Decision time looms in politics of FIFA reform

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Associated Press

Posted on March 18, 2013 at 1:04 PM

GENEVA (AP) — In a conclave at FIFA headquarters this week, a group of soccer leaders will work secretively over two days in their first session of 2013.

Presided over by President Sepp Blatter, the FIFA Executive Committee — with 23 men and one woman — is a group governing a sport followed in many countries with near-religious fervor.

Known in FIFA circles as the "ExCo," the group oversees a billion dollar annual income and $1.3 billion cash reserves thanks to the World Cup.

The ExCo members' influence was shown by the parade by princes, presidents and prime ministers who flocked to Zurich in December 2010 seeking votes for their country to be allowed to host a World Cup.

Yet that high status is balanced by the depths FIFA's reputation has sunk to among many soccer fans and commentators.

This week, one of the ExCo's main tasks is approving — or blocking — a slate of anti-corruption measures which the FIFA congress of 209 member nations will likely rubber-stamp on May 31 in Mauritius. The changes are designed to clean up a mess that some of its own members helped create by their involvement in a series of cash-for-votes scandals and favor-seeking allegations.

Even Blatter has acknowledged that members did not believe the FIFA code of ethics applied to them.

So, on Thursday morning, the ExCo will address items No. 27 and 28 of 33 listed on its agenda, and discuss reforming and modernizing soccer's authorities: How they elect leaders; how to check candidates' integrity; how to prevent conflicts of interest; and how they allocate money.

And on Thursday afternoon, Blatter will emerge — not on a balcony but into a windowless auditorium inside a building worthy of a multinational corporation — for an audience with international media.

Since launching a two-year reform process in June 2011, Blatter has declared each stage a resounding success with his ExCo united behind his vision.

This time, consensus should be harder to agree as time runs out and politicking steps up before the next FIFA presidential election in 2015.

"Once you get politics into the reform process, you can't succeed with reform," Michael Hershman, one of the expert panel of advisers Blatter invited to suggest anti-corruption measures, told The Associated Press last month.

Back in 2011, after the 2018-2022 World Cup votes and his own re-election were widely criticized, Blatter accepted that change was inevitable and called for a "solutions committee" to advise him.

Blatter suggested Henry Kissinger and opera singer Placido Domingo as potential members — to widespread derision — then invited respected Swiss law professor Mark Pieth to form a group which has proved stridently independent.

Public spats between Blatter and Pieth have raised doubts about how seriously FIFA ever intended to take the advice.

Blatter has problems deeper inside the "football family" with UEFA and its president, Michel Platini.

UEFA suggests an upper age limit of 72 for election or appointment to FIFA positions — not good for the 77-year-old Blatter, whose recent barbs aimed at the 57-year-old Platini suggest he might renege on a promise to leave in 2015.

The balance of power between FIFA and its six continental confederations is a theme of this week's power broking.

Blatter likes to call ExCo members the government he is given, rather than chooses, because only the FIFA president and a designated female member are elected by the 209 members.

The other 23 are elected at confederation level. This helps distance Blatter from responsibility when some of those ExCo members are investigated by the FIFA ethics judicial bodies.

Such as Vernon Manilal Fernando, a relative rookie from Sri Lanka, who is currently banned from any activity in world soccer for up to 90 days at the request of ethics prosecutor Michael J. Garcia.

Manilal Fernando is a close ally of Mohammed bin Hammam, the Qatari official who was pursued through FIFA's ethics court since trying to challenge Blatter in the 2011 election and eventually banned for life for financial conflicts of interest while leading the Asian confederation.

When Garcia, a former United States Attorney, was appointed last July — by the ExCo, and not from the candidate list FIFA asked Pieth's panel to present — it raised critics' hopes that some veteran ExCo members would be held to account.

Instead, Garcia's first public actions have targeted bin Hammam and an ally who formally joined FIFA's inner circle days after his patron was expelled.

This week, Garcia could deliver a surprise, in his report requested by Blatter into a 12-year-old case of kickbacks paid to FIFA officials from World Cup broadcasting contracts by the now-defunct marketing agency ISL.

A Swiss criminal case linked two influential Brazilians — Blatter's predecessor Joao Havelange and former 2014 World Cup organizing head Ricardo Teixeira — to payments totaling $22 million from 1992-2000. Teixeira resigned from the ExCo last year.

However, 84-year-old ExCo member Nicolas Leoz from Paraguay received $730,000, according to investigations by British broadcaster BBC, and never faced a FIFA probe. Nor did FIFA vice president Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, who was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee for taking 100,000 French francs ($20,000) from ISL in 1995.

Garcia's report and recommendation is expected to be discussed as No. 29 on the ExCo agenda.

Though FIFA now details its ExCo agenda in advance, supporting documents are not published — often not even to ExCo members, some have complained privately. Others talk of paperwork arriving in late-night drops under hotel doors before meetings.

UEFA has therefore asked to "ensure the FIFA Executive Committee always receives appropriate prior notice of matters (including relevant documentation) that it must discuss and decide."

It remains to be seen if Blatter is willing to concede to UEFA, though Europe has a built-in ExCo majority of 13 if it works with African delegates.

African confederation general secretary Hicham El Amrani told the AP last month that it supported UEFA's request for integrity checks on ExCo members to be done at continental level, and not in Zurich.

Such deal-making recalls a plea from FIFA vice president Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan to the AP on his first day as an ExCo member in June 2011, after Blatter was re-elected promising change.

"Just get rid of this politics," he said. "Leave the politics aside — and then judge (FIFA)."

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