Hardly anyone batted an eyebrow when Fifa announced that a “normalisation committee” had been set up in Trinidad & Tobago. But the key question is: Could this be nothing but an act of revenge from Gianni Infantino?
By Philippe Auclair
In football governance, the procedure known as ‘normalisation’ usually follows a well-travelled route: a local FA encounters critical financial, political or governance problems, contravening its own statutes in the process, as well as those of Fifa’s, which then has no choice other than to suspend the administration in place and take over the running of its affairs.
It is a depressingly common occurrence, which has affected countries as diverse as Uruguay, Benin, Kuwait, Argentina, Mali, Greece and many others in the recent past. So depressingly common, in fact, that hardly anyone batted an eyelid when Fifa, following a ‘fact-finding mission’ which had taken place in February, added Trinidad & Tobago to the list of MAs (Member Associations) under ‘normalisation’ on 17 March of this year. Trinidad & Tobago, the former playground of disgraced Fifa panjandrum Jack Warner…not exactly a surprise, is it?
Normalisation or elimination?
Except that this was a normalisation with a difference. The TTFA (Trinidad & Tobago Football Association) Board which had been summarily dismissed by Fifa had only been in place since November 2019. It had been elected – fairly, as everyone agreed – by representatives of T&T’s forty-six grassroots football associations on the strength of a programme of reform and renewal, had conducted audits of its shambolic finances, addressed the issue of debt head-on and fully cooperated with Fifa throughout, including during the ‘fact-finding mission’ which ultimately led to the verdict of ‘normalisation’. It made no real sense to dismiss a new administration which was in no way associated with the excesses and mismanagement of previous TTFA regimes, and, indeed, seemed to be doing what it could to correct the errors of the past.
It made no real sense – unless you looked at the rationale of Fifa’s drastic decision from a different angle, a purely political one that is. Listening to the central characters on the TTFA side of the story, as we have, and looking at the chain of events more closely, as we did, following the work done by Wired868 journalist Lasana Liburd in situ, it soon became clear that it was legitimate to change the main question from: ‘what went wrong in Trinidad & Tobago which prompted the normalisation?’ to ‘could this really be nothing but an act of revenge from Gianni Infantino?’
A sense of perspective is needed to understand why this question must be asked, and some recent history too, of how Infantino, then a candidate to the Fifa presidency, had found a key ally in the Caribbean nation, only to lose him a few months ago.
This ally is David John-Williams, until then the vice-president of the Trinidad & Tobago Pro league, who had been elected president of his country’s Football Association (TTFA) in controversial circumstances (a number of the delegates who voted for him appear to have been ineligible) on 30 November 2015, little over a month after Gianni Infantino had become the fifth and last man to announce his bid the for the presidency of Fifa.
The former was soon to play an important part in the latter’s campaign, drumming up support for the UEFA Secretary General in the Caribbean region, a part of the world whose influence in football politics far outweighs its population, as no fewer than 25 of Fifa’s 211 member associations hail from there. John-Williams’s successful lobbying was instrumental in securing Infantino’s election: a mere 27 votes separated the victor from the pre-election favourite Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa when Fifa made its choice on 26 February 2016 in Zürich.
Gianni Infantino didn’t forget his due. Visiting Trinidad and Tobago for the lavish inauguration of the Fifa-funded ‘Home of Football’ complex in Couva, the Fifa president extolled the qualities of his ally in terms which left no one in any doubt of whom he, Infantino, would like to remain at the helm of the TTFA.
“I came to Trinidad and Tobago, and I was not believing to find somebody like [David John-Williams] in Trinidad and Tobago,” he said. “I have to say the truth. Because the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association was more or less in the same state as Fifa at that time. David was saying ‘shambles’, I say shambles was maybe a compliment for the state you found.
“We found a Federation which was under the earth. TTFA, Trinidad and Tobago Football, very sadly, was in the headlines for other reasons than football, even though linked to football. Today, we are here, and proud to be here, because today, Trinidad and Tobago is the capital of the world of football.”
This was on 18 November 2019, a mere six days before the TTFA was to vote in its presidential elections. John-Williams had campaigned for Infantino. Infantino was now campaigning for John-Williams, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this constituted the kind of direct interference on which Fifa tends to cast a stern eye in most circumstances.
But even the Fifa president’s fulsome endorsement did not prevent the TTFA associations to put an end to John-Williams’s four-year reign on 24 November. The incumbent had been beaten by a newcomer, William Wallace, a man well-known for his involvement in cricket administration in the region, by 26 votes to 20 in the second round of the election. Gianni Infantino had lost a ‘team-mate’, to use a word he’d used himself at the inauguration.
He did not forget this; and some say he didn’t forgive either, and that this is the true reason why the TTFA finds itself ‘normalised’ today. One of these voices is that of Keith Look Loy, Chairman of the Trinidad & Tobago FA’s Technical Committee and President of the TT Super League, who granted Josimar the exclusive interview which follows.
Keith Look Loy, which reason or reasons did Fifa give you to explain its decision to suspend an administration that had only been in place for less than four months?
“Well, first of all, when the election was held on 24 November, the new President, Mr Wallace, and his three vice-presidents, had never held office at the TTFA before. I was an ally of that group of officers, and the agenda was clear. We recognised there was a serious issue with financial mismanagement, and even misuse or abuse of funds, that the essential structure of the TTFA had basically collapsed and that, on the technical side, the programmes had totally collapsed as well. We went in there, looking to, firstly, establish exactly the situation of the finances, and, secondly, begin the restructuring of the association. Now, before that, the struggle to remove the previous administration went on for more of its term in office, at least three years out of four. Over the course of time, I and other members of the board repeatedly criticised the mismanagement of the TTFA in general and, in particular, of the Fifa-financed ‘Home of Football’
Were you in touch with Fifa at the time?
“Yes. Information and even, I dare say, revelations were passed on to the Director of Development for Africa and the Caribbean, Mr Véron Mosengo-Omba (one of Gianni Infantino’s closest friends and aides within Fifa), who visited Trinidad periodically to oversee the progress of the ‘Home of Football’ project, always saying what a wonderful job was being done. We repeatedly made our concerns known to him, and his stock answer was “this is not Fifa business, this is an internal matter for the TTFA and Fifa has nothing to do with it”. As far as Fifa was concerned, everything was fine”.
How much money are we talking about?
“$2,5m. A lot of money. About 18 or 19 million T&T dollars, depending on the currency rate of the day.”
What happened to this money?
“It wasn’t spent properly, it wasn’t accounted for. I, as a board member, fought a running battle with the president David John-Williams and his supporters on the board to get access to the financial reports. I eventually had to go to the High Court of Trinidad & Tobago. It took me several months, but I eventually got a court order requiring them to open up the books and to let me have a look, provide contracts for work being done at the Home of Football. What I discovered was that of all that money, 18 or 19 million, they could only provide contracts for 3 and a half million. And when I asked what happened to the rest of the sum, they told me the work had been paid on a cash basis. People were paid in cash! I told them this was the modus operandi of a criminal enterprise, not of a national association in any sport. This was last year, in 2019.”
Then you were elected. What did you do then?
“We discovered there was a lot more that was…what shall I say…unsatisfactory and even criminal under the law of Trinidad & Tobago, for example the repeated writing of cheques against accounts which had no money in then. The banks would just return them. We found that statutory payments for employees – PAYE deductions and national insurance contributions – were taken out of employees’ salaries and not paid to the authorities, which is a crime under our law.
I’m telling you all of this because, one, Fifa was directly involved in this because of its financing of the Home of Football project, and concerns had been raised with them before the advent of the new administration, over the course of two years, with no satisfactory response from Fifa; and, beyond that, the TTFA, like every other member of Fifa is subjected to an annual audit by Fifa in terms of broader financing. Fifa knew about this mismanagement, they had to. Fifa knew about the lack of correct financial procedure. Now, here is the sharp point of my arrow: the Fifa president Gianni Infantino came to Trinidad and Tobago six days before the election to inaugurate the Home of Football in a great display of pageantry, and he literally encouraged to vote for the existing administration back into office.
But the electorate rejected him, as it rejected the president of CONCACAF, Mr Montigliani, who’d said the same thing. Up to that point, Fifa was prepared to continue working with the TTFA. I believe that what has happened is an effort on the part of Fifa to cover up the activity of the last administration and to cover up its own complicity in what transpired, because they knew about it. Therefore, what they’re seeking to do is to set aside a legitimately-elected administration barely three and a half months in office, that bears no responsibility for the mess that was left behind. We are victimised for that. It’s a cover-up.”
Mr John-Williams was a close ally of Gianni Infantino during his campaign to become Fifa president in 2016…
“That is correct.”
…and he rallied support for Mr Infantino in the region. In your view, could it be the reason why Fifa, after turning a blind eye to what was happening within the TTFA, then decided to act?
“All of this is true. John-Williams was the first Caribbean FA President to come out openly in support of Mr Infantino when Mr Infantino was campaigning for his first term of office, They have remained fast friends. When Infantino came to open the Home of Football, a ceremony which was attended by the Prime Minister of T&T, the Minister of sports and other government dignitaries, he was on the record as saying “when you are in a team, you support your team-mates”. Which meant John-Williams, who was doing such a great job, blah-blah-blah. And that’s completely against the statutes of Fifa. They were allies, supporting each other.”
You’re basically saying that, had Mr John-Williams remained in office, none of this would have happened.
“This is exactly what I’m saying. Fifa would have continued to turn a blind eye to all of this nonsense which had been transpiring for four years. “
One thing which is very difficult to comprehend from the outside is why, after the new administration had been voted in and started cooperating with Fifa, suddenly, almost out of nowhere, the TTFA got a normalisation order. How did they justify that to you?
“They’re saying that they want to review our statutes. There have been some amendments to them; but the TTFA statutes were basically introduced into the TTFA by Fifa themselves in 2015! They supervised the revision of our statutes and they supervised the election of John-Williams himself! So they introduced the statutes which they now say there is a problem with. Their other argument is that the TTFA doesn’t have any financial structure, and there is the issue of debt.
It is a fact that the TTFA had operated in the four previous years, and a long time before that, without established financial controls, without accountability. When we came in, we established a finance committee run by two persons who have excellent reputations of integrity beyond reproach in this country. They examined what was there and produced a document, a report which outlined what the problem was and how we should proceed. We began by staging a seminar on the State of Play and creating a module of financial literacy for the members of the Board, so that they could understand how we would proceed.”
Did you inform Fifa of these measures?
“That document, which also detailed our plan to address debt relief, was given to a joint Fifa-CONCACAF delegation which arrived in Trinidad & Tobago on 25 February of this year. We held meetings with them on the 26th and the 27th, after which they left.”
But that was not good enough for them.
“It wasn’t. And they never gave us a copy of their delegation’s report.”
Then the normalisation order was produced on the heels of this visit.
“Yes. And this is how we found out that they had decided to impose a normalisation committee on the TTFA. The General Secretary of a Caribbean FA called me and said, “Keith, do you know about this?” By which he meant the normalisation order. I was astonished. I knew nothing of it.”
You mean that you, a TTFA Board Member, were not informed directly of the decision and had to go on the Fifa website to get confirmation?
“That is correct. That is a fact. And when we found out, our Secretary General wrote to Fifa, asking them for clarification and verification of this; and they wrote back to say, yes, apologising for having sent – or so they claim – the official notification to the wrong email address. After dealing with us for three months, they sent it to the wrong email address!”
Which steps did you take after receiving confirmation of the Fifa decision?
“We got our lawyers onto this. Now listen to this. The letter announcing the imposition of a normalisation committee came from Fifa’s Secretary General Fatma Samoura. But Véron himself wrote a letter to Tyril Patrick, the Finance Manager of the TTFA, appointing him caretaker manager of TTFA. Now this Finance Manager had been John-Williams’s right-hand man, complicit with the previous administration, whom we’d kept on because we needed to find out what was the situation in the finances, which none of us knew, to shine some light on this. And Véron chose him.”
How did you respond to this?
“We told this Finance Manager we’d file an injunction if he accepted the appointment, which he had, before backing off and writing to Fifa to tell them he wasn’t interested. As to now, because of COVID-19, nobody can enter Trinidad & Tobago, Fifa cannot send anyone and, to this day, they haven’t appointed anyone, any committee. So it’s a vacuum. Our position is clear: for us, Fifa does not have the authority under Trinidad & Tobago law to intervene in the internal politics of the TTFA. It is risky. Because there is law, and there is power. There is a rumour circulating that there is a list of people Fifa intend to ban – and I’m on it, I’m of them for sure – but that is just speculation. As of now, there has been no response whatsoever from Fifa.”
Are you prepared to go to CAS to contest Fifa’s decision?
“We’ve informed Fifa of this already, and this is exactly where we’re going. They have not responded to this either.”
Have other Caribbean FAs come out in support of you?
“First, internally, the local associations which compose the TTFA itself have showed very strong public support for the officers who have been removed by Fifa. Externally, CONCACAF has had nothing to say. We have reached out to the Caribbean Football Union which, these days, is a paper organisation controlled by CONCACAF, and reached out individually to every single Caribbean FA privately, verbally; and they’re calling in to say ‘we support you’. But they’re scared. They’re afraid. Officially, we stand alone against Fifa.”
In the hours following this interview, the TTFA received a letter from Véron Mosengo-Omba, in which he informed them of the appointment of three members of the normalisation committee, another two to join them after consultation with CONCACAF . TTFA’s response was still under review as we published this story, which will be updated as fit in the days to come.