Even though ESPN isn't a FIFA rights-holder anymore, the network still devotes a lot of resources to covering world soccer's governing body. That includes in-depth coverage of Friday's presidential election, starting with reports on "Outside the Lines" at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time each day this week.
As you would expect - indeed, as soccer fans across America would surely demand - veteran anchor Bob Ley is at the helm of that coverage. In addition to being OTL's regular host, he has long been the network's top soccer voice.
I spoke with Ley earlier this week to get his perspective on the many twists and turns of FIFA's perpetual drama.
On Thursday, Ley will host a special hour-long edition of OTL, with Jeremy Schaap and Gabriele Marcotti joining him live from FIFA headquarters in Zurich. On Friday, Ley will anchor a special live edition of SportsCenter starting at 7 a.m. Eastern time. Coverage runs until 2:30 p.m.
Guest analysts include Ian Darke, Taylor Twellman, Julie Foudy, Shaka Hislop (who knows disgraced former CONCACAF bigshot Jack Warner well, having played for Trinidad & Tobago's national team) and ESPN Deportes' Jorge Ramos and Fernando Palomo.
There are also contributions this week from ESPN the Magazine's Shaun Assael and Brett Forrest (co-authors of ESPN The Magazine's recent investigation of Chuck Blazer's role in the FIFA scandal), former FIFA marketing advisor Guido Tognoni, and recently-retired U.S. women's national team star Abby Wambach.
Given Wambach's history of outspoken criticism of FIFA's old-boys network, I'd imagine her remarks could produce some fireworks.
There will also be FIFA election coverage on Fox, the current U.S. English-language rights-holder. First up is an hourlong special Thursday at 6 p.m. Eastern on Fox Sports 1 that features interviews with all five current candidates for the FIFA presidency: Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Kuwait, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, former FIFA executive Jérôme Champagne of France, and Tokyo Sexwale of South Africa.
On Friday, FS1's live coverage begins at 3 a.m. Eastern, with Rob Stone, Alexi Lalas, Massimo Marianella of Sky Sports Italy and Mark Young, a veteran soccer researcher for the network. Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated and Kate Abdo of Sky Sports in the U.K. contribute reporting from Zurich. Coverage runs until 9 a.m., then switches to Fox Sports 2.
(Don't be surprised if this kind of collaboration between Fox and various Sky networks owned by the same corporate parent become more frequent in the future.)
Having set the stage for Friday's fireworks, here's my conversation with Bob Ley. It has been edited a bit to clarify a few references, but that's all.
The first question that comes to mind is one that I've been asked a lot, and I'm sure you've been asked a lot too. The average American soccer fans who are paying attention to this, or even the average American sports fans who sort of follow soccer, have no idea who they should want to win the election. What do you think?
Ha. I just want a good show. As I said on OTL Extra with Gabriele on Monday, and I just mentioned in another chat I was having with someone, I think this holds the potential to be the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, with the exception that I don't want anyone actually bloodied in the streets or tear-gassed. Though, metaphorically...
We're going to do our soccer due diligence, with accuracy and fairness, but at the same time, given what we saw last May, when you've got these operatic figures with grand questions around them, our job is to report fairly but also to draw this in terms that this is entertainment on one level. Following Sepp Blatter to the podium is like following the Beatles. The Wings were a good group, but they weren't the Beatles [even though] Paul McCartney made good music.
You say it's likely to be entertainment, but ideally, it probably shouldn't be.
Well, there's nothing we can do seated here to enforce and to wish our values on this. I think there are those who would say, "The Americans have done enough, thank you," with the Department of Justice basically embarrassing the mechanisms of the Swiss justice system into finally doing something here.
We're not trying to convince key groups of minority voters or college-educated whites. This is not a U.S. campaign. There are 105 FAs [national governing bodies] that have to be convinced of one man's ability to lead. And I think, as Gab said, the most important thing will be the ability to win - and to win a job that's going to be diminished for whoever gets it.
Because the Secretary General will have the CEO functions, there will be transparency with no secret salaries, there will be term limits, there will be a FIFA Council [replacing the Executive Committee] if they vote that in. So the job is changing.
A lot of the characters aren't, and that's going to take time, but look, this is a Congress being overseen by acting president Issa Hayatou. Who, as you saw in Tuesday's OTL, was one of the three people said to be in the room when $1.5 million was offered [to each of them] to vote for Qatar 2022.
That would be the same Issa Hayatou who presented the trophy at the Women's World Cup final last summer amid a storm of boos from American fans in the stands at Vancouver's BC Place.
It's [Ivory Coast's Jacques] Anouma, [Nigeria's] Amos Adamu and Hayatou. The point of the story is more to show the method. Plus, this woman [Phaedra Almajid, a former spokesperson for Qatar's World Cup bid] has gone through her own credibility crisis.
You talked about the reforms that FIFA will vote on this coming Friday. The cynic - and I may or may not be a member of Cynics Anonymous...
I was at the last meeting, and I didn't see you there, by the way.
I had too much else on my schedule, that's the only reason I wasn't there. The cynic might say that if Sheikh Salman wins the election, that vote might not happen. They might all of a sudden decide that they don't need that transparency after all.
Well, the presidential vote comes last on the program. So the reforms will be voted on before the presidency is determined - officially. But the transparency that's being voted upon, I think Salman is clearly in favor of. He's trying to split the business and football functions. He has said he won't take a salary - as long as the price of natural gas stays up, I guess. So as far as transparency, that's not the issue with Salman.
Will, in the next few days, enough traction be gained about the questions of human rights violations? Will it matter to enough of the 105 federations who will be on the winning side of the vote?
On Monday's show, you asked Gabriele whether change is really wanted enough by FIFA's member nations. I might argue the answer to that question is "No." Is that fair?
Jérôme Champagne said the same thing on CBS' 60 Minutes earlier this month. Blatter would win if he ran again.
And listen, if you're a small federation, even if you're run by mainly honest people, and that Goal Project [development] money means a great deal to you, and getting a visit from Blatter is like getting a visit from head of state - and for all intents and purposes, he was a head of state, the way he traveled and conducted and carried himself - again, listen, he's proud of two things, as he's been constant in talking about his legacy.
It's unfair to not grant him this. The Goal Project, getting the money to federations around the world. And as he himself has said, "Well, if one or two percent is not there," - well, maybe the money that went sideways was more than that. And getting the World Cup to South Africa. I spent almost three months there, and I've got to tell you, it made a difference to that nation. There was a tangible sense.
If you go back to August and September of 2010, as our piece talked about Tuesday, in retrospect now it seems ludicrous to talk about the Nobel Peace Prize going to Sepp Blatter. But back then, yes, it probably to an American sensibility seemed ludicrous, knowing what we were suspecting at the time, but that was quite an accomplishment. And there was huge continental pride in that being there.
So I give this man his due. Those two things were hallmarks of his 20 years in the saddle. There will maybe increased evolution, but there's not going to be a revolution. There will be some decentralization - the Secretary General will have more CEO functions, you'll have a FIFA Council, there will be more sunlight. But you'll still have the conundrum of 209 FAs acting like the United Nations General Assembly. The U.N. General Assembly, when it puts its mind to it, can put Cuba on a human rights commission.
Even some of the real anti-FIFA brigade out there have admitted that a FIFA is needed. Moya Dodd, one of the only women on FIFA's Executive Committee, has made this case eloquently. We need a FIFA because it is a pretty good thing to redistribute the wealth of the world to places that need it. And it's not so much about changing the principle as it is changing the mechanism, and cleaning that up.
Right. But you can clean FIFA up all you want, but you're still doing business in every corner of the world where even Blatter has said that the "Anglo-Saxon model" of contract law is not what it is in central Europe. He defended the precept of that [2 million Swiss Franc] payment to [former UEFA president Michel] Platini. Indeed, if you read the fine print under Swiss law, as far as I know, he probably could have done it that way. And that's in Western Europe. Things that apply in one area aren't going to apply in another.
I keep hearing the recurring theme in reports from ESPN and elsewhere - and we may never know this for sure - that some kind of illicit and perhaps illegal financial activity played a role in Sepp Blatter winning the FIFA presidency in the first place.
We don't know who shot John Kennedy, presumably. I've been to Dallas and I've stood there - I kind of buy the single-assassin theory, but there are reasonable people who don't even believe that we know who shot John Kennedy. And they're not laughed at, necessarily. So how are we ever going to know the back story of if and when envelopes were placed under the Hotel Montparnasse in 1998, and whose fingerprints were on them?
Well, we are a little closer to maybe knowing where Mohammed bin Hammam's hands have been, because that has been documents - including within the pages of the Department of Justice's indictments, even though bin Hammam isn't directly named.
We're asked to believe that bin Hammam was willing to bribe his way as a Qatari to the FIFA presidency, yet there was no bribery connected to the Qatari attempt to win the 2022 World Cup. That's like saying -
Until Chuck Blazer flipped.
Yeah, but that proved bin Hammam's bribery for the presidency, not for the World Cup. We're still awaiting the true, absolute, clear smoking gun that's accepted by law enforcement about 2022. Blatter still maintains that the fix was in for the United States and Russia, the superpowers, to get it, and that he was as shocked as anyone when he pulled that envelope [announcing the 2022 host] apart.
I saw in Blatter's recent interview with Martyn Ziegler of The Times of London, Blatter said the voting for 2018 and 2022 wasn't fixed. My initial reaction to that was I can buy the vote not being "fixed" in a literal sense, but...
It was nudged. A wink and a nod. But again, that's how business is done. You sound like an imperialist - a borderline racist - when you say some of these things, so you have to be very careful how you characterize business practices in other areas of the world.
We go through training, as a multi-national corporation doing business all over, about business practices in the U.K. and the United States and whatnot. So you tread very carefully there, in differences of cultural understanding about the ways business is done - and other things that are more nefarious.
Which then leads me to wonder: If you are U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati, USSF CEO Dan Flynn or Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber - who according to the New York Times will be officially casting the vote on the United States' behalf - how many or few criteria should go into determining which presidential candidate is the least of the evils?
My definite sense, from having numerous conversations with people at various levels of decision-making in American soccer over the years, has always been a practiced, wide-eyed realism and realpolitik view of the way things work. I think it's real easy for you and for me to write and to say what the right thing to do is, but at the end of the day, we don't have fiduciary responsibility for the game and for the budgets.
This is a byzantine corridor of power to be negotiated, and unless you're working it full-time, I think it's real easy, as I said, to be a Friday morning quarterback at this election.
I think the calculation that will be made is one of - listen, there's clearly some loyalty between Gulati and Ali. I think it's clear that Infantino has enough votes now to force a second ballot - at the least, making it not necessary for the United States, if they choose, to not vote for Infantino the first time around, and to keep their options open.
I know Sunil has caught a fair amount of criticism over the years for a lack of public statements about Blatter and FIFA business practices, and I think in response - you gain an understanding that it's not that simple, necessarily. It doesn't mean you agree with it as a journalist or as an observer, but this is a very complicated game of chess that's being played. Just jumping someone like you're playing checkers doesn't solve the problem, because there are a lot of things in play.
Now, perhaps all of this was simplified by the decision over the 2022 World Cup, but it's still a long game. You've got to be playing a long game, and everyone's playing a long game here.
Is the long game getting the 2026 World Cup to the United States, or is it something farther into the future? I can see a scenario in which Sheikh Salman gets a lot of backing from Asia, and starts trying to nudge 2026 toward China.
Yeah. I know. Which won't make my good friends at Fox too happy, given their time-shift problems [with the time zones in Asia]. Coming off Qatar, they'd like something they can show live at a decent hour, and with that reality, it's difficult. But it is bigger than just the World Cup. A long game in terms of other tournaments, other business relationships.
The World Cup is important. Frankly, it's going to be real tough to tell China "No" for 2026, even assuming they get their economy together. If the last century was the American Century, there's a common belief that we're in the Chinese or Asian century. And you've got, what, 10 years to get all that sorted out there? The facilities, transportation, banking, the consumer economy, all of that?
Well, they can build it all in five seconds, right?
Sure, yeah. Labor laws? Not a problem. But I think it's a complicated calculation for A. how you vote, and B. how you posture that publicly.
The FIFA Congress starts at 3:30 a.m. Eastern time on Friday. Say your average American on the east coast wakes up between 6 and 7 a.m. Will everything already be over by then?
No. Because it takes two hours for each ballot. 209 nations have to vote, and then they have to spill the ballots like your high school presidential election on the cafeteria table in front. If you recall what they did last May, they counted them by hand - it's like Palm Beach County revisited from [the presidential election in] the year 2000.
On top of that, go online and pull down the agenda. The presidential election is the last thing on the agenda. And by the way, when the agenda goes south, inevitably I'll tear it up.
[As he did on during his live coverage of the 2015 FIFA presidential election that kept Sepp Blatter in power.]
I was going to ask you about that. Are you going to do it again?
Well, [Friday's agenda] does not even account for 15-minute addresses by each of the presidential candidates. So if you simply do the math, the first ballot may be underway, or it may be at an even earlier stage when you get up at 7 a.m. to watch. I may be wrong, but we never know. I don't whether going off the agenda rails will call for another tearing of the agenda. Possibly, I'll bring my cigar lighter in and we can do it that way.
You enjoyed that, didn't you.
Well, just that moment. I was so [bleeping] fed up that they had jumped around and were feeding down the line something that made it appear for all the world that they had stepped back four items on their agenda. There it was. In their moment of crisis, they couldn't even get from A to B to C.
That was decades of all the [expletive] you hear about FIFA just being coalesced into that one moment. And I had been up since 4 that morning watching Blatter's address in French to the delegates. So, no, I don't have any plans to go off the reservation on the air on Friday. But I might be persuaded.
To close this out, I want to get your opinion of one of the key players in the CONCACAF scandal: Traffic Sports. I get asked all the time by readers to explain exactly what Traffic is. I'm sure there's only so much you can say publicly, but nonetheless, what are your thoughts?
Now? It's a diminished group of chastened sports executives, one would think, because two of their entities have pled out to this. Before? They were a significant, potent force in the acquisition and distribution of rights.
I was down in Brazil a couple of years ago, doing a report on a Brazilian academy that develops youth players with one thing in mind, which was to develop players and sell them overseas. They had three or four different divisions there, about two hours outside of Sao Paulo. And it was owned by Traffic Sports.
Let me tell you, it was a beautiful compound. These kids lived like kings. They came from 10, 11, 12, hours away, and it was quite a moment in their lives. Traffic Sports was the owner of this. Now, about three months after we went there, they sold this place to the Chinese.
Is that so.
Yeah, exactly. This would have been early in 2014, I think. It was my second reporting trip down there. Traffic has been at the periphery of a lot of events in this hemisphere for a generation, it seems. But clearly, you would assume they're doing business under a microscope now.