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Damning report: select committee chairman Whittingdale and their scathing criticism of FIFA. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

John Whittingdale accepts that England could be seen as bad losers. We are discussing today’s report by the Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport on the failed 2018 World Cup bid, which says it is “appalling” how FIFA have swept aside “allegations of corruption” against members of its executive. To make matters worse, say the MPs, FIFA are treating those making the allegations with “contempt”.

“There is a danger that, having got a derisory two votes, one of them English, we will be accused of sour grapes,” says Whittingdale, chairman of the committee. “But it is not. The evidence of corruption is overwhelming.

“We have some criticism about the England bid. But there was substantial corruption in the process and that was an additional hurdle and put a huge question mark over the entire bid.”

Whittingdale, who held several posts in Tory shadow cabinets before taking over as chairman of the select committee five years ago, has no doubts that FIFA’s system of deciding World Cup hosts is deeply flawed.

He says: “A relatively small number of individuals [24 members of the executive] decide which countries should host the competitions. This provides an extremely lucrative opportunity for them. Therefore, a great deal of money is at stake. And, given the process is also shrouded in mystery, it is immensely susceptible to corruption.”

Not that the 52-year-old Maldon MP has much confidence that FIFA will reform as Sepp Blatter promised when he was re-elected.

“FIFA do not inspire confidence that the recognition of the need for change has got through,” he says. “We were astonished at the way FIFA appeared to dismiss allegations Lord Triesman [former Football Association chairman] made to us regarding four members of the executive [Jack Warner, Nicolas Leoz, Ricardo Teixeira and Worawi Makudi]. We wrote to Sepp Blatter asking him to appear before the committee. He declined but said FIFA were investigating.

“The FA then sent him a report on the Triesman allegations. This essentially said: ‘We have not been able to talk to the key individuals – the accused executive members – and we cannot prove either way.’ FIFA used the report to suggest they saw no grounds for further investigation.

“That is absolutely not true. The FA report did not clear the individuals concerned. We cannot allow this to be swept to one side.”

Whittingdale can also barely conceal his surprise about how FIFA have treated their own Ethics committee report. “That report, we understand, has serious questions to answer on the part of Jack Warner. He then resigns and FIFA say they don’t need to do anything and will drop the investigation. That is extraordinary.

“FIFA need to publish the Ethics Committee report. They are in desperate need of fundamental reform and pressure for change is substantial.”

This pressure is coming, says Whittingdale, from Hugh Robertson, the sports minister. “Hugh feels strongly that there needs to be dialogue between the FA and the Government about how to achieve FIFA reform. We need to gather support among football nations and at government level to ensure Sepp Blatter delivers.”

But if Blatter does not, then Whittingdale concedes the FA might have to consider leaving the world body.

“Ultimately, if it becomes plain that this body are simply incapable of reform, we will have to think about whether we want to be part of it,” he explains. “Withdrawal from FIFA would be the FA’s nuclear option.

“Football is our national game. We want to compete in the World Cup. While England’s recent performances have not been very impressive, it would be a big step to say we want to pull out. The thing about a nuclear deterrent is that you use it to bring pressure for change, without having to employ it.”

Whittingdale does concede, though, that Triesman can be criticised for not making the corruption allegations while he was running England’s bid.

“He told us that, if he had said this while he was bid leader, it would have made absolutely certain that any chance England had of winning would have gone out of the window.

“I am not sure that is a wholly convincing reason for suppressing very serious allegations of corruption. And it does not explain why he did not reveal this as soon as the result was known. That would have been the time to say: ‘Yes, we lost but the whole process is riddled with corruption.’

“He told us that he felt he would not have an opportunity to set out his allegations in such detail except to a select committee, which does carry Parliamentary privilege. We are able to protect witnesses and that process was not abused by David Triesman.”

Ironically, Whittingdale’s committee might have never looked at the bid but for Triesman. They have spent much of the last six months, including visiting Germany, looking at the whole governance of the national game. They only turned to the 2018 World Cup, explains Whittingdale, when Triesman came to give in his evidence on governance.

“He told us then that there were things that had been improper and he would like to come back. Then I met him at the entrance to Westminster tube station and he said he had things to say about the behaviour of individual members of the FIFA executive.”

This committee’s more substantial report is likely to be released just before Parliament recesses later this month and, if the chairman has his way, the controversial football creditors’ rule may not survive.

This means football clubs which go into administration must pay the wages of their players and transfer fees but not the person who provides the meat pies or other suppliers.

The Revenue has tried hard to remove this rule and Whittingdale says: “We have taken quite a lot of evidence on this. I think it’s very, very difficult to justify. It looks increasingly unfair and anachronistic.”

However, on the larger question of whether there should be a government-appointed regulator to run the national game, Whittingdale believes football can still look after itself.

“I am instinctively against government intervention. The Government has an awful lot on its plate – the state of English football is a lesser priority than improving the welfare state and the NHS. I don’t think there will be a great wish for legislation.”

But, with Robertson having condemned football as the country’s worst governed sport, Whittingdale accepts that football will have to reform. “You have to have some kind of fall back if there isn’t reform,” he says. “The committee will, I am sure, make suggestions as to how it should be reformed.”

One reform he would dearly love, but one he knows he cannot get, is to persuade the International Olympic Committee to switch the London 2012 shooting competitions from Woolwich to Bisley.

Whittingdale, who has been shooting since he was a schoolboy at Winchester and is captain of the Commons rifle shooting team, says: “I feel particularly strongly about Bisley.

“The IOC felt Bisley was too far away. It is not too far. I shall be shooting for the Commons against the Lord’s at Bisley in three weeks. For the Olympics we would have had to spend some money on the place but it would have left a legacy. At Woolwich there is no legacy, it will just be all pulled down, and that is true with Greenwich and the equestrian sports. The way the IOC rule out certain venues is very odd.”

However, this remains a fairly isolated criticism of the Olympics. Unlike most people, he does not even join in the criticism of London 2012 for the way it conducted the first round of ticket sales. Whittingdale got half of allocation he wanted – a pair of tickets for volleyball and athletics.

“No, I did not even apply for the 100metres final,” he says. “What I have is a Wednesday evening slot midway through the Games. I was lucky. Boris [Mayor Johnson] did not get them and neither did Hugh. LOCOG [London 2012 Organising Committee] were on to a hiding to nothing.

“Either you set the price where it is affordable for most people and then there are always likely to more claims and you have stories of millions who did not get tickets. Or you mark the price so that people cannot afford the tickets and then there is outrage.

“I believe there has been a broad spectrum of ticket prices, special dispensation for schools, a second round ballot for those not successful on the first. We did not want rows of empty seats as in Beijing. LOCOG have to cover their costs for running the games. Given the demands on LOCOG, they did all right.”

Whittingdale is also certain that, on the night, the Games will turn out all right. “There is great pride in London hosting the Games and this will grow as we get closer. That so many people applied for tickets indicates it will be a once-in-a-life-time event. I believe we can show the world we can host a very successful Games and I believe it will do a great deal for national pride and showcase the country.”

But, while he is certain the Games will “transform” East London, and hopes the stadium will work, he cannot be sure of a permanent sporting legacy.

“That is a really tough legacy, which no host country has managed. Whether we can achieve that, we shall have to wait and see.”

      

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