The truth about FIFA, the scandal and me

FIFA's headquarters in Zurich (Getty) Source: Getty Images

FIFA is in deep trouble and turmoil. The exposure of astonishing levels of corruption at its highest levels by police authorities makes one wonder if it has a future. Can it survive? Can it ever recover from its sordid past and present?

This is now a major topic of reporting and discussion in media organisations just about everywhere in the world as new revelations of sleaze emerge every day.

Yet in Australia it triggers introspection and invokes our remarkable capacity to beat up on each other. It seems every time a stink bomb goes off in Zurich it becomes an opportunity for the magnifying glass to be turned on one or more of our own and to ask who among us is part of football's vast network of corruption.

A case in point is the recent front page article about me in The Saturday Paper, headlined Les Murray and the FIFA Scandal. It’s a naked attempt at a hatchet job and the blackening of my character. There is simply no other explanation given that the body text of the piece contains no specific allegation of wrongdoing on my part, only innuendo and imputations of guilt by association. It’s cheap, tabloid journalism at its lowest.

Take the evocative photo emblazoned above the article, showing Sepp Blatter and me looking all smiles and chummy, taken circa 2001 while I was in Zurich on broadcasting business as SBS head of sport, long before any serious attempts to expose FIFA scandals were made. But I’m sure you get the picture of what the photo was meant to imply.

Then there is the heading, Les Murray and the FIFA Scandal, an inactive headline which says nothing, what in my newspaper sub-editor days we would call a ‘label’. What it does try to do is imply and establish some kind of link between me and a scandal which has seen over a dozen people thrown into the slammer and charged with corruption, embezzlement, tax evasion, money laundering and racketeering. Wow. Terrific. Wonderful. I have worked long and hard through my life to reach this point. My children will be proud.

But that’s just one lie. There are others.

The article begins with the words: ‘The three lunched together regularly, conversing in their native Hungarian. They were tight – to some, impenetrable – as they planned Australia’s bid to host the 2022 football World Cup finals.’

This is fiction. The three referred to are Frank Lowy, Peter Hargitay and me, a triumvirate of Hungarian conspirators. Actually the three of us never ever lunched or dined together, not once. Despite knowing Lowy for almost 40 years I only ever had one private lunch with him, a boardroom lunch he gave to 20 people in honour of my retirement from broadcasting last November. Hargitay was not in attendance. I have lunched with Hargitay a number of times but never with Lowy present.

As for the claim that I was part of the bid’s planning process, it is both unfounded and ridiculous. Can you imagine Frank Lowy bringing me, a journalist, into the inner sanctum of bid strategy? I had nothing whatever to do with bid planning. The closest I ever got to the bid process was to attend a handful of so called media round-table briefings at which both Ben Buckley, then bid CEO, and Bonita Mersiades asked the attending media to be cheerleaders for the bid.

The author of the article, one Martin McKenzie-Murray, quotes a source, former SBS columnist Jesse Fink, saying that I ‘attempted to use [my] position at SBS to shape the editorial that was coming out of SBS to ensure it was favourable to Australia’ in the bid process’. This is wrong.

I did remind SBS editorial staff that SBS was a corporate supporter of the bid but I never compelled them to support it nor did I ever tell them what opinions to express and what not to express.

Then there is, in the article, this quote from Fink: ‘One year I had a drink with Murray in the bar of a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur during the Asian Football Confederation Awards. I got the strong sense he loved being a FIFA ‘playa’: the trips to Zurich, all that bullshit. We were surrounded by a roomful of FIFA heavies who were drinking in the company of young, attractive women’.

I was indeed at those celebrations in Malaysia. However, I don’t recall being surrounded by young, attractive women. Another fabrication, another beat-up.

Loved being a FIFA ‘playa’? Fink, who attended more of these lavish AFC functions at the AFC’s expense than I did, has got the wrong man.

I was invited to these things in my capacity as head of SBS sport and chairman of the Asia Pacific Broadcasting Union (ABU) sports group. I went because it was protocol to do so.

The Saturday Paper article spends much time discussing my time on the FIFA ethics committee. This is ultimately the main source of the beating I am getting. The culture seems to be that if I was on a FIFA committee, any committee, I must be some kind of crook.

These days, so deep is the hatred and suspicion of FIFA, that anyone who so much as stumbles onto a plane to Zurich, where FIFA is headquartered, is suspected of being a thief.

Some years ago a man who identified himself as a staffer for a well-known anti-FIFA campaigning journalist from the UK called me and asked if FIFA flew me to Zurich for meetings. I told him, no, I prefer to swim.

Why did I join the ethics committee? Because I felt I could do more to help fix FIFA corruption by working on the inside than I could by barking from the outside. This I did, at least to the extent the system allowed. The ethics committee concept was not perfect, I never claimed that. I merely claimed that the committee was independent.

We brought down a lot of crooks but clearly not all of them. It was hard work. In 2011, the year of the demise of Mohamed Bin Hammam and Jack Warner, I made 12 trips to Zurich. On one of the flights I caught pneumonia and spent eight days in hospital. Still I have no regrets. I did some service to football (not to FIFA as the article claims).

Why did I support the Australian World Cup bid? Because the urge to grow football is embedded in my DNA. And I felt Australia hosting a football World Cup would do wonders to grow the game in my country, as I still do. This passion is not shared by everyone in the football media commentariat, so what drives me is not always understood.

While The Saturday Paper article attempts to tell a story, towards its end it descends into commentary and gibberish.

‘[It is] astonishing to me, after surveying his blinkered views of recent years, that his authority might be unquestioned. Even solely judged on the perspicacity of his commentary on the events surrounding FIFA, we are presented with a stubbornly uncritical mind, seemingly incapable of yielding more than clichés on the darkest moments of his life’s great love. Murray has served our game, but in doing so he has also served FIFA, a body that has long been in disgrace in this country’.

If I can make sense of this jumble, I gather he is saying I have been insufficiently critical and too accommodating of FIFA. This too is nonsense and my criticisms of FIFA, its morality and some of its bizarre decisions are on the record. I have not been a muckraker or a career FIFA basher, for sure. There are enough of those without me.

My training in journalism, ingrained within me, compels me to stick to facts. I cannot, therefore, accuse individuals of being gangsters if I don’t have the evidence before me. There are decent people, believe it or not, even at FIFA’s top table (Moya Dodd for example) and to tarnish all of them would be, to my mind, indecent.

With this article Martin McKenzie-Murray has joined the small but predictable Aussie group who love to publicly molest any individual who may have had anything to do with FIFA or even the Australian World Cup bid.

It is his article that is the cliché.