The Irony in FIFA’s Call for Clean Practice
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
If you like irony, you’ll love this one: Last week, we were asked by FIFA to celebrate World Fair Play Day … at the very moment when FIFA vice president JackWarner came under suspicion of making a lot of money by scalping World Cup tickets, and just two days after the BBC in Britain aired a documentary titled, “Undercover: Football’s Dirty Secrets.”
The Warner case, should the allegations be proved, may turn into Warnergate and would be a serious setback for FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who has repeatedly and forcefully argued the need for transparency and honesty in all FIFA dealings, and who is seen as a close ally of Warner.
Warner’s troubles stem from his association with Simpaul, a travel company run in his home country of Trinidad and Tobago by his son Daryan. Earlier this year the fact that Simpaul had acquired a monopoly on World Cup ticket sales in T&T was frowned upon by FIFA, who lightly rapped Warner’s knuckles over what it saw as a conflict of interests. Warner responded by saying he had severed all contact with Simpaul.
But a report by FIFA auditors Ernst and Young — leaked to the press earlier this month — alleged that Warner and Daryan had been involved in the reselling of 5,400 tickets at up to five times their face value.
Warner has reacted pugnaciously, denying all the allegations and publishing a report of his own, written by John Collins, an American lawyer, who is a member of FIFA’s legal committee.
Collins charges that the Ernst and Young report is “fatally flawed,” “based upon incomplete information,” and contains “erroneous conclusions.”
More sensationally Warner has thickened the plot by invoking the name of FIFA general secretary Urs Linsi (a Blatter appointee),whom he accuses of leaking the Ernst and Young report to a British newspaper. Warner has told his lawyers to begin actions for defamation and violation of his personal rights, against “persons unknown and in the environment of FIFA and Ernst & Young.”
As the Warner mess was beginning to gather pace, Blatter made an unexpected announcement: FIFA was setting up an Ethics Committee and had appointed a former British Olympic runner (and now the boss of the 2012 London Olympics), Sebastian Coe, as its chairman.
Just one caveat: The new committee will look into future problems, it will not investigate Warnergate.
In the meantime, English soccer was wallowing in a discussion of the “dirty secrets” supposedly uncovered by the BBC. And so we enter the murky world of player agents and bungs. That’s the word —bungs — that the British use to define under-the-table payments to coaches to “facilitate” the transfer of players from one club to another. A bung is a kickback.
Let’s be clear from the start: The existence of bungs is not a secret. The practice of covert payments has been known to exist and has been widely discussed for decades. Is it then a “dirty” practice as the BBC dubbed it? Difficult to answer, because it is not illegal.
Briefly: In a transfer deal, both the clubs involved and the player will employ agents or intermediaries. They are the ones who work out a compromise between the selling club’s asking price and the buying club’s offer. In the process, several million dollars (both clubs contribute) is set aside as commission, and it is part of this money that — it is alleged — goes into the coaches’ pockets.
That agents should get huge commissions outrages most people, especially when they appear to have done very little. In 2003, Australian star Harry Kewell wanted to move from his club Leeds United to Liverpool. Leeds were anxious to sell (they needed the money), Liverpool coveted the player. Yet, for whatever services were necessary in this ideal situation, Kewell’s agent managed to pocket nearly $4 million.
If there is any illegality, it lies in undeclared income — a matter for the tax guys to investigate. Only once has a top coach been nailed for taking bungs. In 1995 then Arsenal coach George Graham was fired and suspended for a year (all this by the English soccer authorities — there was no legal action) for accepting $700,000 from a Norwegian agent, Rune Hauge. Graham had agreed to purchase two of Hauge’s players (neither of whom Arsenal needed). A price was negotiated with the selling club — but a much higher price was extracted from Arsenal — and the $1 million-plus difference was split between Hauge and Armstrong.
The BBC did its best to catch offenders red-handed — it used hidden cameras and a reporter posing as the “new agent on the block” — but the general opinion is that it came up short. It thought it had the goods on one coach who agreed to pick up a suitcase containing $95,000 in bank notes, but the guy failed to show up.
So a number of agents are shown, on camera, claiming that certain Premier League coaches are known to take bungs. Although the program alleged that 18 current or former coaches had taken bungs, the only name to hit the headlines is that of Sam Allardyce, the present coach of Bolton Wanderers, who was fingered by two of the agents. But all the agents involved — none of them is a top name — have stated that they were lying to the BBC undercover reporter, trying to inflate their own importance, or trying to find out more about this “new” agent.
Everyone tarred by the BBC program has denied doing anything wrong, and most of them, including Allardyce, have either instigated or are considering legal action against the BBC.
The English soccer authorities have expressed concern and have arranged a meeting with the BBC program makers. Few people believe that the soccer authorities have either the will or the power to put a stop to bungs. The Premier League has been conducting a long-running inquiry into the practice, but its soon-to-bepublished report is already being dismissed as the inevitable whitewash by an organization investigating itself.
But wait.There may be the possibility of an objective outside investigation: “We cannot close our eyes. If the evidence is proven, this is certainly not what we want.” Splendid words — but sadly undermined because they come from a FIFA spokesman, from the very organization whose own house is trembling from the implications of Warnergate.