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Sat Oct 01 01:49:16 SAST 2016

Crime reporter who blew whistle on Fifa

Archie Henderson | 24 February, 2016 00:37
Archie Henderson. File photo
Image by: SUPPLIED

Sepp Blatter says the media is trying to kill him. He was speaking metaphorically, I think. If so, go for the jugular. Metaphorically, of course. We don't want a state funeral in Zurich with a lot of sanctimonious hand-wringing.

As for a metaphorical murderer, the lineup would include several suspects, but the standout would be a slightly unkempt grey-haired Englishman who lives near the Scottish border in a rented cottage on a remote farm. At 72, Andrew Jennings is still as feisty as he was when he was 52 and began pursuing the biggest story of his life: Fifa.

Unfortunately for Fifa and its capo di tutti capi, Jennings was not a football writer, otherwise his story would never have come out.

Football writers, like sports writers the world over, have a complicated (some would say compromised) symbiotic relationship with the people they cover, and the organisations that control those people. And over the last 20 years or so, it has become more difficult for sports writers to function in complete freedom as those organisations have controlled the message through an Orwellian system of "spokespersons" and "liaison officers".

The work of Telford Vice, who writes on cricket for The Times, and his wife Firdose Moonda, who does a similar job for Cricinfo, has been circumscribed to such an extent by Cricket South Africa that obstacles are deliberately put in their way - all because they refuse to wear a CSA straitjacket.

Jennings was able to work outside such a system because, as he told CBS's 60 Minutes this month, "I'm a crime reporter".

That meant he was immune to Fifa's blandishments, there was no risk of him burning contacts he would need for match reports and he wasn't seduced by sweet talk at press conferences, because Fifa had banned him from those.

He was also, according to South African-born Michael Gavshon, a producer on CBS, "fearless".

It might not seem like courage to doorstop someone like Blatter with questions of bribery, but it is. You risk being manhandled by goons or, even worse, being snubbed on camera.

So when Jennings confronted one of the biggest Fifa crooks, Jack Warner, at an airport, he was looking for trouble.

Warner, who was feted by us and probably also bribed by us, half-turned to Jennings: "If I could spit on you, I would have spat on you." Not quite the soothing tone he had adopted when granted an audience with Nelson Mandela and when Warner held South Africa's World Cup fate in his hands with a vote on the Fifa executive.

The confrontation between Jennings and Warner is one of the best parts of the 60 Minutes documentary shown in the US ahead of Friday's Fifa meeting to elect a president to replace Blatter, who might now have time on his hands to reflect on the man who helped bring about his downfall.

Not that Blatter's successor will be an improvement. According to respected writer Simon Kuper, Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, a shoo-in to win on Friday, doesn't even believe in elections.

Fifa might be a long way from the scrapheap, but at least people like Jennings have pointed the direction in which the world football body must go.

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