The blogosphere and my inbox are still cluttered with questions and e-mails about Chris Eaton’s departure from FIFA. To review, Mr. Eaton is a former Interpol officer who took over the fight against match-fixing at FIFA. Last month, he announced a series of tough-sounding projects to tackle corruption. Last week, came the shock news that he was leaving FIFA to take up a job with an anti-corruption agency in Qatar. He is, sadly, the latest in a series of anti-corruption executives that I have seen come and go in this field. However, what happened specifically to Mr. Eaton to make him leave?
First, it is clear that there was a significant cultural struggle between FIFA hierarchy and Mr. Eaton. In a BBC interview Eaton claims that he thinks FIFA is ‘naïve’ about the extent of match-fixing and that he was ‘uncomfortable’ with the widespread allegations of corruption connected to the organization. According to my sources, the truth is that almost all of Eaton’s projects (again, they were excellent ideas on paper) have been moved off to various FIFA committees, where they presumably will be quietly disarmed or shelved. In the words of one senior executive, “Eaton was left effectively alone, without resources.”
On the public side, however, Mr. Eaton has, in most interviews, been extremely loyal to the organization. FIFA has also issued a flattering statement about his work that said the usual clichés of ‘the-man-has-gone-but-his-work-will-continue’ nonsense. And yesterday, the head of the Qatari anti-corruption agency came out to say soothing things about both FIFA and the entire recruitment process. So overall what is going on to produce this disconnect? I believe that currently Mr. Eaton is being gruntled. Gruntling is the process where an organization takes an important ex-employee who may be disgruntled and who could embarrass the organization by complaining to the media and ensures that they are well-provided for. This is not outright corruption or bribery. Nor is it necessarily the stuff of confidentiality agreements and pensions, rather it can be more informal. It is the process where letters of references are positive, hallway conversations always encouraging, public expressions of esteem are traded back and forth. For Mr. Eaton to come out and clearly state what happened would be a public relations disaster for FIFA, their people know it so they are on a campaign to make sure that he does not say anything too bad about them.
However, there is a far more serious message in this situation than bad PR for FIFA. This controversy is a disaster for the fight against corruption and match-fixing. FIFA’s initiative against match-fixing is dead. There will be no effective or serious replacement for Mr. Eaton. Why would there be? The only people who will consider taking over Eaton’s job are the desperate and the deluded. Why would any credible candidate apply for a job when the last person’s ideas, plans and projects are widely considered to have been sidelined and he appears to have been, professionally, cut off at the knees? It is a career death-wish to accept such a position.
What about the new job that Eaton is moving to, the Qatari anti-corruption agency?
(Sound of Hill laughing. Slapping of thigh. Suspenders snapping. Ribs breaking, etc).
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear! The sheer joy of covering stories on sports corruption and FIFA are the wonderful sub-plots that come out of the organization. You really could not make this stuff up. Last year, we had Sepp Blatter announcing that Placido Domingo, the opera singer, was going to be a lead helper in the fight against corruption. Now we have the news that there is a relatively obscure Qatari organization that will begin to lead the fight against sports corruption. What next? The Vladimir Putin Centre for Electoral Reform? So the Qataris want to stop corruption in sport do they? Right ho. How about investigating the possibility that the 2022 World Cup was bought by – wait for it – the Qataris? Those, after all, were the words of FIFA’s senior executive Jérôme Valcke who in a leaked e-mailed claimed that the Qataris had ‘bought the World Cup’. To be fair to Mr. Valcke, he later issued a statement saying that he had not meant the Qataris had bought the World Cup by bribing anyone, rather they had simply bought the World Cup by – well, by some previously unknown, but entirely legal process that FIFA had not been entirely clear about. This is an issue which concerns football fans around the world, and there are many fair-minded people who think that there was something wrong about the World Cup selection process – so how about a genuinely independent investigation into that affair? Otherwise, there will be many commentators who will doubt the credibility of the organization from the get-go.
This is the atmosphere that Mr. Eaton is now joining. Do I hold much hope for any real action from his new employers? No. Do I think that they will be able to do anything when FIFA has not fully backed any effective reforms or actions? No. Will they be able to make strong recommendations of the kind that sports officials nod wisely to in conference halls and then ignore in real life? Yes. Do I hope that I am wrong and that in six months Mr. Eaton and the Qataris will come riding back in a blaze of glory? Yes. Do I think that will happen? No.
The truly sad part of this whole story is that while Mr. Eaton is leaving, the situation for corruption has gotten far worse in football. The recent FIFPro (an international umbrella organization of football players union) survey of three-thousand current players indicates shockingly high-levels of corruption in many leagues. In almost one third of the countries that comprise FIFA there are police investigations into match-fixing. This is one of the troubling issues in this story. Match-fixing is beginning, in certain leagues, to become part of the system – part of the business plan of many clubs. If the organization that is supposed to be in charge of football world-wide does not move to protect it in a credible manner then who will?
There is one final issue that has been overlooked by almost all the media in following this story (except the excellent Haresh Deol) – Mr. Eaton’s allegation that there are certain senior Asian sports officials who are helping the match-fixers. The scandals in Turkey, China and Eaton’s own leaving tend to overshadow this matter, but it is the most serious issue of all. In my book ‘The Fix’ I write about how I got inside the gang that has been shown to be fixing matches all over the world. What they always told me was that they had protection from influential people in the Asian sports world. If you think about it, of course, they must have high-level protection – how else could they have continued for so long? It is not entirely clear who is protecting them, but the gang has, I believe, helped to corrupt matches at almost all levels of the game across the world. They will continue to do so, unless they are stopped. And so long as they continue to receive protection it will be very, very difficult to stop them.