As he prepares for a new post at The Times, Press Association’s chief sports reporter reflects on the intrigue and scandal that have marked his years as a SportsPro columnist.
‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’
LP Hartley was reflecting on a time 60 years before when he wrote his famous opening line, but even the recent past seems a different world when you look back to four years ago, and how the sports political landscape lay when I started writing this column.
Back then, Sepp Blatter was resolutely in power at Fifa paying lip service to reform but already eyeing a fifth term in office; preparations for the London Olympics were almost complete, with its chairman Sebastian Coe turning everything he touched to gold, and the Games themselves escaping any whiff of scandal from doping. As for Lance Armstrong, he was now retired – but what a hero.
Since then, the world of sport has turned upside down, and in last 12 months particularly. You don’t need me to go into exhaustive detail about what has happened, but in what is my last column for SportsPro magazine before I leave the Press Association for a new job reporting for The Times, I thought it would be interesting to look back briefly at those last four years.
One of my columns, in June 2013, provoked a furious response when I wrote that Fifa was an ‘organisation run on the lines of semi-dictatorship’, with an approach to transparency and reform that would not have been out of place in North Korea or George Orwell’s 1984. Fifa’s head of media fired off a reply stating: ‘This is not only untrue, but a highly insulting remark.’ I also suggested that Fifa had ditched plans to bring in term limits and age limits because Blatter was already planning to break his word and stand again for president.
Maybe it was Travis Tygart, the indefatigable head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, who set the reform ball really rolling with his determined pursuit of Armstrong. His revelations in June 2012 opened the world’s eyes to the ingrained and rampant cheating from the top to the bottom of cycling. Those exposures hastened the downfall of International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid, and should have stood as a warning to the rest of those making grubby fortunes from sport: they are coming to get you.
What we know now, of course, is that at almost exactly the same time that Tygart was exposing Armstrong, those at the very top of the IAAF were blackmailing Russian athletes to pay money for doping offences to be covered up, and perhaps even manipulating the votes for the host cities of the World Athletics Championships.
In another part of the USA in the June of 2012, the FBI was preparing a secret wiretap device for Fifa executive committee member Chuck Blazer to record his meetings at the London Olympics. No doubt somewhere in a dusty drawer in the J Edgar Hoover Building resides a transcript of my own meeting with Blazer in London, during which he asked me, apparently seriously, if I knew of a Premier League football team in need of a chief executive. Imagine...
The early months of 2015 had seemed to confirm that this would be a year of more noise but little action. The IAAF hierarchy seemed unconcerned at the WADA-inspired investigation into the Russian doping scandal, while Fifa continued to plough its own furrow despite all the negative stories surrounding the Garcia report.
Fifa decided the 2022 World Cup in Qatar would be played in November and December, as predicted by Michel Platini in 2012. The 2018 hosts Russia, having escaped any action from Garcia after claiming all its computers and servers from the days of its bid had been destroyed, were working hard behind the scenes to ensure that Blatter was re-elected for a fifth term. Jeffrey Webb, the banker from the Cayman Islands who had succeeded Jack Warner as Concacaf president, was also working assiduously for Blatter, with his eyes on taking the throne in 2019.
That all changed on 27th May 2015 – or St Loretta’s Day, as it will one day be known – when a police raid on Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel, ordered by US attorney general Loretta Lynch, seized Webb and six other officials and plunged Fifa into utter chaos.
From that moment, the Fifa story just never stopped: South Africa was revealed to have paid for votes for the 2010 World Cup; Blatter announced he was to stand down; the finger of suspicion was pointed at Germany’s 2006 World Cup; Swiss authorities swooped on Fifa’s headquarters and quizzed Blatter and Platini over a ‘disloyal’ CHF2 million payment; secretary general Jérôme Valcke was suspended after being caught up in a black market World Cup tickets scam.
Finally, ten days before the end of this year of living dangerously, came perhaps the defining moment of 2015 as eight-year bans for Blatter and Platini were announced.
In between the daily dose of power, corruption and lies, it has been a pleasure to reflect on such momentous events in this column, and perhaps to shine a more intense light on the machinations and manoeuvres involved.
So farewell, and here’s to the future: for that is a foreign country, too.
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