Despite the waves that the FIFA corruption case has made worldwide, and particularly in the Caribbean, following the arrest and guilty plea of former CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb and other national and regional football bosses, nothing has changed, according to former football professional Shaka Hislop.
Asked whether the investigation into FIFA corruption and subsequent criminal charges have had any effect on the way football is run, the former Trinidad and Tobago national goalkeeper said, “I don’t think so. I continue to have my concerns.”
Speaking to the Cayman Compass after his keynote address at the Anti-Money Laundering/Compliance and Financial Crime conference at the Marriott resort on Thursday, he said that although he knows someone he respects within football’s world governing body, who assures him that things had changed at FIFA, it was difficult to see that from the outside.
The 2015 football corruption investigation by the FBI focused mainly on bribery, fraud and money laundering in the sale of media and marketing rights for FIFA-sanctioned football competitions and matches in the Americas. It also touched on the issue of corrupt vote buying in the election of the FIFA president by member organizations and the nomination of countries as hosts of the FIFA World Cup, one of the world’s largest sports events.
One of the most high-profile individuals in the case, Cayman Islands businessman Jeffrey Webb, a former FIFA executive, CONCACAF and Caribbean Football Union president, was arrested in May 2015 and pleaded guilty in November 2015 to seven counts in a U.S. federal court indictment. The indictment alleges he and dozens of other defendants had solicited bribes in exchange for directing lucrative broadcast and commercial rights deals for various football tournaments to sports marketing companies.
Mr. Webb’s sentencing has been pushed back seven times and it is currently set for March 2019.
Mr. Hislop said he had worked closely with Mr. Webb and had held him in high esteem when Mr. Webb served as a negotiator in a settlement between members of the Trinidad and Tobago national team and Jack Warner, another former president of CONCACAF and Trinidad and Tobago’s football association, who was also indicted in the football corruption probe.
“I believed in his vision. I believed in what he was doing. I believed that he had the region’s game and interests at heart,” Mr. Hislop said at the conference hosted by GCS Advisory.
When Mr. Webb got swept up in the criminal investigation and charges by the U.S. courts, Mr. Hislop said he was heartbroken. “It hit me like a bus.”
“We went from a Trinidad head of CONCACAF [Jack Warner] to the Cayman Islands and it was the same story.”
Mr. Hislop said, as a result, “it has affected not just the game, not just what money trickled down from CONCACAF, it has affected our standing internationally.”
Trinidad and Tobago’s national teams are now so underfunded that government often has to step in “at the eleventh hour” to fund trips to international matches, he noted.
More than 10 years ago, Mr. Hislop, a former English Premier League goalkeeper, and his teammates of the Trinidad and Tobago Soca Warriors national team had locked horns with Mr. Warner, then Trinidad football association president, over broken promises about the way commercial proceeds from the 2006 World Cup would be shared between the association and its players.
While Mr. Warner had promised 50 percent of the commercial proceeds, players were ultimately told they would receive only TT$5,000 (US$740) each.
It was a first glimpse of the extent of the alleged embezzlement that took place under Mr. Warner’s reign at the TTFA, the Caribbean Football Union and CONCACAF that would later be exposed by the FIFA corruption investigation. Mr. Warner is currently wanted for extradition to the United States.
However, Mr. Hislop said he believes that will never happen.
“If they have not been able to get him by now, they won’t. He is never going to leave the country and give them the opportunity. And I don’t think there is much of a will or way for them to come in and just grab him,” he said.
“He is smart enough and has been involved in that game long enough to tie it up in court.”
Mr. Hislop, now a commentator with U.S. TV sports channel ESPN, admitted that reforming the way football is run is very difficult.
On the one hand, the power and wealth of Europe’s football governing body UEFA within FIFA was still so large that it could rely “on tried-and-tested football colonialism” by exerting its influence over the block voting of smaller confederation bodies.
On the other hand, the culture of corruption even at the grassroots level in football across the Caribbean is another huge factor.
“That is as big a challenge. It goes from the very top to the very bottom,” he said. “Even at the local level, there are people making decisions with their own self-interest in mind.”
The rewards may not be more than a nice trip or a fancy meal, but local officials would generally vote with the heads of associations, he said.
Football needs to become more autonomous to solve the problem. Ideally, politics and football should not mix, Mr. Hislop said. At the very least, there needs to be better oversight from governments, given their financial contributions to the sport in many countries.
What is needed is “government oversight,” not “government meddling,” he said.
More player influence is an additional layer of oversight that could provide transparency.
“I am a huge advocate for players’ rights and representation,” the ESPN commentator said. “I think if more players and their representatives are aware of and privy to discussions held behind closed doors and know why certain decisions are made and what is being done or not done, the players themselves would have better faith in the system,” he said.
“It provides another layer of oversight in terms of the finances and where they go.”