Canada's Embarrassment

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It was the incompetent meet the tolerant of corruption.

If you had the good fortune to miss last weekend’s draw for the Women’s World Cup hosted by the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) and FIFA, then you missed one of those dreadful ‘Yes sir/no sir’ events beloved by branch managers across Canada when their foreign bosses drop in.

The foreign bosses in this case are FIFA: an organization that has become synonymous with corruption as a whole series of its senior executives have either been convicted of bribery or entrapped by journalists taking pay-offs.   At the draw, FIFA was represented by its second-in-command Jérôme Valcke, a man who once lost his job after testifying to a New York court of his “commercial lies”.  However, in FIFA terms Valcke is one of the good guys.

As for our own CSA, their executives are a laughable lot who have been blessed with the opposite of King Midas’s touch - everything they touch turns toxic.   From the Canadian men’s national team who are currently languishing at 110th in the world, below soccer powerhouses like Benin, the Faroe Islands and Latvia; to the strange prevalence of match-fixing in Canadian soccer, the CSA has distinguished itself by a steady mixture of incompetency.

Now, with this upcoming Women’s World Cup (“Canada welcomes the world”) CSA and FIFA have outdone even themselves in their capacity to attract unwanted controversy.

They have come up with a plan to play the games of the tournament on artificial turf.

Soccer players of every professional level loathe artificial turf.   They claim that it is harder on their joints when sprinting. It is tougher on their legs when tackling.  In short, it causes them more injuries. When top soccer teams like Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid go on tour, their officials insist that their games are played on real grass.  Want them to play? The organizers have to put in natural grass or there is no game. 

At the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, as in every previous men’s tournament, the games were played on grass. 

Men play their World Cup on grass: women should play their World Cup on grass.  To say otherwise, is sexism pure and simple. 

This is the view of dozens of the world’s top female players including almost the entire American national team and 13 U.S. Senators. The women have hired a lawyer to file a suit before the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal.  Other top female players have, according to documents filed before the Tribunal, been intimidated by soccer officials to withdraw their support for natural grass.

The excuses not to have grass for Canada’s hosting of the World Cup have ranged from the feeble to the bizarre.   Some have suggested that our country does not have enough grass in June to properly cover the fields (news to most of us who live here). 

Others have suggested that because the only other official contender to host the tournament was Zimbabwe, critics should just shut up (when Zimbabwe, a third-world hell-hole, is used as the standard of comparison, you know there is something wrong with the argument).

Others have suggested that it is all a matter of cost and Canada as a country simply cannot afford the couple of extra million dollars to have real grass on its fields (Maybe we should now change our slogan to “Canada kind-of-welcomes the world to a stingy, second-class event”).

Whatever the real reason: CSA and FIFA have given a clear, unmistakable message to fans around the world.   Their stance says that there are two types of soccer.  One is the real kind - played by men.  Then there is a second, inferior sport played by women.


It Just Got Worse: More on Greek, Turkish Football and Systems of Corruption

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After thugs beat up the one of the referee coordinators with iron bars you would not think it could get worse.

It just did.

Yesterday, the Greek press published articles about a letter signed by UEFA and FIFA that warned the Greek authorities about their stance on corruption in their football leagues.

You might think, “Great!  Finally the international football authorities are moving to protect the long list of abused players, beaten-up referees and journalists in Greece.  Finally, FIFA and UEFA are swooping in to ensure no club owner or league official is ever arrested for possible corruption because they have established a secure system to deal with sporting corruption.”

You would be wrong.

You see Greek politicians and prosecutors are trying to clean up their football.   One of their national prosecutors has kicked off a major investigation against sports corruption with a series of arrests and their parliament is debating a series of Draconian laws against match-fixing. 

However, UEFA and FIFA’s letter is a warning to Greek authorities NOT to interfere in football.  It is a warning for the Greek authorities NOT to arrest anyone. It is a warning that Greek authorities should NOT prosecute anyone connected with Greek football.

We do not know how many of the people arrested so far in Greece are actually guilty.  However, it would be nice if we could actually have an independent investigation to properly uproot a system of sporting corruption so endemic that FIFPro – the player’s union – warns its members not to play in Greece.

What is the significance for people uninterested in Greek football?

Well, quite a lot actually.  

A few months ago, another report was published by well-meaning academics claiming that football authorities were hampered in the fight against match-fixing because police and prosecutors either would not take the issue seriously or the legislation in European countries was not sufficiently robust to prosecute match-fixers.

Sadly these researchers swallowed outright nonsense.

The Greek case shows what law-enforcement sources around the world repeatedly tell me: they are very willing to arrest dodgy sports officials, players or referees.  The problem is getting support from sports authorities.   Their view can be corroborated by a simple Google search; it will show that there have been waves of police investigations across Europe.  Often these investigations have resulted in successful convictions. The problem then is not with law-enforcement but with the people running sports.   

FIFA’s stance is reminiscent of the dreadful non-investigation of match-fixing in South Africa just before the 2010 World Cup.  Currently the South African authorities and FIFA are playing an odd game of pass the potato to avoid doing any serious investigation.

UEFA’s stance in Greece is even more inexplicable when you remember that when their anti-match-fixing investigator visited Greece a few years ago, his address and telephone number were leaked to the press putting the poor fellow in some danger.

As for Turkey, the country’s whose abject stance on football corruption most resemblances Greece, there is, once again, a direct comparison.  

In Greece, the politicians are hampered by football authorities in prosecuting corruption. 

In Turkey, once the police had managed to get convictions of the Fenerbahçe officials: the Turkish politicians overturned a Presidential veto and lessened the sentence for the Fenerbahçe officials found guilty.

So it is not clear which country – Turkey or Greece – is currently ahead in the sports corruption league: but we do know that once again football is the loser.


It is All Happening Again: Greek, Turkish Football and Systems of Corruption

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To start with the obvious: I like Greece, I like Turkey.  I love many of their peoples and I intensely dislike what I now have to write.  However, it is the truth, so here goes:

Greek football is deeply corrupt.  

Actually, that is an understatement.   What I should say, is that Greek football is so deeply corrupt, the entire sport should be closed down for a year while an independent, well-resourced investigator cleans it up.

For those who search for a metaphor for the extent of corruption in Greek society, the state of their football says it all.  It is difficult to overstate how bad Greek football is: murdered fans, beaten journalists, attacked referees, intimidated players, imprisoned club owners and now, the president of the top club in the country - Olympiacos FC - arrested. 

At this point, we do not know if the president of Olympiacos FC and the various high-level league officials also arrested are guilty.  Presumably, after umpteen years of court delays, trials and hearings some verdicts will emerge (the Greek legal system is a joke). 

What we can say that is that the only country that comes close to the sheer endemic nature of corruption in Greek sport is Turkish football.  It must be some obscure form of competition between these two countries.  A kind of ‘anything you can do, we can do dirtier’ that dates back to Byron and the War of Greek Independence.

As I write, I am reviewing a slew of documents sent to me by a British public relations agency hired by a Greek businessman who is disgusted at the amount of corruption in his native country’s sport.  Their sub-titles say it all:  organized crime in Greek football, corruption in Greek football, existence of a referee’s mafia, etc, etc.  I sent the documents to a Greek colleague fearing that they may have been faked. He read them, confirmed their veracity and replied, “Oh yes, all this is very well-known (emphasis added) here in Greece.”

Reading the Greek documents reminds me of reading the transcripts of the Fenerbahçe trials of their club officials. Fenerbahçe is Turkey’s biggest sports club.  It has approximately 25-million fans.  In the last few years, a number of different courts, including a UEFA tribunal and a Council for the Arbitration of Sport hearing, either convicted or upheld the convictions of Fenerbahçe football officials for corruption based on a set of secretly recorded telephone conversations. 

What was surprising about these conversations was not the match-fixing: there are a number of European leagues: Italy, almost any of the former Soviet countries, where the extent of widespread fixing is not a surprise.    What was genuinely astonishing about the Turkish documents (and now Greek) is that almost everything connected to their sports seems to have been fixed.   Not just fixed-games but also transfers, selection of referees, media coverage and administrative sports elections were all rigged: systematic corruption seems to be the way of doing of business in Greece and Turkey.

Or in the words of a young French player who found himself playing in Greece and now publicly warns against any international player doing the same, “It is a complete Mafia!”

Here are the real victims of this sport corruption: the fans. 

This is the reason that for the most part they stay away from the stadiums. The football in these countries now exists to facilitate corruption.   The lesson for sports-lovers in other countries is do not allow something similar to happen to your game.


Malta, Migrants and Drowning

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VALLETTA, MALTA—It is the memories of the dead children that keep Marco Cauchi up at night.

“I have recovered hundreds of corpses from the sea. And when you find decomposed children — it is not nice. Then you go home and you see your own children,” said Cauchi.

“How different the world seems when you see these things.”

Cauchi, a big burly man, has been a sailor in Malta for more than 28 years. He started as a deckhand in a naval division of the Maltese Armed Forces, rising up the ranks until he retired as a captain.

For years, he has seen waves of migrants come to the country’s shores. Over the last two decades, the death toll is estimated in the tens of thousands. So far in 2014, the International Organization for Migration estimates at least 3,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross to Europe.

The migrants’ boats that arrive near Malta mostly come from the shores of a destabilized Libya: a country with no government to control its own borders and coasts. Now a network of human traffickers sends thousands of would-be immigrants in overloaded boats northward toward Europe.

Ten years ago, the migrants were mostly from sub-Saharan Africa — countries like Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria — but in the last two years, with the various conflicts in the Middle East, there has been a shift to immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Gaza.

The more people in the boat, the greater the profit for the traffickers, so they are frequently overloaded. In October 2013, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, 170 kilometres east of Malta, a boat carrying more than 500 migrants overturned; hundreds drowned.

Cauchi has seen many boats similarly overloaded. Last month, there was one so jammed with people they could not sit.

“I saw one man from Syria with his wife and five children,” Cauchi said. “They were all there holding hands. And I said, ‘You must be courageous, maybe crazy to do such a voyage in that crowded boat.’ He said to me, ‘You have to be in my position to tell me that I am crazy.’”

From romance to aid-workers

Last year, Christopher and Regina Catrambone were entrepreneurs leading a charmed life in sunny Malta. He is American, originally from New Orleans, she is an Italian from Calabria; they describe themselves as a “unisoul couple” who run their own finance and insurance business. In July 2013, the couple decided to charter a boat captained by Cauchi for a romantic cruise around the Mediterranean Sea.

What happened on the trip changed their life.

“I saw a jacket floating in the sea,” said Regina Catrambone. “When I asked Marco, he told me, ‘that this jacket probably belonged to one of the people who didn’t make it.’ That was a strong message to us … in that moment we got to see the Mediterranean Sea in another way.”

The same day, Pope Francis, in his first official visit outside of Rome, arrived in Lampedusa and denounced the “globalization of indifference” that he said had affected the migrant issue. “We have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business … This (issue) is like a thorn in my heart.”

The Catrambones were moved. Devout Catholics, they felt helping the seaborne migrants was their spiritual calling. Last winter, they travelled to Virginia and bought a small ship, renaming her The Phoenix. They asked Cauchi to be its captain and sailed it back across the Atlantic. Then they had the ship fitted with a medical clinic and a drone-launching pad.

In August, The Phoenix left Valletta with one goal: to make sure no migrant died at sea. The Catrambones say it doesn’t matter if a migrant is landed in Europe and then deported. What matters is only that they do not drown in the crossing.

There are many people on Malta who disagree with the Catrambones’ ideals. It is a small country, half the size of Toronto, with a population of more than 450,000 people. Many here are afraid the island will be overwhelmed by newly arriving immigrants.

One of those people is Norman Lowell, a Maltese artist and author turned radical would-be politician who says, “Let them take the migrants back to Africa.”

Lowell is a man with ultrastrong views on issues like purity of race and immigration. He is a supporter of France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Greek Golden Dawn Party. Lowell garnered 7,000 votes in the last European election in Malta. Some commentators in this conservative country see his relative success as a sign of deep unease about the waves of migrants who are literally being washed up on their shores.

“It is an unfolding tragedy,” said Lowell. “This island will soon turn into the Haiti of the Mediterranean. These people, these primitive Africans, have — uninvited — barged in on us.”

Lowell is not alone in his underlying fear of the migrant situation.

“Sometimes someone will say things like, ‘If you see a migrant shoot them,’” says Cauchi, the captain. “They are not racist, just ignorant. If you don’t see what is happening on sea, you don’t understand.”

Mare nostrum

Other parts of Europe are also struggling with the rise in migrants. In October, the Italian government cancelled Mare Nostrum, a multimillion-euro program in which the Italian navy tried to rescue migrants at sea.

The British government announced at the end of October that it would not fund a program to replace Mare Nostrum as these “encouraged traffickers and immigrants to try their luck, in attempting the dangerous crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.” It is a policy that some critics have dubbed “Drown a migrant to save a migrant.”

The Catrambones have stepped into the political vacuum. “The immigration was there before Mare Nostrum,” says Regina Catrambone. “Today, what is happening is that the push factors are more than the pull factors. If you are happy and you live a good life in your country, why would you leave your country? The people who we met in the sea, they want to go back to their countries. They are running away.”

Khalifa Jawara, who now lives at the Marsa open detention centre for migrants in the port area of Valletta, agrees. He claims he had to leave his native Gambia for political reasons. He travelled across the Sahara and then was on a boat for five days.

“The man who steered the boat did not know what he was doing. He got his passage for free if he steered. We were lost. We went around and around. The waves were so high. There were 300 of us on the boat; we thought we were going to die.”

Jawara didn’t want to land in Malta. “I thought it was Italy when we landed,” he said. “Then they took us to a detention centre and wanted us to sign papers that would let them deport us. We refused and there was a huge fight. They tear-gassed us and put us in handcuffs.”

After seven months, Jawara was released. “I do not want to return to Gambia. It will be my death warrant, but I do not want to stay here in Malta. Just let me go to (continental) Europe.”

As Jawara drinks a cup of coffee he speaks of the racism in Malta. How many people do not like to sit next to Africans on the bus, or the bars that will not allow them to enter.

However, for Regina Catrambone the situation of migrants in Malta is, in some ways, immaterial. What matters is that the migrants are alive.

At the end of October, The Phoenix returned from the seas. In two months, the ship and its crew have been credited with helping more than 3,000 migrants — giving them such things as food, water and life jackets; they also directly saved the lives of 300 people, taking them on board and bringing them to an Italian port.

“Each time one of these boats (sinks), our ethical and moral values drown as well,” she says. “We save the whales. We save the dolphins. We need to save human beings. They represent us. They are us.”


Save International Sport – Buy Puma!

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There are some blogs that should be repeated every few months. This is one that I posted in 2011, when we going through another FIFA corruption scandal. Now the international sports world is witnessing another; the post is worth reading again:

Dear Concerned Football Fan,

So you are are upset by the latest corruption scandal coming out of FIFA?    Here is what you need to do.

Please do not bother with the carefully-worded petitions to sports officials.  Please do not bother with the appeals to the media.  Please do not bother with campaigns for politicians.

The sports officials will ignore your petitions.   The journalists will write, if you are lucky, brief articles about your appeal and then go back to their usual reports of tactics, athletes’ hamstrings or morale ‘before the big game’. The politicians largely cannot change anything in the sports world, so will be unable to help you.

However, there is one, effective way of cleaning up international sports.  A world-wide boycott of sponsors who tolerate corruption in sports organizations.

In brief, if you want to clean up international football, then buy Puma.  

I want to be clear, I have nothing against Adidas. They are a reputable company that makes very good sports clothes and shoes.  However, FIFA as it is currently constituted is an organization sponsored and supported by Adidas.  Adidas and Puma loathe each other.  They have done so since the founding Dassler brothers, both living in a small German town after the second world war, had a bitter argument.  The personal feud has dimmed in recent years, but Adidas and Puma are still intense competitive rivals – so write to Adidas and say something like:

Dear Adidas,

I like your products. I would like to buy them. However, I will not do so while you support FIFA as it is currently managed. I will buy Puma, your rivals.   I will continue to do so until FIFA implements some of the Ten Commandments for Anti-Corruption in Sports.   Then I will consider buying your excellent products.  



Repeat this procedure for every single major sponsor of sports organizations.  Coca Cola supports FIFA write to them and tell them that, reluctantly, you will buy only Pepsi. 

Do two things,  make sure that the executives realize that you are not blaming them or their products and secondly, organize a proper and effective boycott.  Get your friends to do it, use social media, write to the dozens of organizations that are trying to clean-up international sports. If one-hundred-thousand people can back Sports Illustrated Grant Wahl to run as President of FIFA, then one-hundred-thousand people saying they will buy Puma, drink Pepsi and not fly with the Emirates (who withdrew this sponsorship of FIFA last month) will have a massive effect.  

Sport is facing an unprecedented wave of corruption. It needs people to stand up and fight for it.  Will you be someone who sits on the sidelines and complains, or will you stand up to defend the sport that we all love?

Note:  In fairness to Puma, I should add that they are one of the few sports sponsors I have ever seen that pulled out of financing a football league due to corruption.

Puma took this courageous stance in South Africa - a league crawling with corruption and fixing.   If only other sponsors would mirror their courageous stance we could clean up sport quickly.


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