South Asia rarely makes a splash on the world football scene, unless it’s in the context of a Lionel Messi roadshow or the usual blather about the potential of the subcontinent as a future power.
So when Sri Lanka’s Vernon Manilal Fernando was elected as a FIFA executive committee member in January 2011 following the 24th Asian Football Confederation Congress in Doha, a bit of regional chest-beating could be excused.
This was a rare moment in the sun for football in this part of the world and promised much in the way of better leverage for South Asia when it came to horse trading at FIFA’s high table.
Writing in Colombo’s Sunday Observer, Elmo Rodrigopulle guffed that the corpulent Fernando possessed a “winsome smile” and was “a man for all seasons”.
“It’s great that we have leaders in football administration of the calibre of ‘Manil’ who bring distinction by holding office in the Asia Football Confederation [sic] or the world controlling body for the sport, FIFA,” he said. “That great honour of entering those evasive, elusive and exclusive portals has fallen on the broad shoulders and burly body of Fernando, who was rightly overjoyed by the honour bestowed on him. But the honour sits lightly on his shoulders given the humility that is so characteristic of him.”
Burly is one way of describing Fernando. He certainly throws his considerable weight around in some unexpected places. Like Port of Spain, Trinidad, in May this year, where for reasons yet to be adequately explained he arrived for a Caribbean Football Union meeting on a private jet from Doha in the company of AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam and fellow FIFA ex-co members Worawi Makudi and Hany Abo Rida. It was there he proceeded to get caught up in that alleged bribery business that brought down the flashy Qatari.
The only public utterance Fernando has made apropos that affair is that he “made a statement” to the Louis Freeh investigation and “it’s not proper for me to discuss that… I should keep that part confidential”. He maintains he saw no money change hands and there was no discussion of cash gifts.
But Rodrigopulle assures us: “Fernando from the time he wore the boots of president of the Football Federation of Sri Lanka nearly three decades ago has displayed honesty. He is a glutton for work that made him rise in the soccer world and be what he is today.”
If Fernando is so honest, then, why is he dodging queries from the BBC’s Sinhala-language news service Sandeshaya and allegations from anti-graft campaigners that millions of dollars in FIFA development funds, including separate payments from the Football Family Tsunami Relief Fund and private aid donors, have been swallowed up by his Football Federation of Sri Lanka and not spent on areas where they are most needed?
These are specific charges made by Sri Lankan journalists Tiran Kumara Bangamaarachchi and Vijitha Fernando, who claim $7 million in direct FIFA grants and $3.5 million in tsunami relief has not resulted in any commensurate improvement in the state of the Sri Lankan game.
The national team has plummeted in the rankings. There is no international stadium. National-team players are irregularly paid and struggling financially. And there are question marks over just where that tsunami money has ended up and what exactly has been done with it.
“Over the years, there is no visible development in football although money has been pouring in. If the FFSL spent the money on players, we should have seen the emergence of talented players,” says Bangamaarachchi.
Only one national-team player currently plays outside Sri Lanka, and that is only in the Maldives.
Vijitha Fernando is more blunt: “The players are offered small fraction of money pouring in as allowances and facilities but the rest is unaccounted for.”
And therein is where the problem lies. No one is accountable. But they should be – especially when aid money is involved.
FIFA itself says: “It is not the duty of the FIFA president to undertake evaluations or to check the construction of different projects. This is conducted by other staff members, such as FIFA`s development officers.”
Namely Fernando himself, who until he got his seat on the ex-co was FIFA development officer for South and Central Asia. Hardly effective policing.
It’s perhaps a coincidence that FIFA decided to move its Regional Development office from Colombo to Karnataka in 2012, but then maybe not.
Only last week FIFA separately learned the FFSL was renting out its headquarters to private business to help it meet the costs of maintenance of the building and administration costs.
A federation that has received over $10 million in donations during the past decade can’t find the money to pay for the upkeep of its own HQ?
“The admission by the FFSL is a clear indication that FIFA has failed to conduct proper audits on what is actually happening to international funding,” says Bangamaarachchi. “It also indicates that FIFA statements rejecting serious corruption in Sri Lanka football lack credibility.”
Agreed. And the buck stops squarely with Vernon Manilal Fernando.
This column was originally published by the Sunday Guardian. Please check for new “The Counter” columns by me every Sunday at www.sunday-guardian.com/sports. Love to see you there.