The Future of the Next Two Football World Cups is in Jeopardy

Red card for Warner, warning to Blatter, self-goal by Platini and Zico on the bench. The bribery scandal is getting bigger and dirtier by the day

There is more politics in football than in actual politics itself. Jack Warner can vouch for this. In 2011, Warner quit the post of vice-president of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) while being investigated for giving $40,000 to Caribbean football officials for backing Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar in his bid for the FIFA presidency. As Warner “severed” his ties with football, the FIFA Ethics Committee dropped all the charges against him. A member of parliament since 2007 in his native Trinidad & Tobago, Warner became the country’s security minister in 2013. The next year, amid charges of multi-million dollar financial irregularities in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, he quit his ministry, only to come back with a new political party. Since May this year, Warner has been fighting an extradition request from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). And on Tuesday, the Trinidadian was “banned for life” from football for “many and various acts of misconduct continuously and repeatedly during his time as an official”.

With his multiple falls from grace, Warner, 72, is seen by many as a symbol of what is wrong with football management and politics. But a defiant Warner still claims there is a conspiracy to get him. “I left the FIFA in April 2011 and if in September 2015 (some four years and five months after) the FIFA wants to ban me for life without even a hearing then so be it,” Warner wrote on his official Facebook page on Tuesday. “Given what is happening in Zurich with Sepp Blatter I guess that there is no such thing as a coincidence.”

In turmoil since May when 14 persons, including eight of its top officials, were held by the FBI for corruption, the House of FIFA as run by Blatter has been in a state of crisis. Now its top leadership, which escaped the FBI’s long reach, is on the verge of expulsion from the organisation. The president, who has already announced to quit in February 2016, is being asked to step down now. Michel Platini, the man who was supposed to replace Blatter and clean up FIFA, is himself under the scanner for corruption. And Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s man for all seasons, was suspended last week for his role in the black marketing of world cup tickets.

Blatter and company have been under pressure to leave since May but things changed dramatically on Friday, the day FIFA announced that the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would be played in November, and not in June-July as is the practice. More than 100 of journalists waiting for Blatter to finish a meeting of FIFA executive committee and have a chat with them were first told that the press conference was delayed. Then they were asked to clear the entrance of FIFA headquarters. While the journalists were waiting by the gates of the swanky FIFA building in Zurich, investigators from the Swiss attorney general’s office were grilling Blatter about an “unfair payment” of 2 million Swiss Francs ($1.75m) to Platini, who is the UEFA president and leading candidate for February elections. “Even the FBI didn’t come at us with this kind of force. The Swiss investigators stormed the building and made the staff sit on the floor as they packed their computers and files into bags and sealed several offices,” says a FIFA staffer, who was present in the building on Friday. “Investigators and lawyers have taken over the place. People consult lawyers before going abroad. Blatter has been grounded since May. For all practical purposes, FIFA is dysfunctional at the moment,” he adds, speaking strictly on the condition of anonymity.

Dysfunctional or not, FIFA is at a critical juncture where the future of Blatter, a 79-year old Swiss citizen who has headed the Federation for 17 years, is no longer the issue. Blatter’s departure, sooner or later, is a foregone conclusion. What is really at stake are the next two world cup tournaments — Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022), and the future of FIFA as a unified single body running the Beautiful Game across the globe.

At the moment, it all seems to be at risk.

Suspicions of criminal mismanagement

The Friday action at the FIFA office was widely reported as Blatter being probed “on suspicion of criminal mismanagement” and “suspicion of misappropriation”. But Blatter’s questioning of payment to Platini is actually part of a bigger investigation by the Swiss attorney general, Michael Lauber, into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The Americans and the Swiss have been running two parallel probes to find out if the awarding process was “clean” and no bribes were paid. “Friday was not the first time the investigators picked huge amounts of data from FIFA offices. They came in the beginning of the month as well and took away a lot of files. They already have details of more than 100 bank accounts,” says the FIFA source. “With so many top officials already indicted, it would be a miracle if they do not find something that will finally nail Blatter.”

Blatter has been in the crosshairs of investigators for quite some time, but what was really shocking in last week’s development was the dragging of Platini into the web of bribery allegations. Till now, Platini was a clear favorite for the FIFA presidency. At the moment, he is being treated “between a witness and an accused person” by the Swiss authorities. But there is a danger of the FIFA Ethics Committee opening a probe against him and put an end to his presidential bid. “They are now looking into if he was paid by Blatter for some consultancy work as he claims or for supporting Qatar’s bid,” says the FIFA source.

Platini’s case is linked with the money he received from FIFA in 2011, but he might have committed a bigger “crime” in 2010: voting for Qatar, and not the US, in the bidding for 2022 World Cup. Being poked since then to explain his backing for Qatar, Platini probably scored a self-goal recently while admitting that he “might have told” American officials he would back their bid, but voted for Qatar instead. Though he has constantly denied it, there have been rumours that Platini changed his position at the behest of Blatter. “If it’s proved that Blatter paid Platini for rallying UEFA votes in the 2022 bid, he may just lose the FIFA post but Qatar will lose the tournament,” says the FIFA official. “Blatter has been successfully blocking all calls to reopen the bid for Russia and Qatar cups, but the ongoing probe may change everything.”

Since the May raids in Zurich, a lot of dirt has come out showing how governments, football officials and private corporations use all tricks in the trade to get world cup hosting rights and other lucrative contracts. FIFA insiders and officials in national football federations admit in private that money plays a major role in football, but so does politics among nations. “Platini was a good guy when he put Prince Ali of Jordan against Blatter in May election. The Jordanian would have definitely revoked the Qatar World Cup. But now as Platini was all set to win the presidency, he has been tripped. Having voted for Qatar himself, he could have done nothing to cancel the 2022 cup,” says a Brazilian football federation (CBF) official who was in Zurich in May. “Between now and February, the war inside FIFA is going to get worse. Friends will turn enemies and continental federations will collide with each other. Who knows what is left of FIFA by 2016 elections.”

Doomsday predictions

This doomsday prophecy may not be completely off the mark. The war on corruption in FIFA has already turned into a war within the football organisation. Platini, once a protégé of Blatter, has turned against him. Valcke, who was Blatter’s Man Friday for years, too, has been canned after he declined the FIFA chief’s request to contest against Platini. And Prince Ali, who once projected Platini as his godfather, is now demanding the Frenchman’s scalp. A day after Platini’s name figured in the probe, the Jordanian royal threw his hat in the ring, saying that “FIFA needs new leadership.” Prince Ali is now actively seeking support from the Asian Football Federation. With the support of the Asian and European football confederations, Platini was all set win the election. Now, his fate is in the hands of the Ethics Committee.

It’s an open secret that FIFA is now in the grip of American law firms, but the organisation’s future depends on the Ethics Committee which has the power to investigate any official and suspend or ban them (as was done to Jack Warner on Tuesday). Though the committee, an autonomous entity headed by a German judge since 2012, hasn’t made any decision on Blatter and Platini as yet, in the coming days and weeks it can start a probe through its investigative branch and suspend them from FIFA.

This is not the first time that the committee is at the centre of the war within FIFA. In fact, the current crisis was partly began after a probe by the investigative branch of the Ethics Committee. Led by Michael Garcia, a high-profile American lawyer who is married to an FBI agent, the branch probed the bidding for Russia and Qatar World Cups for two years. It submitted a report to the committee in 2014. As the committee cleared both the Russian and Qatari bid on any wrongdoing, Garcia, a Republican who served in the George W Bush administration, quit his post and accused the committee of “whitewashing” his findings. Interestingly, even before Garcia made his statement, Damien Collins, a British MP who in 2011 used Parliamentary privilege to allege that bribes helped secure Qatar the 2022 tournament, had rejected the FIFA report as “a whitewash”. Collins, a Tory leader who is close to British Prime Minister David Cameron, has been running a campaign called New FIFA Now since 2011, seeking Blatter’s removal from FIFA. Cameron too has been vocal in demanding Blatter’s head.

Of all the heat and dust generated over corruption in FIFA, the maximum fury has come from the UK and US, the two countries which lost the bids to Russia and Qatar respectively. With their highest-ranking officials like the British PM and US Justice Secretary Loretta Lynch jumping into the controversy, actions like the FBI raids and Garcia’s probe are seen by many, especially the Russians, Africans and Latin Americans, as attempts by the US and UK to reopen the 2018 and 2022 bids. The Russians, who have backed Blatter unconditionally, have been suspicious of all American involvement in FIFA affairs. In 2013, a year after Garcia began his investigation, Moscow put him on the list of 18 Americans barred from entering Russia.

And this week, even as the Swiss opened “criminal proceedings” against Blatter, the Russians reiterated their support to the FIFA chief his decision to hand over the mandate to the congress that will hold elections of the new president.

The new president, whoever he is, will have to deal with these geo-political games in addition to clearing the mess FIFA is in. But his biggest challenge would be keep the global oganisation united. “If this bitterness and fights continue, some federations may just leave FIFA. Some of our officials have stopped travelling abroad for the fear of being picked by the FBI or someone else in some financial deal done years ago,” says the CBF official. “We are officially supporting Zico in the FIFA election but such is the atmosphere, we are not sure if he will get the required number of nominations to contest the election.”

To be a candidate in the FIFA presidential election, a person needs written support of five of the 209 national federations. But since all federations align their votes at the continental level, it’s impossible to get a nomination from an individual federation. As the Asian Football Federation has already decided to support Platini in February election, Zico has failed to get support even from countries like Japan and Iraq, where he has coached the national teams and is revered as a hero. Running his campaign on the platform of “transparency and democracy”, Zico has even failed to get support from India, where he currently coaches Goa FC in the Indian Super League. “With Blatter going out next year, the federations in Asia wanted to vote for a long-term insider. So we decided to nominate Platini. Bringing in an outsider in this moment of crisis could be disastrous,” says an official of the Indian Football Federation. “Zico could be an ideal candidate in ideal conditions. But right now, FIFA is imploding. However, if Platini is suspended, things may change for Zico.”

Zico’s hopes

That’s what Zico is pitching for. Amid some rumours that he was calling it quits after failing to convince FIFA to change its rules about nominations, the Brazilian icon has been actively campaigning. He too has pinned his hopes on the Ethics Committee. In a letter sent to the committee on Tuesday, Zico demanded immediate action against Blatter and Platini. “You must act with great transparency, disclosing all the procedures so that the reforms and the FIFA elections are not contaminated by suspicion of corruption,” Zico wrote to the committee, reminding them of the action taken against Jack Warner and Mohamed Bin Hammam, both banned from football for life.

The committee may take weeks before making a decision about Platini and Blatter, both of whom have denied any wrongdoing and refused to quit. Even if Platini is canned by the committee, Zico may have to deal with another problem: Diego Maradona. Since June, the Argentine icon, who too played in No 10 shirt like Zico and Platini, has been threatening to run for FIFA presidency. Given his history with the football establishment, Maradona stands little chance of succeeding but his support could boost Zico’s chances, especially in the Americas. But on Wednesday, the Argentine tore into FIFA, calling Michel Platini “a liar”, demanding jail for Blatter and putting his money on Prince Ali. “A man who stands alongside a corrupt person like Blatter cannot plead ignorance,” said Maradona in an interview. “I support Jordanian Prince Ali bin Hussein’s project to bring transparency to FIFA,” said the former Argentinian captain, virtually ruling out his own candidature and refusing to endorse Zico.

As of today, it’s Prince Ali versus Platini. Platini versus Zico. Zico versus Maradona. Maradona versus Blatter. And Blatter versus everyone else. As FIFA hobbles towards its February 2016 election, corruption and politics between nations may further damage football, and the only loser of this internecine war could be the Beautiful Game.