Lessons for Singapore in political football interference

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By: Suresh Nair

WHAT’S common in football circles, in the eyes of FIFA, with France, Indonesia, Brunei, Guatemala, Ethiopia, Benin, Tanzania, Kuwait and Singapore?

Make a guess, just a wild guess.

These handfuls of FIFA-affiliated countries have either been suspended or given an ultimate warning by the world football controlling body for possible “political interference” and allowing their respective governments to poke their fingers into football matters.

The million-dollar question for football fans: What exactly is “political interference”?

Is government tackling, off-the-field, good or bad?

This is the global debating point from Australia to Argentina, Bolivia to Bhutan, Singapore to Senegal in recent months.

In FIFA’s books, the line is transparent. As the world controlling body with 211 members (more than the United Nations in New York!), it has the mandate to control association football worldwide, in all its aspects.

“This mandate is delegated to the national association, to control association football at the national level. This is about managing, controlling and developing football as a game and also the organisation of the game in general,” says a spokesman.

“The associations have the obligation to do it on their own, in an autonomous way without outside interference, from the government or any other parties. In general, political interference is when a government tries to take direct control.”

What is the most common political interference, you may ask?

In FIFA’s dictionary, the most common case is when a government perceives that the Executive Committee of the national association is not performing well enough and decides to take action. Often, because the national team is losing too many games, they decide that changes must be made and want to put someone else in charge.
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Other than that, it can be a lot of different things. For example, a government organising its own competition, outside of the association, or a government which decides to change the result of a league, because they favour one team more than the other.

FAIR PLAY

But the FIFA spokesman says there’s a lot of “fair play, in give-and-take”. He elaborates: “We are not against governments, nor do we encourage our member associations to work in opposition of their governments. On the contrary – we constantly try to establish a good atmosphere and co-operation with governments.”

He makes it abundantly clear that a government has a very important role to play in contributing to the development of football in a country. If there is a good relationship between the government and the national football association, then there will be very productive results.

He says there have been “four to 10 cases per year” and FIFA adopts the prolonged dialogue approach before resorting to suspension, if the government doesn’t appear to be co-operative.

Declining to be specific in naming a recalcitrant country, the spokesman says:We are in constant communication with our members and at times, there might be confusion, or even tension with other parties, but it can’t even be considered a case because the issue gets quickly resolved, through a simple clarification letter, or sometimes the evocation of a suspension.

“When there are problems, we try to encourage the association to explain the background, we then explain why there would be a problem for FIFA, and then encourage the association to restore good working relations bilaterally.”

Eye-to-eye contacts and closed-door meetings with government representatives to try to prevent them from intervening are not uncommon.

“Negotiation is always the key because we try, as far as possible, to go for a win-win situation,” says the spokesman. “We only get involved when there has been a direct intervention. In that case, the matter would be referred to the FIFA Executive Committee or the Emergency Committee, with the ultimate sanction being the suspension of the association. If the association is still suspended by the time of the Congress, it needs to be confirmed by the FIFA Congress.”

FIFA Director of Member Associations and Development, based in Zurich, closely monitors global reports in order to detect political interference, which usually happens in Third World countries, where politicians use football to win mammoth grassroots support or even in overthrowing the government.

He says: “Yes, we can tip-offs from other football stakeholders, be it from the political world, the football world, or even the local media. The next step would be to ask the association to report about the issue and FIFA would then send delegates to examine the situation.

“We had cases where in some places, they don’t want to inform us because they fear suspension or they are afraid of their government. As football’s governing body, we are constantly in the process of monitoring the situation of football in the world, including political topics.”

STRONG PRINCIPLES

FIFA doesn’t shoot from the hip, he reiterates, to immediately stop political interference. He explains: “We have strong principles as well as procedures to follow, we have to act on a case-by-case basis. In terms of concrete measures, we do not have many alternatives other than the threat of suspension, and the suspension itself.

“But when you suspend an association, hence withdrawing financial resources, you penalise the football association, without impacting or engaging the government that much. So our first step is to try and encourage the association to get in contact with the government or the party involved in the case and frankly talk on the issue. Through official communications we will then progressively inform of the mounting risk of a suspension of the national association.”

If close-quarters monitoring, communication and reactivity fails, he says, FIFA usually try to prevent the emergence of a crisis. He makes it clear: “FIFA is a strong organisation, not only in its football realm, but also in the political, socio-economical world, and we can and should use this strength to help our members.”

Like good football tactic and strategy, FIFA has its ground-rules to achieve the goals of keeping politics out of sport/football.

The global formula is simple:  First, FIFA work with the continental confederations. In some countries, there are more general problems, for example, governments enacting laws that will apply to, and impact on all sports.

Even taking away the management responsibilities from the federation, and handing it over to the government. In that example, FIFA are in contact with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the IOC is usually steps in as an “engaging marshal” as it represents all the sports.

Another big question: How does FIFA monitor an association in a non-democratic regime to make sure it is not affected by political interference?

The spokesman explains: “The congress has decided that all associations should conform to the FIFA Statutes. It’s an ongoing process where associations are reforming their statutes, including associations of non-democratic countries. Possibly, not all of them have gone through this yet. In some places it’s faster than others.

“Now more than half of the associations have gone through this change, but it’s a step-by-step process. The FIFA Standard Statutes should ensure among many things, that there is a democratic way of electing the office term bearer of the association.”

He gave two distinct examples of Ethiopia and Brunei Darussalam, where the situation significantly improved through FIFA’s intervention.

“Ethiopia, for a quick example, they were suspended for a while. In the end, we managed to find a way out of the crisis together with the government and the association. After that, the co-operation has been very good with the government. We are doing a lot to help them develop football,” he says.

“We also assisted Brunei Darussalam. The association had been de-registered by the government, which wanted another organisation to control football. This led to a long suspension between September 2009 and May 2011. But now, the association is re-registered and stable and we are now able to focus together on football development – which is actually FIFA’s No1 objective according to its statutes.”

SINGAPORE SLING

In Singapore’s case, declining to go to specifics, he says FIFA recently met FAS and affiliates at Jalan Besar Stadium on much-delayed constitutional changes that will ensure alignment of its election process with the FIFA statutes.

The “moment of truth” is on November 7, where an EOGM (Extraordinary General Meeting) will, hopefully, finalise consent of affiliates as well as the necessary regulatory approvals for any final changes to the constitution.

He admits: “It’s been a slow process and we’re disappointed as it involves Singapore, for whom we’ve the highest respect for overall football governance. I must reiterate that there’re no exceptions to any rules and the FAS knows that compliance with FIFA rules is crucial for Singapore’s participation in international competitions.”

For over three decades, rather strangely, he says the FAS selection process is inconsistent with FIFA rules, which frown on government interference in national football associations.

The FAS constitution, available online, states that all council members, including the president and deputy president, shall be appointed by the Minister of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) and confirmed by voting at an annual general meeting.

As it stands, the FAS chief is traditionally an elected member of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which has governed Singapore for more than half-century. It stressed that its current selection process has been in place since 1982 and FIFA did not make any objections until recently when it asked for a review.
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If FAS doesn’t get it house in order at Jalan Besar Stadium, Asia’s oldest affiliate, with its founding in 1892 and turning 125 years next year, could face an unprecedented suspension, so serious that it could end the Lions’ participation in the ongoing 2018 World Cup qualifiers and rule Singapore clubs out of international competitions.

Informed sources at MCCY, SportSG and FAS have confirmed that “positive negotiations” are underway this week to tie-up the nitty-gritties involving the constitutional changes. A senior FAS official says: “We’ve met majority of the grassroots clubs from the 46 affiliates and in consultation with the relevant authorities, we’re on the verge of an amicable compromise.”

It is learnt this may mean getting the majority of the candidates, believed to be from four separate teams, to do a “brokering deal” which will benefit longer-term Singapore football.
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“This prolonged hiccup has left a very sour taste and the football fraternity wants to see an amicable end,” said a veteran S-League club chairman, who declined to be named. “Personal egos must be put side, personalities must work towards a common goal to lift football and it starts from the top, from highest FAS management, to the lowest grassroots clubs, and everyone must play a positive role in the Made-in-Singapore football ecosystem, which cannot be divided.”

PATRICK ANG: ‘GODFATHER’

Perhaps the most powerful advice to “get your house in order” came from someone I have the highest respect: Former national team manager Patrick Ang, who steered Geylang International to S-League glory in the late 1990s. He was the general manager when the Lions’ did a remarkable “double” in the 1994 Malaysia Cup triumph.

Hailed as “The Geylang Godfather”, he knocked the hardest nail on the head last month when he reminded that the “FAS election must be a great opportunity for the sport to drag itself out of the doldrums”.

Ang’s smart formula: Work as a team, get the most passionate folks, with personal agendas definitely set aside, and join hands to put forward one group of their candidates with the best credentials.

“Football needs support from the government, and that comes from having candidates with credibility and integrity, and a president definitely with a big clout,” he says. “Those who want to lead Singapore football must not be concerned about positions in the Asean Football Federation (AFF), Asian Football Confederation (AFC) or FIFA. Over the next four years, they must look only at fixing things here.”

Good news: He is willing to contribute for a long overdue change but NOT as a president or a council member.

Ang’s pragmatic promise: “If good capable people come into power and they’re interested in my help, I’m prepared to do so.”

Remember, under Ang’s proven stewardship, from the mid-1980s, Geylang have been one of the most efficient clubs in implementing the S-League’s key programmes, related to youth development, grassroots football and community outreach. Apart from his portfolio at Geylang, this football-crazy businessman has also contributed immensely to the promotion and development of Singapore football as a volunteer with the FAS and the national team for several years.

Little wonder, the government awarded him with a Public Service Medal (Pingat Bakti Masyarakat) in 2001. And now, rather ironically, the government must take a back-seat and allow for more public-spirited Patrick Angs to change the football ecosystem, without fear, favour, friendship or political interference.


Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has covered the football scene for more than three decades.