The Long Ball Tactic

FIFA and democracy

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on May 31, 2011

If you were to give Sepp Blatter credit for anything, it would probably be his unerring ability to ride out pretty much any scandal that comes his way. In response to the most recent FIFA bribery allegations he gave a press conference yesterday where he refused to even acknowledge the farce that football’s governing body has descended into.

The closest we got to a recognition of the storm which had been gathering all weekend in FIFA’s executive committee was his concession that, yes, there had been “difficulties” but, no, despite the suspensions of Mohammed bin Hammam and Jack Warner, and corruption allegations being levelled from high ranking members of FIFA, this was not a crisis.

It was, in many ways, an astounding exercise in brassnecked denial.

On the BBC’s Newsnight programme on Friday, Tony Blair’s former head of communications Alastair Campbell – a man who knows a thing or two about manoeuvring out of a crisis – predicted that if Blatter could see out the next few days then he would sail through Wednesday’s elections and win four more years as FIFA president. Sure enough, the ex-spin doctor looks to be right. Amazingly, Blatter enters Wednesday’s elections in better shape than he was four days ago, his only rival for presidency has withdrawn and, barring any more allegations, a Blatter election victory is a mere formality.

The very fact that Blatter can get away with this, with only an internal “ethics committee” deciding whether or not he has a case to answer, shows up a very serious failure in FIFA as an organisation, and it is, needless to say, something which must be addressed if we are to bring about reform.

The very first way we should be looking to reform FIFA is to bring about a change that is so fundamental it almost goes without saying – FIFA must be a democracy.

The British Labour Party politician Tony Benn said that in a democracy we should ask the powerful five questions:

1. What power have you got?

2. Where did you get it from?

3. In whose interests do you exercise it?

4. To whom are you accountable?

5. How can we get rid of you?

“Only democracy gives us that right” Benn stated, “that is why no-one with power likes democracy”. The latter part of that statement seems particularly pertinent when looking at FIFA.

We, as football fans, cannot ask those questions of Blatter, nor can we elect anyone to ask them on our behalf. Geoff Thompson, the only British person who holds a high-ranking position in the organisation, seems too ingrained in his role as FIFA vice-president to question Blatter’s ethics. Thompson was part of the World Cup 2018 bid team that had the temerity to label the BBC “an embarrassment” when they ran a programme presented by the journalist and author Andrew Jennings outlining FIFA corruption allegations. Thompson then personally signed a letter to the FIFA executive committee from the bid team, distancing themselves from the BBC and saying “as a member of the football family we naturally feel solidarity with you and your colleagues”.

If we could ask those questions of FIFA, however, then what would the answers be? We probably know the answers to questions 1 and 2 well enough but question 3 is a little more tricky. In whose interest does Blatter and the rest of FIFA exercise their power? Is it in the interests of the fans, or is Blatter merely a manager of football capitalism?

To try and answer this I want to look at an example. At the last World Cup, some fans accused of “guerilla marketing” (ie. attending games wearing logos of companies who weren’t official sponsors of the tournament) were marched off to sinister sounding Kafkaesque “FIFA courts” – an entirely undemocratic institution which seemed to have higher authority than the host country’s own law courts.

This may seem bizarre but, when viewed in the context of FIFA’s globalised marketing scheme, it starts to look like less of an anomaly. Whilst awarding the World Cup to countries such as South Africa and Brazil is seen as an act of benevolence on FIFA’s part to let different nations get a taste of the World Cup action, it could also be seen as an economic expansionist policy ensuring those at the top make a tidy profit. To host a World Cup, a country has to first agree to relax its tax laws for  FIFA and its associated parties, meaning that anyone who pays enough money to FIFA can get in on this deregulated free-for-all. No wonder the “guerilla marketers” who dare to try and intrude on this commercial hegemony face such tough retribution.

Whilst you may argue the rights and wrongs of this free market approach to football’s commercial side, if Blatter was fully accountable he would have to work harder to prove to football fans that this represnted FIFA working in their interests, and not merely the interests of a rich minority who own shares in corporations.

Moving on to questions 4 and 5: “to whom are you accountable?” and “how do we get rid of you?” The answers seem, sadly, all too predictable: “no one” and “you can’t” would probably be the most honest response.

Accountability, then, should be next on the agenda for FIFA reform, and with this would come a way of getting rid of those in power. At the moment FIFA seems to be able to act in any way it want. One of the advantages of being based in Switzerland, as well as the generous tax breaks, is that they do not have to abide by the country’s anti-corruption legislation. They are, in effect, not even accountable to the law.

It is a sad state of affairs that, in the absence of any proper mechanisms to hold FIFA to account, we now have to ask FIFA’s sponsors – themselves multi-national corporations who have profited from Blatter’s reign as president – to have an unlikely attack of conscience and withdraw their association with football’s governing body, as Sports Illustrated journalist and FIFA reformist Grant Wahl has urged people to do on Twitter. As we have already seen, FIFA have proved themselves adept at negotiating tax breaks for their affiliates – in Brazil, FIFA and their partners are, incredibly, exempt from tax on any World Cup goods and services for a full five years from January this year – which presents companies with little incentive to give up these deregulated perks purely in the name of making a moral stand.

Having said all this, it’s certainly reassuring that people are beginning to see the need for reform and are starting to demand it. On the day of Blatter’s press conference, one of the top trending topics around the world on Twitter was the hashtag #blatterout. But we, as mere fans, are unable to make that happen, our voice is not heard by FIFA, and the depressing fact is that even if Blatter did go we would still not necessarily be any closer to a more democratic governing body. It is, ultimately, the structures and mechanisms of power that need to be replaced, not just the president. With a system like the current one it is no wonder that football’s corridors of power seem so rife with corruption.


Ryan Giggs and Privacy

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on May 26, 2011

When Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming named Ryan Giggs in the chamber of House of Commons last week, he achieved more than The Sun newspaper could in two trips to the high courts – he effectively removed Giggs’s super-injunction.

What followed was the usual kind of tabloid feeding frenzy we see whenever there is a new story about a celebrity’s private life, but this particular episode was injected with the added drama of the super-injunction imposed suspense.

Anyone with an inquisitive mind and a Twitter account could have found out who the “well-known Premiership footballer” appearing in the papers only in silhouette was long before Hemming got up to speak. If Twitter wasn’t conclusive enough, hints were dropped in the Daily Mail and Private Eye at least a week in advance.

Football fans – not just Manchester United fans – furrowed their brows and exchanged solemn words across Twitter at all of  this. How base this seemed, to be speculating on someone’s private life – who cares? There came to the fore a school of thought that the Giggs affair was not just distasteful because of the man’s conduct, but because of the false actions of the newspapers and MP who uncovered it. Giggs even seemed to be painted as a victim in some circles – one man unable to hold back the tide of tabloid tittle-tattle and a celebrity-obsessed culture hungry for gossip.

Whilst there is some truth in this, it does seem to miss the point somewhat. It’s an inarguable truth that for The Sun and the Daily Mail to paint themselves as crusaders fighting for the noble value of freedom of speech is absolutely laughable, but this does not mean that what has happened isn’t a victory for values we should hold dear – not just for a free press, but also for a communal freedom of speech via Twitter.

If the Giggs affair had been successfully super-injunctioned what would that mean? It would mean that the law had been bent and shaped in such a way so that those with money were effectively free to pick and chose which of their misdemeanours made it into the public arena. Yes, Giggs wanted to keep his private life out of the newspapers and, yes, there is a huge financial imperative for tabloids to print these stories, but there is another element to this story too. As with the unfolding of the Tiger Woods affair in 2009, a sex scandal causes more than just embarrassment for a sportsman. It causes considerable commercial damage as well. Woods took time to apologise for his actions soon after the story broke and women who had spent a steamy night with the banal golfer were appearing in the press left, right and centre. But his apology appeared more concerned with making amends to his sponsors than expressing genuine regret, or reaching out to his young fans who may be left disillusioned. Woods subsequently was deemed “not the right representative” for a number of products that had previously been flogged bearing his name and image and, as a result, the Woods brand was changed and damaged irreparably.

Giggs too has commercial interests, just like any top flight footballer, were his image and brand at the forefront of his and Schilling’s – his legal representatives – minds when they went to the courts seeking a super-injunction? If so, why should the law be used to protect the commercial interests of the rich? Is this a fundamentally fair system? This alone is reason enough why this case is not merely a polarised affair between high-minded fans and gutter-press journalism.

The next step in this unusual quest for privacy taken by Giggs and Schillings was even more of a rank insult to those of us who value being able to communicate freely via the internet – to launch a lawsuit against those who dared name him on Twitter. This ill-thought out tactic was important, again not because anyone necessarily gave the tiniest shit about Giggs’s philandering, but because it could potentially set a dangerous precedent.

If Giggs had succeeded in forcing Twitter to close down accounts which breached his vanity and commercial-based super-injunction then what ramification would this have held for the future of the social media platform? Already Twitter has been used for noble causes such as the Arab Spring movements across the Middle East and the #spanishrevolution protests in Madrid and even in England with the #ukuncut movement – its use comes as an effective way to communicate and co-ordinate action.

This may seem an extreme example to use in contrast to a footballer who had an affair with a small time celebrity, but if Twitter can be censored over sex scandals then this sets the precedent for censoring for any number of reasons. Is it conceivable that whilst a dictator struggles to seize back control of their unruly population and the western powers are caught short and left floundering over who to support, pressure could come for Twitter to clamp down on protester’s tweets?

You might think that this is absurd, but it was already happened with mobile phone technology. In Egypt in January, as Hosni Mubarak sought to nullify the revolutionary protesters standing in Tahrir Square, the nation’s Vodafone customers suddenly found they had no signal on their mobile phones. The Mubarak government had requested Vodafone close down its network and the company had obliged, and thus a key way of co-ordinating protest action- of finding friends, family and merely keeping safe – was lost.

The point being – if censorship starts here then where does it end? Whilst the Giggs scandal has been a murky war, fought on one side by a man who cheated on his wife and on the other by media moguls keen to shift extra copies of their newspapers, it is nevertheless important. No one should be able to use the law to protect their commercial interests, and no one should be able to censor freedom of speech on the internet. It is not morally consistent for those who criticise the way the Giggs affair has played out to then (rightly) put the boot into Fred Goodwin, who was also named by Hemming in the commons but holds the (dis)advantage of being much more of an archetypal ‘bad guy’. If we seek to defend Giggs we seek to defend the rich’s right to different laws and rights of privacy than the rest of us. Just because he is a great footballer, he shouldn’t be given the sympathy of any football fans over this.

What could football be doing?

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on May 13, 2011

Here’s an interesting look at how cycling’s governing body (the UCI) uses its drug testing programme.

This list was leaked, presumably from someone in the UCI, to the French sports daily L’equipe who published it this morning. It’s basically a “suspicion list”, for want of a better term, that doctors gave to the UCI before the start of the Tour de France 2010 showing which riders they think displayed signs of possibly doping.

(credit to Bobby Lightspeed)

According to L’equipe, riders in the 4-10 categories are the ones testers should take notice of. Don’t draw too many conclusions from this, it’s certainly not a list of who is and who isn’t doping, more just a guide for who to test.

All of this is based on rider’s biological passports – a collection of data based on blood samples taken at different times which can be looked at collectively. If a rider’s blood levels differ from one test to another, or there are any other anomalies, then this may be evidence that they are doping and should be examined closer.  They can highlight things like fluctuating hematocrit levels and haemoglobin levels, which could indicate the use of doping products to aid recovery and create red blood cells to produce more oxygen.

The biological passport is something I believe FIFA should implement worldwide. The logistics are obviously tricky – there are far more professional footballers in the world than there are professional cyclists – but if it could be brought in initially for, say, every player in England and Spain’s top divisions then it would be a really worthwhile project and show FIFA were serious about their anti-doping message. It’s something they have “considered” in the past but, to my knowledge, have yet to do anything about.

For this to happen there, of course, needs to be more blood testing done. I’ve read various FA pdf files that outline their approach to anti-doping and a real roadblock seems to be the fact blood testing is expensive. In a game which is so awash with money at the top level this really shouldn’t be a problem. Sponsors could be encouraged to put money into an anti-doping pool that could be used effectively or, alternatively, FIFA could channel more of its revenue into this area of the game.

People might ask: why address a problem that doesn’t exist? Surely the only reason cycling is so far ahead of football in blood testing and the biological passport is because it is a dirtier sport? Well, for a start we don’t know that football is cleaner than cycling. I’ve written about examples in the past where top footballers have been found using exactly the same doping products as cyclists (namely EPO) but, for whatever reason, not much has been made of it. In addition to this, anti-doping rules shouldn’t be reactionary measures, they should be preventive. Why wait until you have a doping problem before doing anything about it? Isn’t it best to act early to prevent doping ever becoming an issue?

In the wake of even more FIFA corruption allegations this week Sepp Blatter could really clean up his imagine by taking  anti-doping seriously. For a man who says he wants to “take a step ahead in the fight against doping” he’s been very inactive thus far. In a medical report on FIFA’s website in August 2007 it was revealed that no blood testing took place at the 2006 World Cup whatsoever, despite having taken place at the 2002 World Cup. The reason given for this was:

Laboratory experts advised against taking blood tests, since given current levels of medical advancement, they would not be able to provide any further information. The blood tests taken at the 2002 FIFA World Cup did not throw up any abnormal results.

I find this baffling. Blood tests are more effective than urine tests, that’s been shown in sports like cycling and athletics for years. I’m sure that WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) would argue FIFA’s suggestion that blood tests couldn’t provide any more information than urine tests, and the logic that there weren’t any “abnormal results” four years previously so testing is now unnecessary is perverse, to say the least.

In my opinion, despite the obvious flaws in cycling’s “suspicion list” (and, remember, the list was never meant to be published), football could still take a few cues here and move towards being more responsible. Blood testing is needed in the sport on a far more regular basis than currently happens. Then, through the biological passport, governing bodies can get a more accurate picture of who to test and whether or not players are clean.

Lord Triesman’s other revelation

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on May 10, 2011

Former head of the FA Lord Triesman appeared before a parliamentary select committee today, convened to discuss broadly the subject of  governance in football but more specifically Triesman’s role in the England 2018 World Cup bid.

Lord Triesman, having a right old natter earlier today.

During the questioning Triesman made four serious accusations about members of FIFA’s executive committee, based around the familiar story of bribes and how they influence excom member’s votes when it comes to deciding who hosts the World Cup.

Rightly, this caused a lot of excitement amongst the press  but one other piece of information Triesman revealed seems to have gone wholly unreported (or so it seems after a quick Google news search) except for on Channel 4 News here in the UK.

When asked about a recording sold to a newspaper on which he discusses accusations of Spanish and Russian officials seeking to bribe referees (and which subsequently lost him his job as chairman of the FA and chief of the 2018 bid) Triesman goes into more detail about where he got the information from. The video of the hearing is on the select committee’s website but, as I’ve not seen it reported anywhere else, it’s probably worth putting up the transcript so as to avoid any inaccuracies:

Triesman: I’d been approached by a Spanish investigative journalist who wanted to put to me a number of things which he wanted to know I’d either heard about or believed might be happening here. He was writing what I assumed would be a pretty substantive story which covered manipulation of referees and also covered questions of avoiding the doping regulations in Spanish sport. As I understood it he had access to the tape of a discussion which a Spanish investigating magistrate had managed to get hold of in which some of these things appear to have been discussed between fairly senior people in Spain. I didn’t put it in my list because even a good and serious journalist coming along with a story of that kind might very well not be accurate, might be a rumour. I wasn’t really prepared and I said it was among the more fanciful things I’d heard.

Channel 4 News lead their report of Triesman’s testimony with this information (strange, seeing as doping is only actually mentioned once), coupled with footage of police investigators removing blood bags from fridges, presumably during the raid of a doping lab.

I wrote a while back about how questions about doping in Spanish football had never really been answered, particularly after the anecdotal evidence that came out of Operation Puerto from both Dr. Fuentes himself and cyclist Jesus Manzano (all that’s in the “Il Drogati” article linked in the first sentence too, just it’d look stupid if I linked to it again!). Add to this a story I found recently that claimed French newspaper Le Monde (who made the Lance Armstrong doping allegations in 2005) obtained documents that suggested Fuentes was working with players from Barcelona and Real Madrid. The claims were subsequently retracted after Barca and Real threatened legal action.

Similar rumblings came to the fore again recently when FC Barcelona were forced to defend themselves against doping allegations made by Spanish radio station Cadena Cope who reported that some of Barca’s physicians were less than reputable (I can’t read Spanish so was relying on the Google Chrome translation, maybe the accusation sounds stronger in its original language). They were possibly referring to Dr. Ramon Segura who is a club physician and who was previously Pep Guardiola’s doctor when he tested positive for nandrolone whilst playing for Brescia in 2001, and was also involved in the positive test given by Frank de Doer. It’s obviously worth pointing out that Guardiola was later cleared of doping by the Italian Olympic Committee in 2009.

So, obviously my ears pricked up when Triesman mentioned a tape that may or may not feature “fairly senior people in Spain” discussing how to avoid doping regulations. We know from cycling it’s actually pretty easy to avoid doping regulations if you have a good doctor; it’s messy, involves blood transfusions and masking agents, but it can be done and is seemingly almost second nature to those well-verse in the dark arts of doping.

My impression from Channel 4 News’s report tonight suggested that they had seen/heard the tapes Triesman referred to as well and (this is the speculative bit) the parliamentary privilege that allowed Triesman to mention what might otherwise be libellous remarks meant that Channel 4 News could report some of what they knew.

That’s only an educated guess, I wish 4 on demand put Channel 4 News on their service so I could watch the report again but, annoyingly, I can’t. Certainly the impression I got was that this tape had been seen by them.

Will anything more come of this? Quite possibly not. A glimmer of hope may come from Italy where a local magistrate has carried out a seemingly large-scale doping raid on the back of the work done by the federal investigation in America headed up by Jeff Novitsky. It sometimes seems, though, that it is left to police and local authorities to carry out the anti-doping work that should be done by sport’s governing bodies.

It’s interesting how these same accusations keep coming up again and again. It could well be that they’re just rumours designed to discredit what is undeniably a footballing nation at the zenith of its abilities right now, not to mention Spain’s success in other sports. But they always seem to lead back to the same question of whether or not Spain – and football in general – is doing enough to make absolutely sure that doping doesn’t take place. I hope it is, but I have my doubts.