England must take pride in defeat and lead FIFA reform

Remember McIntyre Undercover? It did nothing that say the Cook Report had not done beforehand but its primetime slot and the promotion given to it by the BBC meant it raised the profile of the investigative journalist as a resource for television.

The accusations made in the show were not really news in themselves – namely that there were hooligans who followed football as a way of arranging fights, that there was cocaine and grooming of teenagers in the modelling industry, and that if a man from Nigeria rings you promising to make you a billionaire, it might be wise to hang up. However, those of us in the habeas corpus, “prove it” camp recognise that there is a world of difference between “knowing” what goes on and actually seeing the deed with our own eyes. In this regard, McIntyre did a superb job for the viewer even if the means of gathering the evidence made much of it inadmissible in court.

And this is the beauty of what Andrew Jennings did for BBC‘s Panorama. He managed to obtain bank statements detailing payments from the sports marketing giant ISL, often funnelled through one of two intermediate companies in Liechtenstein. On reflection, Panorama’s investigation into the ‘bungs’ culture in football was a disaster. It made the BBC more than a few enemies while amounting in reality to no more than a lot of nudges and a few winks.

There was no ‘smoking gun’ nor a serious sense that one was imminent, although it amounted to half-decent television. At the very least Jennings has put together a very serious case which demands an answer and the sight of Jack Warner physically assaulting him and unleashing a potty-mouthed tirade on camera was very troubling when one considers the status of the CONCACAF representative.

One of the most disturbing comments of the last few weeks was from Michel Platini, a hero to many and a man who has been right on many subjects including the overbearing influence of oligarchs in football. However, his observation that the English media’s criticism of FIFA carried sinister undertones even if this was unintended: “I don’t think it’s a problem. These investigations are just people doing their job, no? If they [those spearheading the England bid] do not have a good feeling about FIFA, that’s nothing to do with these investigations, but that comes from what the English press have been writing about FIFA for very many years. That could be a problem for the bid. But this? No. Why not [make the allegation of corruption], if it’s there? Anyway, I think people have already decided which way they are voting.” The message from Platini appeared to be ‘of course we understand you have a free press – but don’t bite the hands that feed you and remember that accidents happen’.

A telling part of this is that both Blatter and Platini hail from countries that have strict privacy laws which limit the freedom of the press to investigate wrongdoing by those in authority. France’s attitude towards the protection of established elites is most revealing – the infidelity of politicians and even taking the occasional kickback is seen as almost par for the course across the channel. Something like the MPs expenses scandal, which caused uproar in this country, is small beer in continental Europe as a whole, in this writer‘s opinion.

A sense that ‘this is what the rich and powerful do’ has resulted in any sense of outrage giving way to apathy and resignation. With this in mind, perhaps it is no surprise that Blatter and Platini appeared to influence the vote like a redneck judge steering an all-white jury towards a guilty verdict. Everyone is in favour of a free media until it uncovers something they would rather have kept to themselves.

Blaming Andrew Jennings for our failure to get the World Cup is about as sensible as pinning the death of Dr David Kelly on another BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan.

A look at the two nations awarded the tournament this week hardly dispels the impression of FIFA created by the media over the years and finally nailed by Jennings’ excellent work. Russia has been cited by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as a nation with a terrible Human Rights record, with particular attention given to the trouble in Chechnya where the Russian government are alleged to have ordered torture and used the military to influence the outcome of regional elections.

Moreover, it is seen as having drifted from one form of dictatorship to another, from the out and out control of Communism, to an officially democratic country coloured by the stains of old boys networks and bossism. The list of demands for special treatment, including tax exemption for FIFA and the temporary relaxation of employment law, are unlikely to have been anything shocking to those in Moscow.

Which begs the question, “Did we know beforehand that we were dealing in a process which at least gives the impression of being rotten to the core?”. It would appear that Roger Burden, temporary chairman of the Football Association, is genuinely upset by what has happened, stating “I am not prepared to work with people whom I cannot trust” before withdrawing his candidacy for the position on a permanent basis.

If there was anyone who knew that England were not going to be awarded the tournament then they could and should have raised their hand and saved a great many people a whole lot of labour without the possibility of fruit at the end. After all we went for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups and have now completed an unenviable hat-trick.

The thought that we may have upset someone in FIFA must have crossed more than one mind at some point? And given the choice between hosting the World Cup or having a media that does not kowtow to state, political or commercial interests, which is more significant in the long run? It is appreciated that we are all football fans on this site but surely we have to see the bigger picture.

In my opinion, England lost this World Cup bid because they do not deal in cronyism. Moreover, our media are free to pursue corruption and wrongdoing regardless of whether this upsets the interests of the state or big business, which is what FIFA has become now.

Should England lead the charge for reform of FIFA? Yes, of course. In the meantime, we should all take enormous pride in the fact we lost… dismally.

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