In Good Conscience

Bigwigs' no-shows are no deterrent at Senate hearing on Fifa

The United States Congress weighed in on Wednesday with a two-hour Senate sub-committee hearing on Fifa corruption.

The congressmen and women who spoke put the verbal boot into Sepp Blatter, who declined to attend for the obvious reason that he is not going anywhere near the FBI, or anywhere other than his stated intention to be in St Petersburg for the draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The Fifa president feels the friendship of President Vladimir Putin whereas he might well be right in fearing that setting foot on American soil could result in him being detained for questioning, at the very least.

The sub-committee leaders also lamented that Sunil Gulati, head of the US Soccer Federation and a Fifa vice-president, was apparently advised by lawyers not to testify before them.

"Who knew what, when?" said Richard Blumenthal, the leading Democrat member of the Senate hearing. "They either knew about it, or they should have known about it - and I'm not sure which is worse."

The Congressmen and women put the verbal boot into Sepp Blatter, who declined to attend for the obvious reason that he is not going anywhere near the FBI, or anywhere other than his stated intention to be in St Petersburg for the draw for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Blumenthal and his Republican counterpart Jerry Moran instead interrogated Dan Flynn who, despite having run the US Soccer Federation for 15 years as chief executive general secretary, repeatedly claimed he had no knowledge of anything corrupt.

Cross-examining Flynn was like savaging a sheep.

He hesitated several times to take legal direction from a lady sitting in the row behind him. He admitted he felt "a level of discomfort" in the way that American Chuck Blazer and Trinidadian Jack Warner ran things in the regional Concacaf region of which America is a part.

But he never told either of his discomfort. In essence, Flynn said the US federation had two choices: To go along with whatever was happening, or to opt out, with the consequence that America might never host another World Cup or Olympic football event.

You have to appreciate, Flynn pointed out, that the US has but one vote among the 209 national associations, and one among the 41-member Concacaf - of which, he said - the Caribbean has 25 of the 35 voting members.

This was his level of discomfort. Even the chief executive of the US federation must have heard accusations about Blazer taking backhanders on every deal he cut, and wider accusations in the media of corrupt dealings by Jack Warner, the president of Concacaf and long-term vice-president on the Fifa executive committee?

The US Soccer Federation silence has been deafening, Blumenthal put to Flynn. And where was Sunil Gulati hiding, he implied.

Actually, Blumenthal consistently mispronounced the name as Julati. And he had trouble saying Fifa the way the world says it, while also referring to Blatter as "Seep" Blatter.

But the senator told Flynn: "Sometimes inaction and silence signifies complicity."

Blumenthal described Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald's and Budweiser - the four American giants who are Fifa's major sponsors - as "enablers" who failed to use their financial power against Fifa, which he alleged resembled a "Mafia-style crime syndicate".

Congress, it seems, does not need to wait like the rest of us for the due process of law to verify all that Blazer, accused turned FBI "co-operating witness" (or whistle-blower to the rest of us) has told the Fed in the hope of a lighter punishment for his own tax evasion and other admitted crimes.

"My only hesitation in using that term," Blumenthal added, "is that it is almost an insult to the Mafia, because the Mafia would never have been so blatant."

At the Senate where Blatter and Gulati failed to tread, Amnesty International repeated claims of "human trafficking, exploitation of child labour,forced labour, and witholding of passports" in Qatar, where it is claimed more than 400 migrant workers, mainly from India and Nepal, died on building sites preparing the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup.

The Congress, the sub-committee felt, has "a responsibility to conduct scrutiny" into what is happening in Qatar.

The mood of the hearing lightened when women's football was mentioned. Make that winning football, because winning is very much America's game.

Senator Amy Klobuchar said the US must use its power to force Fifa to immediately eliminate gender discrimination at the World Cups. "Fox had the most watched telecast ever for a soccer game when the US women's team won the World Cup in Canada this month," she said. "but it's outrageous that the women's team got US$2 million (S$2.7 million) for victory while the losing men's team got US$9 million."

The German men's team actually pocketed US$35 million for winning the last World Cup. "In tennis, they have equality," said Klobuchar. "It's not right that the women get less than a fourth that the losing men get."

Tipped as a future US president, and married to a sports journalist, Klobuchar also wanted to know why the women were subjected to playing on artificial pitches at their World Cup, unlike the men.

"Wimbledon seems pretty old," she continued, "and soccer is supposed to be more nouveau and progressive. The Senate is going to have a resolution for equal compensation." Then Klobuchar warned: "Be ready for it."

Women's football is in its infancy. Canada was the only candidate to stage the World Cup, and the US has won three of the seven women's Cups to date, the other winners being Norway, Germany twice and Japan.

The standards are rising but even in the US, where attempts to run a women's league have twice failed, there are just 180 professional players, paid for by the national federation.

Singapore, if you are wondering, are ranked 142nd by Fifa, though its name carries an asterisk in common with other countries that Fifa regards as "inactive" for more than 18 months on the female side.

At the risk of being called a misogynist, deserving of some unmentionable punishment, I suggest the argument is premature. But then I also admit to thinking it is wrong for women tennis players to receive the same prize money for playing the best of three sets as the men who play the best of five.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2015, with the headline 'Bigwigs' no-shows are no deterrent at Senate hearing on Fifa'. Print Edition | Subscribe