In May 2015, I got in touch with Bonita Mersiades to see if she’d be happy to be interviewed on the Soccer on 531 radio show.
Almost as soon as I asked, I wished I hadn’t. Why would a Sydney-based author and publisher, who had held senior positions at Football Federation Australia and been the Socceroos’ team manager, talk to an unknown program (which had then only been running for three months) on community radio in Adelaide?
Fortunately, Mersiades was willing to chat. I knew it would be an interesting conversation, not least because that year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup was imminent and she maintained that Australia shouldn’t bid to host the 2023 tournament. It was perhaps a contrarian view but her rationale was solid: she would “prefer to see FIFA cleaned up” and be an organisation “which knows how to run a proper process” before we put our hand up.
Later that month, on the eve of the FIFA Congress in Zürich, Swiss authorities arrested several FIFA officials on corruption charges. Suddenly, some slightly bigger Australian broadcasters were interviewing Mersiades. Few people have a better understanding of “the FIFA Way” and even fewer are willing to speak openly about it.
For some she is highly controversial; to others, she is the badly-needed antidote for the sport’s flawed power structures. But whether you hold either of those views or anything in between (or don’t feel sufficiently informed to hold one at all), Mersiades’ recently-published book Whatever It Takes: The Inside Story of the Fifa Way is a must read.
Among other things, it sheds light on the awarding of World Cup hosting rights to Russia and Qatar, why Australia’s bid fell so far short, and how so many people were discredited in the process.
It’s also quite exciting. Like any non-fiction book or film in which you know what the outcome will be, you can still be gripped by the lead up to that conclusion, particularly when it includes so many events of which you weren’t aware.
Though Whatever It Takes is not formally written in two parts, around half covers Mersiades’ role at the FFA as part of the World Cup bid; the rest, after her removal in January 2010, takes readers through the infamous election that decided where the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals would be held and its aftermath.
The book’s climax is both surprising and extraordinary. I don’t feel the need to provide a spoiler alert as other media have already covered comments made by former FIFA President Sepp Blatter to Mersiades in a discussion they had in Switzerland as recently as November. But it’s remarkable that the meeting happened at all, and that Blatter was so candid in his comments about the bidding process – and what he thought Australia’s chance of success was from the outset.
I certainly wouldn’t suggest going to a bookstore just to discretely read that chapter – it needs the context of everything that comes before it.
And much of that content will shock. The FIFA Way has fascinated me for some time so I probably found many of the events and practices the book describes less surprising than other readers will.
Such as expectations that the 24 members of FIFA’s Executive Committee (who decided World Cup hosting rights) would routinely receive gifts for themselves and their wives. Or that the bid books submitted by countries that sought to host the tournament needed to be perfect even though those ExCo members weren’t likely to read them. Or that the Socceroos played friendly matches in which opponents were selected to try to curry favour with the men who had the power to decide our bid’s fate.
The descriptions of some of the protagonists in this story, particularly in Australia’s bid, are also quite staggering. While I was ready to read about the dodginess of the international consultants engaged by FFA, it was their competence, or lack thereof, which troubled most.
In so many ways, the bid was a disaster for our governing body and its legacy remains. But just as Whatever It Takes was being launched, the Federal Government was pledging an extra $4 million to FFA to fund a bid to host the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
It may not be anything like bidding for the men’s edition but, given how that transpired, we are entitled to ask the question: what has been learnt?
Paul Marcuccitti is InDaily’s soccer columnist.
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