March 23, 2012 7:23 pm

Can this man fix Fifa?

Mark Pieth is set to propose radical reforms that could make the ‘football family’ – mired in allegations of corruption since the last World Cup bids – respectable once more

Fifa may yet regret choosing Mark Pieth to clean it up. The cheery Swiss criminologist might actually do the job – and a lot more aggressively than the global football authority expects. Basking in the spring sun on a Parisian restaurant terrace, Pieth gives a pithy view of Fifa: “If you have the governance structure of a hunting club, and you deal with billions per year, you just run huge risks. These guys are working with a kind of impunity. As a criminal lawyer I quite understand why people are so angry.”

Pieth has spent most of his career known only to fellow wonks in the anti-corruption world. Now he is suddenly a player in the world’s biggest sport. On Friday in Zurich he will appear before Fifa’s executive committee, the Exco, and propose radical reforms to the way Fifa runs football. The 24 Exco members – all male, mostly elderly and well-fed – may have to swallow hard before assenting. Alternatively, they may simply say no. Perhaps they prefer to continue festering in scandal. It’s their choice: the self-proclaimed “football family” runs its own affairs, and the world has almost no say. Is this the last chance to reform Fifa? Over ravioli, Pieth reflects. “I think so, yeah. You could probably give it a more positive spin: it’s a major chance.” Not only Fifa’s reputation is at stake in this exercise. So is Pieth’s and, he believes, Switzerland’s.

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Simon Kuper

Fifa has merrily sailed through scandals for decades. Most observers came to think of corruption in Fifa as a fact of nature, like rainfall, something that cannot be changed. However, as David Cameron remarked last year, Fifa’s reputation has lately hit an “all-time low”.

The prompt was Exco’s vote in December 2010 to stage the World Cups of 2018 and 2022 in Russia and Qatar, respectively. Eight Exco members were accused of corruption linked to the vote. Fifa’s secretary-general, Jerome Valcke, wrote in a leaked memo that Qatar had “bought” the World Cup (later he said he’d been misinterpreted). British MPs tabled evidence suggesting Qatar had paid two Exco members $1.5m each. Theo Zwanziger, then president of Germany’s football federation, appealed to Fifa to re-examine the choice of Qatar. Officials for Qatar’s bid called the allegations “distressing, insulting and incomprehensible”.

To top it all off, Fifa’s perennial president, Sepp Blatter, stood as the sole candidate last May in what looked like a Ruritanian comic-opera election. His Qatari rival, Mohammed bin Hammam, had stepped down after accusations of vote-buying and was later banned for life. Bin Hammam denies the allegations and is appealing.

So it was amidst much embarrassment that Blatter began looking for a “road map to reform” for Fifa. At first he mused about appointing the opera singer Placido Domingo and diplomat Henry Kissinger to a “committee of the solutions”. Only later did Blatter ask Pieth and his Independent Governance Committee instead.

. . .

Pieth, professor of criminology at Basel University, has a rather longer resumé in anti-corruption work than, say, Domingo. Early in his career, he helped write laws on money laundering for the Swiss ministry of justice. He has sat on many international anti-bribery bodies, including the United Nations’ inquiry into the Iraq Oil-for-Food Programme. When we meet for our Paris lunch, he has just spent the morning around the corner at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development arguing with certain large countries about their anti-corruption laws.

Crucially, too, Pieth comes from outside the “football family”. Indeed, he believes Blatter’s talk of family is part of Fifa’s problem. “It evokes a picture of, ‘You do things in the family, you don’t go public with certain things.’ What about the fans – aren’t they part of the family?”

Yet when Pieth was appointed, some scoffed that Blatter expected his fellow Swiss German to deliver a whitewash. Certainly Pieth’s work on Fifa got off to a bad start. Sylvia Schenk, sports adviser to the anti-corruption body Transparency International, pulled out of the process when it emerged that Fifa had paid Pieth about SF120,000 to produce an initial “scoping report”, and after he had said he wouldn’t investigate past allegations of corruption but would only look at Fifa’s future.

Schenk grumbled to me: “As long as Fifa’s executive committee contains several people under serious accusation, right up to Mr Blatter personally, it’s hard to believe they will clean up Fifa. You can make a beautiful compliance programme. I can make one in three days. But that’s not the issue at Fifa. It’s about credibility.” Her boycott damaged Pieth. Roger Pielke Jr, a political scientist at the University of Colorado who studies Fifa, said Pieth’s process had “struggled to attain credibility”.

England logo

Pieth notes that he himself won’t earn a euro from his work on Fifa: “The major part of the money went to the university, and part to the institute [the Basel Institute on Governance],” he says. Yet one wonders whether Pieth the governance expert would accept the explanation of Pieth the consultant. Still, the initial uproar may have done some good. Pieth comes from a world where perceived integrity is all. Starting out under suspicion of being Blatter’s creature, he has since been almost obliged to take the toughest line possible. Certainly he now sounds more like Fifa’s scourge than its stooge.

Pieth chose 13 people for his Independent Governance Committee. Some were insiders, such as Sunil Gulati, head of the US Soccer Federation, and Seung-Tack Kim, chief operating officer of Hyundai Motor Company, a sponsor of Fifa. Some were outsiders, such as Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general. Shouldn’t they all have been outsiders? “You have to be realistic,” Pieth replies. “You need people who know what it’s about. My resolve has been fortified by having all these insiders saying, ‘I want this house to be cleaned up.’ It’s quite impressive what they are ready to sign up to.” Nonetheless, Colorado’s Pielke complains: “Having people with relationships to Fifa on the committee means that any advice will be viewed through a lens of conflict of interest.”

Pieth’s own motivation to get involved wasn’t love of football. Mostly, he says, it was concern for Switzerland. Everything about this neat lawyer screams Swiss-German establishment. Yet he says, “Switzerland had a long history of organisations based there doing all sorts of strange stuff. It’s ultra-liberalism. The most recent example is raw materials. There is a big run to shift all your offices for the trading of raw materials to Switzerland.”

David Beckham and Prince William

David Beckham and Prince William as England delegates

Sixty-plus global sporting bodies are based in the country, largely because the Swiss scarcely bother them, says Pieth. “Switzerland has this legacy of being a kind of pirates’ harbour. I’m not saying all these sports guys are pirates, but it’s attractive because there is little regulation. All these bodies are independent. Above them is the sky, or whatever – if you are religious, God.”

“So it’s no coincidence that at the moment Switzerland is rethinking its laws and regulations. The minister of sport, who is also the minister of defence, has asked for a report. My point about this from the inside is: why do we always have to offer our terrain to greedy people? A place like Switzerland should define base rules.”

Now Pieth is defining base rules for Fifa. “There will be really a mega-revamping of their compliance structures,” he says. “It goes way beyond compliance. It really has to do with independence, and introducing the notion of transparency.”

Making the rules isn’t complicated. “You don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” says Schenk, and Pieth’s proposed reforms are mostly fairly standard. Above all, he wants to create a sort of independent prosecutor inside Fifa who can pursue crooks. The current in-house ethics committee is anything but independent: any investigation must be launched by Fifa’s leadership. Pieth says: “The judicial authorities will have to be particularly independent. So if they [Fifa] adopt this, that will be a test of whether they are serious.”

Next, he says, Fifa needs rules “to prevent new corrupt guys from coming in” to the Exco. Pieth’s committee will probably also recommend that some Exco members and chairs of committees be independents, rather than officials from football’s regional or national federations. Lastly, salaries of senior Fifa figures would probably need to be public. (Pielke calculates that in 2010, by Fifa’s own admission, its “key personnel” earned an average of about $1m each, mostly for part-time work.) All these are utterly standard rules for big organisations like Fifa. However, they would be utterly new to Fifa.

Initially, Pieth spoke only of Fifa’s future. Yet over the months, he seems quietly to have been moving to Schenk’s position: the past must be examined too. “We have conducted extensive hearings with people with allegations about the past,” he says. It is understood that the committee heard of some grisly goings-on around the World Cup bids. Lord Goldsmith has said: “We have looked closely at the way allegations regarding those World Cup host selections have been dealt with and we have not been satisfied with the level of investigation which has taken place.”

Pieth suggests his own committee lacks the resources for deep investigations. “If you have to go into the Middle East, it’s very difficult to run an investigation. And it’s very costly.” But he now hopes that if he can create an independent judiciary inside Fifa, it could investigate past scandals.

Russia logo

Russia announced its bid for the 2018 World Cup only at the last moment, in early 2009

If Pieth agrees the past should be dug up, why didn’t he say so from the start? “I didn’t stand up at the beginning and say, ‘I’m the big clean-up man.’ I didn’t intend to raise expectations, because that would have been for myself a way of crashing.”

The prospect of future investigations should excite the English, Americans and other losing bidders in the 2018 and 2022 races. Conceivably, the hosting of both World Cups could be reconsidered. Even Blatter has said that if Pieth thinks this is necessary, it could happen. Schenk has thought hard about how this might be done. She told me: “I had wanted Russia and Qatar to say, ‘We’ll open all the books, we want this cleared up, so that all this talk stops.’ Unfortunately neither of them has done that.” If some malfeasance in the bidding is eventually revealed, she says, then perhaps the winning bidders could pay indemnities to the losing candidates and hold the World Cups anyway.

. . .

Still, for Pieth the past remains a secondary matter. In Zurich on Friday, the big question becomes: will Fifa’s power brokers let somebody outside the “football family” turn their club upside down forever? Will they accept Pieth’s recommendations? If so, then Fifa’s congress of 208 national football associations would still need to approve them too.

“We expect considerable resistance,” Pieth wrote in the FT in January. Historically, Fifa has never felt much pressure to reform. Most fans and journalists think Fifa is boring. They care about what happens on the field, not off it: about Lionel Messi, not about Sepp Blatter. On the field, the World Cup – Fifa’s one significant property – is more beloved and global than ever. No matter how tarnished Fifa gets, sponsors and TV companies keep paying.

Nor does Fifa feel much pressure from governments and national football associations. Indeed, the body’s rules explicitly forbid them from meddling in its business. In theory, Fifa’s congress acts as a parliament. However, it’s been of the toothless variety, rather like the USSR’s old central committee. “It’s too easy to outmanoeuvre the associations,” says Pieth. The upshot is that the gentlemen’s club has been untroubled by oversight.

Yet Pieth and some insiders believe that Fifa is finally ready to change. A decade ago, being an Exco member was something to boast about at parties. Now it’s an embarrassment. Blatter knows that. And Fifa’s reputation has only worsened since Pieth’s committee started work.

First, Trinidad’s Jack Warner, who had resigned from the Exco amid scandal last summer, said Blatter had sold him the Trinidad & Tobago TV rights to several World Cups for tiny fees in return for Warner’s support in elections. Blatter denied this.

Then this month another of Fifa’s longstanding power brokers, Ricardo Teixeira, quit as head of Brazil’s Football Confederation and supremo of the 2014 World Cup after a bewildering string of scandals. Teixeira and Warner were among four Exco members named by Lord Triesman, former head of the English FA, as having asked for favours in return for voting for England as host for 2018. According to Triesman, Teixeira said, “Come and tell me what you have for me.”

Qatar logo

Qatar (pop. 1.8m) will be the smallest country ever to host a World Cup

Teixeira denies all allegations. He said he quit his Brazilian functions because of bad health, and “with the feeling of having done my duty”. Last week, he vacated his Exco seat as well, “for personal reasons”.

Blatter, aged 76 and due to retire as president in 2015, may hope to go out with a reformer’s halo. Schenk says, “If he tries to make a rotten compromise, it will damage him. I don’t think he wants to leave Fifa with everyone saying, ‘He left an absolutely corrupt mess, we’re happy he’s gone.’ Yet I really don’t think he can cast himself as a fundamental reformer.”

Now that Blatter has created a “road map to reform”, Pieth thinks it will be “difficult” for the president to ignore his committee’s proposals. He hopes the media will add to pressure on the Exco to say yes. But his greatest hope is for the slightly younger guard within the Exco.

Pieth says, “I’m not too worried about people who have a heavy past, or who have all these allegations against them. They are too focused on surviving, or on stepping down at the right moment – I will let you interpret what I mean. I’m much more focused on future potential presidents. I see them as potential allies.”

Pieth won’t name names, but is probably thinking particularly of Michel Platini, president of Europe’s football association, Uefa. Platini – considered personally clean – is favourite to succeed Blatter in 2015.

Sepp Blatter

Sepp Blatter with the controversial, coveted World Cup

Meanwhile, Fifa’s response to Pieth hangs in the balance. Blatter might not want an independent judiciary inside Fifa, if that judiciary would then go sniffing around matters like Warner’s allegations. The biggest sticking-point might be if Pieth proposes to put independents on the Exco. To the “football family”, that would be like putting outsiders in the marital bedroom. Or Fifa could pass a shiny new constitution – and then not implement it.

Pieth has suggested that if Fifa’s response is unsatisfactory, he might empower specialist investigators to dig up past scandals – perhaps a way of pressuring the Exco to accept his reforms.

Ultimately, he muses over his espresso, he has no idea how Fifa will react. “I’m at the moment pretty optimistic. But it’s very open. If it works out I’ll be patted on the back. If it fails I’ll be an idiot. I think we will know by mid-April whether they are serious.” And if they aren’t? “If we are unsuccessful, we would have to walk away. ‘We’ve had it, goodbye.’ This would be a dreary result. Sponsors, the media, everybody would be left with something they couldn’t really digest, and Fifa would just carry on. Who would force Fifa?”

He smiles, shrugs and then wanders back to the OECD to spend the afternoon arguing with the UK. “We have to stop the abolition of the Serious Fraud Office,” he explains.

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