In all the coverage of the crisis in FIFA what has been happening in the far flung corners of world football, like for instance Nepal and Laos, has been rather missed out. Now I do understand that you cannot expect the western media, in particular the British media where a story about Sepp Blatter or Michel Platini now nearly always makes the front page, to dwell on such remote corners of the globe. For the British in any case Nepal means Gurkha soldiers, and for climbers Everest and the Himalayas. Other than that little is known about the country nor much interest.
This was perfectly illustrated when the Nepali team for the Olympics entered London’s 2012 stadium for the march past during the opening ceremony. The team hardly raised a cheer which, given how much the British love and honour the Gurkhas, was amazing. It was evident that most people in Britain do not connect their beloved Gurkhas soldiers with Nepal, whose citizens they are.
So it was not surprising that the football activities of Ganesh Thapa, let alone that of Viphet Sihachakr who is from Laos, just about made news briefs and that too only in the posh British papers. Yet what is happening in the football association of Nepal, or Laos, cannot be dismissed, as Neville Chamberlain did Czechoslovakia back in the 30s, a far away country whose affairs matter little. In terms of world football they are very important and they highlight the fact that when we talk about reforming football administration just focussing on Zurich and Nyon, headquarters of FIFA and UEFA, means we are missing out on the huge task we face in remodelling world football. And therefore ignore how difficult and formidable this task may prove.
To recap FIFA’s Ethics Committee banned Ganesh Thapa, the long serving President of the All Nepal Football Association, for 10 years, fining him 20,000 Swiss francs. The committee concluded that Thapa had committed various acts of misconduct over several years, including the solicitation and acceptance of cash payments from another football official, for both personal and family gain in the context of the 2009 and 2011 elections for the FIFA Executive Committee at the Asian Football Confederation congress.
The Ethics Committee also banned Viphet Sihachakr, Laos Football Federation President, for two years, fining him 40,000 Swiss Francs. FIFA said Sihachakr “solicited and accepted a payment from another football official” in relation to the 2011 elections for the FIFA executive committee at the Asian Football Confederation Congress.
Thapa has vigorously protested his innocence saying he might take the matter to the Court of Arbitration for Sports. Nothing surprising there except it was interesting that in his plea of innocence he also said: “Whatever I did in all these years, right or wrong, it’s there,” suggesting he may be accepting he did something wrong although evidently not the wrongs the Ethics Committee has found him guilty of.
Now Thapa in terms of Nepali football is no ordinary man. As he boasts: “I spent 35 years for Nepali football.” What is more Thapa is also a member of Parliament from RPP-Nepal, a prominent political party in the country.
And here we come to the nub of the problem. In Britain many members of Parliament including leading government ministers have urged that FIFA reform itself. Indeed every time there is a new revelation of FIFA corruption Damian Collins, the Conservative MP, is ready to provide a soundbite to the media.
But contrast this with what is happening with Laos. If you go to FIFA.com, the same website which details the judgement of the Ethics Committee, you also see a photograph of a medal being pinned on the chest of Blatter, a Friendship Medal which is described as being “in recognition of his support for football development within the country.[Laos].” The man pinning it is Laos’s Ambassador to Switzerland, Yong Chanthalangsy, with the ambassador explaining: “Following the visit of a FIFA delegation to Laos in March, the Minister of Sports suggested to the Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Laos that a Friendship Medal be awarded to President Blatter.”
The ambassador goes on to say: “This is for his support of sport in general and football in particular through assistance in both technical and material terms. The President of the Republic agreed and asked me to organise this medal presentation with ‘honour and dignity’.” The ceremony itself, says FIFA’s website, “was a solemn affair”. Blatter’s words are also worth quoting, that he was, “very honoured and touched that the head of state of Laos has awarded me this Friendship Medal”. He then adds: “What is more precious than friendship? There is an old French saying which sums it up very well: ‘Take time to be with your friends or time will take your friends away.'” Blatter goes on to say, “I ask you to thank the head of state on my behalf and on the behalf of FIFA, and also to pay him my compliments.”
Present at the ceremony was Viphet Sihachakr, who could not have been more appreciative of how much FIFA had done for Laotian football. “FIFA has been helping Laos for a long time. We have already benefited from four Goal projects, which have made it possible for us to build a remarkable complex in Vientiane, the capital. We now possess a fully operational technical centre, a headquarters that includes a Futsal gym and another technical centre dedicated to women’s football.” What clearly pleased him was that the fourth Goal project would lead to the construction of an artificial pitch. “It will be the first of its kind in Laos. It’s very important because it’s a pitch we’ll be able to use more often than a natural one, and a pitch that won’t be vulnerable to bad weather.”
Now, of course, this was done in September 2011 and it would be easy to dismiss this as long before the corruption crisis engulfed FIFA. However, the crucial point here is that in Nepal, Laos and many other countries football and politics are inextricably linked.
And this link with politics is not confined to football. Take athletics. Let us not forget that for a long time there was much talk that Lamine Diack, the recently retired President of the IAAF and now under criminal investigation by the French authorities , was such an important figure in his native Senegal that there was talk he might stand for President.
What makes this link with sport and politics all the more important is that in many countries round the world the football federations do not believe they have an any obligation to even report what they are doing. As Transparency International has reported of FIFA’s 209 international federations, 21% do not have a website, while 85% of FA’s publish no activity accounts of what they do.
And it is worth noting that it is not just so called third world country federations that do not believe in disclosure. As Paul Nicholson commented yesterday, while reporting the Transparency international Report, “only two out six confederations make their financial accounts publicly available.” And the four that do not report on their finances include CONCACAF, which governs football in the US. Interestingly, the African federation, the continent we often see as the source of all this corruption, does provide financial information along with Europe.
Now it is clear that if we are to reform FIFA and get an organisation fit for the needs of the 21st century then we cannot leave the cleaning process to FIFA. That has been amply proved by the effect the intervention of the US Justice Department and also that of the Swiss authorities has had on FIFA. No longer is FIFA corruption media talk and it once again proves how when the government machine acts sport cannot brush aside wrong doing. That was amply demonstrated with the Tour de France doping scandal back in 1998 when it required the intervention by the French police to finally prove to the world how dope ridden cycling was.
But can we expect the judicial authorities in the various countries round the world where the working of football administrators also needs to be examined to take the same attitude? I doubt it. For these countries, unlike in the west, the basic needs of the people, dealing with poverty and providing their citizens a decent life, have yet to be met. So what should be done with football administrators, understandably, takes, a very low priority. Some of their political figures may exploit football for their own ends but that does not mean they will investigate wrong doing or even judge their activities to be wrong. And I cannot see that attitude changing soon. World football may change but do not count on it happening soon.