x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Fifa's bright new hope is shattered by bin Hammam banning

The fall of Mohamed bin Hammam has ended dreams of a 'transparent' Fifa.

Sepp Blatter and Mohamed bin Hammam have worked at Fifa for many years.
Sepp Blatter and Mohamed bin Hammam have worked at Fifa for many years.

The expression "death of innocence" seems absurd when applied to the inner workings of the Federation Internationale de Football Association, better known as Fifa - or, in less-polite circles, as the assemblage of venal, conniving, self-perpetuating Old Boys who have their boots on the neck of the beautiful game.

It was only two months ago that many of those angered by the ethical Neverland that is Fifa found themselves attracted to the presidential candidacy of Mohamed bin Hammam, who seemed the last, best hope for a truly exotic result: the regeneration of Fifa from within.

For many, he seemed a Barack Obama-like figure: forward-thinking, vigorous, younger and "hipper" than his opponent, multicultural, an avatar for an inclusive, flexible, 21st-century football family.

Paradoxically, considering the 15 years bin Hammam had been part of Fifa's executive-committee inner circle, he presented himself as an "agent of change". And here is the extraordinary bit: he was doing a very nice job of pulling it off.

As he circled the globe in search of support, he returned over and again to the buzzwords of what was a very modern and progressive campaign: transparency, new ideas, term limits, decentralisation, revenue-sharing. He was the Arab Spring come to world football. His ideas resonated. They excited.

His campaign seemed quixotic, once four continental football associations had endorsed the incumbent, Sepp Blatter. But many football insiders were convinced that beneath those top-down endorsements, orchestrated by Blatter cronies, were football's discontented masses, eager for change but afraid to express their support of bin Hammam until the end.

They would rise up at the presidential election on June 1, the narrative went, and turn Fifa on its ear, rejecting Blatter and the status quo and sweeping to the pinnacle of world football an Asian, an Arab, a Muslim. And most critically, someone who was not Sepp Blatter, and someone who had committed himself quite specifically to a reformist agenda.

To see the two men campaign was to compare the past to the future. Blatter, 75, a bit dotty, a symbol of another generation, the career Fifa functionary prone to insensitive statements and rambling asides. And bin Hammam, 62, the intellectually nimble modern man, blogger, businessman and administrator, incisive in word and deed.

It was easy to believe or at least hope: this man could fix Fifa.

Then came a triple whammy: charges of bin Hammam corruption just days ahead of the Fifa congress; his withdrawal from the election; and Blatter's subsequent unopposed run for his fourth term as president.

The timing of the accusations against bin Hammam certainly seemed suspicious, and his backers rose in his defence.

Carlo Nohra, the former chief executive of the UAE's professional league, a man who had worked with bin Hammam for seven years at the Asian Football Confederation offices in Kuala Lumpur, said the sudden accusation of corruption "reeks of a cowardly act". He added: "People are just concerned that someone from this part of the world is likely to become Fifa president."

It was Nohra who spoke passionately of bin Hammam's integrity.

"What strikes me about Mohamed bin Hammam is his honesty and his straight-forward approach," Nohra said in May. "He's a very honourable man, and I speak from experience. I don't ever question his honesty and integrity because I know times when he could have abandoned that and he never did."

The penultimate realisation, among those who thought Fifa could heal itself, were the specificity of the charges, as they became known. The delivery of US$40,000 (Dh147,000) to members of the Caribbean Football Union. The wink-and-nod "use it as you see fit" messages. The deep involvement of the ethically impaired Fifa vice president Jack Warner.

Even bin Hammam's backers found themselves in retreat, reduced to fitting bin Hammam into an environment where honesty is for losers. Said Nohra last week: "I don't believe he's done anything more wrong that anyone else in Fifa in the past 50 years." At the last, we turn to bin Hammam and "justice", Fifa-style. His alleged transgressions came at a time of global revulsion over what were perceived to be standard practices inside the belly of the beast, and also when Blatter was piously insisting on a "zero-tolerance" approach to corruption.

That he might also have been angered at bin Hammam's brass in challenging for the presidency also must be considered. It was no surprise, then, that on Saturday bin Hammam was banned for life from football activities.

Most will shrug and say, "business as usual in Zurich". But to those who saw a glimmer of a better and more honest Fifa future in the campaign of Mohamed bin Hammam, the result is new depths of cynicism and despair.


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