Rob Hughes has been described by Lennart Johannson, the former president of UEFA, as "the conscience of football". Hughes, who lives just north of London, has written about world soccer for more than three decades. Hughes was chief sports writer on the London Times for a decade, covering other sports as well as soccer. He has been honoured by the Brazilian government for his services to the game in his capacity as a journalist. Nowadays he writes for the International Herald Tribune, the Singapore Straits Times, Bola and numerous other publications as a freelance. Walter Pless interviewed him for MercatorNet about the ethics of the world's greatest game.
MercatorNet: Was the game more "pure" from an ethical point of view when you first started covering it as a journalist in the 60s, or has it always been open to manipulation and dodgy dealings by unscrupulous people?
Hughes: The game, indeed all sport, and surely the world, seemed to me an ideal. Yet I had come into journalism because a fellow professional footballer wrecked my knee with a foul I will always believe carried intent. So, maybe, my idealism was corrupted at the start. I don’t believe that. I wholeheartedly believe, for example, that sport — and football particularly — crosses more boundaries of colour, creed, religion, than any other single activity, and that nine out of 10 enter it with, to use your word, "pure" intentions.
"The trade in African and Latin American talents is modern slavery —
but those who make it become the richest "slaves" in history."
MercatorNet: What are the biggest changes you have seen in this regard?
Hughes: The biggest changes are the opposite poles. As football has opened up to the entire world, it has become potentially more beautiful and more ugly at the same time. Television and internet technology make it instantly accessible, instantly more important — and both more profitable and more attractive to the wrong kind of manipulators.
MercatorNet: Is the game’s world governing body, FIFA, operating ethically and transparently and living up to its own motto of "For the good of the game"?
Hughes: Don’t get me started on this one. From the moment I started working for the International Herald Tribune, 30 years ago, I seem to have been in conflict with the men who run FIFA. Joao Havelange developed the globalisation of football, but from the inside, the very heart of his own executive committee, I came across examples of his maladministration. I spent too long "exposing" this, always with a difficult conscience, not because Havelange and his then general secretary, Sepp Blatter, write to editors suggesting they fire me, but because too few inside FIFA, and far too few of the public, want this negative exposure, or have the courage to change the leadership.
Havelange has a hide as thick as any kangaroo, and to some extent didn’t care what was said or written about him. Blatter wants to be loved, even by the critics, but the skeletons at FIFA House are his as much as Havelange’s. He is, however, on the case 24 hours a day, seven days a week. FIFA, and its power, is his life, for good and bad. For the good of the game? The presidents once threatened to sue me for using this slogan to attack their lack of transparency. It is enough to say that Blatter aides who had been fired a year ago after an American judge ruled that they lied, and lied consistently to cheat their business partner, MasterCard, were reinstated — in the case of Jerome Valcke, promoted to general secretary, effectively Blatter’s right hand man.
MercatorNet: To whom is FIFA accountable?
Hughes: Simple. To no one but FIFA. It deems itself the supreme body on earth.
MercatorNet: FIFA has been tarnished in recent years by accusations of corruption at the highest levels. Some of the accusations involve the choice of World Cup venues, ticketing irregularities at World Cup tournaments, and sponsorship deals. What are your views of these accusations?
Hughes: The fact that Jack Warner, president of the CONCACAF region of FIFA, the Caribbean and Central American nations, remains a vice president despite the fact that his family company was caught profiteering to the tune of millions of dollars by selling travel packages and 2006 World Cup tickets over the odds answers that question. The crime is ticket touting, or as the Americans say, scalping true fans. Warner contends that he never, personally, sold one ticket. He transferred his travel business into the name of his son. He is accused now of using Trindidad and Tobago football funds to win his seat in the local parliament on November 5 — but even if his electoral victory is pure and entirely self-financed, he now contradicts FIFA’s rule that politics must have no bearing on the running of the sport. Nations such as Kuwait, Iran, and once Poland, were suspended by FIFA for "political interference", yet Warner remains untouchable.
MercatorNet: Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, recently appointed Lord Sebastian Coe to head a new Ethics Committee. Last year FIFA abolished the former Ethics Committee and set up this new one to enforce a code of ethics. Lord Coe has come under some criticism for his low profile as head of this committee and its apparent toothless and dormant nature. Is it toothless and what has it done to date?
Hughes: I know Seb Coe personally, and I am surprised he took this role on top of his leadership of the London 2012 Olympics, his vice presidency of the IAAF (world athletics), his business interests and his addiction to Chelsea. The Ethics Commission, formed by Blatter, was not allowed to investigate Jack Warner’s family ticket scam on the grounds that it happened before he was appointed. Last month, when FIFA decided to change its rotation policy and open up bidding to the 2018 World Cup to all continents, nine nations declared intent to bid. One of them, encouraged by Blatter at British prime ministerial request, is England. Coe’s commission is supposed to see fair play between the bids — but is Coe himself not compromised by his patriotism, his Olympic role, and his dependency on the Brown government to maintain the lavish building towards 2012?
MercatorNet: The ISL bribery affair hardly engendered faith in FIFA’s ethics? Is it still an albatross around Sepp Blatter’s neck?
Hughes: It is only an albatross if Blatter admits any culpability, or is indicted in the Swiss courts. So far, neither has happened. So long as he pulls rabbits out of the hat in the form of ever increased profits, he orbits the world like the "humanist" he was recently honoured as being, untouched by all his controversies.
MercatorNet: Are European clubs doing the right thing by the youngsters they recruit from Africa and South America? Do they have their long-term interests at heart?
Hughes: The trade in African and Latin American talents is modern slavery — but those who make it become the richest "slaves" in history. The cases of Brazilian youths dumped on the streets of Belgium are legion. The boys who never make it to a club, let alone to millionaires’ row, are wretched, but South American and African governments argue that they cannot stand in the way of a player who, however young, could lift his family out of poverty. For every Kaka or Messi or Eto’o, there are broken and discarded lives — but football is not unique in this.
MercatorNet: Football is now widely regarded as a business and not just a sport. How do you regard it?
Hughes: An unscrupulous business that devours sport. Two things "save" it. One, the unarguable fact that even a Roman Abramovich, spending Russian roubles on his Chelski, does fall in love with his club — more so than the English chief executive, Peter Kenyon, who calls it a product — and two, the fact that, in spite of all the corrupting elements of "the business", football confounds us all, all of the time, by retaining its magic and by upsetting the odds. "The Beautiful Game" surrounded by charlatans.
MercatorNet: Are drugs a problem in football? What can the governing bodies and club officials do about any such problems?
Hughes: A problem, yes, but having covered the whole gamut of Olympic sports, I would not place football near the top league of doping. The demands of the game — speed, athleticism, stamina, alertness, etc — defy the potential ability of drugs to help as, for example, amphetamines can propel sprinters faster and steroids helps build bulk. That doesn’t mean there are no dopes who think they can enhance performance — in the bedroom or the sport — but they are fewer than in most sports I have worked in.
MercatorNet: We’ve recently had some tragic deaths of players in professional football. Do medical authorities at clubs have some culpability in this?
Hughes: They do, of course. When a player like Antonio Puerta drops dead in front of our eyes — he’s 22 and we later learn he had collapsed twice before — AND THERE IS NO INQUEST, you do have sinister thoughts. There should be an autopsy to ensure no drugs are involved (despite my above answer), but in a multi-million dollar era it surely should be mandatory to test the heart of every player, every pre season, for irregularities that can kill. It seems to me to be fundamental — if death ever becomes an acceptable industrial liability, then we kill sport too.
MercatorNet: Are some players being paid exorbitant salaries, and what moral responsibilities do they have as a result of this?
Hughes: The immoral earnings of players? It’s a bit like the old Hollywood tales of millionaire actors and actresses, with the same answer, namely that if the business is making grotesque profits, the stars of the show deserve the spoils. In my view it becomes obscene when a worn-out, posturing old icon like David Beckham not only commands a salary 40 times some of his team mates in Los Angeles, but also becomes the sole reason a game will be staged in Sydney. No Beckham, no profit, no game. But is it Beckham (a nice enough individual inside all that packaging) to blame — or the promoters, the clubs, and the gullible public?
MercatorNet: Some highly paid stars of the game do a great deal of good behind the scenes, both in their home countries, in their adopted countries and around the world. Can you give some examples of the charitable works of some of these players?
Hughes: Cristiano Ronaldo was almost the first sportsman aboard a plane to Aceh, the devastated province of Indonesia, after the tsunami. I doubt he fully grasped the significance of his visit, or the impact such a fleeting journey would make. But, from Kaka to Klinsman to Giggs, and yes, to Beckham, there are very few top players who do not get personally involved in genuine causes. And, here’s the conundrum — South America and Africa, the "exploited" talent lands, provides THE most humane and giving players.
MercatorNet: FIFA is constantly mouthing the "fair play" mantra. Is this having a positive effect on the game, be it in administration or on the pitch?
Hughes: I think I’ve said enough to spell out my views. BUT, credit where credit is due. No one knows better than Blatter the value of good causes and FIFA, for better and for worse, uses its global popularity to great effect in all manner of causes from the Red Cross to village communities for abandoned children.
MercatorNet: Brian Glanville constantly refers to the English Premier League derisively as ‘The Greed is Good League’. How do you see the EPL?
Hughes: Brian and I said this to one another at the very outset. He is right, and for many of the reasons above, "Greed is Good" can be interpreted two ways. The league is self-perpetuating, but like most global industries, it has built a philanthropic arm. The greed for income is selfish, but the handouts to worthy causes is better given than not.
MercatorNet: The current crisis afflicting Italian football has its roots in Italian society as well as in Italian football. Where does the problem stem from?
Hughes: Be careful. Last year I suggested that Italian football corruption indicated something endemic in business, and an Italian ambassador in the Far East complained that this offensively maligns his country. Leading players have recently said that the killing of a police inspector in February, and now a police bullet killing a Lazio fan on a motorway, reflects a "civil war". Being English, and living through two decades of horrific hooliganism, I see Italy going through similar rituals of violence and denial. Society HAS to take responsibility for the problem.
MercatorNet: Corruption has been rife in Italian football for many years, both in terms of players and administrators. Can this be stopped?
Hughes: Same answer — it will only stop if there is a will, by government and the administration, to stop it.
MercatorNet: Whenever Italian football is in crisis, the national team and club sides do well, winning World Cups and European Champions’ League titles. Why is this?
Hughes: History repeats itself. Italy went to the 1982 World Cup with Paolo Rossi, the predatory goal scorer, amnestied from his ban for match fixing. His goals won the tournament. Italy won the 2006 title despite the "Calciopoli" scandal over top clubs manipulating referees, and then AC Milan, one of the accused clubs, won the 2007 Champions’ League. Backed into a corner, with even their own press hostile, brings out something mean and victorious in the Italians.
Walter Pless covers soccer for the Hobart Mercury, in Australia.