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Wag the Dog at World Cup 2010: Why Lord Triesman’s allegations of ref bribery won’t get much play

Wag the Dog at World Cup 2010: Why Lord Triesman’s allegations of ref bribery won’t get much play

The way the mainstream media has covered Lord Triesman’s off-the-record allegations of ref bribery at World Cup 2010 is yet more evidence of Fifa’s power (and, perhaps, its rotten core). Who’s the tail and who’s the dog here?  

Anybody remember Barry Levinson’s 1998 feature Wag the Dog? In case not, here’s a quick refresher. The movie opens with a scandal at the White House involving the president of the United States, who’s been accused of fondling a girl scout on a visit to the Oval Office. As the viewers, we know that the president is guilty. But it’s a few weeks before the elections and, being leader of the free world, the dude has resources. He retains the services of one Conrad Brean (played by Robert de Niro), a master spin doctor tasked with the job of diverting the media’s attention, who in turn retains the services of one Stanley Motss (played by Dustin Hoffmann), a Hollywood producer who stages a fully credible Albanian war from the secure confines of the White House’s basement.

The war, of course, happened only against the green screens and through the computer-aided imagination of Motss, and one of the key exchanges between the two hired guns was this:

Motss: “The president will be a hero. He brought peace.”

Brean: “But there was never a war.”

Motss: “All the greater accomplishment.”

It puts one in mind of nothing so much as the current scandal in the British media involving Lord Triesman and England’s bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup. On Sunday May 16, in the real world, the UK’s Mail on Sunday published details of a conversation between Triesman and a certain Melissa Jacobs, a private secretary in his employ when he was minister of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills. Jacobs, apparently a spurned mistress, recorded a private conversation with her former boss, who until late on Sunday night was the head of England’s 2018 bid committee and chairman of the Football Association.

The recording was made by Jacobs in early May, but the important bits are now scattered for all to read in the pages of the world’s press. “There’s some evidence that the Spanish football authorities are trying to identify the referees…and pay them,” Triesman said. Later in the conversation, he added: “My assumption is that the Latin Americans, although they’ve not said so, will vote for Spain. And if Spain drop out, because Spain are looking for help from the Russians to help bribe the referees in the World Cup, their votes may then switch.”

Watch: ITN News – 2018 World Cup bid chairman quits

In other words, what we have here is the top organisational figure in British football, a guy who’d presumably know about such things, alleging that Spain and Russia plan to bribe referees at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. You’d think the mainstream media would be following up on this story, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong.

Instead, the dominant narrative in the British press, which the rest of the world appears to be following, is that Triesman blew it for England’s 2018 chances by not keeping his mouth shut. The Telegraph, reflecting the angle on BBC and Sky, is reporting that Triesman’s erstwhile colleagues – the peer resigned almost immediately – “hope to visit Fifa House as soon as possible to apologise personally to Sepp Blatter and distance themselves from [the former boss’s] comments.” Time magazine, meanwhile, reflecting the angle on sister brand CNN, is reporting only that Triesman’s “blunder” might well be the end of England’s 2018 hopes.

The one concession to the fact that there could be any truth to the allegations is reflected in the reporting of the Times of London, which notes that “Spain and Russia have reacted angrily to Lord Triesman’s claims that they were acting in collusion to bribe referees at next month’s World Cup,” and that the two countries have called for Fifa to take “appropriate measures”.

It’s not really a concession, is it? But it could be, if only these respected media brands would dig into their archives for a little context. There they’d find, as The Daily Maverick published ten days ago, that Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s recent history is riddled with public scandals and charges of corruption. They’d find, for example, that Blatter’s ascension to the Fifa throne in 1998, as well as his re-election in 2002, happened amidst persuasive allegations of bribery. They’d find that Blatter’s former secretary general Michel Zen-Ruffinen, a man he once said was “like a son to him,” had put together a 21-page report detailing illegal payments and rampant cronyism. And they’d find, too, that long after Zen-Ruffinen had been shoved out of Fifa, Blatter’s next surrogate son, Jack Warner, faced charges of black market ticket sales and soliciting personal bribes.

Is it so difficult to believe, against this background, that Triesman might have been exposing an important truth when he told his “intimate” former employee secrets about Russia and Spain? Sadly, it’s all too easy to believe; the rational reaction to Triesman’s indiscretions would be to wonder what else he knows.

To that question, unfortunately, we’ll never get an answer. Mainstream media is simply too invested in the idea that the World Cup is supposed to be the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth; but more importantly, the holding companies of the world’s leading media brands, most of which are publicly listed conglomerates, have too much to lose should their editors start unraveling the obvious sham that is Fifa.

In the end, it’s a case of the tail wagging the dog. Fifa will always divert our attention from its own sordid dealings by delivering us on live TV men like Ronaldo and Henry and Messi. It’s because of what they can do on a football pitch, before two billion viewers, that Fifa can do what it does behind closed doors.        

By Kevin Bloom

Read more: The Telegraph, Time, Times of London, Sepp Blatter’s murky history in The Daily Maverick

Photo: Chairman of England’s 2018 World Cup bid Lord Triesman walks past the FA Cup trophy before the FA Cup final soccer match between Portsmouth and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium in London May 15, 2010. England’s 2018 World Cup bid team faxed apologies to its Spanish and Russian counterparts on Sunday after a newspaper claimed it had a recording of the Football Association chairman making bribery allegations. The Mail on Sunday published contents of what it said was a secretly taped conversation between David Triesman and a former aide from his time as a government minister in which he appears to suggest Spain was seeking to bribe referees at next month’s World Cup in South Africa. Picture taken May 15, 2010. REUTERS/ Eddie Keogh


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