Mystery of the brown envelopes

Denis Campbell
Date Published: 
UK Observer

The FIFA Scandal

Football's top job was secured after cash payouts - but was this corruption?

Claims that Sepp Blatter became president of Fifa because of vote-buying, rather than the ex-Swiss Army colonel's inspirational vision of football in the twenty-first century, are certainly sensational. But they are nothing new. It was widely rumoured at the time to have been a corrupt contest with a 'fixed' result.

At the press conference that followed his unexpected triumph over Lennart Johansson last June, world football's newly installed supreme ruler was furious when a member of the assembled media boldly asked: 'There is talk that your campaign was corrupt, that votes were bought by $50,000 in envelopes. How do you answer those allegations?' The Fifa president reddened. 'The game is over,' he replied, visibly annoyed. 'The players have already gone to the dressing-room. I will not respond to this question.'

Nine months on, however, while the game is undoubtedly over, some of the players involved are still disputing the result. While Blatter refuses to discuss the claims, or set up an inquiry, other key figures within football still wonder how the underdog somehow managed to defeat Johansson, the Uefa president and odds-on favourite, and by such a wide margin of 111 votes to 80. Some of those players, especially people within Uefa, have been key sources for David Yallop's lid-lifting exposé, How They Stole The Game.

Yallop's book is significant on three counts. First, he is the first person to recount in detail how associates and supporters of Blatter, especially an admirer who just happened to be the ruler of a Middle Eastern state, allegedly bribed around 20 Fifa delegates to switch sides from Johansson. Until now there has only been what David Will, the Scottish vice-president of Fifa, calls 'rumour and hearsay'.

Second, it outlines an (again alleged) culture of corruption, secrecy and dodgy-dealing within Fifa stretching back 25 years. As Yallop himself points out: 'Blatter's election is only covered in the last chapter. The rest deals with events during his predecessor Joao Havelange's 24 years in charge from 1974. That was when the scandal started and it has continued unabated. That was when, by his own admission to me in a taped interview, Havelange acquired votes which enabled him to oust the incumbent, Sir Stanley Rous. The circumstances surrounding Blatter's election are only one fragment of what requires investigation.'

Others involve the whereabouts of billions of dollars of Fifa income, mainly from TV rights; the lavish perks, expenses and lifestyles enjoyed by Fifa office-bearers and staff; and the existence of previously undisclosed overseas bank accounts held by some of Fifa's top men.

Third, Yallop's claims are shaping up as a key test of the Fifa president's integrity and judgment. The author wants Fifa to establish a truly independent inquiry similar to the one that the embattled International Olympic Committee recently got Senator George Mitchell to conduct. But so far the signs are not encouraging for anyone hoping to see Blatter exhibit openness or statesmanship. Asked about the claims, he replied: 'As Fifa president, I suppose I have to live with it. After all, you cannot please all the people all the time.'

What about setting up an inquiry, Mr President? Blatter kicked that idea off the park. 'Why should I?' he growled. 'I cannot open an inquiry into myself. The elections are now finished.'

Unsurprisingly, Blatter wants Yallop's book banned, and preferably with no discussion of the veracity of its contents. In terms of court actions so far, the score reads: Yallop 1, Blatter 1. The Fifa president secured an injunction in his native Switzerland stopping sale and distribution of the book. But Yallop, from Hertfordshire, has just evened things up.

Last Thursday, a Dutch judge threw out Blatter's request for a similar ban in Holland. He considered Yallop's contention that Blatter only became Fifa supremo because of $50,000 bungs to around 20 Fifa delegates, mainly from African countries, and that a Middle Eastern figure flew in $1 million to fund this bribery. His conclusion? That the story was 'sufficiently concrete that Blatter and the Fifa can defend themselves against it'. Not should defend themselves, but simply 'can' defend themselves.

However, that he even asked Blatter's lawyer if Fifa were planning any sort of inquiry into the claims - the answer was 'No' - seemed to influence his decision to uphold Yallop's right to free speech and award his Dutch publishers their costs against Blatter.

The judge suggested that Yallop was within his rights to explore Fifa's secretive financial arrangements. 'It can be expected of an organisation of such size and such public importance that its policy in these areas is transparent,' he concluded. Without such transparency, Fifa couldn't complain 'if critical questions arise and doubts are publicly expressed about the expenditure of money'.

Is Yallop right? Certainly there is no doubt that a sizeable number of Fifa delegates from developing countries each received a large amount of cash just before or just after Blatter's election last year. And yes, it was in envelopes that delegates picked up at the swish Meridien Hotel in Paris. But Blatter has dismissed that curious sequence of events as nothing unusual. It was simply an advance on the $250,000 annual subsidy that poorer Fifa members received.

This weekend, Jack Warner, a Fifa vice-president and the head of Concacaf - the federation covering football in North and Central America and the Caribbean - sought to convince the Observer of the same thing. 'To suggest Blatter won by paying people off is utter nonsense,' he said. 'The money given to countries was their entitlement. Some countries wanted a portion of the $250,000 paid earlier than scheduled. Some wanted $50,000, some $40,000, others less.'

In cash. Not corruption, then. Coincidence... Fifa-style.

- Additional reporting by Andrew Warshaw