What a fascinating insight into FIFA we had last week.
Together with like-minded good people at the European Parliament, led by Emma McClarkin, Ivo Belet and Santiago Fisas, #NewFIFANow had put together a forum scheduled for Wednesday (January 27) at which three of the FIFA Presidential candidates would debate live on global sports network, ESPN.
At last! Others had tried before to get the candidates interested in a debate, but one or more of the candidates would decline.
The three candidates who had confirmed were Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, South Africa's Tokyo Sexwale and France's Jérôme Champagne. Gianni Infantino had provided a video message to form part of the broadcast element. ESPN was flying-in from the east coast of the USA.
My #NewFIFANow colleague, Bonita Mersiades, was flying-in from Australia. Media were attending from England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Denmark, Turkey, China, Japan, South Africa, Nigeria, Qatar, Australia and United States.
And then, at around 9.15 on Monday (January 25) morning, Prince Ali effectively put the kibosh on the entire affair.
He wrote to my other #NewFIFANow colleague, British Member of Parliament (MP) Damian Collins, and co-chair of the European Parliament’s Sports Intergroup, to say that he could not attend as he had been informed that the debate would “constitute a breach of FIFA election rules” and one of the two candidates not attending - his letter incorrectly states three - had made a complaint.
A quick look at FIFA’s electoral rules was enough to show it was unclear just which rule was being breached.
But what Prince Ali was saying was that it was either Bahrain's Shaikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa or Gianni Infantino who had made a complaint. The complainant being Infantino didn’t make a lot of sense; although he was not attending, he had given a legitimate reason as to why, and he had provided a video only 36 hours earlier. However, many analysts pointed the finger at Infantino saying he had "arranged" a complaint, even if he didn’t personally make it. Shaikh Salman had never intended to go.
It should be noted also that Prince Ali’s letter also incorrectly states that the date and venue for the debate had changed several times. We wrote to all candidates on 3rd November last year proposing the date of 27th January at the European Parliament in Brussels. We’re not sure what Prince Ali is referring to here.
Damian was quite rightly curious. He contacted the man in charge of the FIFA election, Domenico Scala. He’s also the head of the FIFA Audit and Compliance Committee. Both of these positions are supposedly independent but Scala was a hand-picked choice of Sepp Blatter.
This was Scala’s big chance to walk-the-walk as well as talk-the-talk. He loves to swan-around making out he’s committed to reform in FIFA. He likes to tell anyone who’ll listen about his business experience with large companies. He wants us to believe that, with his helping hand, he can help "save FIFA".
Damian figured that Scala could easily have nipped Prince Ali’s misunderstanding in the bud. If you’re committed to genuine reform of FIFA, and introducing transparency and accountability, a debate between Presidential candidates is a good thing, right?
What followed was a series of incredible email exchanges between Damian and Scala; you can read them here. (The chain starts at the top). Total obfuscation from the man who would have us believe that he’s a leading authority in transparent governance and reform.
Scala was unable to, and didn’t want to, answer a very simple question. Did the debate breach FIFA election rules? The answer to that question is either a "yes" or a "no".
Both Infantino and Shaikh Salman stated publicly that they had not made a complaint. But Scala was unable to confirm or deny whether he had received one. Scala didn’t have to tell Damian who made the complaint; he could have said either “Yes, I do have a complaint which I must look into” or “No, I don’t have a complaint.” It’s very simple.
He was also unable to confirm whether he had called Prince Ali, even though Shimon Cohen of Prince Ali’s PR agency was adamant Scala had called them.
Apparently, Scala called none of the other candidates, so this suggests either he was lying to Prince Ali or giving favourable treatment to Prince Ali by informing him but not the others. If he was lying to Prince Ali, was Scala acting alone, or in concert with someone else - for example, the person who stood to benefit most by the debate not proceeding, the only candidate without a presence on a live global broadcast, Shaikh Salman?
Both scenarios need investigation by the FIFA Ethics Committee as does a third alternative: that Prince Ali lied to avoid the dash across the Atlantic from Asunción in Paraguay to Brussels in the middle of the night in order to make the debate on time. It’s a high-risk strategy, especially as he could have simply said “The travel schedule is impossible, I’m sorry I have to pull out.”
In the end, Jérôme Champagne turned-up in Brussels and was able to have the media who attended all to himself. So far, he hasn’t been sanctioned by Scala.
It was a missed opportunity for the other candidates; but mostly it was a missed opportunity for football.
The candidates could have made a stand by proving they really are committed to greater transparency and accountability, by showing that they do want to connect with the ‘real’ people who are football fans, players, coaches, volunteers and others, and for being willing to debate each other’s ideas.
Instead they showed that whoever gets elected on February 26, that it’s the same old FIFA.
Sepp Blatter may be vanquished, but with people like Scala in positions of power, his legacy lives on.