By E. Glenford Prescott
They once strode the world at large as individual colossus and wined and dined with kings, presidents and lofty world leaders, but now are now shunned by all who once clamoured to shower adulation and praise and to receive possible handouts in many forms and fashions.
The people in question are those who once held positions of power in the esteemed and wealthy organisation, FIFA, the world governing body of football.
Just under two weeks ago, these individuals, who appeared a mere wing flap away from utopia, saw their world reportedly come down like the Liverpool FC Heysel Stadium — with tragic and devastating consequences.
The seismic movement in their world began when some of the most high-ranking officials in the sport were unceremoniously dragged from their lofty seats of authority to land at ground level in a “heap of humiliation”. Seven of them were arrested by Swiss law enforcement personnel on a number of charges, including money laundering, wire fraud, racketeering and accepting bribes, even as they slept in their $4,000 a night suite at a Zurich five-star hotels courtesy FIFA.
The seven who had their zone of opulence pauperised were Jeffrey Webb, head of CONCACAF, and FIFA vice-president; Costa Rica’s national football chief Eduardo Li, who was due to join FIFA’s executive committee; Uruguay’s Eugenio Figueredo, president of South American football governing body Conmebol; Venezuelan Football Federation president Rafael Esquivel; Brazil’s Jose Maria Marin, a member of FIFA’s club committee; FIFA development officer Julio Rocha, from Nicaragua and Costas Takkas, of the UK, an attache to the Concacaf president.
Also indicted are former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, Nicolas Leoz, Aaron Davidson, Alejandro Burzaco, Jose Margulies, and Hugo and Mariano Jinkis.
And just when the drama had gone through all the scripted acts and scenes, a late reel was added that left the patrons in open-mouthed amazement: president Sepp Blatter, who was elected for a fifth term just four days earlier, called a hastily-organised media conference to announce that he was standing down.
Blatter had sought a fifth term amid negative press and despite calls by many, including his long-time friend, France’s Michel Platini, not to stand for re-election in the face of the reports of chronic corruption in the organisation. Ignoring all this, Blatter beat his lone challenger, Prince Ali Hussein of Jordan, 133/73 with the Prince withdrawing from the mandatory run-off after Blatter had failed to get the necessary 140 votes required for the 2/3 majority.
But what is the allure that draws these men to develop this overriding ambition to be a “FIFA bigwig”?
The BBC probably captures this in its look at Eduardo Li, one of the men arrested on May 27, 2015 in Zurich.
The reports said that Eduardo Li has been in charge of Costa Rica’s Football Federation for the past eight years.
According to the report, Li was voted Personality of the Year 2014 in Costa Rica after the national football team stunned its rivals by reaching the quarterfinals in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Journalist Yuri Lorena Jimenez of local newspaper La Nacion described him as “impeccably dressed, spotless, without a hair out of place, nicely perfumed”.
She also said that in his office he “was surrounded by good taste: champagne, caviar canapes and refreshing air conditioning”.
The report said that Li studied civil engineering but only practiced the profession for a few years.
He took over from Walter Niehaus as president of the Costa Rican Football Federation in 2007.
Asked why he had taken on the job, he said that some of its perks were priceless.
“There’s no Arab sheikh who can buy tickets to the kind of events us leaders of world football have access to. To witness the FIFA draw, for example, is one of the great plusses of this job, which certainly is very tricky.”
And the trick apparently caught Li and his six high-flying colleagues, who are all now housed in a modest Swiss prison awaiting extradition to the United States to answer the myriad of charges levied against them.
Earlier this week, Warner said in a TV address in his native Trinidad, where he too is facing extradition, that he will reveal all he knows about corruption at world football’s governing body.
He was arrested last week and is out on bail after being forced to spend a night in jail owing to late paperwork in finalising his bail.
Warner, who said he feared for his life, also said he could link FIFA officials to general elections in his native Trinidad and Tobago in 2010.
Many questions are being asked about the level and depth of his threatened revelations, since he has been at the centre of a number of shady matters involving regional football.
The 1989 Trinidad and Tobago “Road to Italy” attempt, which ended with the twin-island Republic just narrowly missing out on a final place qualification after being beaten 1-0 in Sport-of-Spain when needing only a draw, could be ripe for an opening of the debate over ticket sales and team strategy on the day.
Trinidad eventually made it to the World Cup in Germany in 2006, but the machinations of its final matches against Mexico and Panama may come back up for scrutiny and who were involved in what.
Blake Morrison, writing in the UK Guardian, said back then on June 3 2006: “There’s no doubt that some of Warner’s manoeuvrings have been nepotistic and self-promoting. But as well as profiting from football, he has forked out his own money for the national side and raised the profile of the region. He’s 63 now, with a slightly hunched, elder statesman quality, like Nelson Mandela. But he still wears flowered shirts, and watching him perform a limbo dance at a ‘cultural evening’ before the Peru game, I could imagine him going on for some years yet, and even (unless the Jennings case against FIFA is made to stick) taking over from FIFA president Sepp Blatter”.
It appears that Andrew Jennings, a UK journalist who was one of Warner’s harshest critics and accused him of plenty of wrong doings, has had his way or so it seems.
In St. Vincent and the Grenadines football, Warner and Webb have had their allies in presidents of the SVGFF over the years. Former President St. Clair Leacock is said to have a very close relationship with Warner who was instrumental in SVGFF being able to receive funds from FIFA after facing a possible suspension for lack of accountability. Warner, during his time, also played a more than active role in determining who was SVG’s technical director. One such occasion, in 2003, when Leacock having fired Ces Podd and Adrian Shaw as coaches of the SVG senior national team, SVG was sent Zoran Vranes a friend of Warner who was doing some work with the Trinidad FA at the time.
Current SVGFF boss Venold Coombs on many occasions spoke about the close relationship between the now disgraced Webb and himself.
Former General Secretary of the SVG Football Federation, Clive “Bish-I” Bishop believes the current situation is being prompted by the Europeans and in particular England over the losing out on being awarded the 2022 World Cup. He said that it is just a matter of “sour grapes” and nothing else.
Bishop said that Warner has done a tremendous amount for regional football and must not be judged only on the reports of alleged corruption.
“His is not the only name linked with corrupt practices in FIFA.
We must accept first of all and secondly the system in FIFA facilitates that type of trait, so what Jack did was just join in what was already happening before his time. Because there is nothing saying he did anything different from others,” Bishop, who said he met Warner at UWI in the 1960s, contends.
He said that while there is talk of a ten million dollar amount from South Africa said to be a bribe, if it can be proven that the money did go to projects, then there is little that they may be able “to pin on Jack”.
Warner, during his years as CONCACAF president and FIFA vice president, ensured many of his Trinidad countrymen held positions of standing in the region, with his close associates, Alvin Corneal and Harold Taylor, among those so favoured.
He was able to strengthen his position in world football by using the support of the CONCACAF, which has 41 members 31 of these from the Caribbean and his close association with the African continent. Warner, always one to think ahead, ensured that many of the smaller countries in the Caribbean became members of FIFA, thereby solidifying his base and enhancing his bargaining power.
He also is said to have benefitted immensely from these countries through dealings with their share of World Cup Television Rights, which he and his one-time confidant and friend, former CONCACAF General Secretary Chuck Blazer, coerced or forced them to sign over.
However, it was these same votes which he attempted to take away from his former ally in Sepp Blatter to his rival Qatari billionaire Bin Hamman that was the catalyst for him being jettisoned out of FIFA and world football in 2011. He was banned along with Bin Hamman after both men were caught up in a bribery attempt of some of the same CONCACAF members.
Reports said that it was the terminally ill Blazer who turned informant by passing information to the U.S. Department of Justice, thereby triggering the demise of Warner and subsequently some of his former colleagues.
A few years ago Warner, released a book entitled “Zero to Hero”, written by Trinidad Guardian Editor Valentino Singh.
The foreword of the book was written by His Excellency Professor George Maxwell Richards, President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago.
A number of people who were part of football administration paid tribute to Warner in the book with former FIFA President Dr. Jaoa Havelange (1974-1998) saying: “I was particularly lucky to have had Jack Warner at my side throughout my years as FIFA president. He has proven time and again that he is dedicated to football. His charisma and love for life are all part of the package that makes him one of the best men to have on your team.”
And, whatever may come out of the investigations regarding Trinidad’s trip to the World Cup 2006 the debt of gratitude owed to Warner by the nation is captured by former national captain Dwight Yorke in the book: when he says, “It was on Jack’s shoulder that we made it to the World Cup Finals. Without him it would never have been possible.”
In February 2007, Warner, along with Singh, made a presentation of the book to some sports journalists from across the Caribbean who were invited to Trinidad for a sports journalists workshop at the Cascadia Hotel. During the session, Warner was asked if he would do a second book and he then quipped, some may say prophetically, “Yes, I may do one entitled from Hero back to Zero Again”.
The general view is that Warner, at 72, with all his tenacity and fortitude, may have come to touchline of life, a jaded and spent force with the strong possibility of a 20-year jail term in an American cell and being remembered, only maybe, for bringing into serious disrepute the sport in which he thrived.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]