Gravy train: Fifa president Sepp Blatter on the pitch with a Saudi official in Riyadh. Photo: Getty
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It is time to clean up the beautiful game

In recent days, Fifa seems to have plumbed new depths of almost comic-book villainy.

At the turn of the century, I attended the first Fifa conference on the subject of players’ agents. It was held at the Italian FA’s technical and training centre in Coverciano, outside Florence, and the initial speech came from a man introduced as a leading sports lawyer from Germany. He informed delegates that Fifa’s rules held no jurisdiction in either international law or, indeed, in the Swiss canton where it was based. The Fifa officials present greeted this with indifference: not a comment was passed nor a question asked.

After two days, I returned to England and wrote a brief report for Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League. I heard nothing more from Fifa, the FA (which had sent two officials) or Scudamore.

In recent days, Fifa seems to have plumbed new depths of almost comic-book villainy in its alleged attempts to misrepresent Michael Garcia’s report into the World Cup bidding process. Garcia, an American lawyer hired by Fifa, has learned what many of us have learned in football: corruption in the game is so widespread and the beneficiaries of the gravy train are so many that reform is impossible while the central structure remains in place.

The FA has discovered to its cost that its hugely expensive and naive attempts to canvass support as an aspirant host of the World Cup have merely enabled Fifa to point the finger of suspicion at it. David Bernstein, a former FA chairman, has now called for England to lobby for Uefa – or at least some European football nations – to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Most would be reluctant to do so but in Germany, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a former star player and chairman of the European Club Association, is an outspoken critic of Fifa. Perhaps by enlisting him, my client Gary Lineker and others to lobby within Europe, those of us who despair of Fifa might be able to exert pressure on associations and governments to take up the cause.

I wrote in these pages in June that the FA also needs to sort out its own issues. Why, for instance, does the Professional Footballers’ Association gain most of its income from the employers? And why have there never been adequate investigations into the many illegal payments allegedly made to managers and officials in transfer dealings?

But what if a reformed and cleaned-up FA withdrew from Fifa, supported by Germany and the US? Together, the three nations control much of the TV revenue and thus the sponsorship dependent on TV exposure, which is so vital to the Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, and his ilk pursuing their interests in a game so internationally powerful that it seems above the rule of law.

As one listens to the mealy-mouthed Richard Scudamore speak of how he hopes that things will get better, one realises that those employed by the various official organisations are in too deep
to call time on the system, as flawed as it is.

It reminds me of the silence of those in the banking industry who knew what was going wrong in their trade yet stood idly by. Yet those who care for football, the players and supporters, without whom the professional game would not exist, must act. 

Jon Holmes is a former football agent

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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Leave campaigners are doing down Britain's influence in Europe

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in the EU.

Last week the Leave campaign's Priti Patel took to the airwaves to bang on about the perils of EU regulation, claiming it is doing untold damage to small businesses in the UK. Let's put aside for one minute the fact that eight in ten small firms actually want to stay in the EU because of the huge benefits it brings in terms of trade and investment. Or the fact that the EU has cut red tape by around a quarter in recent years and is committed to doing more. Because the really startling thing Patel said was that these rules come to us "without the British government having a say." That might be forgivable coming from an obscure backbencher or UKIP activist. But as a government minister, Priti Patel knows full well that the UK has a major influence over all EU legislation. Indeed, she sits round the table when EU laws are being agreed.

Don't take it from me, take it from Patel herself. Last August, in an official letter to the House of Lords on upcoming EU employment legislation, the minister boasted she had "worked closely with MEPs to influence the proposal and successfully protected and advanced our interests." And just a few months ago in February she told MPs that the government is engaging in EU negotiations "to ensure that the proposals reflect UK priorities." So either she's been duping the Parliament by exaggerating how much influence she has in Brussels. Or, as is perhaps more likely, she's trying to pull the wool over the British people's eyes and perpetuate a favourite myth of the eurosceptics: that the UK has no say over EU rules.

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in Europe. We have the most votes in the EU Council alongside France, Germany and Italy, where we are on the winning side 87 per cent of the time. The UK also has a tenth of all MEPs and the chairs of three influential European Parliament committees (although admittedly UKIP and Tory sceptics do their best to turn their belief the UK has no influence in Europe into a self-fulfilling prophecy). UKIP MEPs aside, the Brits are widely respected by European counterparts for their common sense and expertise in areas like diplomacy, finance and defence. And to the horror of the French, it is English that has become the accepted lingua franca in the corridors of power in Brussels.

So it's no surprise that the UK has been the driving force behind some of the biggest developments in Europe in recent decades, including the creation of the single market and the enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe. The UK has also led the way on scrapping mobile roaming charges from next year, and is now setting the agenda on EU proposals that will make it easier to trade online and to access online streaming services like BBC iPlayer or Netflix when travelling abroad. The irony is that the Europe of today which Eurosceptics love to hate is very much a British creation.

The Leave campaign like to deride anyone who warns of the risks of leaving the EU as "talking down Britain." But by denying the obvious, that the UK has a major role in shaping EU decisions, they are the ones guilty of doing our country down. It's time we stood up to their defeatist narrative and made the case for Britain's role in Europe. I am a proud patriot who wants the best for my country, and that is why like many I will be passionately making the case to remain in the EU. Now is not the time to leave, it's time to lead.