Corruption at the organization of the world soccer federation FIFA is a thing of the past, claimed soccer executive Michael van Praag (75) in Room for Discussion last Monday. With president Gianni Infantino, the tide has turned at FIFA. “I don't understand why everyone is so against him.”
The interview with former UEFA vice-president Michael van Praag has been going on for almost an hour when the subject of corruption in soccer finally comes up. Van Praag responds reassuringly, “There is no corruption at FIFA,” after which silence falls for the first time in the hall of REC E.
As the presenters of Room for Discussion continue to stare at him bewildered, van Praag goes into more detail: “Among the members of FIFA, corruption might still take place, but not in the organization of FIFA, I dare say.”
According to van Praag, with the arrival of UEFA president Gianni Infantino, the tide has turned at FIFA. “I don't understand why everyone is so against him.” Infantino adjusted FIFA’s decision-making structure so that the board no longer decides in which country a tournament will take place, as was the case with the controversial World Cup in Qatar. That is now up to the 211 member countries of Fifa. “You can't bribe them all.”
This is the second time Michael van Praag has been a guest at Room for Discussion on Roeterseiland. Five years ago he was a guest there to talk about the record amounts of money in soccer. “Which is not necessarily a bad thing for soccer.”
Michael van Praag entered the soccer world at the age of 41 with the presidency at Ajax. By his own admission, he knew nothing about soccer at the time, apart from his experience as a referee for amateur clubs
He was tapped for the presidency of Ajax at a birthday party. “I had absolutely zero experience. But it was 1989 and Ajax was a mess. And cleaning up messes is what I like to do.” For 14 years he was chairman of the Amsterdam soccer club and lived through its glory days. Later he became president of the KNVB and vice-president of UEFA, among other things.
Would he have ended up in that position even without his father, former Ajax chairman Jaap van Praag, Room for Discussion interviewer Veronika Cherkasova asked. “My father was already dead when I became president,” Van Praag responded. “Besides, he only took me to Ajax as a supporter.” And so he got into the soccer world on his “own merits”: “I'm a self-made man.” He has also always wanted to do things differently from his father, in his way. “My father was almost impossible to beat. He was a very popular man,who could solve problems with a joke. I can't do that. I'm more serious.”
Still, even Van Praag doesn’t shy away from making a joke. Room for Discussion interviewer Elias Marseille asked him how he felt about being spied on, like other FIFA officials were by Qatar's intelligence operation, a project for which the Qatari government allocated €387 million. “That made me laugh,” he responded. “I got some messages that I put in spam and my wife got crazy phone calls, but I was just a minor player among all the people who were against Qatar.”
Van Praag also dismisses other suspicions, such as bribery by the president of the German Football Association Wolfgang Niersbach and personal gain by Ajax businessman Milos Malenovi, saying: “Never believe immediately what you read in the media. You have to do research first; I learned that in my career. Journalists read something and put it on the Internet. Later it turns out to be different.”
It is quite normal to do each other a service in the soccer world, Van Praag argues. “We Dutch are quick to see that as wrong. Mark Rutte refuses lobbyists from soccer, but in the rest of the world, it is quite normal. In African countries and Asia, they work very differently.”
Well past the hour, presenter Marseille wants to conclude the conversation with the question of how, in times of bribery, extortion, and espionage, the soccer world can regain its “own identity.” “I don't know,” sighs Van Praag. Then he thinks back to the time when he ran for president of FIFA and was advised to get Russia's support through Putin's son-in-law in Amstelveen. “But I won't do that. I'm not going to ruin my reputation to get elected.”
Then Van Praag turned to the students in the room: “Your reputation is your most precious asset. If you're going to work after college, make sure you have a good, reliable reputation. That's how you'll get the farthest.”