FAI Still Not Convincing over €5M FIFA Pay-Out

The Republic of Ireland football team extended their unbeaten run versus England to over 30 years with a friendly match draw in Dublin last Sunday. Thankfully, the affair was uneventful off the field and there was no repeat of the riotous scenes witnessed in the stands when the two teams last met on Irish soil back in 1995. Things were just as uneventful on the field, unfortunately; the game ended 0-0 with very little creativity or imagination demonstrated by either side. Ireland’s next test is a massive must-win Euro 2016 qualifying game at home to Scotland this coming Saturday.

Neither of these events, however, should be allowed to distract from the very serious questions that remain outstanding and unanswered in relation to the €5 million payment of which the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) were in receipt from FIFA subsequent to Ireland’s controversial 2009 elimination at the hands of France from qualification for the 2010 World Cup (after Thierry Henry’s infamous double hand-ball in the direct lead-up to the winning goal of William Gallas). I have been following the matter closely over the past few days and have written in depth here.

Claims that the FAI had been handed a €5 million pay-off first broke on the 13th of July last year. Gary Meneely of the Irish Sun wrote at the time:

FIFA wanted this row [over the hand-ball] to go away. They feared the FAI delegation could raise the issue at FIFA congress in South Africa deflecting from what should have been a good news story. The feeling at the FAI was that Blatter had embarrassed himself… FIFA provided money to try to heal the rift.

The only other media outlet of note to touch the story then was Eurosport who, more-or-less, re-reported what was already in the Irish Sun. The story’s overshadowing on that date was surely inevitable, however, considering the 13th of July was also the day of the 2014 World Cup final. Was its publishing on that date a mere coincidence then or might that have been part of the plan of whoever leaked it? It must be asked; why voluntarily leak a story at all if it is not going to have maximum impact due to the intended audience looking elsewhere? Or perhaps the plan was to have the story piggyback off the World Cup final coverage in the hope that the public would have been more receptive to a football-related story then. Who knows? It would also only be fair to point out that the original article mentioned solely an anonymous source as being the root of the revelation – nothing very concrete – so other media outlets were most likely reluctant to take it on due to obvious uncertainty as to its veracity or verifiability and for fear of legal action.

Media talk of the payment next surfaced nearly a year later when, in light of the corruption and bribery scandal that has currently enveloped FIFA, RTÉ’s Gavin Jennings asked FAI chief executive, John Delaney, to furnish him with further details of the reported payment towards the end of a 29th of May interview on Morning Ireland. Delaney stated that the payment “did not bestow patronage” and was reluctant to confirm further “confidential” details, other than that it was as a result of a “legal case [the FAI] had against FIFA”. Once again, there was relatively little attention immediately accorded to it in the Irish media. That, of course, was prior to the FIFA presidential vote later that same day, Sepp Blatter’s subsequent re-election as president and then Blatter’s explosive resignation announcement a few days later on the 2nd of June.

Sepp Blatter (Kremlin.ru; CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).
Sepp Blatter (Kremlin.ru; CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons).

On the 4th of June, Ray D’Arcy raised the payment again during another RTÉ radio interview with Delaney. With Blatter on the way out, the FAI CEO, denying that he had ever been offered a bribe, seemed more open to discussing the matter on this occasion and volunteered some further information whilst simultaneously criticising Blatter. Perhaps Delaney was eager to portray himself as an involved global player courageously standing up to and squeezing concessions out of the top dog, but did his ego unwittingly allowed him to expose himself as being complicit in dodgy FIFA dealings? By now, the global press were just burning to expose any possible whiff of a misdeed by the outgoing Blatter; the Irish and international media pounced on the story.

FIFA felt compelled to explain and, that evening, published a statement admitting that they had “entered into an agreement with [the] FAI in order to put an end to any claims against [them]”. According to FIFA, the FAI were given the money in January of 2010 as a loan for stadium reconstruction to be paid back only if the Ireland were to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. (Bizarrely, FIFA were effectively paying the FAI not to qualify for the tournament. What sort of competitive incentive was that?)

The FAI responded with an official statement themselves that night asserting that the €5 million payment was a settlement “without any conditions other than confidentiality” to halt a threatened legal action against FIFA by the FAI. This appeared to contradict FIFA’s statement and so generated further questions. Concerns were also raised by Emmet Malone in the Irish Times with regard to the fact that the payment did not seem to be apparent in the FAI’s published accounts.

Further clarification was delivered the following evening to an expectant media; the FAI, claiming to be no longer feeling bound to confidentiality due to FIFA’s statement, released a second statement with documentary evidence of the receipt of a €5 million loan as an “inducement” to enter into an agreement to waive all FAI claims against FIFA pertaining to the play-off against France and Ireland’s failure to qualify, the spending of said loan on the redevelopment of Lansdowne Road and the writing off of the loan by FIFA. The statement also outlined the nature of a number of interactions between FIFA and the FAI, a timeline of these interactions along with the various related transactions and (still ambiguous) details of the FAI’s asserted legal case against the governing body.

Whilst the statement suggested that the legal case was grounded in “reputational damage” arising out of Sepp Blatter’s breaching of a confidentiality agreement by having “made a joke of the Association’s request to be the 33rd team at the World Cup”, the primary document simultaneously released by the FAI as evidence of the overall arrangement listed only the consequence of the handball incident as a complaint; that being elimination from qualification for the 2010 World Cup. Of course, the problem with this is that a refereeing error would not have constituted valid grounds for a legal action anyway, especially as the document implied that the FAI had already, at the very least, tacitly accepted the referee’s decision as final by participation in and completion of the play-off in accordance with the Laws of the Game. Indeed, the notion that the missed handball might have amounted to valid legal grounds for a case or warranted such recompense as €5 million had already being widely ridiculed as farcical both in and outside of Ireland.

John Delaney gave an interview to RTÉ on the same night as the release of the second FAI statement and, in complete contradiction of the written release, asserted that the refereeing mishap was merely a “catalyst” for what later followed. He claimed that FIFA’s “real concerns” were actually over the supposed strength of his association’s legal claims relating to the “reputational damage” and a previously-unmentioned decision taken by FIFA in the weeks before the play-off against France to seed the draw; Delaney argued that that decision by FIFA essentially amounted to an illegal rule-change. Emmet Malone summed up the glaring inconsistencies in the Irish Times:

In his interview, Delaney repeatedly pointed to a copy of the document and said that Fifa’s “very real concerns” regarding the potential of the legal case are “laid bare for the world to see”.

However, the only complaint listed in the documents is that the handball resulted in a goal which contributed to Ireland failing to qualify for the finals. Neither the seedings nor Blatter’s behaviour are mentioned anywhere in the document.

The document between the associations only says the FAI “lodged certain requests based on the match and its subsequent failure to qualify for the final competition”.

You would be forgiven for thinking Delaney was making this up as he went along. Was he perhaps attempting, rather desperately, to string loose issues together to strengthen the supposed case after the fact due to the public disdain shown for the original flimsy notion that the handball alone was worthy of €5 million in compensatory settlement? Surely, by happily participating in and completing the qualifying play-off without prior objection, it would have sabotaged any potential future claim against the format by which the opponents were decided anyhow? One would also have to imagine that FIFA would have reserved certain rights for themselves in internal documents exchanged between themselves and all participating associations with regard to deciding the format of the entire qualification process, including the play-off games. Such would completely nullify any validity in the FAI’s claim on this particular matter.

In light of all of the above, it is clear that serious outstanding questions remain unanswered. Delaney has been openly critical of FIFA’s lack of transparency and stated of himself and those under him at the FAI, “I don’t know what more we can do in terms of being open and transparent”, but, in entering into confidential (if not dubious) financial arrangements, is his own organisation really as open as he would like to have us think? Indeed, if all was above board, why the need for confidentiality in the first place? Furthermore, why was Delaney claiming that a confidentiality agreement that had already been breached by Sepp Blatter back in 2009 was still in effect in 2015?

Do huge, legally-savvy and capable multinational organisations like FIFA really hand out vast sums of money just like that to prevent legal actions built on extremely weak grounds and for very questionable return? For what reason did the governing body think that €5 million was an appropriate figure? Might an FAI legal action against FIFA on the basis of “reputational damage” from breach of a confidentiality agreement actually have cost FIFA somewhere in the region of or above €5 million so as to motivate the provision of such a payment from their perspective? Might there have been other unknown reasons for the pay-off?

Whilst Delaney was more than happy to let it be known he would be voting for Prince Ali bin Al Hussein in the 2015 election for FIFA president, let us not forget there was also a presidential vote in 2011. As it turned out, Blatter was the solitary runner in that election after Mohammed bin Hammam withdrew four days before the 1st of June vote under allegations of corruption, but that was not to be known a year and a half earlier when the payment to the FAI was agreed. Might FIFA’s payment have been a front to shore up another precious vote for Blatter? After all, despite Delaney’s purported dislike for Blatter’s methods, the FAI vote was allotted to Blatter on that occasion (although, to be fair, it must also be acknowledged that this was in line with the collective voting of the UEFA bloc, of which the FAI is a member).

Is the allegation of the rule-change definitely to be considered part of the FAI’s legal case? If so, it is important to distinguish it from the “reputational damage” claim as the two respective matters would presumably be dealt with separately in law; any action against a rule-change would be expected to fall within the jurisdiction of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, on the basis that it would relate to a competition dispute, whilst any action against a breach of a confidentiality agreement, with a consequent claim for reputational damages, would surely be dealt with by a civil law court. Delaney’s words seemed to conflate two distinct matters very conveniently as if they should naturally be considered as one solid claim. Would FIFA have viewed them in this way when there really was no need to see them as such? In isolation, as they would have been treated by law, the cases would have been much less potent.

If FIFA understood then (on the claimed basis that the FAI’s legal case was strong) that the late introduction of seeding for the play-offs was a breach of competition rules, why was seeding introduced again for the UEFA play-offs for qualification for the 2014 World Cup? Is it fair now too to completely disregard the idea that there might have been some valid legal claim on the basis of the play-off referee having missed Henry’s double hand-ball (even though the FAI originally threatened FIFA with bringing a case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over this and despite the released FAI documents having pinpointed this as a legitimate issue originally)?

Call me a cynic, but being handed a barely conditional windfall of €5 million just seems way too good to be true. Is John Delaney really so impressive a negotiator that FIFA were virtually throwing money at him? The story just does not stack up satisfactorily. Indeed, the persistent inconsistencies leave us with an urgent need for further answers and information. If the supposed merits of the FAI’s respective legal cases were explained by the association in greater, more coherent and more precise detail, along with how and why exactly the seemingly arbitrary sum of €5 million (plus an additional grant) was deemed by FIFA to be an appropriate settlement, I would be much more satisfied with the overall situation. Does such information even exist in congruent and reconcilable form?

Indeed, it has been suggested that Delaney might well be called before an Oireachtas committee on sports and tourism to offer clarification to the Irish government on the basis that the FAI is the national football association and is in receipt of taxpayers’ funds. If that is what it takes to attain some certainty and clarity from this matter, in spite of his claim that he runs an open and transparent organisation, then so be it.

Unfortunately, however, I fear Richard Sadlier may have been on the mark in the Irish Independent when he outlined the real great shame of the present matter:

As the clamour for greater transparency and openness in football grows by the day, the FAI can no longer contribute to the campaign for change. You can’t be a credible voice for reform if you have been in receipt of such a dubious payment. You don’t get to run down the practices of FIFA if you have done this kind of business with them.

Did John Delaney sell the Irish moral high ground for a quick €5 million?

Daniel has also written on this matter on his blog here.

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