By Hugh Ash
TO whom it may concern: this is to inform you that, as of Thursday, I’ll be incommunicado for a goodly part of a month, in a state of purdah so to speak – or, if you’re an England soccer fan, probably consumed by murder.
My wife will retreat to an adjacent room and a stack of DVDs, where she’ll revisit her favourite, fictional country pile and once again acquaint herself with the upstairs/downstairs antics at Downton Abbey.
Unlike me, the ending will come as no surprise to her, because the epicentres of my world will be locations littering Brazil, often with incomprehensibly names, like Manaus (apparently pronounced ‘Ma-naws’) and Cuiabá (locally known as Kuja’ba).
Luckily for perplexed TV viewers, World Cup match commentators have had years of experience in making sense of the exotic monikers of the English Premier League’s foreign legion, hence we needn’t bother trying to get our tonsils round the likes of Šime Vrsaljko, Ognjen Vranješ or Reza Ghoochannejhad.
So what chance England? The bookies odds of 28-1 offer some clue Hodgson’s hopefuls won’t be there long enough to excavate much of a hole in the Football Association’s wallet – and there are always a litany of excuses to rely on, like pitches having the wrong kind of grass, the climate too steamy and refs needing guide-dogs.
This may sound pessimistic – and I sincerely hope I’m wrong – but the action off the field, in world football’s corridors of power, is likely to prove far more compelling than much of what England muster on it.
FIFA, the governing body, has long been something of a conundrum; not so much an administration, more a corporate cash-cow, amassing reserves estimated at $1.4-billion.
And that it situates itself in Switzerland, whose very name conjures up visions of financial mystique, adds nothing to the organisation’s image. Neither does the fact that FIFA’s president is the seemingly Teflon-coated Sepp Blatter, now in his fourth term of office. Notably, Blatter’s CV includes a previous ‘presidency’ – that of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders, which tried to stop women wearing pantyhose.
If nothing else, this may provide a fascinating insight into the man’s peccadilloes, as does his remark in 2004 that women footballers should ‘wear tighter shorts and low cut shirts... to create a more female aesthetic’.
However, Blatter’s role as an administrator has garnered even more controversy than his sexism, with rumours of irregularities dogging him since his first election to the job in 1998.
Nevertheless, his survival instincts are supremely honed, never more so than when he displayed nimble footwork to equal Barcelona’s midfield in deflecting fall-out from an investigation into allegedly corrupt links with ISL, a marketing company which went bust in 2001, reportedly owing FIFA $100M.
Last place on earth...
Now, however, the small, bald, 78-year-old Swiss is up to his jowly neck in a virtual cheese fondue, amid allegations that Qatar ‘bought’ the 2022 World Cup for approximately US$5M.
The sandcastle-sized emirate – it’s actually smaller than Yorkshire – is more renown for camel racing, with robot jockeys, than soccer.
And, with frazzling summer temperatures of 50C (120F), it one of the last places on earth to host a tournament where competitors will struggle to amble for five minutes, let alone run for 90.
Still, Blatter applauded Qatar’s ‘successful bid’ and helpfully advised gay fans they should ‘refrain from any sexual activities’ while there, since homosexuality is taboo.
However, the venality of how the oil-rich statelet came to be ‘awarded’ one of world sport’s most glittering prize first began to unravel when the Daily Telegraph revealed that Jack Warner, dictatorial boss of Caribbean football and long-time Blatter crony, trousered some $1.2M from sources not a million miles distant from Qatari, Mohammed Bin Hammam, then FIFA’s Asia’s soccer supremo.
To add tinder to the scandal’s flames, Chuck Blazer, an American member of FIFA’s executive committee, submitted evidence that Warner and Bin Hammam handed envelopes – each stuffed with $40,000 – to Caribbean football union delegates during a junket in Trinidad.
This, apparently, was only the tip of an iceberg of sleaze embroiling Bin Hammam, who also tried to overthrow Blatter, and last week the plotting was graphically detailed by the Sunday Times.
Among a catalogue of scathing allegations, the newspaper contends: Bin Hammam operated ‘slush’ funds to dole out thousands in bribes to African delegates of FIFA and paid the Confederation of African Football $1M to ‘sponsor’ its congress in Angola, thus stymying rival bidders – like Australia – from putting forward their cases for 2022. More revelations are promised in today’s Sunday Times, while an incandescent Warner – now banned from world football, along with his Arab chum – promises to unleash a ‘tsunami’ of evidence of corruption inside FIFA and how Qatar ‘bought’ the World Cup.
Naturally, the Qataris deny any wrongdoings and continue work on eight, lavish stadiums, which have so far cost the lives of 964 immigrant workers.
Bin Hammam, they insist, was not working for the ‘official bid committee’, although he flew around the world distributing largesse in a private jet loaned by Qatar’s Royal Family.
They will, however, have to convince Michael Garcia, an American lawyer appointed by FIFA’s Ethics Committee – yes, perhaps surprisingly, they have one – to investigate the 2022 bidding process, before he reports next month.
Meanwhile, even Blatter has begun to question the wisdom of a World Cup being staged by the pinprick Gulf state, admitting it may have been ‘a mistake.’
Feeble though it is, the admission vindicates the groundswell of learned opinion that believed Qatar was never a fit and proper place to host such a showcase event, when the award was made in December, 2010.
Overwhelmed by international criticism, Blatter now faces the problems of not only fending off any personal blows from Garcia’s probe, but how to ditch Qatar and re-run the 2022 bid without drowning FIFA in a floodtide of humungously expensive litigation.
Short of resigning, how the artful Swiss can mastermind this should prove far more intriguing than anything England contrive in Brazil.
To read more of Hugh Ash’s comments, follow his award-winning, online blog – Views From The Mallorca Pier – at hughash.wordpress.com