FIFA sponsors are the only ones who can splatter Blatter

November 20, 2011

Well, what a week of wasted moral outrage that was, even if it did produce one of The Sun’s finest headlines for a very long time.

Make no mistake. “Splatter Blatter” may have sold extra copies of the red-top, but will do nothing to remove the Teflon Man, whose life’s achievement has been to carve himself an impregnable position as world football’s supremo.

In a way, you’ve got to admire him. Like Bernie Ecclestone, whom he resembles in a variety of ways, Blatter is a master tactician at the top of his own, very particular, game: not the administration of Formula One or FIFA, but the administration of power.

The secret of their supremacy is the same. It lies not (or very little) in formal status, but in a second-to-none understanding of how to manipulate an opaque global system that has no loyalty beyond its self-perpetuation.

To be sure, FIFA and F1 are, or have, venerable governing bodies guided by what appear to be democratically elected representatives acting in accordance with a constitution. In reality, the election of these officials is manipulated to suit insiders; and the workings of the institutions they represent are so complex and well-defended that they defy almost any outside attempt to hold them to account.

If there is any parallel to representative government, it is the quaint Rotten Borough system that existed in Britain before 1832. Boiled down to essentials, it involved the King and his chosen First Minister fixing a parliamentary majority by procuring the election of their chosen placemen in all the seats that actually mattered. For placemen read “men in blazers”, and you get the picture.

Corruption was the indispensable lubricant of this system. It involved greasing people’s palms, and not just at election time. The disbursement and retraction of patronage – primarily offices of state awarded on the basis of interest rather than merit – was key to successful management.

Recognise the parallel? Allegations of corruption have plagued Blatter’s 4 consecutive terms of office, culminating in the 2018 World Cup scandal that broke earlier this year. As for F1 scandals, need I enumerate them?

But what do Blatter or Ecclestone care about that? The same opacity which protects these organisations from outside investigation also insulates their ringmasters from public criticism – and any punitive measure that might result from it. Hence the stream of crass remarks that regularly issues from their mouths. For Bernie, Hitler was an OK bloke who built excellent roads even if he did later succumb to a power complex. For Blatter, racism on the pitch is a non-issue which can be settled with a handshake at the end of the match. Out of touch, clearly. But then, so what? They’re also out of reach, and they know it.

Blatter has deftly deflected calls for his departure from the likes of David Cameron, David Beckham and The Sun by portraying the outcry as a case of sour grapes. Only Britain has worked itself up into a national lather over racism on the pitch. Why? Because England lost out in the contest to become 2018 World Cup host, and is now conducting a vendetta against the man perceived to be its nemesis.

So, can he now blow the final whistle and move on? Not quite. If there’s one chink in Blatter’s armour, it’s money – or rather its threatened withdrawal. What if the sponsors – household brand names, with household reputations to maintain – deem he has gone too far and pull the plug on the hundreds of millions of pounds a year that FIFA depends upon for its survival?

Ordinarily, that simply wouldn’t happen. However much they may privately tut-tut about Bernie’s ex-wife spending £12m on their daughter’s nuptials, Max Mosley’s grubby sexual antics or Blatter’s moral insensitivity, the last thing they are going to do is scupper a strategic investment with a noble gesture. Their investment is, after all, in the global game, not the administating organisation and the people who lead it. And their justification for inaction the not unreasonable conjecture that most football and motor-racing aficionados have little knowledge and less interest in the shenanigans of sports administrators.

One sponsor’s uncharacteristic response to Blatter’s racism episode is what, in fact, makes this furore so interesting. True, most of FIFA’s six official partners have played entirely true to form. Coca-Cola has categorically rejected a review of its sponsorship; while Visa, Hyundai/Kia, Sony and Adidas have contented themselves with more or less bland statements condemning racism in sport. But Emirates has broken ranks by taking the almost unprecedented step of reviewing its sponsorship.

Whatever next? Not Blatter’s resignation, for sure. But perhaps the beginning of the end of his reign.

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FIFA’s Sepp Blatter and Max Mosley are two of a kind

June 1, 2011

Will the sky fall in on Sepp Blatter, much reviled president of FIFA, just because Coca-Cola and Adidas, Visa and Emirates Airline – 4 of football’s 6 biggest sponsors – have fired a shot across his bows?

Will the English and Scottish football associations’ vociferous appeals for a postponement to FIFA’s presidential election – which currently leaves Blatter dribbling up to an open goal – make an iota of difference?

No and no. The contest between FIFA and its critics is asymmetrical precisely because, unlike Coca-Cola and its fellow sponsors, FIFA is not a brand. It is not vulnerable, in the first degree, to public criticism – however merited or angry that criticism may be.

Indeed, as Matthew Patten recently pointed out, FIFA resembles nothing so much as a medieval guild. It owes allegiance to no one other than the 208 merchant adventurers who make up its membership. Nothing, culturally speaking, could be more removed from the modern corporation. There is no transparency in its business dealings, because the daylight of accountability is not an element in its constitution. The anonymous men in blazers ply their trade in a way that is endemic to all closed mercantile organisations: through mutual back-slapping, nepotism and, let’s face it, financially lubricated manila envelopes – if they think can get away with it. And lording it over them are the merchant prince oligarchs: men (they are always men) like Sepp Blatter and Mohamed Bin Hamman.

FIFA is part of a pattern which, if not peculiar to the administration of world sport, is certainly highly characteristic of it. Remember the cleansing of the Augean Stables at the International Olympic Committee (IOC), after the corruption scandal that was the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics bid came to light in 1998? That was a relatively benign outcome. Less satisfactory have been the consequences of the more recent shenanigans at Formula One. Despite the engulfing stench of scandal, and the twittering of vocal criticism, its twin ringmasters Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone managed to protect the integrity of their power base. Admittedly Mosley eventually went, but it was at a time of his own choosing and on his own terms. Ecclestone, meanwhile, continues to crack the whip without let or hindrance. He is currently said to be negotiating an exit deal with Rupert Murdoch.

Blatter, a man who once fronted an organisation dedicated to stopping women exchanging their suspender belts for pantyhoses, is more likely to draw his inspiration from Mosley than the aftermath of the Salt Lake City scandal. He will brazen the “crisis” out.

And there is little, in the last analysis, the sponsors can or will do about it. On the surface, that might seem a strange thing to say. After all, they are bankers to the organisation and provide its marketing pot. Each contributes between £100m and £300m to a FIFA revenue estimated at £2.4bn in the 4 years up to and including World Cup 2010. Surely that gives them more clout than most stakeholders in the struggle to wring reform from the World Cup organiser? Only up to a point. Let’s not forget that FIFA is less dependent upon sponsors these days to the extent that it can dip into billions of dollars worth of syndicated worldwide TV rights. Moreover, rather than presenting themselves as a united front, the sponsors perceive themselves as embattled and vulnerable competitors (rather like the constructors in the F1 equation). Blatter, like Ecclestone, is a supreme tactician in exploiting such weaknesses. There’s always someone else, he will say, to take their place if they don’t want to play ball. A Pepsi for a Coke, a Nike for an Adidas, a Delta for an Emirates, a Mastercard for a Visa.

And do you know what? He’s right. The only chance the sponsors have of effecting change is if they stand united. My suggestion is not that they threaten to defect, merely that they withhold some of their funding until tangible reforms, prime among them greater transparency and accountability, are in place.


Sir Shred’s threadbare win in the courts

March 13, 2011

On what spurious legal grounds has Sir Fred Goodwin persuaded some mentally bewildered British judge that he may no longer be referred to as a banker? We may not know, we may not even discuss: such is the all-encompassing gagging power of the superinjunction.

Some say that The News of the World was about to blow the gaffe on his private life. If so, I am greatly surprised that the former financial shredder has a private life worth dissecting, given his celebrated 24/7 dedication to work. I can only imagine that mere sight of the word “banker” attached to his name in the newspapers is enough to provoke a trauma so profound and inconsolable among other members of his family that it may be deemed an invasion of their privacy.

However, I digress. Little remarked so far is Sir Fred’s stupendous contribution to legal history. He is the first non-celebrity (excluding Trafigura, a corporate entity – albeit one of surprising sentience) to be granted such an injunction, which opens the floodgates to all sorts of hitherto unexplored avenues of advantage – some conceivably relevant to the marketing community.

Typically, a superinjunction comes about when a celeb of apparently unimpeachable public deportment (such as Tiger Woods) finds his or her reputation is about to be besmirched by irresponsible journalistic muckracking. The potentially ruinous effect of publication upon sponsorship earnings, combined with the anticipated hurt felt by the celeb’s family on reading the exposé, is often enough to persuade tender-minded judges – Mr Justice Eady prime among them – that the celeb’s inalienable Human Right to privacy is indeed being infringed.

Thanks to Sir Fred, the superinjunction contagion may now spread to all sorts of other commercial activity. Max Mosley could perhaps insist that the word “debauchery” be expunged from any description of his private activities over the past few years, for fear of damaging the reputation of Formula One. Likewise, F1 ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone might exercise a veto over the word “Hitler”.

But these are mere legal foothills, considering the potential for indemnifying careers against all-time marketing disasters.

Imagine how useful a bit of UK juridical tourism might have been to the Ford family if the superinjunction had existed back in 1958, as the Edsel disaster began to shape up.

Robert Goizueta, former chief executive officer of Coca-Cola, could have discovered in the superinjunction a helpful antidote to being hurtfully described as “the author of New Coke.”

And Niall Fitzgerald might have been counting his superinjunction blessings in 1995, when he presided over the introduction of Persil Power. Instead of which, he had to engage in a long and painful public relations battle to rescue his company’s reputation (and his own).

Absurd extrapolation? Well, no more than not being able to call the architect of the RBS/ABN Amro deal a banker.

PS. Are we still allowed to refer to Fred as “Sir”? I understand he was knighted in 2004 for “services to banking”.


Pinning the donkey’s tail to Eady’s ass

December 14, 2009

The appropriately-named Mr Bumble, in Oliver Twist, first coined the phrase “the law is an ass”. Charles Dickens stopped well short of naming names, however.

These days we are more fortunate in being able to pin the donkey’s tail on someone’s posterior: that of Mr Justice Eady. Eady has emerged from the lofty otherworldliness of his profession to deliver some judgements of stunning asininity over the past couple of years.

I don’t often find myself in agreement with Paul Dacre, editor in chief of Associated Newspapers. But last month I was prepared to let bygones be bygones when he castigated Eady for his “arrogant and amoral” judgements which were “inexorably and insidiously” imposing a privacy law on British newspapers.

You’ll probably need no reminding that it was Eady who found in favour of Max Mosley, former president of the FIA motor racing body, in his privacy case against the News of the World two years ago. To let Dacre paraphrase: Eady “effectively ruled that it was perfectly acceptable for the multi-millionaire head of a multi-billion sport followed by countless young people to pay five women £2,500 to take part in acts of unimaginable sexual depravity.”

And it was Eady again who got a proper wigging from the appeal court after his manifestly biased judgement favouring foul-mouthed newspaper baron Richard Desmond in a libel action against Desmond’s very unauthorised biographer, Tom Bower. In July, the appeal court found that Eady’s decision was “plainly wrong” and risked “a miscarriage of justice”.

All too easily we might believe it was Eady who decided on the utter propriety of gagging newspapers from reporting a parliamentary question about the ne’er-do-well dumping activities of Trafigura off the Ivory Coast – during the so-called super-injunction affair. But I’m told that is not true. Eady did not on this occasion have to be consulted, although I have little doubt where his sympathies would have lain had things got that far. There are plenty of other examples of “Eady’s Law” which help  to confirm my worst suspicions.

Lewd and suggestive?

But here’s the real corker. Eady has now awarded Tiger Woods an injunction which bans anyone from publishing pictures of the golfing legend naked, or with any parts of his body exposed. Theoretically, that would exclude just about every publicity picture ever taken of Woods in his golfing kit; and certainly most of the stuff on his own website; it would exclude those semi-naked and oh-so-lewd shots of Wood shaving himself in the Gillette ads; and all that bare-armed stuff about being a Tiger in the Accenture campaign (not, of course, the reason why these two sponsors are dropping him). Surreally,  a pompous covering note attached to the injunction states: “For the avoidance of doubt this order is not to be taken as an admission that any such photographs do exist, and it is not admitted, any such images may have been fabricated, altered, manipulated and or changed to create the false appearance and impression that they are nude photographs of our client.”

True asinine gibberish. I bet teeth are really chattering at the (extra-jurisdictional) National Enquirer after reading that.

Eady is apparently puzzled and upset at the negative publicity he is receiving, in just the same way that Brian Hutton was puzzled and upset at criticism for the wrong-headed conclusions he drew from his eponymous Inquiry. These people don’t seem to understand that they live within an open society, not above it. O tempora, o mores.


Why did BMW really pull out of F1?

July 29, 2009
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BMW: Odd timing

A wry thought crossed my mind after I heard that BMW was going to pull out of Formula One. Yes, all right, they’re bad losers. They’ve frittered squillions of pounds a year on a sport that has brought them no glory. Their shareholders are upset, their workforce is incandescent – especially those now facing redundancy as a result of the worldwide squeeze on the car industry. Toyota and Renault will surely follow suit, etc…

But the timing of the announcement seems a little odd. After all, wasn’t BMW one of the leading lights in the prospective Fota championship breakaway? And wasn’t that, ironically, all about stymying FIA president Max Mosley’s plan to impose sensible, manageable budgets on the racing teams?

Now for the thought. Perhaps the increasingly “inappropriate” behaviour of F1 ringmasters Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone played a role, ever so small, in the framing of BMW’s decision?


Ecclestone’s last stand

July 13, 2009

Bernie Ecclestone’s uncritical outburst of fuhrer-worship will bring down his own autocratic regime at F1, no doubt about it. The question is when.

Ecclestone, whatever his awesome reputation, is only a minority shareholder in Delta Topco, the company which ultimately owns F1’s commercial rights. The majority shareholder is CVC Capital, with about 70%. Although Ecclestone was able to haul CVC chief executive Donald MacKenzie to the phone for a vigorous denial that he was about to get the heave-ho, all is not what it seems. CVC has had enough with the way FIA president Max Mosley and Ecclestone have been running things or, as they see it, running things into the ground. Mosley’s intransigence over reform of the rules recently led to a mutiny by eight of the racing teams – representing all the powerful motor manufacturers – and the threat of a breakaway championship under the Fota moniker. No one really wants a breakaway, including the teams. It would mean diminished income all round, especially in the key areas of TV rights and sponsorship. But CVC has more to fear than most: a breakaway would either destroy or severely impair its multi-billion pound investment in the sport. So it is keen to appease the teams, who now find themselves in a powerful bargaining position.

Sorrell: Not amused

Sorrell: Not amused

On the board of the Formula One holding company are two prominent Jewish businessmen, Peter Brabeck, former head of Nestlé, and Sir Martin Sorrell, ceo of WPP – both Delta Topco investors in their own right. It scarcely requires me to articulate their thoughts on Ecclestone and his continued tenure. The question is, who could replace him? No easy answer comes to mind. Not, for example, the flamboyant Flavio Briatore – head of the Renault team and close confederate of Bernie (both, among other things, have a major stake in football club QPR). The other teams simply wouldn’t wear it. Nevertheless, a replacement looks likely by the end of the year. It’s a gripping Mexican stand-off in which Ecclestone has yet to fire his last shot.

We might ask, while all this unseemly wrangling is going on, what of the sport, what of the brand, what of the sponsors? More in my magazine column this week.


Bernie: Why Hitler was on the right track

July 4, 2009

EcclestoneIf you’d asked me – up to now – which of the Domineering Duo at Formula One is a Germanophile, I would have answered unhesitatingly, “Max Mosley”. It stood to reason, didn’t it? Both parents Teuton-crazy, went to school in Germany long enough to be fluent; even carries out his sexual perversions in the language.

But it turns out I’m wrong: they both are. Mosley’s long-term collaborator Bernie Ecclestone is evidently a passionate student of German history, if a frank interview with The Times is anything to go by. Bernie takes a pride in not being seen as politically correct, and refreshes our memory every now and then with his unconventional views on women, colour and naughty racing teamsters who tell lies and steal. But he has so far kept his views on the course of German history carefully under wraps. No doubt because he fears his findings are so explosive that if they got into the wrong hands they would cause appalling mayhem.

And they are? Apparently, Adolf Hitler has been badly misunderstood. During the Thirties (I paraphrase, but only a little) he was a great guy, building motorways and bringing full employment back to Germany after the Slump. All right, things got a little out of hand every now and then – like on The Night of The Long Knives and during Kristallnacht – but basically Adolf was just giving the Germans what they needed, the smack of firm government. Come to think of it, that’s precisely what we need now, a bit of firm dictatorship, instead of these mealy-mouthed democrats like Brown and Blair, who lie instead of lead; and Max would be just the man to provide such leadership…

But, I digress on his behalf. Things went a bit haywire after 1939. Inexplicably, Hitler became a hopeless victim of invasion complex, causing him to trample roughshod all over Europe. And then there was this holocaust thing. That was a bit of a mistake, wasn’t it?

Why Ecclestone, 78, chose to privilege us with his views on political governance only now is a matter of speculation, but there are several possibilities. One is that The Times reporters are highly persuasive and Ecclestone has been very gullible. I don’t think so. More likely, this is a two-fingered salute to the establishment. A reminder that Formula One cannot do without him, in case any of us is deluded into thinking he might follow Max off-track.

Ecclestone says he is no great planner of events. But he is a consummate bluffer. Let’s see if anyone – from the Formula One holding company majority shareholders CVC to the sponsors and constructors – has the guts to do anything about what, by any standards, is an act of extreme provocation.


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