Bonita Mersiades is one of the most famous whistleblowers in world sport.
She is the author of ’Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the FIFA Way’ – a book that details the massive corruption inside the bids for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup including Australia’s role in the shady process.
Bonita joined Misha Zelinsky to talk about the intersection of sport and politics, why when it comes to cheating its easier to punish individuals than nation states, the role that money plays in the corruption of sport and why it’s just so scary being a whistleblower.
Misha Zelinsky: Bonita Mersiades Mersiades, welcome to the show.
Bonita Mersiades: Thanks, Misha.
Misha Zelinsky: Slightly different change of pace for what we typically have on Diplomates. You’ve got a very heavy sports background, but sports and politics are never too far apart. I thought, with your experience, let’s start right at the beginning. Why do people care so much about sport? Why do people care so much about men and women running around on a field kicking a ball or throwing a ball?
Bonita Mersiades: There’s many reasons. I guess one of them would be that we’ve all done it, or most of us have don’t it, at some stage in our lives. The other thing is I think almost more than anything, perhaps music is the only other thing, is that it’s something which is part of a culture that goes through generations. Particularly in something like football, regardless of which code of football it is, the love of that and a love of the team for example can pass down from generation to generation. I think from an individual perspective, that’s why we love sport.
Bonita Mersiades: From a bigger picture perspective, of society, it absolutely does reflect society and the values that we find important and the values that we like to instill for example in our children, of fair play and team work and perseverance and determination and integrity. For all of those reasons, it’s important.
Misha Zelinsky: Now, people often say, sports, it’s not a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that. It’s also seen as an extension of the nation state. Do you see, in your experience, how much is sport an extension of not just communities but of the country itself? Do you think that that is an important part of sport, as well, the national identity?
Bonita Mersiades: Yeah, especially for a country like our own. We’re very much tied up, our national identity is very much tied up with sport, even if not so much with ourselves. It is for other people. Having traveled a lot for work not just in sport, but in previous work in government, one of the things that people will often throw at you as a curtain raiser conversation is about the cricket team or the football team or whatever. It is pretty much part of our identity.
Bonita Mersiades: I think, though, increasingly, too, is that a lot of nations are getting into sport and investing so much in sport because it is obviously a way of exercising soft diplomatic power. Along with arts and culture and fashion and food and all sorts of other ways in which soft power is exercised, sport is also very important to that.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s interesting you touch on that soft power, because it’s that murky bit between politics, business, passionate community interest. It strikes me sometimes what makes sport so special is what makes it inherently corruptible. What is it that we see with this questionable behavior from players, obviously, but administrators, high level bureaucrats? How is it that it gets so easily corrupted, something that is so pure when you start as a kid?
Bonita Mersiades: I think a lot of the administrators in sport, particularly at high level, they forget what sport was about in the first place. My experience, for example, of FIFA is such that, whereas most of the people involved at a high level would have started off in the game as a kid once upon a time and came through the ranks as a volunteer and all of those sorts of things, they lost sight of that when they could see just how powerful that particular sport is, football … I’m talking soccer when I talk football … and the doors it opens for them. For example, if the FIFA president came to visit a country such as Australia, he would get a green light corridor which is reserved for heads of state. He would get to meet anyone that he wants to meet. The president of FIFA has, it doesn’t matter who it is, the president of the United States or the prime minister of the UK. They juggle about who they’re going to sit next to at state dinners. They are treated like a head of state and they see themselves as a head of state. In fact, they even refer to the FIFA congress, which has 212 member nations, more than the United Nations, as their parliament.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s really interesting. We’ll come back to that a little bit later on, about the way that sports globally govern themselves. You of course, you touched on FIFA. You’re the author of a book called Whatever it Takes, which is The Inside Story of the FIFA Way, but also particularly Australia’s failed bid for the World Cup in 2022.
Misha Zelinsky: Firstly, I suppose, why did Australia bid for this event? Why is it important to put taxpayer money … We put in $50 million, I think it was. Why do countries put money behind these kind of events?
Bonita Mersiades: I think the number one reason is the one that we touched on earlier about soft power. If you look at Australia’s history with major world events, whether it be the ’56 Olympics, the 2000 Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, although that’s not as large, and things like that, Australia has leveraged those events to give it more power and more of a, I guess, credibility and notoriety, and I say that in a positive way, every time there’s been one of those major world events. That’s why nations use them. If you look at who won out of that 2018, 2022 process, and we’ve already experienced the 2018 World Cup, there is absolutely no doubt that Vladimir Putin and Russia used that to try and soften their image when everything else that was going on in their country would probably be a negative for most.
Bonita Mersiades: Why did we bid? One, there was that. Two, I think from a football perspective, at the time and probably still, we have always seen it necessary to turbo charge our sport to realize its potential. This is what I’m really passionate about, is that football is a way in Australia for Australia to be closer to the world and the world to be closer to Australia. Yet, we’ve never really taken great advantage of that. Hosting a World Cup would have been a way to do that, as well as putting our sport onto another level financially. That was one of the reasons from a football perspective, as well as whatever legacy it may have left for the sport within our country. They were the three major reasons. There was a national reason, there was a football legacy perspective, and there was a football financial perspective.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah. In your book, you talk about the fact that … Famously, for those who … I’ll just quickly recap. There was two bids for the 2018, 2022. Australia was reasonably confident they were going to do well with that process. We then finished last. We got one vote. $50 million dollars for one vote. That vote was from the now disgraced Sepp Blatter who basically told us he voted us, I mean, effectively out of sympathy. Otherwise, we would have got zero votes.
Misha Zelinsky: The thing that you talk about in your book, and I’d like for you to unpack this, at the time of the vote we knew we were going to lose, and yet nobody told the government. Can you expand on that a little bit, about that process of the vote itself?
Bonita Mersiades: Yeah. I think that was … People have also asked me what really got me to the point where I was so unhappy with working through this. There was a lot of things, but that was one of them. We were standing in the lobby of the FIFA headquarters in Zurich after Kevin Rudd had been to visit. Kevin Rudd was a master politician and master showman. Put him up with Sepp Blatter and it was really a contest to see who was going to be smiling the most and being in front of the camera the most. Kevin Rudd was great on that visit, but after he left we were told point blank we wouldn’t win it because we would never be commercially competitive.
Bonita Mersiades: From my perspective then, we should have at least as a minimum told the government that that was the case. The government may well have said, “That’s fine. There are other objectives we’re pursuing with this,” because after all, just by being a bidder we’re out there in the global community getting noticed. That’s not a bad objective as long as the government is able to make that decision, in my view. They were also bidding at the time for a security council seat at the United Nations, so there was that double act going on as well. But we didn’t. We didn’t do any of that.
Bonita Mersiades: I think, when you come back to what happened at the very end of the whole bidding process and the fact that I revealed in my book, that Qatar, through what was then Al Jazeera, paid a $100 million what they call production contribution if the World Cup was held in Qatar, I think it’s fairly clear that Qatar were also given the same information, i.e. you won’t be competitive commercially. In other words, their meaning against the United States, who was one of the other bidders for 2022. Qatar dealt with that because they had the state owned resources to be able to deal with it. They came up with some might say it was a clever way of doing it, and some might say it was sneaky. Nonetheless, it worked for them, from an organizational perspective. We didn’t do any of that. Instead, what we did was, oh, we’ll get a consulting company to do a report on why Asia is the next big growth area in football. My question to that was, there’s three other Asian nations bidding so why us rather than the other three.
Bonita Mersiades: There was always this view that no one would want those other three, they’ll want us in Asia, not the other three. I think there was this sense that while we would host a great World Cup … We do all of that stuff really well … and it’d have been fantastic to have, there was never any sense, realistic view of what else was going on. At least publicly there wasn’t a realistic view of what was going on.
Misha Zelinsky: You’ve sort of touched on this process. A lot of people wouldn’t know that when they’re deciding a World Cup, there’s only 22 votes, as I understood it.
Bonita Mersiades: At that time, yes.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah. Can you give a sense of some of the dirty trick … You touched on the Qataris have put up $100 million. You talk in your book and at other speeches around some of the examples from the then French president Sarkozy or Vladimir Putin in Cyprus. Can you give some examples of some of the stuff that other countries were doing in other to secure it? Given that the Russians won 2018 and Qatar won 2022, I think it’s important to think about exactly what went on.
Bonita Mersiades: Yeah. Not just during the bidding process, but afterwards as well if you track some of these things. I think it’s important, too, because so many people have talked about Qatar and put it down to the traditional brown paper bag stuff. There may well have been some of that that went on, but there are also this other much more sophisticated and strategic interventions.
Bonita Mersiades: I mentioned the $100 million production contribution. Not long before the vote, the person who is now the emir of Qatar went to France, had dinner with Nicholas Sarkozy, and Michel Platini who was then the FIFA vice president and one of the most powerful people in football, was invited along. Basically, it was put upon him that he and the people, his votes that he could manage, should vote for Qatar and in return for which Qatar would look after a number of things.
Bonita Mersiades: The following year at the Dubai Air Show, Qatar Airways bought … I haven’t got the numbers absolutely correct, but certainly a proportion … bought approximately 80 Airbus aircraft and two Boeing aircraft. The following year, Michel Platini’s son ended up with a job with Qatar. The following year, Qatar, and they still owned, Paris Saint Germain, the most successful and the biggest football club in Paris. All of these things sort of went on both at the time and subsequent to secure those votes. That’s one example.
Bonita Mersiades: In terms of Russia, I tracked this through a Greek newspaper, or through a relative who sent it to me actually. Vladimir Putin visited Cyprus in September 2010. This was about two months before the vote or six weeks before the vote. In a speech about anti ballistic missile technology, he said, “We Russia are going to share our technology with you,” which in itself is a huge issue and quite big, “But by the way we’re also bidding for the 2018 World Cup and we’d really love to have your vote.” Sitting in the audience is the man who’s going to vote. Now, was that you must vote for us or else or just the type of typical government to government deal or negotiating or trading that goes on during these things? That’s why I say there’s a lot of sophisticated and strategic interventions from countries and nation states around that whole bidding process and the voting process.
Misha Zelinsky: It was quite successful when you look at it, right? You look at the fact that there was a lot of concern at the time, certainly for the last decade, around Russia’s behavior globally, when you look at invasion of Georgia and so on and so forth, the annexation of Crimea. They bid quite high as you describe and then there was a tremendous soft power success for the Putin regime in Russia last year in the 2018 World Cup. Qatar, which is a tiny country, I think everyone was shocked that they won it. They’ve come under enormous pressure for some of the abuses of human rights and labor rights subsequently. They’re two really concerning examples.
Misha Zelinsky: Australia’s bid. I’m kind of curious. What about us? We spent $50 million of taxpayers’ money. Was our bid clean or not?
Bonita Mersiades: It depends what you mean by clean. Is it clean in that anyone is being indicted or arrested yet? It was clean in that respect because no one has been. Was it clean in terms of using, as I’ve termed it, or in fact as the former attorney general of the United States termed it, the FIFA way? Yeah, we absolutely did. For example, we gave four million dollars to the Oceania Football Confederation, that’s based in the Pacific, for a really good project, that is to help kids in the Pacific play sport with better facilities. No one can doubt that that’s a good cause, but it was only given because we were bidding. I sat in the meeting. It’s not a question of I’ve read this somewhere and i think this is what happened. I sat in the meeting with the director general of [inaudible 00:14:59] on more than one occasion, what was then [inaudible 00:15:02], more than one occasion in which he talked about how he would require additionality from the federal budget in order to fund this. There is no doubt about that.
Bonita Mersiades: We, when I say we, Australia, the Football Federation of Australia, got an award from the Asian Football Confederation for a five million dollar donation, five million dollar donation that wasn’t particularly allocated to anything but we donated it. We gave half a million US dollars to Jack Warner, probably the most notorious of all of the characters, if I can call them that, around FIFA and world football. He wanted that to upgrade a stadium in his home country of Trinidad and Tobago. What they didn’t bother to do in terms of due diligence was to find out that the land on which the stadium was … Sorry, the stadium was built by FIFA money. The club concerned was owned by the Warner family. The land on which the stadium and the facilities were built was owned by the Warner family. Where did that US half a million dollars end up? In Jack Warner’s personal back account.
Bonita Mersiades: Now, what Football Federation Australia officials or former officials have said in relation to that, “Well, we didn’t know that was happening.” Even if they didn’t know that was happening, they should have been able to figure out what was going on and they should have done better due diligence. Not only that, they shouldn’t have made a payment of US half a million dollars to one of the most powerful people in world football and a voter some six weeks before that vote, because it smells. There is no other word for it. It smells.
Misha Zelinsky: In any other context, if these people were elected, it’d be a corruption. Because again this murkiness of sport, it becomes less … There’s no proper oversight, no proper democratic oversight. Just going back slightly from the bid, we lose the bid quite badly, but ten months before that event you lost your job. Your book is largely about being a whistleblower. I was kind of curious. You called out some of the problems. Next thing you find yourself on the out. Can you maybe explain what caused you firstly to blow the whistle on this, so to speak, internally? Then why did you find yourself shown the door do you think?
Bonita Mersiades: I kept raising questions while I was in the job. It’s worth bearing in mind that I was a very senior executive. I reported to the CEO, I had close contact with the chairman amongst the bid group. I was also doing my other work at FFA as well, which was the ordinary communications and PR and corporate affairs type stuff. I would ask questions about why were we doing this, why were we spending money here. I would call out … We employed three notorious, two of them especially, notorious international consultants. In my eyes, [crosstalk 00:18:05]-
Misha Zelinsky: Who specialize in the area of thief of bidding?
Bonita Mersiades: Yes. That’s all they do basically.
Misha Zelinsky: Right.
Bonita Mersiades: Having worked with consultants for years and years and years, having been in government and elsewhere, I knew that they were not ordinary consultants. They were getting paid $15 million between them. They weren’t like ordinary consultants who would provide reports or provide you feedback or have any … Except for one of them, they had no deliverables in particular. I kept asking questions about this. As I mentioned, we were told that we wouldn’t win and we didn’t tell the government. As far as I’m aware, we didn’t tell the government. Certainly from a management perspective, we didn’t. I just got more and more uncomfortable. After a while, I guess, I think it was just simpler for my CEO at the time because he had the consultants in one ear sort of complaining about me and me in the other ear complaining about them. I think he thought what price piece will get rid of her?
Misha Zelinsky: Like a lot of whistleblowers, you came under an enormous amount of personal pressure. Can you explain that the attempts to discredit you? There was a report done that deliberately targeted you and one other person. Can you sort of take us through that process? You’ve made the complaint and then you’ve then largely been left as the problem.
Bonita Mersiades: Yeah. To this day, I’m still seen as a problem, even though there’s been a change of executive management [inaudible 00:19:35] at FFA. I think someone said I was an agitator and therefore I shouldn’t really be someone they talk to.
Bonita Mersiades: The first thing they did was try to make out that the reason I was sacked was for reasons that were just not accurate. A little bit like what’s happened to the Matilda’s coach more recently. They would say, for instance, it was because I was responsible for relationships with the state governments and they weren’t going well. Actually, it wasn’t my responsibility. That was all about stadiums and that wasn’t my responsibility. There were those sorts of things. That was just the immediate aftermath.
Bonita Mersiades: It became much bigger than that. There was sort of a fatwa put out against me by Football Federation Australia in terms of warning people not to have any contact with me, not to talk to me, not to take any notice, saying that I was bitter and twisted, saying the usual stuff when there’s a whistleblower. They do everything to discredit you and say that you’re only saying things because you’ve lost your job. Some people didn’t believe that because they had known me. I didn’t just go and work in football because I wanted a job. I worked in football because I love football and have done all my life. I grew up with it.
Bonita Mersiades: Then it sort of elevated. When I started talking about governance, when I put it all together, I wrote it all down. I wrote everything down. I started putting together and I realized that what this really was was a governance issue at a much bigger level, at a FIFA level. I started talking about that, both here in Australia and also internationally. I actually coined the phrase the FIFA way back in 2011 and in fact I’m delighted to say that Loretta Lynch, the US attorney general, picked up on it.
Bonita Mersiades: They then started a review of the 2018, 2022 bidding process by a person who is now a judge in the New York Court of Appeals. He was a paid consultant to FIFA. He interviewed approximately 75 people for his report, which took approximately two years to do. He got paid about ten million US dollars for it. In his report, he singled out two people to criticize. First of all, he said the decision was fine, there was nothing wrong with Qatar and Russia being selected. He did say that there was some dodgy things about the Australian bid and some dodgy things about the UK bid, but he singled out two people and identified them. That was me and another whistleblower, a woman. Of all people in the entire world of football that were seen as being a problem for football, it was the two whistleblowers and two women, and two quite vulnerable people.
Bonita Mersiades: One of the impacts of having been a whistleblower, especially in a relatively small community in Australia, is it’s very hard to get a job when you’re up against one of the most powerful men in the country, i.e. Frank Lowy. For the other whistleblower, she was an American born Arab woman who … She has found it difficult to I guess really gain the employment that she would like to, just as I have. You continue and get on with life and do other things, but life changes a lot when that happens to you.
Bonita Mersiades: I guess one of the telling things about all of that was that you do learn who your friends are and you do learn about people who say they stand for something and that they don’t actually stand for anything when it comes to it. Because they’ve never bothered to pick up the phone and ask you how you are or any of those sorts of things. I guess I’m glossing over it to some extent, because it doesn’t sound that bad, that it was just written in a report, but it was much worse than that in that this was global news. This wasn’t just something that happened in little old Australia. It was global news.
Bonita Mersiades: When this report came out, I was in Perth doing some work. A friend of mine, a journalist in England, contacted me and he said, “You really need to look at the Garcia report straight away.” By the time I’d got back to the hotel to log onto the computer and have a look at it, I was inundated with calls. It changes your life. It’s one thing to have been sacked from my job and had to sort of reinvent myself after that. It was quite another to have this man who should know better, a lawyer, who had been the US attorney general for the Southern District of New York, so a prosecutor, he should have known better than to break the confidence of two women whistleblowers. It was just outrageous treatment and says more about him than it does about us.
Misha Zelinsky: You sort of detailed I suppose there the enormous pressure you came under. It’s quite a curious … A lot of people might have just gone underground. You’ve probably taken even more prominence since then. How did you go about fighting back against a very, very, very powerful not just in Australia, but global outfit?
Bonita Mersiades: There were two options, and one was to sort of, and what they wanted us to do, was to get into a corner and curl up and die. Neither of us did that, I’m pleased to say. Certainly for the other whistleblower, her preference was not to bring any more attention to herself because she had some other issues that she needed to deal with. From my perspective, I thought I’m just not going to take this. I’m not the person who did anything wrong. I’m the person who’s brought attention to all of this. I’m just not going to take it.
Bonita Mersiades: Fortunately, someone put me in touch with an MP in the House of Commons, Damien Collins, who is now the chairman of the Culture, Media, Digital, and Sport Committee at the House of Commons, and also an Australian businessman who is living overseas who is very interested in sports governance issues. We formed, in conjunction with a couple of members of the European Parliament, a group called New FIFA Now, campaign group. Soon after that, we turned up in the Brussels parliament and European Parliament and had I think about 250-300 people at a gathering in which we called for reform of FIFA. We called for basically an overthrow of FIFA as we knew it then and said that there was something terribly wrong going on, when that report had come out, when the two whistleblowers were shamed and disparaged the way they were, yet their whole decision making regime and rationale was not questioned whatsoever.
Bonita Mersiades: Now that was before the May 2015 arrests.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah, I’d like to … Let’s go to that now. This dodgy process happens. You lose your job. You come under a lot of pressure, start fighting back. FIFA are kind of largely sweeping things under the rug as perhaps they’ve done in the past. Then, of course, there are an enormous amount of arrests, huge worldwide press, that of Jack Warner, the soccer club that you just described, the $500,000 from Australia for the stadium upgrade that never happened, and then Sepp Blatter who was the head of FIFA and the person that voted for us but did so in a manner that was relatively back handed. Tell us a little bit about that and also how validating it might have been. Was it validating after everything?
Bonita Mersiades: It was quite incredible. As part of our New FIFA Now campaign activity, there was actually a FIFA presidential election coming up in 2015. Sepp Blatter was standing yet again and he was up against at the time Prince Ali of Jordan. We had, as part of a campaign activity, we had organized something with Amnesty International and with [inaudible 00:27:55] to happen in Zurich. We also have put together this sort of fake newspaper, which we were handing out in the streets of Zurich.
Misha Zelinsky: Not fakes news, though.
Bonita Mersiades: No, no, not fake news. Fake newspaper.
Misha Zelinsky: Okay.
Bonita Mersiades: With stories about FIFA corruption basically. Sharon Burrow and Jamie Fuller and others were …
Misha Zelinsky: Sharon Barrow is of course the global head of the union movement. An Australian, former head of the ACTU.
Bonita Mersiades: Yeah. Former head of the ACTU. They were in the streets of Zurich handing out this fake newspaper with the real news when all of the sudden the news came through that there’d been these arrests at the Baur au Lauc Hotel. That was yet another media onslaught. It was quite incredible. In a sense, Jamie and Sharon were sort of Johnny and Jenny on the spot in Zurich. Even again here, there was a lot of media interest in what went on.
Bonita Mersiades: Did I feel vindicated? Not straightaway. It took a while for that to happen. It was certainly the case though that it was pleasing to see and to have confirmed that the FBI and the IRS were looking into these issues. I had known about it for some time that they were. It was pleasing to see that they’d got to the point where they’d made these arrests. After that, to learn that other things subsequently happened, such as the Swiss government started looking at it, the French government and the UK. I guess over time that has become vindicating. Even more so, I guess when the full Garcia report was released some three years after that summary report, which-
Misha Zelinsky: This is the report that named you as the …
Bonita Mersiades: Which named me and the other woman. Almost three years after it was first released as a summary report, when that came out, everything that was in it in relation to Australia in which he had pointed the finger and said there’s something that needs to be looked into in relation to Australia, everything had come from me, which made it even more absurd what he had said. Because on the one hand, he’s saying this happened, that happened, this happened in relation to Australia. The person who had told him all that, he then said, “You can’t really take any notice of her because she’s a whistleblower.” I think that probably for me was really the point of vindication.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s a big decision to make, whistle blowing. Do you think it was worth it knowing that journey you’ve been on? Maybe you can’t answer that, I’m not sure. At huge personal cost, obviously, but seeing that whole house of cards come tumbling down, does it feel worth it in the end?
Bonita Mersiades: Yes, it does fundamentally. Does it change your life? Yes, it does. Is it worth it? Yes.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s a very brave thing to do, to stand up to power.
Bonita Mersiades: Thanks.
Misha Zelinsky: Turning to money in sport, we’ve talked a little bit about much money there is in sport. You talked about FIFA more generally in the sense that they’re an international body, they’re not government run, but they’re these quasi international bodies with sort of no democratic oversight, at least from people, democratically elected people. Given how much money they’re in control of, and these are multi, multi, multi billion dollar enterprises, but also receive billions and billions of dollars from governments, from taxpayers, what do we do about overseeing these entities? What’s the role of culture and governance and how do you actually bring these institutions to their heel? The FBI raiding them and investigating and arresting people is one thing, but you want to see good governance more fundamentally like you would in an ordinary government. What’s the role of governance and culture?
Bonita Mersiades: It’s a really interesting question, and especially at the moment when you can see what’s happened since 2016 in particular. What happened then is we got a new FIFA president. He brought in a CEO who was a senior bureaucrat in the United Nations. Now, United Nations has had its own governance and financial management problems, but what she has done is introduce a lot of good process and good reporting. I would say that where there’s an issue of process versus culture, culture wins every time. What they haven’t addressed, and I don’t think anyone who’s in the game could address it, they haven’t addressed the culture of FIFA and they haven’t addressed the culture of world football.
Bonita Mersiades: You’ve got to go back to what the FBI said, I think it was James Comey at that very first media release, sorry, media conference, after the arrests, where James Comey and Loretta Lynch was there. James Comey was still the director of the FBI and he said, “This is a mafia style organization.” I was at a conference not long after that where one of the FBI investigators was speaking. He actually explained what a mafia organization looks like. You take one person out, e.g. Jack Warner, and you put another person in.
Misha Zelinsky: The show rolls on.
Bonita Mersiades: Yeah, the show rolls on. In fact, that’s exactly what happened in the Caribbean. Jack Warner came out, the next person came in, and he’s since been arrested as well.
Bonita Mersiades: What do you do in terms of governance and culture? One of the things that we called for at New FIFA Now is that there needed to be … It was like being a company. You needed to treat it like a company, an administration, that you would bring in an outsider who had an absolute [inaudible 00:33:47] to make the necessary policy and operational and cultural change and force that through. That takes a generational thing. That isn’t what’s happened. What is clear, though, is that the whole circus keeps rolling on.
Bonita Mersiades: FIFA’s financial statements came out I think yesterday or the day before, and they showed that their cash reserves have increased to $2.6 billion, their revenues over four years have increased to around about, I’m talking US dollars here too, seven billion dollars. Despite, when you consider that those four years to 2018 includes 2015, despite all of that and despite a 100 million US dollar legal bill, sponsors are still putting money into the game. The question is, where is that sponsorship coming from nowadays. This is the big issue for sport, I reckon. It’s coming from Russia. It’s coming from China. It’s coming from the Middle East. There’s still some money coming from the US, but it is less so as a proportion of all the money. There’s a real pivot happening in world sport. That could just reflect society in general, where the world is going in geopolitical terms. Going back to the very first question is how the sport reflects society, I think it’s worthwhile looking at where the big money in sport is coming from.
Misha Zelinsky: That’s interesting. I didn’t really link the concept of sponsorship, soft power, and the control of those institutions, but there’s actually … My next question just goes to this point. There’s this issue of national systematic cheating going on in sport. You’ve seen the Russians with Sochi, then the question of the nation states interfering in the bidding process. We’ve seen some pretty severe penalties for Sepp Blatter, for Jack Warner, but the penalties seem to be on the individuals and on the nations less so. Why? Is that about power? Is it about money? It seems to be the World Cup, the 2018, the 2022 fiasco, Putin would be the center of it and he’s gotten away with it scot free and put on a triumph of soft power in the 2018 FIFA World Cup in his home country. What is it that you can actually … How are we going to stop countries getting away with this rather than the individuals?
Bonita Mersiades: That’s a really good question. As to why, it’s much more difficult to I guess get at a world leader in that respect than it is to get at a recipient or someone who may be a recipient of a corrupt payment for example. That’s what’s interesting about what’s happening with FIFA so far, too. Most of the people they’ve arrested, indicted, charged, or have been sentenced have been those who have been in receipt of the payments, not those who have made the payments. I think that’s a really interesting issue because it’s not always that companies have made the payments, it’s been individuals as well. Yet, every single indictment so far has been around an individual. It hasn’t gone beyond that. How you stop that, I don’t know. I think it’s a big issue for the world. It goes beyond sport, but of course it gets back to the fact that sport reflects that very much so.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s definitely a challenge, though. These countries and these individuals, sorry, companies and countries, when you look at countries like Russia, countries like China, the distinction between a company, an individual, and the nation state is incredible blurred.
Bonita Mersiades: Very.
Misha Zelinsky: That-
Bonita Mersiades: [crosstalk 00:37:24]
Misha Zelinsky: That’s right. Exactly. The top down pressure and the top down influence is enormous. To say these are just rogue actors is to a fair minded person, I think, relatively heroic kind of way of framing it. What’s the answer? Is there cause for hope in this? Ultimately, sport … Sport is a funny thing because it relies on you and I putting importance on 11 women or men running around on a field kicking a piece of leather around wearing different color shirts and giving import to that so people can make billions of dollars out of it. It matters. Once you puncture that myth, sport kind of dies. These things chip away at it. Is there hope for sport in the longterm, do you think?
Bonita Mersiades: I think there’s hope for sport in the longterm. I would have perhaps three and a half years ago we were at a tipping point where things may change more quickly than they have. I think what an organization like FIFA in particular has done very well is manage the crisis they’re in quite well. I would argue, as I said earlier, that the culture hasn’t changed though. One of the things we have to bear in mind is that the FBI and the IRS and the Swiss and all of them keep saying this is an ongoing investigation. They haven’t gone beyond North and South America yet. They haven’t looked at Asia. They haven’t looked at Oceania. They haven’t looked at Africa or Europe. That’s, I would think, is still to come.
Bonita Mersiades: What can sport do? I think the other potential is in the general changes we see in society where younger people in particular are not taking crap like this. My generation, obviously there are exceptions, but my generation has tended to sort of play within the system a bit more. Whereas I think younger people, don’t classify it necessarily as an age thing, but they are calling out this sort of behavior and they don’t want it. I am hopeful that that will have an impact over time.
Misha Zelinsky: You’ve talked about the age of idea. Another important [inaudible 00:39:41], it’s something that has been a certain movement in this area as well, gender, the Me Too movement and calling out bad behavior and power. Role of gender in sport, you took on basically the ultimate boy’s club arguably in FIFA. What was the role of gender in this?
Bonita Mersiades: For the two of us, the two women involved, it was huge, but I’m going to say there’s not one woman in power in football, including in this country, who ever bothered to pick up the phone and say, “Are you okay?” Not one. I find that unforgivable because in fact the other woman whistleblower, she actually sort of came to my attention as being in a spot of bother quite a while before that. My first reaction, having met her once, was I must reach out to her and see that she’s okay because there’s obviously something going on there. I did that. That’s what I think I would do for almost anyone in that situation.
Bonita Mersiades: There’s no doubt that because we were women, they saw us easy targets. She was even a more junior woman than I was in the whole setup. They saw us easy targets, thought we’d be people who would probably keep quiet. They certainly looked for areas, things where we were both vulnerable and found them, and that’s one of the reasons in fact why she has chosen not to be public about these things. Yet, there was no support from a gender perspective. That’s despite the fact on the FIFA executive committee at the time, sitting in the room, discussing these issues, was an Austrian woman, who’s gone on to get awards for being so wonderful on gender diversity in football, yet she didn’t once reach out to either of the two women who were absolutely treated appallingly by the male machine that was FIFA.
Misha Zelinsky: What do you think the reason for that was? Is that something that’s systemic as a problem in the sport itself, that it’s hard for women to support other women, the interests of the individuals involved? Is there anything in particular you could put it down to?
Bonita Mersiades: I don’t think it’s the sport itself. It’s the sport itself in that I think one of the things I always characterize those who have got to the top of FIFA and in fact in football in Australia as well, they get to the point where they’ve forgotten why they are there. They’re more concerned about what football can do for them than rather what they can do for football. Therefore, if there is a line between right and wrong and good and bad and all of those things, they are quite happy to sort of dip their big toe over to the other side and dismiss anyone … This is true of any sort of whistleblower type situation … dismiss anyone who’s making a noise, a bit of an agitator as I said earlier, or a bit of an activist and say, “I’m not having to do with them because that won’t help me.”
Misha Zelinsky: Now, we’ve talked a lot about all the negatives of sport. We kind of touched on the positives at the beginning. One of the things, you can sometimes get depressed about the state of the world. This podcast often deals with a lot of the bad things that are happening in the world. Sport can be harnessed for good. We saw recently the issue in relation to Hakeem Al-Araibi, the entire soccer football community coming together, although the union movement globally coming together, and the players union movement supporting him and the incredible work of Craig Foster. Do you see that there are other avenues for sport to be that lightning rod for good? We’ve talked about the problems, but can it still be a force for good?
Bonita Mersiades: Absolutely. That’s what it should be for. The Hakeem Al-Araibi situation is a good one. I first met Hakeem back in 2016 because the FIFA presidential election was on. One of the front runners for that was Sheik Salman of Bahrain and Hakeem was then living in Australia. He didn’t have refugee status, but he was brave enough to speak out against Sheik Salman. Hardly anyone in Australia took any notice of it, including Craig Foster and the UPFA, but nonetheless internationally it was a big story because the FIFA presidency was a big story. Hakeem did the right thing then and he’s continued to do so. It was a great example of the positive power of sport and the potential of sport. What we recently saw with Craig is the public face of that Save Hakeem campaign.
Misha Zelinsky: It was a great story and it’s very good to see him back safely at home here in Australia. The last question I like to ask all my guests … We could talk all day about sport, frankly. I could talk about sport nonstop. We need to put some kind of limit on it. .
Misha Zelinsky: Of course, the last hokey question that I have at the end of a very serious discussion about sport is about … It’s called Diplomates. Who are the three foreign mates you would invite to a barbecue at Bonita Mersiades’s? Who would they be?
Bonita Mersiades: Three foreign mates or three foreign people who have-
Misha Zelinsky: Or three foreign people that you’d like to be their mates. I’d like to pretend that all these people that I talk to are my mates. You can have anyone you want.
Bonita Mersiades: Okay, all right. The first I would suggest would be Vitaly Mutko. He is the deputy prime minister in Russia. He was the Russian sports minister. He was president of Russian Football Federation. He was the president of [inaudible 00:48:35] St. Petersburg. He is part of the St. Petersburg clique of Russia. He, of course, was the sports minister who was in charge when all of the doping issues were going on. He sanctioned it. He has lost all of his positions in world football and in the Olympics. I think he would be worthwhile having a chat to. Just to see if he’s ready to be a whistleblower.
Bonita Mersiades: The other one would be, and this is terrible, I’m going to sit on the fence, either of the Obama’s would be fine with me. I’m a great admirer of Barack Obama and a great admirer of Michelle Obama-
Misha Zelinsky: I’ll let you have both. It’s your barbecue, so you can have them both. Is there a last one?
Bonita Mersiades: Last, and I would like to say but not least, but this is a really different reason, I think it’d be fascinating to meet one of the people who controls a lot of the world, especially a lot of the world in our language, and that’s Rupert Murdoch.
Misha Zelinsky: Certainly does.
Bonita Mersiades: Yeah.
Misha Zelinsky: Rupert Murdoch, a Russian politician, and the Obama’s. That’d be quite an interesting affair. Look, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks so much for being so open and honest and brave. Congratulations on your fight so far and appreciate it.
Bonita Mersiades: Thank you.