FIFA representatives were in Dublin overnight having met with the FAI yesterday and ahead of a session with Sport Ireland today.
The World Governing Body and UEFA have maintained their own counsel throughout the two months since the controversy began that has raged around the FAI but their presence has been no less influential because of that.
Bjorn Vassallo is the lead FIFA representative in Dublin. He serves as Director of Member Associations in Europe, a position he has held for three years.
Before that we was CEO and then General Secretary of the Maltese Football Association between 2010 and 2016.
He said yesterday that “FIFA’s objective is to safeguard the autonomy of the FAI.”
It was confirmed to the FAI Council yesterday that financial, as well as some personnel support, would be offered by UEFA to assist the FAI in getting through the current period of review and renewal.
The financial circumstances may be significant from a local perspective but will be relatively small in terms of the financial muscle of the European and World game. The greater importance for them will lie in the concept of self-determination over the affairs of the sport.
This is especially important in the midst of Ireland hosting the UEFA U17 European Championship, one year out from hosting four games in Euro 2020 and eleven from potentially being part of the hosting of the 2030 FIFA World Cup.
The phrasing of commentary from Government through Minister Shane Ross, from the legislature via the Oireachtas Committee and from the state funding vehicle that is Sport Ireland are believed to be a cause of genuine concern within FIFA.
Were the same comments to be emanating from a less democratic state within the wider football ‘family’, we would likely see them as being an attempt to exert control and that would be a major red flag for the governing body.
The meetings between UEFA, FIFA and Sport Ireland are aimed at defusing some of the rhetoric that has been making its way into the public debate and will likely head off any sanction.
It’s diplomacy in the classic sense ensuring that what may play best to a public driven by a news cycle is not given favour over what is important in terms of the perception of independent action.
The reason why international bodies are so determined in their reaction against interference is that in most cases there are motivations of control as opposed to good behaviour at play.
Nobody would question the right of Government to ensure that such an important civil organisation as the FAI, in receipt of taxpayer money, is governed and managed to the highest standards of probity.
Neither FIFA nor UEFA would question that.
There is however a fine line to be walked in terms of encouragement versus percieved coercion.
Calls for the reconstitution of a board, the removal of officers and making it known who would be seen as a ‘better’ alternative to the current makeup, come very close to crossing that line.
Again from a local perspective the logic behind those calls is understood in the context and nuance of making things right.
From further afield though the picture appears less clear.
What are the sanctions that could be applied were FIFA to believe that the line was being crossed?
We wrote three weeks ago that there were now three paths which a FIFA engagement could progress down.
The first is that a watching brief will be maintained but that no direct involvement will take place.
Despite its own issues in recent years FIFA is the World Governing Body and will always be mindful of both the financial stability and the reputation of its members. That said it would no doubt prefer that everything is resolved at local level.
Yesterday’s and today’s meetings, as well as those with UEFA last week, can be seen as evidence gathering sessions which will give comfort that this local resolution can be implemented.
The second option is that FIFA will appoint a ‘normalisation committee’ to assist in that process and advise on the best ways of making everything good again.
This would be similar to the International Monetary Fund intervening in the Irish economic crisis of a decade ago. We were criticised by certain sections of the mainstream media for suggesting that intervention was a possibility some weeks ago but this does now seem an entirely possible scenario.
FIFA has acted in this way recently in Kuwait, Greece, Argentina, Uruguay, Thailand and others.
Article 14.1 of the FIFA Statutes suggest that one of the reasons for the appointment of a committee might be that a Member Association cannot guarantee to manage their affairs independently and that their own affairs are not influenced by any third parties.
In the past, normalisation committees have consisted of between three and six members who effectively take over the running of the Association until it can be handed back to local control.
They have generally consisted of FIFA officials and independent individuals from within the country.
Should such action take place it will temporarily damage Ireland’s reputation but as we saw with the IMF, that tends to pass.
The third potential path is unlikely but cannot be ignored and would be the temporary suspension of the FAI from international and club competition.
This happened in 2011 when issues with the coming together of Bosnia-Herzegovina led to a six-month suspension. It is really only in the case of overt political interference that this would come into play and while statements from political circles and Sport Ireland might be seen from the outside as having stepped close to representing interference, it would not yet be deemed sufficiently overt to represent a real threat.
It will be important though, as is the case in all diplomacy, to listen to what is being said between the lines as well as in the text of statements in order to avoid that ultimate sanction.