Australia’s Humiliation

Below is an article I wrote for The Australian newspaper this weekend about what the Eckert/Garcia Report summary meant to their country.   It could be applied, sadly, in many other places.

“For goodness sake, don’t say too much!   Australia is bidding for the right to host the World Cup in 2022 and we do not want any unnecessary scandals to upset anyone.”

It was a joke: cocktail-hour small-talk at a reception for athletes and sports officials in 2009.   I was there trying to warn Australia’s sports community about the dangers of match-fixing linked to Asian gambling gangs.   The speaker was a very senior member of the last government with responsibility for a vast section of Australian sport.  I will not give their name. It is not fair given the context of the conversation.  I was not speaking to them as a journalist; they were not expecting to be on-the-record.

However, ‘the joke’ perfectly sums up Australia’s humiliating loss of values and ethics in chasing the poisoned chalice of hosting the world’s largest sporting event.   Years before Australian sport was hit by a series of match-fixing scandals, senior government officials did not want to even discuss the issue in case it upset FIFA.

$43 million dollars in public taxpayers money has been flushed down the toilet to try and convince a group of some of the most reprehensible men in sports (which is saying a great deal) that Australia should host the World Cup of 2022.   There are schools, community centres, hospitals, environmental projects and charities full of decent people who could have made better use of the money.

Yet Australian sports officials chased the dream of hosting the World Cup.  In the chase, they threw overboard just about every value that the nation holds dear.   They threw money into dubious projects, they helped finance unlikely schemes, and they trucked up to dodgy characters.

This is the summation of Australia’s bid written by the report on the report about possible corruption in the bidding for the World Cup.    A lawyer on FIFA’s Ethics Committee Hans-Joachim Eckert wrote a summation of an investigation by an American former anti-terrorist lawyer Michael J. Garcia into the subject.  The Eckert/Garcia report hammers away at Australia.  They are right to do so, yet in focusing so much attention on Australia the report leaves unanswered huge questions about the actions of some of the other bidding countries.

The question that nearly everyone in the sporting world wanted them to examine was “Did the Russians and Qataris – the eventual winners of the World Cup hosting rights – cheat or bribe to get the tournaments?”  Oddly this is the question that the investigators seemed to have skipped around. The investigators wrote that they visited all the hosting countries – including Australia – with three exceptions: Russia, Qatar and South Korea.

Quite how you produce a credible investigation never having visited the country that you are supposed to investigate is a mystery.  Yet the FIFA investigators should consider entering gymnastics. Their ability to twist, turn and contort shows definite promise in that sport.

The Russian bid team did not send their computer records – emails, invoices and the like – to the FIFA investigators. Their excuse?  They had leased out the computers then returned them.  Even their executive’s G-mail accounts were mysteriously unavailable.  No word on why the investigators simply did not ask for the passwords of their accounts.

What made this curious apathy on the investigators’ part so strange was that the report also mentions that Japanese football executives openly stated to the investigators that they were working with the Russians to form a voting alliance to win their hosting rights.  This is a clear example of breaking the rules of the hosting competition.  Yet this serious accusation was not followed up and Russia’s successful bid was given a clean bill of health.

As for Qatar’s World Cup bid: what can one say about the possibility of hosting the world’s largest sporting tournament in a country so dull it makes Canberra look like Sodom and Gomorrah?  Blessed with temperatures of +50 centigrade during the month of the tournament, a deeply conservative society (wearing shorts or drinking alcohol are not encouraged) and a treatment of migrant workers likened to slave labour or as the Nepali Ambassador described the country – “an open jail”.  Qatar was the only place named as being “high-risk” by FIFA tournament inspectors, yet strangely it won the hosting rights.

One of its chief football executives and Asia’s top football official Mohammed bin Hammam was described by the Qatari bid team shortly before the tournament was given to them as their “biggest asset”.

Shortly afterwards, he was thrown out of FIFA for offering bribes.

In one particular salient paragraph of the Eckert/Garcia report it says, “To assume, e.g. that envelopes full of cash are given in exchange for votes on a FIFA World Cup host (sic) are naïve.   Corruption … is conducted in a much more sophisticated way, including money transfers through several different accounts of consultants, trusts, offshore companies, etc.”

Ummmm, actually… passing envelopes full of cash is the way that some FIFA corruption is conducted.    Sounds too incredible?  Then check out the speech by then-FIFA bigwig Jack Warner at a meeting of football officials where he urged them to take envelopes stuffed with $25,000 in cash.  The man who gave the money?  The Qatari Mohammed bin Hammam.   The date of the meeting?  Six months after the Qataris had won the World Cup.    Yet the Eckert/Garcia report bends over backwards to claim that bin Hammam was peripheral figure in the Qatari bid.

The report goes on to say that, “The perception, for example, according to which a World Cup vote must have been “bought” if the host selected is not the one that has been generally considered a favourite (a position that is quite common in the media) is mere speculation…”

The word “bought” in conjunction with the Qatari World Cup bid was not from any over-sensationalistic media: it was the word that Jérôme Valcke, the second-highest official in FIFA, used in a private e-mail where he wrote that Qatar had “bought” the World Cup.   When the e-mail was leaked to the media, Valcke held a press conference where he claimed that he had not meant Qatar had bought the World Cup, more like “bought” the World Cup in an as-yet-unexplained, unannounced manner that must have been legal and moral.   Again this is an issue that the investigators skipped past.

This is the world that the Australian bid team decided to enter into. This is the world that taxpayer’s money was wasted in. This is the world where Australian values were betrayed.  It should never happen again. Until the world of international sports officials is truly investigated, then Australia should do what it has always done in arenas and stadiums around the globe: send its athletes in to win and then get them home.

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