Chris Eaton was supposed to be the new face of FIFA. Chris Eaton was supposed to represent all that was good and true in the organization that looks after world football. Chris Eaton is a tough-talking former police officer brought in from Interpol to save the world’s game from gangs of match-fixing criminals. Last month, he announced a series of measures that were to help him to do so, amnesties for anyone who came forward and confessed to fixing matches and an independent hotline for whistleblowers.
Last week, Sepp Blatter the head of FIFA announced that they were taking the issue of match-fixing very seriously. So they should. There are over fifty national police investigations into match-fixing in a bewildering range of countries, from international friendlies in South Africa and Zimbabwe to second division matches in Finland to the CONCACAF Champions League in El Salvador. The gangs are widespread and the threat of corruption in international football is growing.
However, today, I can confirm that Chris Eaton will be leaving FIFA in the next two months and many of his initiatives are being quietly shelved or sent to FIFA committees where they will move forward with glacial speed.
What will FIFA say about Eaton’s sudden departure? They will possibly say the usual platitudes, something like, ‘Mr. Eaton is leaving to pursue other activities.’
What will Chris Eaton say? He too will possibly say the usual platitudes, something like; ‘I want to spend more time with my family.’ Or ‘New opportunity, fresh pastures, exciting challenges, etc’.
What they will not say is that Chris Eaton had finished his task of rooting out match-fixing in international football. Heck! They cannot even say he began his task of rooting out match-fixing in international football. All the measures that were announced in the last few months – the proposed amnesty for players, the independent hotline for whistle-blowers – they have all been quietly shelved or will be moved to FIFA committees where they will wither away. Eaton is on his way out and FIFA’s credibility on this issue is in tatters.
Here is what I believe actually happened. My sources inside both Interpol and FIFA say that there is a battle going on inside FIFA. It is a room-by-room, desk-by-desk, hallway-by-hallway war. The fight is between the officials who want to bring the world football organization into the 21st century with proper professional standards, and the old-guard. The latter are officials who claim that the status quo has done very well so far and that there is no need to change it. There is also concern that with so many skeletons in the proverbial closet having an open season to discuss corruption might prove to be too much for FIFA (‘when can you get people to stop confessing?’)
Part of the public relations strategy of the old-guard is to bring in outsiders who will make loud pronouncements about the need for change, but when they actually ask for resources or serious reforms, find themselves isolated and alone.
Eaton was one of those people. He charged around the world trying to pretend that FIFA was conducting investigations, yet when he proposed a series of very sensible and practical solutions to preventing much of the corruption in international football – his proposals died.
It was the same pattern for Sylvia Schenk, the tough-talking, former athlete who is Transparency International’s point person for corruption in sport. A few months ago, she too had a brief flirtation with working with FIFA, and again, when she challenged the fundamental culture of FIFA, she left.
All in all this is a very worrying day for international football. With fifty national police investigations into match-fixing and so much confusion and controversy at FIFA, fans in every country can justifiably doubt the very credibility of much of the sport they are watching.
I add, as a footnote, my own experience with FIFA. I heard about this story last week from Interpol contacts. I confirmed it with FIFA sources. There were no other journalists close to the story. Then I followed proper, professional journalist protocol. I contacted the FIFA press department and asked them for a statement on this important issue. Three hours later a colleague at another news organization announced the story.
Do I believe that this timing was a coincidence? No.
Will I trust FIFA again? No.
Therefore, I suggest to all my colleagues: if in the future you have a story with FIFA, give them no more than an hour to formulate a response. It does not matter how serious or complex the issue, currently the work culture at FIFA is too toxic and poisonous to be trusted.