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'FIFA board is biggest corruption risk'

Tuesday, June 03 15:44:31

FIFA's chief independent compliance official said the biggest corruption risk facing the world soccer governing body is its board.

Governance at the body has once again become a focus after London's Sunday Times newspaper published accusations that Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, a former FIFA vice president, paid more than $5 million to soccer officials around the world to help his nation win the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Qatar 2022 officials have rejected the allegations, which the Sunday Times said were based on millions of documents and e-mails it received from a senior FIFA official.

"The highest single risk at FIFA is the executive committee and its members," Domenico Scala, chairman of FIFA's audit and compliance committee, said yesterday in a telephone interview. "Which is why the reforms have all tried and have actually achieved the limitation of their decision-making powers by introducing several checks and balances. The single individual missing point now is the limitation on the terms of office."

Since a 22-member executive board made the December 2010 choice of Qatar as 2022 host, FIFA has changed the selection process, including taking away that power from the board and giving it to representatives of FIFA's 209 member associations around the world.

A final vote on the introduction of term limits for board members will take place when the member associations meet in Brazil next week, just before the start of the World Cup. Scala said such a change is needed to end a culture of favors among senior officials that's dominated the sport for decades.

FIFA officials did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment, and referred all questions on Qatar to the office of Michael Garcia, a former U.S. federal prosecutor hired by FIFA to investigate wrongdoing. Garcia has said he'll complete his investigation by June 9.

Scala has said in the past that the vote to select the 2022 World Cup host should be redone if any wrongdoing is found.

Scala, 49, was elected to his role at FIFA in May 2012 after it introduced tougher corporate governance standards in the wake of allegations surrounding the choice of Qatar and the re-election of President Sepp Blatter to a fourth term a year later. Blatter's only rival, construction magnate Bin Hammam, withdrew from the voting and was later expelled from soccer by FIFA for allegedly bribing Caribbean voters. Bin Hammam declined to comment on the Sunday Times story.

Also on the same day in 2010, Russia was chosen to stage the World Cup in 2018. About a third of the board members who voted for Qatar and Russia have either quit or been forced out following allegations of impropriety. Blatter, 78, remains president and has said he intends to run for a fifth term next year. At his first public appearance yesterday since the Sunday Times allegations were published Blatter didn't speak about Qatar. He was in Brasilia meeting Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Alexandra Wrage, Canadian president of non-profit Trace International, which provides anti-bribery advice to multinational companies, quit a group advising FIFA last year, describing it as the "least productive project" of her career. She said Blatter wouldn't remain president if FIFA was run like a corporation.

"When a series of scandals happen on the captain's watch, the captain is responsible for those," she said in a telephone interview from Annapolis, Maryland. "He may not be personally responsible, but rule one of leadership is if it happens in your watch you are responsible."

Qatar would be the first Middle East country to host the World Cup, sport's most-watched event.

Mark Pieth, the Swiss anticorruption expert who headed a panel of independent corporate governance advisers set up by FIFA in 2011, said if allegations of vote buying against Qatar are true it could be years before there is a resolution.

"If it drags on another two or three years what will happen?" he asked in a telephone interview from Basel, Switzerland, adding that Qatar has started planning and building for the event.

If FIFA "said enough is enough, let's just go away from Qatar now, Qatar would turn around and have the most formidable lawsuits against FIFA," Pieth said.

Scala said opening up the selection of World Cup hosts to all FIFA members makes it less likely such problems will happen in the future.

"I'm not saying the Congress making host decision on World Cup is without risk," he said. "What I'm saying is the risk is limited definitely, it's more transparent, there are more people involved, it's a public vote. And if you try and bribe, you might get caught."