Bonita Mersiades is on an almost-impossible mission – to reform world football’s governing body, FIFA, which is engulfed in a growing corruption scandal.
Nothing beats the scale and impact of a scandal involving world sporting behemoth FIFA, which has more member nations than the United Nations.
Its dominance and popularity among the globe’s sports lovers is ultimately what allows FIFA a virtual licence to print money. And with those swollen coffers and a perpetual state of liquidity, it seems, comes the temptation for officials at the highest level to put their hands in the till.
But rumours, reports and even hard evidence of kickbacks; predetermined World Cup bidding contests; nepotism; and cash in brown paper bags for votes, is water off a duck’s back when it comes to the ethically-challenged FIFA leadership and its club of mates.
Faced with this intransigence, the global football community has taken matters into its own hands, with some key global figures in football coming together in a push for much-needed reform under the ‘#NewFIFANow’ banner.
Among the key figures in the movement is Mersiades, one of Australia’s most accomplished sports communicators and a ‘whistle-blower’ in the latest corruption scandal involving the global football governing body, who is on a mission to reform FIFA.
“For me, the important aspect of being considered a ‘whistle-blower’ is advocating for change and improvement,” she said.
“This is what #NewFIFANow is about. It is a very big idea to reform FIFA and the 209 football associations, but it is needed if we are ever to have trust and confidence again in the world governing body of the sport.”
Mersiades should be regarded as one of the sport’s ambassadors for propriety and integrity, but those who govern the game in Australia have turned a blind eye to her exceptional abilities, relegating her to a plight familiar to the whistle-blower in this country – ostracism, marginalisation and vilification.
“You learn who your friends are,” she told Neos Kosmos.
“You learn how so many people and organisations involved in the football industry are so codependent and are prepared to compromise values they may once have held.
“You learn to put up with being disparaged and denigrated. You must be resilient and able to deal with dirty tricks.”
Mersiades was part of the team rolling out Australia’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup, funded by the Rudd government to the tune of almost $50 million.
The mammoth global lobbying task saw Football Federation Australia generously, some might say excessively, line the pockets of a whole bunch of colourful characters.
When Mersiades became suspicious of activities and dubious deals, potentially detrimental to Australia’s bid, she did not look away and expressed concerns to FFA management.
But integrity, propriety and passion to excel in a global campaign and strategy counts for nothing against vested interests protecting their multi-million dollar fees for work which may well have been a charade.
Peter Hargitay, the shady confidant of outgoing FIFA president Sepp Blatter, wasn’t happy with Mersiades’ inconvenient presence and, using his leverage of false promises, Mersiades was unceremoniously dumped.
When she raised questions about what exactly Hargitay and two other consultants – Fedor Radmann and Andreas Abold – were doing with former Football Federation Australia CEO Ben Buckley, things began to get uncomfortable for Mersiades.
“I was always of the view that Hargitay, if not a double-agent, at least had a foot in more than one camp. I thought the same of the other two consultants, Fedor Radmann and Andreas Abold,” she said.
“There is no doubt about this in my view. As a minimum, they were all heavily involved with the Russian bid, and Hargitay was also working for Mohammed Bin Hammam, and had close affiliations with Sepp Blatter and Jack Warner.
“I discussed this on multiple occasions with Ben Buckley … I thought we were spending a lot of money on them and they didn’t appear to be doing much that was useful.”
Mersiades said the baggage and history that came with some of the consultants was known inside the FFA and when one joined the bid, her immediate boss told her to re-read certain chapters on the new team member, in Andrew Jennings’ book exposing FIFA corruption, FOUL.
She said she had asked questions “many times” about what they were doing, pointing out their deficiencies and making note of broken promises from each.
“I didn’t agree with giving $5 million to Asia, $4 million to Oceania, or allocating between $4 million and $8 million to Africa for which one consultant (Radmann) from Germany had ‘special responsibility’,” Mersiades said.
“The joke in management meetings was that this was ‘brown paper bag’ money, and our consultants made multiple visits to Russia, Qatar and China on our behalf for reasons that were not clear.”
When Mersiades raised concerns over funding, she was told it was none of her business and when she continued to ask about the consultants and what they were doing, she was given no answers.
“Instead, I was sacked from my job,” she said.
“It took place in the head office of the global retail property empire built by the billionaire president of the FFA. I was told I would never work in Australia again.”
She wasn’t even given a chance to go back to her desk, pack things up and collect her personal belongings and she wasn’t given a reason for losing her job.
But Mersiades knew it was because the three consultants didn’t want her around, and more than a year after her sacking, her ex-boss confessed she was “the victim of something much bigger than FFA”.
But if being removed from a role in which she was performing exceptionally well wasn’t painful enough, Mersiades then had to endure a systematic smear campaign involving misreporting and concocted unsubstantiated speculation over why she was dismissed.
Almost immediately after Australia’s devastating bid failure, SBS’s Les Murray – who is believed to have recommended his friend Hargitay’s services to FFA chairman Frank Lowy – interviewed the consultant.
Hargitay lamented that the reason Australia lost was because it played clean while Qatar played dirty.
“It was a cringeworthy, self-serving interview from a consultant who was paid $1.5 million and got us only one vote,” Mersiades said.
“It was hypocritical because he and our other consultants attempted to play the same game.”
Mersiades doesn’t want to be defined only as a whistle-blower; not that it’s derogatory in any way, but she has achieved far more in life and in football than just speaking out about Australia’s 2022 World Cup bid.
She is now focused on turning the experience into something positive for the global football community, joining forces at the beginning of the year with British MP Damian Collins and Jamie Fuller, owner of Australian apparel brand Skins, to spearhead the #NewFIFANow.
“There is no hope of reform of FIFA from within the organisation. It has neither the interest nor the capacity to reform itself as has been proven repeatedly,” Mersiades said.
“That is why #NewFIFANow advocates for an interim time-limited FIFA Reform Commission led by an eminent person in governance (not sport), to review FIFA’s statutes, constitution, electoral system, committee structure and membership; develop new measures, implement them, and conduct fresh elections.”
The campaign has been helped along considerably since US authorities arrested seven FIFA officials in dawn raids in May this year, on the eve of the organisation’s presidential election, which saw Sepp Blatter re-elected for a fifth term.
Swiss authorities that month also raided gathering data and documents for separate investigation into allegations of criminal mismanagement and money-laundering in connection with allocation of 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
The following month, Sepp Blatter announced his resignation as president, while a former FIFA executive committee member (representing north America’s CONCACAF confederation) turned informant revealed he and other took bribes for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup.
In late September, Swiss prosecutors opened criminal proceedings against Blatter over alleged criminal mismanagement of FIFA funds, including and for a $2 million payment to UEFA president Michele Platini for work carried out between 1999 and 2002.
That month, FIFA announced its Secretary General Jérôme Valcke had been put on leave pending a formal investigation by the FIFA Ethics Committee, which also suspended Blatter and Platini for 90 days.
“We are making progress every day. Our work has directly resulted in the European Parliament, Coca-Cola, VISA, McDonald’s, Transparency International, and the international Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) supporting an independent FIFA Reform Commission led by an eminent person,” Mersiades said.
“More recently, the same three corporate sponsors and Anheuser Busch (Budweiser) have joined #NewFIFANow, Transparency International and the ITUC in calling for FIFA president Sepp Blatter to be suspending pending the criminal investigation.”
She said it was no surprise Blatter had been targeted in criminal investigations.
“Investigative journalists such as Andrew Jennings – whom Les Murray described in 2011 as a ‘discredited moron’ – have been saying for years that the corruption in FIFA went all the way to the top,” Mersiades said.
“US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch made it clear in May that the ‘FIFA Way’ is deeply entrenched in football’s culture and is global.
“At the very least, Sepp Blatter has been in charge for 35 years as either president or general secretary. It beggars belief that he did not know what was going on in the organisation.”
* Mersiades’ family background is Serbian and Montenegrin with one Spanish great-grandmother (hence, Bonita). Her husband is Greek, from the island of Samos.