By Cordwainer Bull
With authorities finally blowing the whistle on decades of Fifa corruption, it’s timely to recall New Zealand’s most notorious interaction with Sepp Blatter and the secret domain of football’s world governing body.
Back in July 2000 Charlie Dempsey, a New Zealand Football life member and president of the Oceania Confederation for over 30 years, infamously abstained from FIFA’s final round of voting for the 2006 World Cup in Zurich.
It was a sensational move which saw the competition awarded to Germany rather than South Africa on a Fifa vote, 12-11. Dempsey had been expressly mandated to back South Africa by his confederation and participant countries, but did not vote.
It was the ugly side of the beautiful game.
When reporters first caught up with Dempsey he said: “I have no regrets about what I did – none whatsoever. I had very strong reasons but I’m not going into them.”
Dempsey, 79, later explained that he did not vote because of the “intolerable pressure” from supporters of the German and South African bids, and attempts to bribe him.
This outcome was a huge triumph for Blatter, who had escaped having to use his casting vote to make a choice in what was expected to be a 12-12 voting tie.
This was how football writer Henry Winter began his report in the UK’s Daily Telegraph: “Welcome to a world that stinks, where the most important decision in football is made by a man not making a decision, where alliances are made between Germans and an Asian bloc seeking revenge on a Swiss lawyer, where notes are slipped under a bedroom door trying to influence a New Zealander in his pyjamas.”
The Sun gunned for him on a more personal level: “This old git made a fool of football,” it said, in savaging him as someone who should have been watching the daytime soaps in an old folks home with a blanket over his legs and Farax dribbling down his chin.
But the real perversity was that Dempsey’s non-vote at Fifa headquarters actually did more to put New Zealand football on the map than hosting the U17 World Championships a year earlier or making the World Cup finals in 1982.
Dempsey had long been nicknamed Albert Steptoe, a legacy of his striking resemblance to the late actor Wilfred Bramble.
But after his bizarre actions in abstaining on the third ballot of the Fifa vote – despite a very clear mandate from his Oceania base that he back South Africa – the Steptoe tag took on a new meaning.
These were the actions of a rag-and-bone administrator which at the time left Oceania – and by extension New Zealand – looking like the junkyard of world football.
At the time Dempsey was a master of the feudal domain of Oceania football politics, but not held in high regard elsewhere. Indeed, it was a long running joke in Zurich that Dempsey believed Internet to be a big Italian football club.
However in subsequent years a new school of thought emerged: that our Steptoe had been fiendishly clever in acting in the long-term interests of Oceania and had done himself proud by sacrificing himself on the altar of international football politics.
Unfortunately the methods he employed were far too familiar to followers of New Zealand football in the 1980s and 1990s. Too often administration was based upon farcical backroom deals, innuendo, supposition and fabrication.
And in the wake of Dempsey’s stunts at top level, New Zealand fans could hardly complain about deals done over the future of the national league, the Football Kingz, or federation restructuring.
At the time New Zealand Soccer (as it was then known) chief executive Bill MacGowan was up-front and blunt in his assessments, and the game was better for that.
But his line that this was fundamentally an Oceania issue was hard to buy. Arguably it was the willingness of the New Zealand football community to turn a blind eye to his methods of work that had allowed him to so famously set up shop in Oceania, with his daughter Josephine King in tow as secretary.
Perhaps we still see this legacy today.
Never mind the ongoing Qatar saga. Ever wonder why we played so many top tournaments in totally unsuitable venues at unsuitable times in Oceania?
For example, Papua New Guinea – widely considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world for women – will next year host the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup.
It all helps buy a few votes.
Today the most fascinating aspect – on the eve of the Fifa elections – is whether this latest Fifa scandal will prompt New Zealand Football – and the rest of Oceania – to ditch its support for godfather Sepp Blatter.
Or have the deals already been done, with the resultant baubles due to be announced later this year?
On that front it’s worth noting that under the statutes of New Zealand Football, the national body’s objectives include: “To promote integrity, ethics and fair play with a view to preventing all methods or practices, such as corruption, doping or match manipulation, which might… give rise to abuse of Association Football.”
[Cordwainer Bull is a former Waikato football programme columnist. His hobbies include collecting belly button lint to stuff pillows. His favourite player of all time was Brian Chisholm. He is webmaster for the following websites:
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A grassroots football enthusiast based in Auckland, New Zealand, and a fan of the most magnificent club on earth - A.S. Roma. More info (including e-mail address) can be found here: https://in-the-back-of-the.net/about/