Still In Play

Ashford Jackman speculates on the post-Warner scenario

There are three major issues to be resolved in the ongoing theatre that is the state of football in Trinidad and Tobago today. For one, it remains to be seen whether Jack Warner, the long time “godfather” of the sport, can prevail amidst the swarm of accusations and attacks currently plaguing his very existence. Secondly, we.have to wait and see whether the former players who have sued the national federation will ever get their money. But for those objective enough to look beyond personalities, it is number three that is the most important: What lies ahead for T&T football? This issue, however, may very well depend on issue  number one.

It was inevitable that the domestic game would find itself in the quagmire where it currently lies. When a single man is allowed to wield the level of influence over a sport that Warner did for almost four decades, supported by a cast of unquestioning loyalists, rot and decadence are certain to set in. From his days as General Secretary of the TTFA in the seventies and eighties, to his ascension to CONCACAF President and FIFA Vice-president, in which position he maintained his control over the national federation by arranging to become “Special Adviser”, Jack has never been further than a phone call away from every administrative decision. Thus, with his deep pockets, his FIFA-earned global connections and his friend Oliver Camps firmly large and in charge at the TTFF for two decades, Warner ensured that Trinidad and Tobago’s football became a one-man operation.

History is replete with examples of leaders who began with the best of intentions but eventually drifted off-track, having ceased to hear dissenting voices, whether right or wrong. Thus, when his troubles started a year ago, Jack’s many adversaries, accumulated over a career that has been both colourful and controversial, began licking their lips in gleeful anticipation of his demise. Others, perhaps genuinely concerned about rescuing the sport from its current malaise, immediately started to manoeuvre for office in the “new” administration. But how close are we really from righting the wrongs in football and charting a new course for the game? What real changes have we made since the Voice of One was silenced? The answers to those questions might produce some sobering facts and leave many new believers in dismay.

Let us undertake a careful examination of developments over the last few months. Firstly, Warner’s extended silence does not mean that he is finished. Certainly, he no longer enjoys the global influence and the alleged sources of wealth associated with top FIFA executives and heads of the six world football confederations. Such trappings he surrendered last year, rather than face a full FIFA tribunal into the “Cash-for-Votes” fiasco at the Port of Spain Hyatt. Additionally, FIFA is withholding his pension, at least until the whereabouts of money it claims was sent this way to aid football in post-earthquake Haiti can be established.

Events closer to home must hurt more; amidst FIFA’s frenzied attempts to repair its tarnished image, many of Warner’s former Caribbean Football Union lieutenants have either turned on him or have had their wings clipped. Camps, for instance, did not take long before he followed his erstwhile boss into the football wilderness, declaring the TTFF bankrupt and walking away smiling from the ruins.

That disgruntled European football executives and politicians attacked the wounded former power broker -none with more gusto than the English, following their gut-wrenching betrayal at the contentious World Cup vote in late 2010. But the surprise was that over the last year or so, Minister Warner, who was instrumental in securing the seat of Government for the People’s Partnership, has found himself the target of barb after political barb in the past year. First his ministry was halved, then his portfolio was reduced and his wings clipped by budget restrictions and nuisance-value enquiries and new oversight arrangements, and just last weekend, was being challenged for the position of Chairman of the UNC in a battle that he eventually won hands-down. From time to time, even if for a few brief moments, he looks as if he would surely soon be down for the count.

Not so fast, though. It has to be remembered that Warner’s issues within the UNC are not directly connected with those in the sport. Politics, it must be noted, did not make him into the footballing force that he became; indeed, the opposite is true.  Warner’s lofty offices as CONCACAF President and FIFA Vice-president were attained long before his foray into politics. Few doubt that it was the very football-based power which accelerated his rise to the top echelons of the UNC. And, one might add, it is his loss of his football base that has left him vulnerable to successful attack by his political foes.

But there is still the small but very relevant matter of his wealth. Whatever revenue he may have lost as a result of quitting FIFA, one suspects that a poor boy Jack will never again be. He quite possibly owns more businesses and property in T&T and abroad and has more sources of income than most people in the country imagine. And should he be cleared of any wrongdoing in the Haiti affair, his hefty pension is unlikely to undermine his financial position.

Then there is the six-year-long battle between the TTFF and 13 former national players, for financial rewards promised to them. Warner has publicly confirmed that, in the euphoria of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, he did commit verbally to paying the bonuses to the players; and an independent arbitrator has determined that the aggrieved players must be paid. The only problem is that the huge sums of money collected for World Cup 2006 seems to have vanished!

Under pressure, Oliver Camps has told the local court that he, despite being no less than the TTFF President throughout the campaign and for six years after, is still clueless as to the amount of money raised in the Federation’s name leading up to the Finals in Germany.  He suggested that all questions about those accounts be directed to the Special Adviser. After Camps’ voluntary removal as its boss, the TTFF decided to sue the Special Adviser to get him to release its audited financial records for the period. Warner now has until April 4 (Wednesday) to deliver or defend himself in the PoS High Court. Finally, it seems, Jack’s enemies have him where they want him.

Or so they say.

Brent Sancho, spokesman for the 13 players-plaintiffs, said in a February 16 Express story (p.52) that on October 17 last year “Mr Warner signed an affidavit that he would give an account and assist in any way in terms of making this court case go along smoothly.” I have news for Brent: “giving an account” is not the same as producing audited accounts. Warner must first acknowledge the Federation’s claim that he ultimately was responsible for the collection of funds and the accounting. And even if he should do so, it must be proven that the TTFF did indeed amass an estimated $40 million, made up of funds raised and bonuses received from FIFA for reaching the Finals.

Perhaps Sancho has not been hearing his own words. He said that Warner sent letters to the Federation indicating that he has “no information for them,” and that he (Warner) has given back (to the TTFF) “everything that he had concerning football.” So will the players receive the balance of payments the court has awarded? Will the missing funds be accounted for and returned for the benefit of T&T football? I wouldn’t, if you’ll pardon the pun, bank on it.

In the absence of local records, FIFA’s books will tell exactly how well the world governing body rewarded the TTFF, and in whose account the funds were placed. Remember, however, that FIFA’s statutes forbid an affiliate country taking the umbrella body to court.

The key to resolving this entire imbroglio rests in the President’s chair. Had Sepp Blatter been defeated in last year’s election, a new president would have posed a quite different challenge for certain interested parties. Instead, the 76-year-old Swiss remains entrenched and unmoving, plastering over all of FIFA’s open sores with platitudes and promises. FIFA, to put it mildly, is a curiously-structured establishment; some would say it resembles a stack of cards. If Joseph H. Blatter were to allow the release of information exposing irregularities in his organisation, one suspects it would not only be his lieutenants that would come crashing down.

Indeed, proof that internal squabbles never escalate in that august body was there for all to see last year. When knives were drawn as the scandal at the Hyatt began to unravel, Jack went on international television to warn of a “tsunami” to come. But shortly after, on the eve of the election, he said effectively that Blatter was the best man for president; then he resigned all his posts and all investigations ceased. There has been no tsunami, and there are unlikely to be any disclosures coming out of Zurich.

That leads to another issue, one which has been raised in these pages before and which has returned to haunt the country’s football. For two decades, people in the right places have failed to ask: exactly what is a “Special Adviser?” To the best of this writer’s knowledge, no such post has ever existed, either in FIFA’s management structure or its statutes.

For two decades, the administration of T&T’s football was heavily influenced by an ill-defined entity whose authority could neither be quantified or qualified. Without tangible evidence, one suspects, the courts can act on this case as decisively as a ghost can be killed by machine gunfire. So the former Warriors, having to pay legal counsel in the battle for their rights, may be hurtling toward a dead end. Sales of the furniture seized from Dundonald Street will not make a dent in their bills.

Which leaves the little matter of the future of the game. Lofty ideals and bold talk of getting football back on track followed Camps’ resignation. Like the words in Valentino’s immortal calypso, there was much optimism about “changes on the way.” But the silence has been deafening since Lennox Watson, a vice-president under Camps, succeeded him in a swift and controversial election. Another decision saw marketing and other responsibilities being contracted out to All-Sport Promotions, an organisation that has also been long associated with the old administration. And then Anton Corneal, a man who, in the Warner/Camps era, was put in charge of several national youth teams and also served as apprentice under Leo Beenhakker and Francisco Maturana, was appointed Technical Director.

The sceptics say these developments are an indication that little has changed so far; that Watson’s elevation to the presidency is merely a switch from the old man to one of his trusted lieutenants. They murmur in the background about the placement, in critical areas of power, of individuals who have long been favourites with the previous regime. So even the reactions have not changed; rather than come out into the open and address the problems, people who can make a difference are sulking in the corridors, just as they did when events were taking place that landed the sport in the doldrums where it lies today.

It is a fact that an animal is most dangerous when wounded as it will do whatever it must to survive. Time will reveal whether the machine guns have had any lasting effect.

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