainland Europe either? The odds of nobody following England were the FA to walk away from FIFA are next to zero, and some sort of understanding could be struck up with friendly nations in the interim, ie - when we walk, that's the cue for some of you to come with us. These nations could stage their own World Cup - perhaps the only one that England would have a chance of winning, and a tournament the Scots could actually qualify for.
The damage done to the commercial potential of the World Cup minus England and a few other top nations would undoubtedly be enormous. This would hit FIFA and their top brass where it really hurts, for their track record invariably points towards a preference for cold, hard cash over the interests of a game which they claim to love, care for and represent. Only a crisis of epic proportions will force FIFA into changing its spots in the way the IOC had to after Salt Lake City, and only the withdrawal of some of the game's biggest revenue streams will bring about such a crisis. It's time for the FA to make a stand, and the first move towards the collapse of the rotten edifice that calls itself FIFA.