Blatter Gone but Big Questions Surrounding Seven-Figure Payment to FAI Remain

The resignation of Sepp Blatter from his role as president of FIFA offers a promising opportunity for those running the game of football globally to introduce real reform and stamp out the corrupt practices that appear to have been commonplace and institutional throughout (at the very least) the governing body’s recent history. The Football Association of Ireland (FAI) were pleased with the resignation announcement and were quick to release the following statement on Wednesday in response:

The Football Association of Ireland today welcomed the news that FIFA President Sepp Blatter has decided to step down.

Speaking today FAI CEO, John Delaney said,

“This is good news for world football and not before time. These are changes that we had called for and had hoped would come. We believe there is now an opportunity for real change and reform at FIFA.

“It is important that this opportunity to change the culture within FIFA at the highest levels is not passed up.”

As Dan McDonnell noted on Twitter, unlike a certain previous FAI statement released last November in defence of Delaney himself after he had stirred a degree of public controversy (having been video-recorded whilst singing a rendition of a Wolfe Tones rebel song in a Dublin pub), there was no mention on this occasion of the horrible cyber-bullying to which Sepp had been subjected on social media!

Back then, the FAI’s statement attacked the simultaneous (and indefensible), but ultimately irrelevant, online abuse of Delaney’s partner, Emma English. There was no time for sympathy pleas or emotive red herrings now, however. This was time to dig the heels in; time to be seen to be on the right side and against the crooked Blatter.

Then, yesterday, Delaney confirmed during an RTÉ radio interview with Ray D’Arcy that the FAI had been in receipt of a very significant payment from FIFA in January of 2010 (although Delaney was reluctant to confirm the total amount) arising out of Ireland’s controversial 2009 elimination at the hands of France from qualification for the 2010 World Cup (after Thierry Henry‘s infamous double hand-ball in the direct lead-up to the tie-winning goal of William Gallas). Gary Meneely of the Irish Sun was actually the first to break news of this payment on the 13th of July last year. The alleged total was €5 million and Meneely’s source had informed him that the payment had been a means to butter the FAI up and keep the association quiet:

FIFA wanted this row to go away. They feared the FAI delegation could raise the issue at FIFA congress in South Africa deflecting from what should have been a good news story. The feeling at the FAI was that Blatter had embarrassed himself… FIFA provided money to try to heal the rift.

Unfortunately, with the 13th of July having been the date of the 2014 World Cup final, the story was overshadowed and very little had been heard about it since. In light of the growing corruption scandal at FIFA over the past week, however, RTÉ’s Gavin Jennings asked Delaney to furnish him with further details of the reported payment during a 29th of May interview on Morning Ireland. On that occasion, which was prior to Blatter’s explosive resignation announcement having fully gripped the world’s media, Delaney was similarly reticent to reveal anything further on the matter, but was eager to stress that it did not amount to a payment for the association’s “patronage”. Indeed, when Ray D’Arcy asked Delaney yesterday had he ever been offered a bribe, Delaney responded with laughter before answering without a hint of humility: “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Not on my salary!” Whilst it is reassuring to hear he is not on the receiving end of bribe offers, it was quite the retort for a man who is controversially paid €360,000 a year for running a football association.

In response to Delaney’s comments to D’Arcy (which had, by yesterday afternoon, well and truly captured the imagination of a global media just burning to expose any whiff of a Blatter misdeed as part of the wider FIFA corruption scandal coverage), FIFA published the following explanation with regard to the payment:

On 18 November 2009, there was a play-off match between France and the Republic of Ireland for a place in the 2010 World Cup finals. During the match, a handball by France’s Thierry Henry led indirectly to a goal against the Irish team. Ireland did not qualify for the 2010 World Cup finals.

While the Referee’s decision is final, and the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) ultimately accepted it as such, in January 2010 Fifa entered into an agreement with FAI in order to put an end to any claims against Fifa. Fifa granted FAI a loan of USD 5 million for the construction of a stadium in Ireland. At the same time, Uefa also granted the FAI funds for the same stadium.

The terms agreed between Fifa and the FAI were that the loan would be reimbursed if Ireland qualified for the 2014 Fifa World Cup. Ireland did not so qualify. Because of this, and in view of the FAI’s financial situation, Fifa decided to write off the loan as per 31 December 2014.

According to FIFA, then, the FAI were paid $5 million as a loan to be paid back only if Ireland were to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Bizarrely, FIFA were effectively paying the FAI not to qualify for the tournament. What sort of competitive incentive was that? And it gets even stranger… The FAI responded with an official statement themselves later yesterday evening. That read as follows:

Further to FIFA’s statement this evening in relation to the €5m settlement with the FAI, the Association can now confirm that a legal settlement agreement was reached with FIFA following the threat of a legal case by the Association against world governing body in early 2010.

The matter has been reported before in the media however the Association has, until now, abided by the confidentiality agreement required by FIFA as part of the settlement.

The settlement was reached following strong legal advice given to the Association regarding the case against FIFA, and was a legitimate payment that enabled the Association to put €5m into the Aviva stadium project. This is fully reflected in our financial statements which are audited independently. The Association accepted FIFA’s settlement offer to avoid a long, costly and protracted legal case. The offer given to the Association was fully written off by FIFA in 2014.

FIFA’s settlement with the Association has at no time influenced the FAI’s criticism of FIFA as demonstrated by our consistent criticisms of Sepp Blatter. Furthermore the settlement was made without any conditions other than confidentiality.

So, the FAI asserted that the payment (of the same total of 5 million, but in euro currency rather than in dollars, as FIFA claimed) was a settlement in order to halt a threatened legal action against FIFA by the FAI over Ireland’s elimination from the qualification play-off. Whilst it must be wondered on what grounds might the FAI have had a legal case against FIFA (refereeing errors certainly would not constitute valid grounds for an action), it was also significant that the two statements completely contradicted one another.

If the payment was a settlement to thwart an impending legal action, why would the FAI have had to pay it back (until such time as it was written off on account of Ireland having failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup)? On the other hand, if it was a loan to be potentially paid back, then what of the supposed merits of the mysterious legal case and why did the FAI statement claim that the only condition was confidentiality? (Indeed, if all was above board, why the need for confidentiality in the first place?) The payment cannot simultaneously have been both a loan and a settlement.

As already noted, Delaney had previously clarified that this payment did not command “patronage” to Blatter. Indeed, Delaney was more than happy to let it be known that he would be voting for Prince Ali bin Al Hussein in the 2015 election for FIFA president, but let us not forget there was also a presidential vote in 2011. As it turned out, Blatter was the solitary runner in that election after Mohammed bin Hammam withdrew four days before the 1st of June vote under allegations of corruption, but that was not to be known a year and a half earlier when the payment to the FAI was agreed.

Might FIFA’s payment have been a front to shore up another precious vote for Blatter? After all, despite Delaney’s purported dislike for Blatter’s methods, the FAI vote was allotted to Blatter on that occasion (although it must also be acknowledged that this was in line with the collective voting of the UEFA bloc, of which the FAI is a member). Nevertheless, it simply is not plausible or believable that FIFA, a tightly-run organisation with a large and very capable legal department, would pay out huge sums of money to prevent legal actions built on extremely flimsy grounds. The story just does not add up. Indeed, we have been left with more questions than answers by the official statements on the matter.

Has Delaney’s desperately chronic need to publicly massage his own ego, by presenting himself as a courageously-involved whistle-blower standing up to and squeezing monetary concession out of FIFA’s top dog in the global arena, unwittingly exposed his own shortcomings and complicity in FIFA’s crookedness? For Delaney was the one on the receiving end of the suspect payment. Indeed, when he made remarks of Blatter’s “incredible ego” and how the resigning president was doing incredible damage to the image of the organisation over which he presided, one might have been forgiven for thinking he was talking about the man in the mirror.

Delaney has been openly critical of FIFA’s lack of transparency and stated of himself and those under him at the FAI, “I don’t know what more we can do in terms of being open and transparent”, but, in entering into dubious financial arrangements, is his own organisation really as open as he would like to have us think? Emmet Malone has examined the FAI’s published accounts for 2009 along with the four subsequent years and, despite the FAI claim that the FIFA payment is already reflected in the association’s statements, concluded that there did not appear to be any specific reference to it therein at all. Considering the “loan” would have been written off at the end of 2014, perhaps, then, we should now expect it to appear in the FAI’s accounts for this year? Don’t hold your breath.

Update as of 9:30PM on the 5th of June, 2015: The FAI have released another statement to offer greater clarity on the nature of the €5 million payment. I will try to properly digest it in time, but, thankfully, it does, on the face of it, appear to answer some of the outstanding questions leveled at the FAI with regard to the form of the payment. It also provides documentary evidence of the payment’s receipt and recording. That should be acknowledged and appreciated.

However, the question remains; why were FIFA so keen to hand out such a significant sum of money with the distinct possibility that it would never be returned to them? (Indeed, it will never be returned, having been written off since the end of 2014.) What was the motive for FIFA? What exactly did they stand to gain from it? Perhaps Delaney should be commended for negotiating such a sum from FIFA after all (assuming the payment was as lacking in conditions as we are being expected to believe), but do huge, legally-savvy multinational organisations like FIFA actually hand out vast sums of money just like that for questionable return? For what reason did the governing body think that €5 million was an appropriate figure?

Would avoiding an FAI legal action (based on exceptionally shaky grounds; a double hand-ball missed by a referee whose decision was accepted as final) lodged with the Court of Arbitration for Court really have saved FIFA €5 million? Or was it that €5 million was deemed to be an appropriate recompense for simply the “reputational damage” to the FAI on account of Sepp Blatter breaching the confidentiality agreement in place by having “made a joke of the Association’s request to be the 33rd team at the World Cup”? It remains an extraordinary amount of money simply to hand out upon the mere threat of legal action, whether such action would have had merit or not. Might an FAI legal action against FIFA on the basis of “reputational damage” from breach of a confidentiality agreement actually have cost FIFA somewhere in the region of or above €5 million so as to incentivise the provision of such a payment from their perspective? Might there have been other unknown reasons for the pay-off?

I am not sure we have heard the entire story just yet – everything still fails to add up satisfactorily – but, whatever about the FAI, there is also an onus upon FIFA now to explain the rationale behind throwing €5 million at the FAI. We really need further information on the FAI’s purported legal case. We shall see how this pans out…

Update as of 10:00AM on the 6th of June: It appears that information provided by John Delaney in an interview with RTÉ last night conflicts with information in the documents released by the FAI. Emmet Malone has outlined the discrepancy and other remaining issues in greater detail:

In an interview on RTÉ television, Delaney said that the decision by Swedish match official Martin Hansson had merely been the “catalyst” for what followed.

The FAI first sought a “sporting solution” – an extra place at the finals or a replay – and then compensation.

He says the money obtained from Fifa was on the basis of “real concerns” over the strength of the association’s legal claims. Delaney says the claims were based on a decision taken by Fifa in the weeks before the two games against France to seed the draw for the play-offs. This, he says, was essentially a rule change.

Delaney also cited the “reputational damage” caused to the FAI by Sepp Blatter mocking the “33rd team” suggestion in the aftermath of his first meeting with Delaney.

In his interview, Delaney repeatedly pointed to a copy of the document and said that Fifa’s “very real concerns” regarding the potential of the legal case are “laid bare for the world to see”.

However, the only complaint listed in the documents is that the handball resulted in a goal which contributed to Ireland failing to qualify for the finals. Neither the seedings nor Blatter’s behaviour are mentioned anywhere in the document.

Update as of 3:00AM on the 7th of June: No further information was forthcoming during Saturday. Having had a bit more time to examine the information now in the public domain, would it be right to assume, then (if the official narrative is to be believed), that there would have been no valid grounds for the rather peculiar compensation-in-the-form-of-a-loan (or no need for FIFA to present an “inducement”, even) had Blatter not breached a confidentiality agreement and caused reputational damage by publicly mocking the FAI? Or would the case against the seeding rule-change have merited such a sum, perhaps even in combination with the aforementioned issue?

I do think it is important to distinguish the two matters as both would presumably be dealt with separately in law; an action against a breach of a confidentiality agreement with a consequent claim for reputational damages would surely be dealt with by a civil law court whilst I imagine any action against a rule-change would fall within the jurisdiction of the Court of Arbitration for Sport on the basis that it would relate to a competition dispute. John Delaney’s words seem to conflate two distinct matters very conveniently as if they should naturally be considered as one solid claim. Would FIFA have viewed them in this way when there really was no need to see them as such? In isolation, as they would have been treated by law, the cases would have been much less potent.

Also, if FIFA understood then (on the claimed basis that the FAI’s “legal case” was strong) that the late introduction of seeding for the play-offs was a breach of competition rules, why was seeding introduced again for the UEFA play-offs for qualification for the 2014 World Cup? Is it fair as well now to completely disregard the idea that there might have been a valid legal case on the basis of the play-off referee having missed Henry’s double hand-ball (even though the FAI originally threatened FIFA with bringing a case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over this and despite the released documents having pinpointed this as a legitimate issue) or is the official line, upon last amendment anyway, that this was simply a catalyst that led to valid grounds for legal action later on; specifically on the basis of breach of a confidentiality agreement, reputational damage and an alleged illegal rule-change?

Whilst teams on the wrong end of a referee’s erroneous application of a particular objective rule that is closed to interpretation may have grounds to argue for a replay in certain circumstances where the technical infraction on the matter of law might have proven decisive, such circumstances were not evident in the Paris play-off as there was no error of application; the referee simply missed the hand-ball but had otherwise objectively applied the laws of the game correctly to what he had subjectively observed or perceived to have happened; a referee’s decision regarding facts connected with play is final. Even so, had such circumstances been evident, that would not automatically have merited a legal action either.

I am not quite accusing FIFA and the FAI to have engaged in something inappropriate, but I am maintaining a healthy sceptical eye over the matter by throwing out further questions for consideration (and hopefully answering) on the basis that being handed a (barely conditional) windfall of €5 million still just seems way too good to be true. Call me a cynic! If the supposed merits of the FAI’s respective legal cases were explained by the association in greater detail along with how and why exactly the seemingly arbitrary sum of €5 million (plus the additional grant) was deemed by FIFA to be an appropriate settlement, I would be much more satisfied with the overall situation. There is certainly no doubt that John Delaney will gladly welcome the respite the distractions of the friendly match with England and then the upcoming Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland next weekend are bound to offer him.

I have also written about the matter discussed above on Back Page Football and Slugger O’Toole.

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2 comments

  1. […] Neither of these events, but, should be allowable to distract from the very serious questions that remain outstanding and unanswered in relation to the €5 million payment of which the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) were in receipt from FIFA subsequent to Ireland’s controversial 2009 abolition at the hands of France from qualification for the 2010 World Cup (after Thierry Henry’s infamous double hand-ball in the direct lead-up to the winning goal of William Gallas). I have been following the matter closely over the past few days and have written in depth here. […]

    Like

  2. […] Neither of these events, however, should be allowed to distract from the very serious questions that remain outstanding and unanswered in relation to the €5 million payment of which the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) were in receipt from FIFA subsequent to Ireland’s controversial 2009 elimination at the hands of France from qualification for the 2010 World Cup (after Thierry Henry’s infamous double hand-ball in the direct lead-up to the winning goal of William Gallas). I have been following the matter closely over the past few days and have written in depth here. […]

    Like

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