Fleet Street has been on FIFA trail for decades

The story of corruption in international football grabbed headlines this week when authorities stepped in to take action. As MATT SCOTT reports, the British media has been highlighting the issue for many years

FIFA generic requires cropThey say it is the victors that get to chronicle what happened for the benefit of history. Fleet Street’s sports news reporters have been fighting the good fight against graft at FIFA for decades, and although they have had some notable successes, the war on corruption is still not won.

That said, the right to put down history’s landmarks about what has been going on in the grimy world of football politics rests with the British press and broadcast media.

No other nation has deployed the same resources to covering FIFA Congresses and executive committee meetings or to conducting undercover investigations of major sports politics events. No other nation has explored things as assiduously or as independently as the Brits. Even Sepp Blatter himself acknowledged that, blaming Fleet Street for his organisation’s bad press when steering his delegates away from voting for England’s last World Cup bid.

Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert last year won two gongs at the Sports Journalists Association’s 2014 awards – Best Scoop and Best Investigative Sports Report – and they also won the Paul Foot Award for Investigative Journalism and the London Press Club’s Scoop of the Year award. Their Sunday Times investigation into thousands of documents, what they called “The FIFA Files”, exposed a history of corruption at FIFA that it claimed allowed Qatar to “buy the World Cup” in winning the vote to host the 2022 tournament.

Scoop of the Year: the Sunday Times's Fifa files
Scoop of the Year: the Sunday Times’s Fifa files

In 2011 Martyn Ziegler, the irrepressible chief sports reporter at the Press Association, gave the world an astonishing picture that immediately changed the course of football politics. It was of a cash bribe stuffed in a brown envelope (of all things) that had been among the many paid to Caribbean football officials. That scoop ended the last presidential election as a contest as the alleged fixer, then Concacaf president Jack Warner, and the candidate Mohamed Bin Hammam were suspended from all football activity.

Paul Kelso, now Sky News’s sports news man, was at the Daily Telegraph when, a month after the 2010 vote, he revealed details from confidential Qatar 2022 bid documents describing the methods used – and some of the money spent – in winning hosting rights to the tournament.

And the trailblazer for them all is Andrew Jennings. Jennings has been working on stories about corruption in sport for 30 years, first with World In Action and his book, with Vyv Simpson, Lords of the Rings, and for the last two decades or more on football in  a series of penetrative investigative books on FIFA, including Foul! His greatest impact in FIFA terms was probably the Panorama programme FIFA’s Dirty Secrets, broadcast days before 2018/2022 World Cup-hosting decision.

Trailblazer: Andrew Jennings
Trailblazer: Andrew Jennings

The programme showed documents proving how three then members of the FIFA executive committee had received bribes from the defunct ISL, International Sports and Leisure, sports-marketing firm. It destroyed what faint hopes England might have had of winning the campaign and brought complaints from the England 2018 Bid committee and others for its timing.

But, with one of the men featured in that Jennings programme now accused in a criminal inquiry by the FBI and US Department of Justice which has further sullied FIFA’s reputation, few would argue that the Football Association is not better off having lost out.

With that FBI/DoJ investigation gathering pace, it has been the turn of the American press to pick up and run with Fleet Street’s baton. Most unexpected was the article in the New York Daily News last November, detailing how the former FIFA executive committee member, the American, Chuck Blazer, had turned supergrass, using secret recordings of meetings held during the 2012 London Olympics.

The recent American interest in the FIFA story cannot eclipse the years of work put in by the British sports news corps. No other nation’s journalists are as despised at FIFA House in Zurich, a fact that should be considered a badge of honour by those who report without fear or favour. Indeed Jennings can wear no other badge when it comes to FIFA. Now banned for his work, it refuses ever to accredit him for any of its events.

As Blatter, at 79 years old, stands on the threshold of re-election for a fifth term as FIFA President, for many a totem for the graft and misdeeds throughout “the FIFA family” worldwide, it is clear that the work of the men and women of Fleet Street is not yet done.

But it won’t stop them trying, and writing more history along the way.

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