How one reporter helped to bring down Blatter


FIFA president Sepp Blatter. (Ennio Leanza/AP)

It was at a crappy bar in a crappy airport hotel in that least charming of all big American cities, Atlanta, where the great Andrew Jennings first let me buy him a beer.

His reputation preceded him. During the Centennial Olympic Games of 1996, Jennings was promoting The New Lords of the Rings, the follow-up to his book of four years earlier, The Lords of the Rings, which had laid bare the corruption and rot at the core of the International Olympic Committee and did an especially fine job of eviscerating its boss, the fascist-friendly Juan Antonio Samaranch.

The sequel contained loads of new dirt, so, needless to say, the IOC didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet—hence his accommodation many miles from the main press centre and the Olympic Stadium.

All these years later, the idea of an unholy IOC seems self-evident. But it was Jennings who courageously broke that ground, all by himself, earning more disdain than praise from his peers.

One of the things the IOC had figured out was that sports journalists like very much to be taken seriously. On some level, they like to be part of the show. So they did things like handing out certificates at the end of the Games to those who covered them and distributing replica medals, different but not that different to the ones the athletes received (full disclosure: I’ve got a bunch of them, plus a torch). The Olympic Games were more than a commercial enterprise. They were different from the NFL, NHL, NBA or BPL. They were founded on a vague, 19th-century belief system that could pause wars and foster international understanding, and we were all in it together.

Jennings, though, didn’t want to be part of that club. He didn’t care about the trappings. He didn’t want to be invited to receptions or given gifts or granted audiences with IOC bigwigs. He is a muckraker of the old school who cut his teeth covering police scandals and mobsters. And just look what he found in Lausanne.

It was a very bad day for Sepp Blatter when Jennings decided he’d had enough fun with the IOC. The Salt Lake City scandal had broken, Samaranch was dead, the bidding process had been reformed and now they were having trouble finding countries willing to take on the cost of staging the Games, let alone pay bribes for the privilege (witness the fact that the only countries still in the running for the 2022 Winter Olympics are China and Kazakhstan).

But there was another international operation—funny, it was also based in Switzerland—that was thriving, that didn’t bother selling sport behind flags and torches because it didn’t need any of that. Soccer is the opiate of choice for most of the planet, and its quadrennial event, the World Cup, is bigger and more lucrative than the Summer Olympics.

So who were these guys in charge of FIFA? Where did all that money go? To whom were they accountable?

Early on, before they figured out who he was, Jennings managed to get into one of Blatter’s press conferences. While the crème of the international football press looked on in horror, Jennings, dressed down for the occasion, found his way to the microphone and asked Blatter: “Have you ever accepted a bribe?”

It’s not an entirely fair question, because even a negative response gets you the “Blatter Denies Taking Bribes” headline. No matter. Jennings had announced his intentions, and the world of soccer was about to be turned on its head.

Of course, it took a while. Jennings’s investigations led to a couple of books that rivalled anything he’d produced on the IOC, plus a series of documentaries that aired on the British program Panorama, which contained much of the information that is now at the core of the indictments. It was Jennings who introduced the world to the cartoon villains of this story—Chuck Blazer, Jack Warner, et al. The leads he provided, with the ties to the U.S. banking system, set the FBI on their mission, and the dotted lines he connected led to Blatter’s resignation last week.

The story isn’t finished. Juicy details will continue to emerge. (One of the best was the revelation—and the Irish FA’s confirmation—that money was paid out by FIFA to make the Irish forget about the egregious Thierry Henry handball in a playoff game for a spot in the 2010 World Cup. You can’t make this stuff up.) Everyone is gleefully piling on.

Meanwhile, from his home in the English countryside, Andrew Jennings doesn’t need to say “I told you so.”

We know.

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