Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Lunatics You're Looking For

One of the most compelling facets of international football is captured beautifully in Steve Menary's "Outcasts! The Lands that FIFA Forgot". To wit, Menary aptly portrays the aspirational quality of a game that links people all over the world.

I've knocked out about half the book this week and the stories of football in the Channel Islands, Greenland, Aland Island (with a reference to IFK Mariehamn no less!), the Shetland Islands, the Falklands, and a number of places that I could not find on a map (and some, like the Principality of Sealand, that may not exist) is in my wheelhouse. Tales of the hopes and ambitions of kids kicking a ball around on the Isle of Man or St. Helena whilst dreaming of playing at the highest levels of the sport are no more ridiculous than the limitless ambitions of young man from Madeira named after the 40th President of the United States.

Menary describes, with appropriate reverence, the lengths that Greenlanders will go to just to get a game and he does not hide his admiration for the sport as played in the Island Games -- the spirit of competition free of the corrupting influence of commercial exploitation.

But before Menary gets to the heart-warming, uplifting stuff, he hits the flip-side of the coin -- what happens when the dreams of young men and women are twisted for (with apologies to Ms. Merchant) the lust and the avarice, the bottomless, cavernous greed of reprehensible human beings.

If you are scoring at home, Menary's book, published in 2007, waits all of eight pages to drop the name of our region's guileless leader:

Trawling through FIFA's 207-strong membership roll, a large number of members are clearly not independent nations, yet all receive US$1 million every four years as part of the world body's financial assistance programme. The money is also a huge political tool and enables regional power brokers such as Trinidad & Tobago boss and CONCACAF strongman Jack Warner to move up through the regional hierarchy into FIFA.

Known locally as 'Teflon Jack,' Warner was deemed in February 2006 to have a "conflict of interests and that the code of ethics had been violated as a result" of ticket allocations for that year's World Cup finals made to the Trinidad & Tobago FA that were being distributed by a travel agency owned by his family. Warner was never punished by FIFA, but he is certainly guilty of using his position in CONCACAF to test the idea of international football and provide a block of voters, who, awash with FIFA grants, are willing voters to support Warner and his protector, FIFA boss Sepp Blatter, come election time.

Thirty of CONCACAF's forty constituents are members of Warner's principal playground, the Caribbean Football Union. And 25 of CFU's members are also FIFA members. The CFU, as a block, controls over twelve percent of FIFA's 208 members.

Although the CFU has not produced terribly memorable footballing sides (Jamaica qualified for the World Cup in 1998 and Trinidad & Tobago did so in 2006), some of the members have made their mark through cynical abuse of federation offices. Menary has one more shout out from the greatest hits album of CFU corruption at page 11:

In Antigua & Barbuda, more than ₤200,000 went missing on a new FA headquarters that was never built. The Antigua & Barbuda FA secretary general, Paul 'Chet' Greene, a friend of 'Teflon Jack' Warner's went unpunished.

A 2008 article by Trevor Morgan notes that a $471,364 FIFA GOAL Project grant towards building a training centre in Antigua & Barbuda netted... an empty lot but was still followed by a second grant, this time for $503,098, in 2005. And Morgan's article also identifies a similar FIFA financed money pit in Barbados finally shelved in February of 2008 (while also running FIFA's reply that it was a non-event).

Fast forward to this week, when at least 18 of the 25 CFU FIFA members are reported to have refused to travel to Miami to participate in the FIFA-led investigation of brown bag cash payments made to CFU members in order to solicit support for Mohamed Bin Hammam's candidacy for the FIFA presidency. Why did they decline? These CFU members refused to be pulled into a vast American conspiracy to destroy the noble history of the CFU, as outlined by the full-time stand-up comic, part-time head of the Barbados FA (how's that training centre coming?) Lisle Austin in a letter exposing all of this for what it really is: a C-O-N-SPIRACY.

On one side of the CFU, the heads of the federations of the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, and Turks & Caicos Islands have each supported the allegation that $40,000 in $100 bills was given to CFU members in brown envelopes at a CFU meeting at the Port of Spain. That's five of the 25.

Published reports say that at least 18 of (presumably the other 20) CFU members have refused to cooperate with the FIFA investigation, meaning that the orchestrated American assault on the Caribbean likely does not include the American possession of the U.S. Virgin Islands -- an entity that wields the same number of votes (1) as the United States despite the fact that a $40,000 cash grant would result in a $0.36 distribution to everyone living in the territory (a similar amount given to USSF could be spread amongst Americans one one-hundredth of a cent at a time).

Current acting CFU president Captain Horace Burrell has publicly declared, on behalf of the Jamaican Football Federation (which he also heads), that Jamaica received no cash gift at the meeting. Not surprisingly, the two attendees representing the Barbados Football Association have also publicly declared that no payments were made at the meeting.

Same with Carlos Prowell, Guyana's representative at the meeting, who says no money was offered to his federation and none was taken. But that hasn't stopped folks from asking whether this claim is, in fact, true and wondering where all of the money has gone ("Editor over the years we have heard of talk of large sums of money to be had in this game of football, but we have not been seen any real development of the game in Guyana."). (In a May 2010 post, Steve Menary raised similar questions about Guyana's federation following a false start after near qualification in the Gold Cup in 2007.)

The British Virgin Islands Football Association's head, Franka Pickering, declared early on that she too had seen no evidence of any bribery. Ms. Pickering, who presides over a national football squad that managed to lose its two 2010 Caribbean Cup matches 17 to 0 against Haiti and 10 to 0 to CONCACAF powerhouse (*cough*) Dominica, deftly added: “we discussed why he (Mohamed Bin Hamman) was running for President and that was about it. Us small Islands are just a drop in the bucket”.

However, the "we didn't see anything" line is not universal amongst CFU's other members. According to this Radio Netherlands report, Curacao's Rignaal Francisca has stated that after Bin Hammam's presentation on May 10th all attendees were given $40,000 PLUS a laptop PLUS a projector. Francisca, however, claims that he turned down the funds -- asking that they be wired to the federation -- and that there was no understanding that the money was given to support Bin Hammam's candidacy (although the question of what the grant would have been for remains unaddressed). Because of this latter point, Francisca apparently saw no reason to inform FIFA of any of the unquestionably strange approach (one he terms as being not in the normal course of business). My Dutch is limited to what Google translator tells me the words mean, but Francisca seems to argue that it is not terribly unusual to be given donations of thousands of dollars in the world of football.

Even better, Suriname's Louis Giskus admits to receiving $40,000 at the meeting, but was initially reported to have taken the position that he didn't feel he was being bribed with the generous offer of 400 $100 bills. It was, instead, a dispensation for a kind and benevolent CFU totally divorced from Bin Hammam's presentation that directly preceded it. Subsequent reports indicate that Giskus may no longer be holding that view, that Curacao's Rignaal Francisca was also present, and that while Giskus doesn't know if Francisca accepted his gifts, Giskus received $40,000, a laptop, and a projector believing these to be contributions from the CFU for the development of football in Suriname. A June 7th press conference was to be held, but I've been unable to locate anything that would confirm that Suriname is assisting in the investigation.

Giskus's admissions -- which are frequent to the Dutch press -- should make the positions adopted by the federations of Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, the British Virgin Islands, and Jamaica untenable. They should also make the rest of CONCACAF extremely concerned about how much damage Warner and his cronies are going to do to the organization in the near term. The stupidity of the arguments presented defending what transpired on May 10th is what is most disconcerting. Not the bit about this being an American plot to destroy peace-loving God-fearing Caribbean nations; that's just hackneyed. But the concept that Cuba -- population in excess of 11 million -- the Dominican Republic -- population in excess of 8.5 million -- and Haiti -- population of nearly 10 million -- were all given $40,000, a laptop and a projector to advance the sport in their country while, at the same time, Montserrat -- with a population that approaches all of 5,000 people (one-sixth the size of College Park, Maryland) -- was given the exact same amount is stupendously idiotic. And these amounts were only given to CFU's 25 FIFA members but not to the five members (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint-Martin, and Sint Maarten) who happen to have not been included in that august club (and, as such, have no vote in FIFA's election)?

As former Antiguan national coach Veron Edwards Sr. noted in the wake of these disclosures:

“No. I think that everyone knows how football [is] run in the Caribbean and it is not only the Caribbean. I think what you have here is a collective body and I think that most of the CFU members went to this meeting as a block on who the candidate was they were going to vote for and I guess the money came in after,” Edwards said.

What possible argument can there be that something else was going on?

Something is very, very wrong with the CFU. When soccer was struggling to gain a foothold in the U.S. what happened in the Caribbean was of no consequence to Americans. This, however, is no longer the case and looking the other way while CFU members pilfered, or, at a minimum, frittered away, large amounts of resources is no longer a viable option.

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