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Mon, Dec

Lasana Liburd (www.tnttimes.com) looks in on the latest Caribbean nation to run afoul of FIFA in the past six years and searches for a common thread.

It is not easy to create a visual impression of John P. Collins, he's the United States attorney who sits on FIFA’s Legal Committee. There is no photograph, birth date or personal information on the FIFA website, the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), or the Chicago-based law firm Collins and Collins that employs him—along with Harold E. Collins and Michael R. Collins.

For Caribbean nations that dare to go against the established football body in their respective islands, though, Collins might as well be draped in a black hood and tote a sickle.

It took just four visits from Collins before the executive committee of the Grenada Football Association’s (GFA) folded on October 1. From the first mention of a FIFA “fact finding” mission in Grenada, headed by the American, deposed GFA president Ashley “Ram” Folkes knew he was in trouble.

Collins’ relationship with FIFA vice-president and Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) special advisor Jack Warner and the latter’s loyalty to embattled GFA general secretary Victor Daniel—who was suspended by the since expelled GFA executive committee for financial irregularity last year—is at the heart of the perceived injustice that has seen Folkes, a former Grenada football captain and coach before his rise to the post of president, booted out of administration.

The stories are similar in Jamaica, Antigua, Barbados, Dominica and St Kitts.

When Jamaican clubs, unhappy with the financial management of JFA president Captain Horace Burrell, prepared to flex their electoral muscles in 2003, FIFA sent Collins to “monitor” the elections. Burrell and Warner are close friends.

The challenger, Crenston Boxhill, prevailed but his term was punctuated with threats and fines from FIFA and, four years later, he did not seek re-election. Burrell, who remained a CONCACAF member during his exile, returned unopposed.

In explaining why he stepped aside in 2007, Boxhill cited constant harrassment and bemoaned the absence of a level playing field in the election campaign.

“I have decided that in the interest of Jamaica’s football not to participate as a candidate for the post of president,” Boxhill told The Gleaner. “… The current administration has faced the most consistent effort of undermining (as opposed to) any previous administration and it does occupy my mind that if it is going to continue, how realistic it will be to build on the momentum, if at every step of the way one has to be looking over one’s shoulders.”

Folkes must know the feeling. When his slate challenged for power at the GFA executive, on Saturday April 26, 2008, Collins was ringside. There were no electoral irregularities so Folkes knew something was amiss when, two weeks later, FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s congratulatory letter included the assertion that “a lot needs to be done to develop the game in Grenada , to ensure unity in the local football community after the disputed elections”.

Although the incumbent at the elections, Folkes lacked the influence within the executive committee but this was set to change after the vote that weekend assured his slate of numerical superiority.

On Monday, Folkes was questioned about Daniel’s alleged financial misconduct during the previous term and assured the media that investigations would continue. It was the beginning of his demise.

Paul Roberts, a defeated candidate at the 2008 elections and ally of Daniel, made it clear that Folkes’ decision to investigate his general secretary was the sole reason for his removal. Roberts, who owns Grenada’s Spice Capital radio station, claimed that Folkes reneged on a promise not to prosecute Daniel, which was decisive in his victorious campaign in the first place.

“There had been a lot of investigations into Mr Daniel but it was a lot of red herrings,” Roberts told the TnT Times. “The election was a three-way race and I was eliminated in the first round. I asked him whether, if he won, he would continue investigations into Mr Daniel and he said he would not do it.

“But, immediately after he won, he went on radio and said he would bring in the police. Based on that, we said that is not what you came here for; you are here for the development of football.”

Roberts insisted that two previous investigations failed to show conclusive evidence that Daniel was guilty of wrongdoing and accused Folkes of conducting “a witch hunt”.

“We couldn’t have gone higher with any investigation than the FIU (Financial Intelligence Unit),” said Roberts. “Their findings showed that, although there was some suspicion, it was as a result of poor management (as) no system was put in place by the existing executive committee.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault per say.”

Although Grenada’s national men’s team were in top gear on the field, Roberts and the other defeated candidate, Cheney Joseph, joined forces to eventually force Folkes out of office with FIFA’s help although it is debatable whether the world governing body ever got the two/thirds majority required by GFA statutes.

On October 1, FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke stated, via a faxed release, that the GFA “was facing serious internal turmoil which was hampering its good function” and mentioned “an administrative turmoil which has a direct impact on its finances”.

“The FIFA Executive Committee discussed the situation and came to the conclusion,” continued Valcke, “that the current GFA Executive Committee lacks the support and credibility to improve the situation and must thus be removed.”

Despite FIFA’s negative assessment of Grenada’s football under Folkes, last December the “Spice Islanders” achieved their highest ever Caribbean Cup placing, second—they beat Trinidad and Tobago 2-1 to effectively eliminate the “Soca Warriors” from the regional tournament—and they qualified for the CONCACAF Gold Cup finals for the first time in their history.

Grenada did not get to the semi-final round of the CONCACAF’s 2010 World Cup qualifying competition but theirs was no shameful capitulation. The island of just over 90,000 residents led regular World Cup guests, Costa Rica, 2-0 at Saint George’s—Blackburn Rovers striker Jason Roberts notched one goal—before the Central American nation fought back to a 2-2 draw and subsequently progressed with a 3-0 triumph in the second leg.

(To put that in perspective, rookie national coach Russell Latapy received a standing ovation for steering Trinidad and Tobago to a 3-2 home defeat against Costa Rica while he also presided over a 4-0 loss in the Warriors’ return fixture on October 10).

But FIFA did not seem to measure the wellbeing of Grenadian football on the robust health of their national team. Not that Folkes would object to Valcke’s assertion that “internal turmoil (…) was hampering (the GFA’s) good function”. But the two men would surely differ with regards to who or what was the responsible party.

Folkes’ first public confrontation with Warner came at the 2008 Caribbean Football Union (CFU) congress in Guadeloupe, two months before the GFA elections. Warner informed the gathering of regional representatives that Antigua and Barbuda would remain suspended for failing to pay nearly $1 million to former general secretary Chet Greene, despite the fact that Greene failed, according to his successors, to support the majority of his claims with documentation.

Greene, who, like Burrell, remained active thanks to a CONCACAF role from Warner, had been ousted from his football role for, according to an Antiguan committee appointed to investigate his tenure, “serious levels of mismanagement, conflict of interest, abuse of power, negligence, financial irregularities and possible criminal activity”.

Folkes and St Kitts’ Peter Jenkins were the only voices raised in support of Antigua.

“We both stood up for Antigua and gave moving presentations,” Folkes told the TnT Times. “I questioned the justice meted out to Antigua as they were debarred from the Congress and (then) tried behind their backs.

“Unfortunately, within months of our stance, both St. Kitts and Grenada were visited by FIFA investigative delegations for one reason or another. We are both now out of office with the upper echelons being pivotal.”

Folkes' relationship with Warner did not improve when the FIFA vice-president requested 1,600 tickets for Grenada’s much vaunted June 2008 World Cup fixture against Costa Rica and the GFA promptly sent him a bill that was paid after some persuasion.

In June 2009, Folkes and Jenkins again provoked a furious response from Warner when Jenkins announced his intention to run against Burrell for a seat on the CONCACAF executive committee. Warner, who has repeatedly openly chided United National Congress (UNC) leader Basdeo Panday for his supposed failure to permit democracy within the Opposition party, accused Jenkins of attempting to “destabilise Caribbean football”.

“I have instructed the general secretary of both the CFU and the CONCACAF to remove you forthwith,” said Warner, in a letter to the former president of the St Kitts and Nevis Football Federation. “I was very critical of the fact that Caribbean football is split over a candidate, which is unprecedented, and this is what we have fought against over the years… I do wish to advise you (Jenkins) that (…) it was decided that the Antigua/Barbuda and Grenada (two members who were absent at the said meeting) should be written to and be asked to submit reasons why disciplinary action should not be taken against them for their attempts to destabilise Caribbean football and Caribbean solidarity within the CFU.

“If their explanations are not satisfactory, disciplinary proceedings shall be instituted against both countries.”

Roberts, for the record, made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with Folkes’ entanglement with Warner.

“Mr Folkes is on his own personal binge of attacking FIFA, CFU, CONCACAF and Jack Warner,” he said. “Jack must have done him something, so he is attacking Jack and Mr Daniel, who is supposedly a protégé of Jack. We are not interested in attacking Jack and corruption in football and Blatter. We are not a part of that.

“He has a bee in his bonnet that we do not know about.”

By then, despite Folkes’ complaints to FIFA, Collins was a regular visitor to their island. In a move reminiscent of UDECoTT’s alleged attempt to nullify the local government’s enquiry, Collins—who specialised in criminal defense law and unsuccessfully defended disgraced US sprinter Justin Gatlin against doping charges—represented Warner when an internal FIFA investigation claimed that the Trinidadian politician benefited from the illegal blackmarket sale of 2006 World Cup tickets. Collins was an employee of FIFA and CONCACAF at the time.

“We felt that since Collins was Jack Warner’s personal lawyer it did not make sense to have him here,” said Folkes. “Our position is once you replace someone who is aligned to Jack Warner, you are under pressure. If the rain falls the executive is blamed and then FIFA comes in…

“The whole thing was so biased that I consider it very (sic). Collins met the executive separately from the clubs so I do not know what the clubs said or complained about. I requested a copy (of his report to FIFA) but was refused.

“In short, I don’t know what my accusers accused me of and I was ‘judged’ in my absence by ‘evidence’ I had no opportunity to verify or contest.” Collins had got his man again.

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