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Soccer: Don’t Let the FIFA Ethics Investigation Smokescreen Fool You

The decision at the end of last year to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar shone a spotlight on the transparency and corruption issues that have been dogging FIFA, the governing body of the world game. As I said at the time:

I hope that Russia and Qatar were chosen on the merit of their bids, but it’s difficult to believe that. The stink of corruption and collusion that’s followed the bidding process around is one that FIFA hasn’t chosen to ignore so much as to blame other people for having the temerity to smell it. By doing so, it’s tainted the process and tainted the game. If it has any credibility or morality (stop laughing), it has a duty to investigate, clean house and clean up. I think the fun really begins now, as jilted British journalists will surely put FIFA under their microscopes.

The storm has picked up over the last few weeks, but not so much as the result of jilted British journalists, but the jilted former head of the English Football Association, Lord Triesman, who during testimony in front of a Parliament committee accused four FIFA Executive Committee members of seeking improper payments or benefits from England during the World Cup bidding process. The testimony initially came off as little more than sour grapes, and was laughed off both figuratively by FIFA leadership ("Fifa calls on FA to provide evidence over latest corruption allegations") and literally by one of the accused ("Fifa's Jack Warner 'laughed like hell' at latest corruption claims").

These allegations were accompanied by separate claims from the Sunday Times newspaper that two other ExCo members had accepted cash from the Qatari World Cup bid in exchange for their votes. On top of the earlier bribery scandal that saw two ExCo members banned before the vote, this means that a third of the committee has been accused of impropriety. (Astute readers will also remember that the Sunday Times was behind the investigation that led to the two members' bans, using undercover tactics other members labelled unethical.)

Normally, these allegations wouldn't amount to anything, especially given that they're coming from a country that looks like it's a poor loser. FIFA President Sepp Blatter promised an internal investigation, and cited it as a reason not to appear in front of the English parliament to testify to the same committee in which his organization was earlier accused. That's where you'd generally expect things to end given FIFA's usual MO: conduct a superficial "investigation", perhaps unearth some very minor transgressions, hand out meaningless penalties and move on.

But there's one wrinkle here: Blatter is up for re-election as FIFA president next week. His opponent? One-time ally, Asian Football Confederation president -- and head of the Qatar World Cup bid -- Mohammed Bin Hammam. Blatter is under pressure from the outside to answer the ethics claims, while at the same time he's facing an election battle against a turncoat friend, who also happens to be at the center of the bribery scandal.

You get no points for guessing what happens next: bin Hammam and another ExCo member, Jack Warner, are accused of ethics violations.What makes these allegations stand out is that they come from within the ExCo committee, from American Chuck Blazer, and reportedly are accompanied by sworn affidavits and photographs. For one ExCo member to report another is extraordinary; this is a bunch for whom circling wagons is SOP. For the allegations to surface a week before the presidential election is interesting to say the least.

But Blatter and FIFA have been presented with a golden opportunity here. Warner's name continually pops up in connection to corruption and graft scandals, so coming down hard on him would create the appearance that FIFA is seriously cleaning house (don't feel bad for Warner -- he is one of the game's most disgusting figures and deserves whatever he gets). Giving bin Hammam the boot would also deflect some of the heat over the World Cup bids, while helpfully removing him from the election and delivering some serious payback for daring to cross Blatter.

I don't expect anything less from Blatter's FIFA. It's a political masterstroke that will solve the short-term problem without correcting any long-term issues, focusing on the appearances rather than the actual problems. Blatter is under pressure to postpone the election and re-examine the World Cup bids. Don't count on either.