FIFA’s fat lady hasn’t sung yet | Norman Darmanin Demajo

Football’s governing body has been plunged into scandal, but MFA president Norman Darmanin Demajo argues that we’ve only scratched the surface so far

MFA boss Noman Darmanin Demajo
MFA boss Noman Darmanin Demajo

Football may still be a ‘beautiful game’ in the eyes of its millions of enthusiasts around the world. But there is no mistaking a distinct veneer of ugliness that has infiltrated the sport in recent years. 

For some time now, football has been making headlines for reasons which have little to do with the game itself. Astronomical transfer fees, individual players’ salaries, allegations of match-fixing, suspicions of corruption in broadcasting rights and the selection of World Cup hosts… it would seem that the global interest generated by the sport is now more concerned with the improbable amounts of money it has come to be associated with, rather than the beauty of the sport itself.

These and other revelations have all conspired to undermine public trust in the game, and especially in its international governing body, FIFA. Yet for years, the supra-national association that registers annual profits of $6 billion seemed to be entirely immune to the growing aura of scandal that has come to surround it.

Not anymore, it seems. An inquest by the USA’s Federal Bureau of Investigation established that an estimated $10 million changed hands in order to secure South Africa’s bid to host the World Cup in 2010. Nine FIFA officials were indicted last week by the US Department of Justice on suspicions of taking $150 million in bribes while awarding FIFA broadcasting rights. This in turn kicked off a Swiss investigation into the bidding process for the 2018 Russia World Cup and the 2022 Qatar World Cup… with mounting evidence to suggest that these early salvoes may represent but the tip of the iceberg of corruption that has yet to come to light.

At the pinnacle of this rapidly unfolding scandal stood (until his resignation last Tuesday) Sepp Blatter: the Swiss FIFA president who until recently seemed, like the sport he became synonymous with, immune to any form of corruption probe. But even now that Blatter has stepped down immediately after winning a fifth consecutive term, the precise reasons for his resignation are still shrouded in mystery… leaving the footballing world poised for more bruising revelations that may further dent the beautiful game’s global reputation.

Among the many who echoed Michel Platini’s calls for Blatter’s resignation in the build-up to last week’s FIFA Congress was Norman Darmanin Demajo: president of the Malta Football Association, and something of a veteran of the local footballing scene in his own right.

Darmanin Demajo openly supported Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al Hussein – the sole contender for Blatter’s post at last week’s election – and was unequivocal in asserting that FIFA needed to change if it was to regain public confidence.

“I know whom I’m voting for,” he told a UEFA meeting ahead of the election. “I’m not telling you how you should vote but if we truly want unity, if we want to create a new page in FIFA’s history, you know what you have to do.”

Blatter went on to win the election, but resigned a few days later. This seems to vindicate Darmanin Demajo’s public position on the issue… though he himself has his doubts whether the cleansing process has begun in earnest.

“It is still early days, and I expect more revelations in the coming weeks,” he tells me when I ask if Blatter’s resignation, on its own, was enough to address popular perceptions that something is rotten in the state of FIFA. 

“The reason for Blatter’s resignation is still not clear, and I believe that before we move forward, the footballing world needs to know the truth. No more lies, no more cover ups. The cleansing process has to be complete.”

Part of his scepticism stems from the fact that the web of corruption uncovered by the FBI investigation seems to point towards various levels of football’s global governing body, not just its president.

“It now seems clear that the 2010 WC in South Africa was subject to a $10 million bribe that was offered to some members of the FIFA executive committee, mainly CONCACAF [Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football] members. When this bribe remained unpaid because South Africa could not afford to pay it, the indictment claims that FIFA accepted to pay the amount itself, and try to conceal it as some ‘legacy programme’! If this turns out to be true, then the responsibility now shifts to the offices of the very top officials of FIFA, as no one else had the power to authorise this payment.”

Against this backdrop, Blatter’s departure alone cannot be expected to resolve the issue.

“Given this possible scenario, we are facing a situation that will shake FIFA to its very foundations. We have been living a football lie and have been taken for a ride by the people we trusted and voted into office. Resignation does not solve anything. Restoring public trust in FIFA will be a long process and that will only begin to happen with the election of a trusted and strong FIFA president.”

Ironically, however, Sepp Blatter himself was once described as a ‘trusted and strong FIFA president’: a position he occupied uninterruptedly for 17 years. How does Darmanin Demajo account for his enormous popularity in the football world, despite the long-standing suspicions of corruption?

“The answer is very simple: Blatter’s support comes from the poorer Confederations: Africa (54 votes), CONCACAF (35 votes) and Asia (46 votes). Add to that another 11 votes from Oceania… mostly small islands like New Caledonia, Cook Islands, American Samoa, Fiji, Tahiti and Tonga… and you get a total of 146 votes from a total of 209. That’s 70% of the voting countries: more than enough support to keep Blatter deeply seated in power for as long as he would have liked.”

Blatter also used his power and influence to benefit poorer associations: earning him a curious reputation among football’s underprivileged nations as a sort of latter day ‘Robin Hood’ who stole from the rich to give to the poor… though Darmanin Demajo suggests that there was corruption at work even in this seemingly altruistic attitude to the game.

“Blatter created various FIFA assistance programmes, such as GOAL, and yearly assistance handouts that meant a lot more to the poorer Confederations. These were controlled by their respective confederation presidents, who were members of the FIFA executive committee, and who over the past years have all had their fair share of corruption allegations levelled against them. These are the corrupt cronies that surrounded Blatter, and whom Blatter could never control because he was fully aware that it was these same cronies that kept him in power. What developed was a vicious circle that carved up football and brought the game to its knees. I don’t believe Blatter was ever a willing accomplice to all this, but he allowed it to happen on his watch, and FIFA has now imploded, and he has to pay the price for his inaction.” 

Meanwhile, pressure is mounting for a boycott of the 2018 World Cup (and, even more aggressively, of the subsequent 2022 Qatar championship). Even without a boycott, UEFA has threatened to pull out and set up an alternative competition… which would radically re-dimension the image of global football.

But while criticising Sepp Blatter in the run up to last Friday’s congress, Darmanin Demajo has also argued against a European boycott at the next World Cup. What is it about the proposal that he disagrees with?

The MFA president indicates that there may have been ulterior motives behind the boycott calls.

“The timing of the proposed boycott would only have been perceived to be a sour grapes reaction to the FIFA election result. I think decisions should never be taken when emotions are high, and my feeling was that a period of reflection and letting the dust settle would have been my preferred response. Besides, the football world should not be ‘punished’ because of one man – the World Cup is a fantastic tournament that the whole world anxiously awaits every four years. The trouble with world football lies with the top FIFA officials and the power brokers who have hijacked and used the game for their own interests. These have now been weeded out and put under arrest. After the recent events and the resignation of Blatter, the arguments for boycott have suddenly subsided…”

This leaves the question of what kind of pressure UEFA and individual associations can actually exert on FIFA for a thorough reform. Darmanin Demajo acknowledges that the European federation is outgunned on the global stage.

“UEFA is a minority in FIFA, and cannot exert any pressure other than express itself through its representatives on the FIFA executive committee… who are also outnumbered by members of the other confederations. Following the resignation of Blatter and the arrest of the other high ranking FIFA officials, including two FIFA vice-presidents, I would expect the footballing world to look to UEFA and its leaders to initiate and lead the long road towards reform.”

One possible problem concerns Blatter’s resignation itself. Although the former FIFA president has officially stepped down, he will only fully vacate the post when his resignation is formally accepted by an extraordinary congress which has yet to be organised.

“I will continue to exercise my functions as FIFA president until that election,” Blatter wrote in his resignation letter last Tuesday. Darmanin Demajo reasons that this will create unnecessary delays in the reform process.

“Unfortunately, true reform cannot begin until Blatter actually steps down, and it seems that Blatter has decided to drag this on for another six to nine months… i.e. until an extraordinary congress is called to elect a successor. Blatter should just go, and go now. There can be no reform with Blatter still at the helm. What he could not accomplish in 17 years cannot be done in six months. We are simply wasting more time...”

Meanwhile, it seems that the indictment of FIFA officials specifically over corruption charges in the selection of world cup host countries may not have any effect on the next two World Cups. Some have argued that the bidding process for the host countries in 2018 and 2022 should be reopened, given that the selection process was so seriously vitiated. Does Darmanin Demajo agree? Or should ‘the show go on’, even if both world cups are pre-emptively mired in corruption and scandal?

“As far as I am aware, despite various allegations there is no actual proof that the awarding of the World Cups to Russia in 2018, and Qatar in 2022, were awarded as a result of corruption. So I would not like to comment on this at this point. This is also a complicated legal issue that involves a number of factors. However, recent developments have shown that the whole FIFA organisation is tumbling down like a house of cards, with new revelations and declarations emerging every day. They say that it’s not over till the fat lady sings… and this one big FIFA lady still has a lot of singing to do!”