The ATS had been transformed into an Ebola treatment health post during the outbreak of the deadly disease in 2014. Construction workers perched on scaffoldings, painting and designing the stadium’s exterior as they aimed to finish renovation works on the ATS, the second in an installment of grassroots soccer projects bankrolled by Joseph Sepp Blatter under FIFA’s Goal Development project.
According to FIFA, its Goal Development programme has built more than 700 facilities, mainly headquarters, for its member associations around the world since its launch in 1998, the same year Blatter came to power.
Hate him or love him, Joseph Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s longest serving President, has transformed himself into a cult status at football world governing body. How he managed to charm Africa and the rest of the world in maintaining and deciding his own future has puzzled the rest of the world.
So when US prosecutors unsealed their 47-count indictment, which coincided with raids in Zurich, Switzerland, and Miami, following a three-year FBI investigation into alleged financial crimes dating back more than 20 years ago, the world was eager to see how badly football had been run for decades.
The U.S. Justice Department indictment detailed charges against 14 persons accused of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. Though FIFA president, Sepp Blatter was not named in the indictments, the ensuing storm would force him to resign, particularly after investigators were believed to have found clues linking him to corruption.
Allegations of corruption in football are not new but it is the scale of the US operations that has caught the eye of many. “I want to be very clear: This is the beginning,” acting U.S. Atty. Kelly T. Currie said during a news conference in Brooklyn, where the indictment was handed out.
At the same time, Swiss officials have opened investigation into the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which Russia and Qatar won respectively. The Qatar investigation, sources say, could potentially indict leading African figures.
African Football Plays Down Corruption Row
This was a serious case that most African Federations took too little time to digest, understand and respond to in ways that would have kept their integrity intact.
Notably, two Africa FA representatives seemed to have conveyed Africa’s position on the FIFA corruption saga eloquently, by out-rightly dismissing the charges. Guinea-Bissau FA president Manuel Nascimento Lopes said it was totally unfair to blame Blatter for the shady conduct of others, going as far as stating it was “blasphemy” to ask Blatter to resign.
“I’m a Christian and this is blasphemy,” Nascimento Lopes told Insideworld football. “It’s a state conspiracy. People are always trying to knock Blatter. Africa will vote for Mr. Blatter and I will follow that. I agree at some point there has to be change but let Blatter finish his mandate and see what he does. It’s not all about the major European football countries. If you point three fingers at someone, there’s is always one you point at yourself. Tomorrow we are going to vote for Blatter. How do we know anyone else would be any better?”
His comments were backed by the Nigerian and South African FA delegates, who stated emphatically that CAF was united behind Blatter regardless of US charges. The Burundi FA delegate was more cautious and stated; “I have been wondering how Mr. Blatter did not know what was going on but we will still vote for him.”
And so they did. Blatter got 133 votes, compared to 73 for Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein. This was short of the 140 votes needed to avoid a runoff.
Prince Ali would later stand down just before the second round of votes was called, giving Blatter a mandate for his fifth consecutive term in office. But few days to his election, the FIFA strongman would unceremoniously announce to the world he was standing down and would spearhead a reform of the organization.
Liberia’s Weah in Eye of the Storm
In the immediate aftermath of the votes, when international media attention was focused on the issue, former FIFA 1995 World Footballer of the Year and Senator of Montserrado County, George Weah was seen in jubilant mood, posing with the embattled FIFA President.
Western observers have been troubled by those images given Mr. Weah’s popularity in Liberia and his proximity to the Presidency, being the leader of the country’s largest opposition party.
One Western diplomat who asked not to be named told CI: “That was pretty strange, especially since the US had publicly announced the investigation and other countries have asked Blatter not to run. I think it sums up the mood amongst African federations and their endorsement of the corrupt system of patronage, bribe and kickback at FIFA.”
It can be recalled in 2013, Mr. Weah was implicated in a US$50,000 scandal being money he received from now disgraced FIFA Presidential hopeful Mr. Bin Hammam. A British newspaper inquiry sought to link the payments to Qatar’s World Cup bid. In reaction to news reports, Weah, supposedly a millionaire, admitted receiving the cash but shockingly said it was money meant for payment of his academic expense and called Bin Hammam a “father figure”.
The damage to FIFA and football has already been done, but Blatter’s reaction to the events leading to his election sends a troubling signal.
He made light of the corruption allegations by describing it as a “hate” campaign against FIFA by European footballing nations. Mr. Blatter said at the time he suspected the arrests were an attempt to “interfere with the congress”. “I am not certain, but it doesn’t smell good,” he said.
He was sending a message to the rest of the world that FIFA was immune from probe and by so doing portrayed the organization as one riddled with people lacking accountability.
Blatter himself has endured some torrid times with numerous allegations that he bankrolled domestic Football associations in Africa with cash stuffed in envelops. Some time ago a Somali soccer official claimed Blatter offered him US$100,000, in addition to handing over brown envelopes stuffed with cash to other African FAs. Blatter’s perennial defense has been monies spent were his own fortune and his way of aiding poor countries.
“Sepp Blatter must take responsibility for all the mess going on in FIFA and it is a pity the African Federations lacked common sense to see all that was wrong and the messy and shoddy deals that continue to taint international football,” the diplomat said.
“African local organizations are corrupt and so is FIFA; but they find a way that their interests naturally intersect. Blatter delivered to Africa the World Cup and increased their World Cup slot to five, in addition to hundreds of millions in project funds. I can’t see how Africa would have opposed him. But again, their stance in the face of glaring evidence shows they have a long way to go in addressing corruption,” the diplomat concluded.