Master of Puppets
The UEFA presidential chair has been empty since Michel Platini was suspended by FIFA’s ethics committee right before last Christmas. The final decision to keep the Frenchman banned, even if the initial six-year ban was lowered to four, was upheld by the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) 9th of May. Platini had no choice but to step down (although technically he hasn’t resigned yet), and a new president will be elected at an extraordinary UEFA congress in Athens on the 14th of September. And one of the favourites to win is the current senior vice president Ángel María Villar, who would have preferred that Platini came back.
“You should talk to Ángel María Villar. He’s very smart.” These words were said by Harold Mayne-Nicholls during his interview with Michael Garcia in January 2014. The former Chilean football federation president had been called in for his role as the leader of the bid inspection team for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and had been asked by Garcia if he had anything to add at the end of the interview where Garcia himself seemed to just want to go home despite Mayne-Nicholls having come all the way from Chile at his own expense. As most are aware of, Garcia’s investigation was about alleged vote swapping and corruption during the bid process for the World Cups in 2018 and 2022.
“You should talk to Villar”
Mayne-Nicholls’ level of the English language isn’t bad at all. But neither is it faultless, as is evident from the leaked transcript of his encounter with the former chairman of FIFA’s ethics committee’s investigatory chamber, who later resigned in protest when just a mere redacted 42-page résumé was presented instead of his 350-page report. Because what Mayne-Nicholls really meant was not that Villar necessarily is that intelligent, but something else. The Spanish word ‘listo’ has several meanings. One of them is smart, but to this author the former Chilean football federation president admitted that what he meant was another, less flattering meaning. ‘Listo’ is also used for ‘shrewd’ or ‘cunning’, which perfectly sums up the 66-year-old Spaniard (Incidentally, Mayne-Nicholls also said the same thing to Garcia about Franz Beckenbauer).
Ángel María Villar Llona never was a brilliant footballer. But he was big and fearsome for a physical Athletic Bilbao side in the seventies, having grown up right next to San Mamés, and won 22 caps for the Spanish national team. At ‘La Roja’ he played alongside Vicente Del Bosque, who now is his employee. Villar was also the co-founder of the Spanish player’s union, which along with a degree in law would catapult him to the RFEF (the Spanish FA) presidency in 1988. His most infamous moment as a player, however, came when Athletic Bilbao met FC Barcelona in 1974. With a mission to neutralize Johan Cruyff, Villar simply knocked him out cold with a punch, and was duly sent off. Villar later joked that Cruyff had broken his newly acquired shin pads he’d just bought in Southampton with a tackle, something which made him furious since they were hard to get hold of in Spain at the time. Along with losing the shin pads he also received a ban of four matches.
That probably felt like a harsher punishment than the one he received from FIFA’s ethics committee after the Garcia investigation. Because Garcia did talk to Villar. Not that the latter said much. The Basque had first tried to remove Michael Garcia from FIFA, and when he finally was dragged to a meeting, the most significant uttering he said was ‘gilipollas’ between his teeth towards the former US prosecutor. Spanish savvy Garcia, himself a child of Latin American immigrants, understood the insult, however, which means something like ‘motherf**ker*. Despite strong allegations that Villar had orchestrated vote rigging during the 2018 and 2022 bid process, he just received a warning and a fine of SFr 25,000 from the ethics committee’s adjudicatory chamber for unwillingness to participate in the investigations of Michael Garcia.
If it’s one thing Villar shies away from more than anything, it’s scrutiny. He never gives interviews unless they’re on his own terms (and to Spanish press only, who avoid writing anything negative about him), and seasoned reporters on FIFA politics have dubbed him the rudest personality within the organization he’s been a member off since 2000. That’s why you hardly hear about him, despite his substantial power as senior vice president of UEFA, vice president of FIFA, along with being chairman of FIFA’s legal committee. His most important position however, is his seat on FIFA’s executive committee, the government of the organization, and now recoined and expanded as the FIFA Council.
The Spanish Civil War
So why would he stick his head out now to become UEFA’s president? After all, he only speaks Spanish (although his profile on FIFA.com says he also speaks English and French). He actually speaks even his mother tongue so badly, that many Spaniards joke about how he pronounces ‘fútbol’ as ‘furgol’. He prefers backroom wheeling and dealing instead of sugar talking to the masses. Before studying law and becoming a professional footballer, Villar tried studying chemistry before abandoning it. And chemistry is definitely not his thing, as he seems to fall out with everyone who criticizes him ever so slightly. One of them is the boss of La Liga (LFP), Javier Tebas. The latter is just as controversial as a fervent nationalist (he was associated with the fascist falangist movement as a teenager, and recently stated that Spain would need someone like Marie Le Pen) and conservative. Villar, even as a Basque, is also a traditionalist, and declares himself highly catholic and a sympathizer of the Opus Dei movement. Still, the two can’t even meet each other. The last time they tried, Tebas exploded over Villar’s bullying technique which included calling Tebas a complete idiot (Villar again used the word ‘gilipollas’). Right now, Tebas is stepping on Villar’s toes in Argentina, as the major clubs want to break free from AFA to create a super league, with the Spanish league boss as their advisor. This has effectively split the Argentinean clubs in two camps, making it impossible to govern the country’s football. This has in turn made the government, with former Boca Juniors president Mauricio Macri, and newly elected president of the country, threaten to intervene. Gianni Infantino recently told an envoy that he has “more head ache from Argentina than in Zurich”, and made it clear that intervention can be met with suspension of Argentinean teams from international competitions. And it’s none other than Ángel María Villar who supervises this from FIFA as head of the legal department.Tebas recently said that Villar going to UEFA while leaving RFEF would be good for Spanish football. And mostly because he’ll get rid of Villar as the head of RFEF. But even if not a diplomat, Villar is a master politician behind the scenes. And a shady one, as we shall discover below..
He’s now looking for his sixth term as the president of RFEF, where he’s already been for 28 years. Every time he has won by margins any dictator would be proud of. The closest he came to defeat was by slightly over 80%, the remaining percentages absentees as he stood unopposed. The last one he won by getting 161 of 167 votes, again unopposed. Not that candidates lacked in the run up. But Villar either threatened their clubs or regions with cuts, or altered the electoral statutes in ways that favoured him. In his first reelection campaign his own general secretary opposed him since he had discovered economic irregularities in the federation’s accounts. Villar had him fired for “disloyalty”. In fact, as soon as Villar took over in 1988, he asked to get a flat in Madrid on the federation’s expense. The luxurious flat was bought from none other than mad hatter Jesús Gil, the former Atlético Madrid president. Somehow, the flat silently became a private property of Villar within a year. By now, Villar has several lavish apartments and houses all over Spain. Despite an annual salary of €165,000(nobody really knows, and some estimates go as high as €300,000–500,000), almost twice what Spain’s prime minister earns, along his per diems at UEFA and FIFA, some reporters ask if he really would have been able to acquire that much with his official incomes. But it’s impossible to prove.
“Transparency yes! But on the inside only!”
Enemy at the Gates
Or perhaps not anymore. Because Villar’s days in Spain might be over soon. The country’s Supreme Council of Sports (Consejo Superior de Deporte, or CSD, in effect the sports ministry) has now raided the plush RFEF headquarters (revamped with money from FIFA’s Goal Project program) located in the uptown suburb of Las Rosas in Madrid. The background is RFEF and Villar helping out two clubs, Recreativo Huelva and Marino de Tenerife, economically. This meant that they avoided getting automatically relegated for not having paid staff and players due salaries, as the sports law states. Meanwhile, relegation has struck many other sides for the same reason. But the real agenda CSD and its chairman Miguel Cardenal have seem to be to stop Villar from running for his sixth term, and to find out what is in the books. Elections, supposed to have been held in April, has been postponed to July this year, and TAD, the Spanish Sports Tribunal, have still to finish their investigations. Meanwhile, they have reported that Villar’s lawyer calls almost daily with threats of stalling law suits. But everything points to Villar running out of sand in the upper half of his RFEF hour glass. He tried to sue Cardenal to intimidate him, but it was swiftly rejected by the courts. Villar had avoided such probes into RFEF’s finances earlier. Cardenal’s predecessor, Jaime Lissavetzky, was startled to learn that Villar didn’t want any financial support from the government, as was the federation’s right. Lissavetzky suspected the motive was to avoid reporting RFEF’s finances, and asked for it anyway. Villar then made none other than Sepp Blatter himself pick up the phone, and threaten Lissavetzky that Spanish teams could be suspended from participating in international tournaments on the grounds of government interference. Lissavetzky backed down. Cardenal and Villar started out as friends, working in tandem to block Gibraltar from becoming a UEFA and FIFA member in 2007, and the grey-haired Basque also pushed through the rule in FIFA that only United Nations members could join (this has now been overruled in both organizations by CAS). Now they are far from friends, and the Spanish government doesn’t seem too worried about threats of exclusion from international football from FIFA anymore.
The Prodigal Son
The former Athletic player may find heat from another angle too, and the threat of using FIFA’s government interference rule to keep federations above the law can backfire. His son Gorka Villar, also a lawyer by profession, is summoned by the Uruguayan Court of Organized Crime to answer accusations of extortion and corruption. This happened when the FIFA indicted former president of the Uruguayan FA, Eugenio Figueredo, testified in Montevideo late last year. Figueredo was extradited to Uruguay instead of the US, and told the court that “Gorka Villar was the mastermind behind it all”. Gorka, now the general secretary of CONMEBOL, had, according to Figueredo, pressured Uruguayan clubs in 2013 to drop a petition to see the media rights contracts of which they received so little (the same contracts that were among those that made the US Justice Department instigate their crackdown on CONMEBOL). Gorka made his father make threats with suspension from international competition if they didn’t back down, club sides as well as the national teams. Ángel María’s son miraculously escaped the armageddon of FIFAGate hitting CONMEBOL officials, where all ten of the federation presidents at the time, including some former ones, have been named and apprehended as conspirators in the US Department of Justice’s indictments. Gorka was the consultant for nine of them. Yes, because he is like his father; one that avoids the limelight, but that hungers for quiet power and influence. When it was announced that the CONMEBOL headquarters in Paraguay lost their diplomatic immunity in the wake of FIFAGate, Gorka Villar ordered files and documents to be destroyed, according to the newspaper ABC in Paraguay. “Don’t tell anyone about what you have seen here today!”, he’s reported to have said to baffled security guards and staff on his way out. He failed to attend the summon from Uruguayan court over the allegations from Figueredo, and the latter now contemplates contacting Interpol to drag him there. Here as well, father like son. Villar Sr. avoided a court summon from the Spanish female players’ Union over unpaid financial grants, but was in the end forced to attend. Spanish female players don’t care much for the RFEF president. A unanimous petition to remove the long serving senior national team coach, which they accused of being a bigot, received a deaf ear.
But back to Gorka; what does a Spaniard do at CONMEBOL anyway? We’ll have to look at the strong friendship between Ángel María Villar and Julio Grondona, who until his death last year (which made him escape becoming the kingpin among the FIFAGate indicted) had headed AFA (the Argentinean football federation) with an iron fist since 1979. He was also vice president, executive committee member and chairman of the important Finance Committee of FIFA. He as well knew nothing but Spanish. Grondona and Villar became natural friends, and the notorious Argentinean easily facilitated putting Gorka Villar into a position at CONMEBOL. But there was also another connection. Villar Jr. happened to study law together with Mauricio Chiriboga, the son of Luis Chiriboga, former federation president of Ecuador, and now FIFAGate indicted. Along with some other friends they started the consultant company Sports Advisers SA with their head office in downtown Madrid. As investigative reporters from Vozpopuli found out, the company lists no employees, and its office address, valued at €600,000, is in reality Gorka Villar’s residence when in Madrid. Listed as a company asset, it serves Gorka when filing his tax report. His friends have all done well from knowing him. Mauricio Chiriboga became the youngest CAS arbitrator in history in January 2015 at the age of 29. Another old board member of Sports Advisers SA is Miguel Liétard, disciplinary inspector at UEFA, on a board of just 15 members, where he as well is the youngest. The board’s chairman is Emilio García, who used to work as a legal advisor at RFEF under Ángel María Villar. There’s also Reyes Bellver, board member of Sports Advisers SA, coordinator of legal courses between CONMEBOL and RFEF, and teacher of the player agents’ course at RFEF. It pays off to be on the right side of the Villars.
As this author knows, the new CONMEBOL president Alejandro Domínguez detests Gorka Villar. But for now he seems powerless to get rid of him. So are the teams who recently organized themselves in what is called the League of South American Clubs, made up of the 50 biggest clubs on the continent. At an assembly the 20th of May in Montevideo, they asked for access to see the details of the broadcasting contracts, and the dismissal of the person who blocks them from it; Gorka. The blame him especially, since he without notice removed article 68 in CONMEBOL’s statutes which explicitly states that the commercial rights to the Copa Libertadores belongs to the clubs. But the power of Gorka’s father is still too great in South America and FIFA, and Villar senior often attends CONMEBOL assemblies. When the confederation recently selected their quota woman for the new FIFA Council, María Sol Múñoz, it is Gorka Villar who works daily with her to introduce her to the corridors of football power as she, despite a passion for the game and a law degree, is totally inexperienced in those matters. And if Domínguez should succeed in ousting the Spanish lawyer, Gorka will still remain in the higher echelons of the game, as he holds a seat on FIFA’s reform committee. Yes, indeed.
Whether his father will run for UEFA presidency is still unclear, even if reported by a trustworthy and experienced journalist in Spain. Ángel María Villar must officially declare his candidacy before the 20th of June. If he does, it’s very unlikely he’ll run a public campaign. He’d much rather do what he knows best; wield his stick-and-carrot lobbying far away from the public eye. When forced to answer a question about transparency in UEFA and FIFA at a forum recently, his reply was “The public shouldn’t know everything. Transparency, yes. But on the inside only”. So, that’s Villar’s notion of transparency. If he could choose, he’d rather not run at all, instead preferring a marionette or an ally that can’t afford to lose him on their side. But the heat is mounting back in Spain. His opponent in the election, and election he against the sports laws of the country postponed, has now filed a charge against Villar for violating exactly these laws to manipulate himself to another term.
Will he stand a chance if he chooses to take Platini’s seat? It’s very hard to know. He can certainly count on votes from Iberia (well, not Gibraltar, obviously) and most likely Russia and its allies. That would not be enough. But he has other friends. Gianni Infantino, the former general secretary of UEFA, depended on Villar as a kingmaker regarding all the South American votes when he surprisingly beat sheik Salman to become the current FIFA president.When Infantino toured the cone shaped continent for his campaign before his successful election, Villar was always on his side. Infantino might be called upon to pay back that favour. The only candidate to announce running as of now is the Dutch entrepreneur Michael Van der Praag, who also ran for FIFA presidency against Sepp Blatter before pulling out. Most likely he’s just in the running for good measures this time too, having few obvious allies. Among the favourites is another friend of Infantino as the interim general secretary taking over for him at UEFA, Theodore Theodoridis, has been tipped to go for it. The Greek might be Villar’s perfect marionette. Theodore Theodoridis, the son-in-law of Olympiakos vice president Savvas Theodoridis, which is engulfed in a match fixing scandal that the Greek FA along with Infantino did their best to brush under the carpet. Theodore is also a business partner of Michel Platini, and stated he wanted the Frenchman back at UEFA until the CAS decision. Now his tune has changed, urging Platini to stay away. But many believe Platini is still pulling strings at UEFA. In the recent election to choose the female executive of UEFA, Florence Hardouin surprisingly beat seasoned and outspoken Karen Espelund. The result wasn’t logical, and can only be explained as a desire to uphold a status quo of a non-transparent UEFA. The 33–21 vote count in favour of Hardouin might reflect the dividing line between the establishment and those who want reforms and best practice at UEFA, givving us a hint how the election for the UEFA presidency might play out. A third candidate rumoured to run for the UEFA presidential chair is Aleksander Ceferin from Slovenia. The young and dynamic lawyer is not linked to the controversy surrounding the old guard. But it’s also hard to see him win without them, effectively becoming their puppet. This is probably not the strategy of the Slovenian, who might opt to wait for four years building alliances. He hails from a region that might become crucial, though. The recent inclusion of Kosovo as a fully fledged UEFA member hasn’t gone down well with Serbia, who have complained the decision in CAS. This is a headache for Russia, who traditionally stand by the Serbs in anything to keep their influence in the Balkans. Russia and its satellite allies in Eastern Europe have often voted in tandem with Spain and Portugal in the past. Also at FIFA where Villar and Mutko allegedly traded votes during the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host election. And with the upcoming World Cup in 2018 being a national priority, Russia is likely to be an ally of Spain again, creating a block against more progressive UEFA nations.
“I am Spanish football”
It’s also unclear where North-Western Europe will tilt. Germany still have their scandal-ridden Wolfgang Niersbach on UEFA’s executive committee, while the Scandinavian nations all seem to have scrapped idealism for pragmatism after backing first Sepp Blatter and then Gianni Infantino in the recent FIFA presidential elections. All this seems to play into Villar’s hands. Because if Infantino really has a strong influence over UEFA nations (and there is good reason to think so), he will be reluctant to back Theodoridis to avoid controversy. Villar, a largely unknown entity among most football fans because of his discretion, but all the more experienced and powerful in the realpolitik of UEFA and FIFA, can turn out to be a perfect choice. Not so for Michel Platini, as he will miss serving his sentence by the time for the next election in 2019. And if the sly Basque is voted in as UEFA’s eighth president on September the 14th, there is much reason for concern for those who want sound reforms and transparency. Villar will also be able to run again in 2019, if he wants, as he’ll still be eligible at the age of 69. Should he opt to, and succeed, that will be ample time to fortify himself at the summit of football power, being able to further increase his influence. That influence will surely be used to keep status quo within UEFA, as well as FIFA, and as far away from the reporter’s prowling eyes as possible. So it’s unlikely we’ll see much of him in the media apart from congress meetings where short, dull speeches will be translated. But the silver fox now seems ‘listo’, as in yet another meaning of the word, which is ‘ready’. Whether he really is, we’ll learn on the deadline to present a candidacy, which is the 20th of July.