Zero tolerance? At FIFA, more like zero scruples
PARIS (AP) — When history books are written, this should go down as the week when FIFA's paper-thin last scraps of dignity and credibility withered and died.
Because this was the week that world football's governing body exposed itself: It professes to "zero tolerance" of corruption but, from its actions this week, "zero scruples" appears closer to the truth.
This May, football officials called to a meeting in the Caribbean were offered brown envelopes stuffed with $40,000 in $100 notes and told not to breathe a word. We know this because some but not all the officials later blew the whistle.
FIFA investigated. Its conclusions, leaked this week, were that the payments seem to have been bribes and that two of its most senior and influential executives — FIFA vice president Jack Warner and Asian football chief Mohamed bin Hammam — were allegedly neck-deep in the dirt.
Evidence, FIFA said, was "comprehensive, convincing and overwhelming." Bin Hammam wanted Sepp Blatter's job as FIFA president. For that, he needed football officials' votes. From FIFA's report, it appears he was ready to pay for them.
Warner, one of football's most powerful men, allegedly used his clout and contacts to act as bin Hammam's facilitator. FIFA's report accused him of arranging the May 10-11 meeting at a hotel on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and of condoning the payoffs.
If FIFA put football's interests first, Warner should have been banished as an example to others, packed off in disgrace, good riddance.
FIFA's report even suggested as much.
"Corruption affects the very core of sports and is to be considered as nothing less than life-threatening for sports and sports organizations. Thus, if there is considerable suspicion that offenses related to corruption might have been committed, immediate action is imperative," it said.
"FIFA has a direct and pressing interest in barring the persons concerned from sports immediately and effectively," it added. "In this regard, FIFA and the FIFA Ethics Committee adhere to a zero tolerance approach."
You can almost hear Warner laughing. He walked away, resigning this week from football duties and taking with him his secrets from 28 years inside the most discredited governing body in sports. Whatever knowledge Warner may have of any misdeeds within FIFA, the "football tsunami" of embarrassing revelations that he threatened to unleash, he can now keep for himself.
Good deal for Warner, an insult for football. Warner is not banned from football stadiums or from contacting buddies still working in the game, officials who owe him their jobs and may still do his bidding. It seems, although FIFA's press office won't outright confirm or deny this, that Warner may even still be eligible for his FIFA pension, payable for as many years as he served on the executive committee — 28.
The biggest scandal is that FIFA waved off Warner with kind words of thanks, saying his football work was "appreciated and acknowledged." FIFA's statement completely omitted mention of its own report, which it was sitting on, that accused him of knowing about, facilitating and condoning the alleged bribery in the Caribbean. Nor did it recall the 2006 World Cup ticket scam for which Warner's family was fined, or the other alleged financial misdeeds that critics linked him to over the years.
FIFA closed its ethics probe of Warner. And because Warner is no longer involved in football, FIFA said it no longer has any authority to investigate him. That may be true, but FIFA surely didn't need to go the extra mile and state, as it so obligingly did, that Warner's "presumption of innocence is maintained."
FIFA hasn't been so forgiving with others, like Michel Zen-Ruffinen, Blatter's former right-hand man forced out for crossing swords with his boss a decade ago. Last November, FIFA declared Zen-Ruffinen "persona non grata" after he told reporters that countries bidding for the World Cup were secretly trading votes.
So why was Warner accorded such a face-saving send-off? Out of fear that he might, if dealt with strictly, pull down others in FIFA, too?
More worrisome is why Warner and bin Hammam apparently felt safe that they wouldn't get into trouble for the alleged bribery in May and that officials offered wads of cash wouldn't double-cross them. Does that suggest that, in the past, officials simply took the money? And is this how FIFA presidential votes are won?
These are questions Warner no longer needs to answer.
How can that be zero tolerance?
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/johnleicester