An avoidable scandal
By Steve Alabi
It seems as if the world governing body of the beautiful game cannot divorce itself from crisis and controversy for a fairly long stretch of time. While one is petering out, another is already incubating. The latest is the accusation of vote rigging in this year’s The Best FIFA Football Awards which saw Barcelona’s Lionel Messi awarded the prestigious men’s title ahead of his eternal rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, the Juventus attacking maestro and Virgil van Dijk, the defence stalwart of UEFA Champions League kings, Liverpool.
The news media were awash last week with tales of manipulation and rigging in the aftermath of the crowning of winners by FIFA. While the results of the votes for other categories of awards were adjudged to be fair representation of the best in those categories, that of the men’s title jolted the football world. Very few expected Messi to win. Even a second position would have been questioned. Also surprising was the Fair Play award conferred on English Championship side, Leeds and their coach, Marcello Bielsa.
In an unprecedented action, some of the voters openly repudiated the result credited to them. For example, Sudan’s coach, Zdravko Lugarisic and Nicaragua’s captain, Juan Barrera alleged their ballots did not represent what they actually submitted. News reports quoted Barrera as saying, “I did not vote for Messi. I was surprised to be on the list of captains who voted for Messi and there is no explanation how it appeared there.” Lugarisic posted a screenshot of his voting to dispute FIFA’s assertion that he voted Messi as his first choice. The screenshot showed clearly that his first choice was Liverpool forward, Mohamed Salah. This is an avoidable scandal.
On its part, the Egyptian Football Federation questioned FIFA’s outright rejection of its entire ballot. The federation said it officially sent its vote to the world governing body on the 15th of August, four days before the deadline. It claimed its captain, Ahmed Elmohamady voted while its Olympic team’s manager, Shawki Ghareeb voted in place of the national coach after the resignation of the coaching staff but FIFA did not publish their votes.
No less a person than Chelsea manager, Frank Lampard faulted the Fair Play accolade which recognized Leeds’ ostensibly fair action of allowing Aston Villa to score against them in April to balance out the clearly unfair goal they scored while Villa’s Jonathan Kodjia lay injured on the field. Lampard reminded the world of Leeds’ scandalous spying on Derby against all known convention. “It’s strange. Everyone had the same reaction. There was a lot of news about ‘SpyGate,’ at the time, quite rightly so, and it got dealt with in the right way – and when you go and give an award for fair play in the same year, it’s strange. I don’t know who votes for it. Everyone knows what happened with ‘Spygate’ – it is well documented. The rules changed because of it and they were fined. I felt it was improper, to get a fair play award off the back of that. I thought it was irony at first.”
FIFA has however denied these worrisome allegations. It dismissed the Sudanese and Nicaraguan allegations on the ground that the documents they submitted were published correctly and arrived with official stamps. It said it has “contacted the two FAs to inquire on the matter.” A statement on its official website said it was “disappointed to see a number of reports in the media questioning the integrity of the voting process” asserting that there was no doubt as to the authenticity of the final result of the voting for each category. Even though it argued that the voting procedure for each of the awards was supervised and monitored by an independent observer, in this case PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Switzerland and that FIFA and PwC followed the Rules of Allocation and relevant standard control procedures, its responses are not convincing. When voters come out openly with evidence of their ballot, it becomes difficult to believe FIFA, more so when it failed to countenance Lampard’s observation.
When controversy trails ordinary awards that do not rank more than mere honours, the implication is that competitive honours will be under constant scrutiny. It will be right for questions to be asked about the honesty and impartiality of FIFA competitions. A body that cannot manage the integrity of its awards leaves the public no choice but to ascribe lack of transparency to its entire operations.
The earlier FIFA cleans its operations, the better. It can least afford further scandals for the sake of the beautiful game.