Four days in the wacky world of Blatter... but the joke's on the FA
Robin Scott-Elliot relives an incredible, almost farcial, visit to Zurich full of guffawing delegates, wild goose chases and behind-the-scenes plotting
Thursday 02 June 2011
Sunday: Blazer's bribery revelations ruffle the Fifa blazer brigade
Fifa House is not visible from street level. It reportedly cost $100m (£61m) to build and that guarantees a degree of anonymity, as well as immaculately tended gardens. In one corner a wooden fountain gurgles. It has a steel plaque on it inscribed with the name Sepp Blatter. The spout directs a constant stream of water into a trough below; it is never empty.
Sunday is not a usual working day at the home of Blatter's "football family". But this is the start of an important week for football's governing body; the 61st Congress is two days away. In the tailor's office, Fifa blazers are sized up, badges sewn on, others perhaps being unstitched.
Over in the main building, the ethics committee is in session. Outside the heavy doors, a handful of camera crews linger. Chuck Blazer, the general secretary of Concacaf, the North American and Caribbean confederation, was first in. It was Blazer who delivered the time bomb that Jack Warner, the president of his own confederation, and Mohamed Bin Hammam, then Blatter's sole opponent in the presidential election, had sought to offer bribes in return for votes.
Evidence assembled by a Chicago law firm and presented to the ethics committee includes sworn affidavits from several Caribbean officials that they had been ushered into a hotel room in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and offered $40,000 in cash. Written evidence is accompanied by photographs of bundles of $100 bills and large brown envelopes.
It is early evening when the media are finally summoned to hear the committee's judgement. Bin Hammam and Warner are suspended while an inquiry is conducted – the result of which is expected by the end of the month. During the press conference, Jérôme Valcke, Fifa's general secretary and a central figure in the week's events, waves a bulky folder at the media. It's a first sighting of the FA's report into Lord Triesman's allegations of corruption against four members of the executive committee (ExCo). It clears them, Valcke tells us; no need for further action.
Attention switches from Fifa's HQ down to the lake shore and the city's smart hotels. In the lobby of the Baur au Lac, the favoured base of many of the ExCo members, anxious hotel staff watch Bin Hammam quietly make his case to a group of British journalists.
Not far away, Jack Warner was talking to another gaggle of reporters. It is the start of what he promises will be a "tsumani" to flood Planet Fifa. Blatter, said Warner, had given a gift of $1m to Concacaf (all above board, Fifa was to later declare). He waves a copy of an email, sent to him by Valcke in which he wrote that Qatar "bought" the 2022 World Cup.
Monday: Blatter, the master of farce, gets a laugh from the media corps
Another hot sunny day. The temperature is rising in Zurich. Valcke confesses he wrote the email to Warner, penned during a stopover in San Francisco. "I'd like to clarify that I may use in an email – a 'lighter' way of expression by nature," he says via a statement, the week's favourite form of communication.
The media pack is growing by the minute as the ExCo, minus its four suspended members, meets at Fifa. It's announced that Blatter will speak to the media on his own afterwards, a rare event as he rarely flies without Valcke by his side. The conference is delayed but finally Blatter arrives and so begins the most remarkable half-hour of a remarkable week. "Crisis? What is a crisis?" declares Blatter to guffaws from his audience (another regular feature of the week is the press conference guffaw as another example of the governing body's ostrich campaign is revealed).
The conference breaks up with a degree of farce as Blatter, having become increasingly irritated, exits pursued by a stream of angry questions from a German television journalist who is making a documentary about Fifa.
Later, Fifa publishes the summary of the FA's report. Closer inspection reveals that it is nothing like the whitewash Blatter and Valcke claim. There are questions still to be answered over several of the Triesman allegations – indeed, James Dingemans, the QC who conducted the report, suggests Fifa should follow up some lines of inquiry. Fifa's reaction: case closed. A thunderstorm rumbles over Zurich.
Tuesday: FA overboard as the good ship Fifa navigates stormy waters
Cloudy, more rain is on the way. The media descend en masse on the Golder Grand, a five-star hotel with panoramic views. A conference room has been booked by a group who promise to parade a former Fifa insider who will reveal all. The hotel manager explains patiently that the booking had been cancelled that morning and tries vainly to stop camera crews filming in the grounds. A wild goose chase.
The Football Association, meanwhile, has jumped off the good ship Blatter (the marine metaphor is the president's theme of the week). It calls for the election to be postponed, a declaration that is soon supported by Scotland. David Bernstein, the FA's chairman, talks to the media in the bar of the Holiday Inn, across the road from the Congress venue. He is quietly determined, but as the evening wears on, little support gathers; the two Auld Enemies have united to become the common enemy for the football family.
Again the speculation and plotting spins into the night. After midnight comes the news that Concacaf have tried to rid themselves of the troublesome Blazer. Down in the Baur au Lac, Blazer fights to save his job. The rain eases off.
Yesterday: Rebellious England are the poor relations of the Fifa family
A group of Swiss protesters gather outside the Hallenstadion and chant slogans, in English, demanding Fifa pay more tax to their hosts. They are outnumbered by cameramen who cluster round the back doors of the chauffeured cars that deliver delegates and guests. Inside, Bernstein is seated between El Salvador and Equatorial Guinea. The congress begins and soon Bernstein is called to the stage. He makes his stand; brave or naive? Or both? It's unpopular and soon speaker after speaker is rounding on England, and the media too. The Fifa family is closing ranks; there is something brutally pigheaded about it all. Geoff Thompson, the Englishman who sits on the ExCo, is called to the podium and talks as billed as chairman of the players' status committee; not a word in support of his country's stance. England is cast adrift as the Fifa fleet sails off. The election takes an age. The result is not eagerly awaited; to borrow from another of Fifa's official languages, plus ça change...
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