The thwarting of a plot to depose FIFA's chief ethics watchdog, Michael Garcia, is a landmark moment for the integrity of the organisation.
4 Apr 2014 - 10:37 AM  UPDATED 14 May 2014 - 1:26 PM

On 25 March a potentially sensational story, emanating from the corridors of FIFA in Zurich, broke in the media over the much-debated hosting of the 2022 World Cup by Qatar.

The story revealed that a plot was hatched by unnamed members of FIFA’s supreme body, the executive committee, to shut down FIFA’s own investigation into the 2010 vote to award the hosting rights to Qatar and have the chief investigator deposed.

There were members of the executive committee involved in the plot.

The plot was thwarted and never got past lobbying in the corridors. Fortunately for FIFA, it appears there are people on the executive committee with some sense and indeed courage these days. Those who opposed such a harebrained notion, who apparently include FIFA president Sepp Blatter and secretary general Jerome Valcke, deserve congratulating.

The story didn’t get the media traction it deserved, given its sensational implications. Yet the story was/is dynamite for two reasons:

1. Why would members of FIFA’s executive committee attempt to shut down an investigation unless they feared its possible findings?

2. The story establishes, beyond doubt, the enormous independent power yielded by FIFA’s chief ethics watchdog, Michael Garcia, and the body he chairs, the investigatory arm of the FIFA ethics committee.

The latter point invites me to say a few words about the FIFA ethics committee, an initiative that is largely misunderstood and often unjustifiably maligned.

I served on the ethics committee for nearly seven years between 2006 and 2013. I even served on its forerunner, the FIFA committee for ethics and fair play between 2003 and 2006.

The idea of an ethics committee, just like the IOC’s ethics commission, is rooted in crisis. In FIFA’s case it was born out of the shenanigans surrounding the elections for the FIFA presidency in 2002 when Sepp Blatter defeated challenger Issa Hayatou for the world body’s top position amid all manner of allegations of skulduggery.

The initiative to set up an ethics body came from Sepp Blatter (yes, him). The invitation for me to serve on the body came from FIFA’s then secretary general, Urs Linzi.

The problem soon became clear that the first incarnation of the body, the FIFA committee for ethics and fair play, could not be credible because it wasn’t independent and had no power to mete out punishment. The committee could hear and adjudicate over a case, decide whether or not the accused had breached the code of ethics and then hand it over to the FIFA executive committee for ultimate judgment and punishment.

Conflict of interest issues were obvious and blatant. The chairman of that committee was Senes Erzik (Turkey) and the deputy chairman Mohamed Bin Hammam (Qatar), both members of the FIFA executive committee.

In 2005 a case came before the committee in which then FIFA vice president Jack Warner was accused of fraud over World Cup ticketing. The committee, of which I was a member, found that Warner had breached the code of ethics on five counts and handed the matter over to the executive committee, which in turn issued Warner with a fine.

It was a joke, a slap on the wrist. There was Jack being judged by his own colleagues. Something had to change if FIFA’s drive to be seen as transparent and accountable was to have any credibility.

So in 2006 a new ethics committee was constituted, under the chairmanship of Sebastian Coe, the iconic Olympian, and a new code of ethics written. The new body was to be independent and one of only four FIFA judicial bodies (the others being the executive committee, the disciplinary committee and the appeals committee). This initiative was that of Sepp Blatter (yes, him again), a move that didn’t exactly make Blatter 'Mr Popular’ among all his executive committee colleagues.

The FIFA ethics committee was now all powerful, it had teeth and could adjudicate without interference or fear. And it soon went to work. Within a short period, between 2010 and 2012, no less than eight of FIFA’s most powerful people (Adamu, Temarii, Aloulou, Diakite, Fusimalohou, Bhamjee, Warner, Bin Hammam) came crumbling down and were out of the game, thanks to the work of the ethics committee.

As a result of the Trinidad and Tobago vote buying scandal in 2011, dozens more were either banned or fined by the ethics committee, their credibility shot and their chance of ever again being part of football blown away. Good work by the ethics committee, you would have thought.

Yet the perception that the ethics committee was somehow the instrument of a corrupt FIFA top brass persisted. This was distressing, including to me personally as a member of that committee. I recall sitting in a Zurich café with the acting chairman of the committee, Petrus Damaseb, a high court judge in Namibia and a thoroughly decent man, deflecting media phone calls after the demise of Bin Hammam where it was suggested that this had all been a Blatter plot to eliminate a political rival. One Australian columnist referred to the committee as 'FIFA’s oxymoronic ethics committee’, which was deeply insulting to me and all other members of the committee.

I was jibed and baited by many to resign from the ethics committee in protest at perceived corruption in FIFA’s high offices. My answer was to stay and work against corruption on the inside rather than quit and bark from the outside.

Let me paint a picture of how the FIFA ethics committee worked and, I assume, still works.

At the committee’s plenary meetings Sepp Blatter makes an appearance and says a few words about football being the school of life and the game’s need to project an ethical image. Without making the slightest reference to the specific cases to be heard, he then leaves the room.

Remaining in the room are Marco Villiger, FIFA’s head lawyer, two junior FIFA lawyers, there to advise the committee on legal matters, and the members. After briefing the committee on the case or cases to be heard and the legal implications, Villiger also leaves the room. After that the committee is on its own, conducting its hearings and calling witnesses at its own whim and under its own independent chairman. The only other witnesses to what is being said are the battery of translators in four languages.

At no point, and I must emphasise this, at no point in my experience as a member, was there any attempt by FIFA to interfere with or influence the decisions or deliberations of the ethics committee. In 2010, after allegations by Mohamed Bin Hammam, the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, was called by the ethics committee to answer certain charges that he knew about alleged bribe attempts and did nothing about it.

Blatter sat there, in the dock, listening to charges read out to him and was questioned by members of the committee like any accused. There was no pressure, at any time by anyone, to go soft on him. Blatter was cleared due a lack of evidence against him.

There is also a perception that FIFA committee members, including members of the ethics committee, are on some kind of gravy train. A few years ago I was called by an investigative reporter who asked me if FIFA flew me to Zurich for meetings. I told him, no, I actually swam to Zurich from Sydney.

Committee members are flown business class and are paid a daily allowance for meals and incidentals. They stay at the Dolder Waldhaus which, at best, is a three star hotel. There is no fee for serving on the committee. One does this for the love of the game. So much for the gravy train.

In 2011, I was on the five-person committee which heard the Trinidad vote-buying case. That exercise was so taxing, involving so many long haul flights to Zurich, I contracted a serious case of pneumonia which had me in hospital for nine days.

At the FIFA Congress in Budapest in 2012, it was resolved that the ethics committee would now be split into two chambers, adjudicatory and investigatory. German high court judge Hans-Joachim Eckert was appointed chairman of the former and ex-US district attorney Michael Garcia chairman of the latter. I was on the investigatory chamber until May, 2013, when, under new rules, members of the committee were elected by congress. I wasn’t nominated, didn’t seek to be nominated and therefore didn’t stand.

The committee continues its work and in fact its powers have been broadened further. Until 2013 only the FIFA secretariat had the power to bring cases to the ethics committee. Now anyone, any citizen of the world, can report breaches of FIFA’s code of ethics to the investigatory chamber of the committee. If Michael Garcia deems the complaint to merit investigation, he investigates it. The FIFA code of ethics is publicly available.

I believe Garcia to be a man of complete integrity and courage. He’s also a smart lawyer who knows what evidence will stand up in court before he brings a matter to the adjudicatory chamber. His investigation of the Qatar vote cannot and must not be hampered with in any way by FIFA’s top brass.

That’s why the thwarting of what would have amounted to nothing less than a coup against Garcia was significant. Had that been allowed to go ahead, it would have been a scandal of such proportions that even FIFA would not have been able to survive it.