By Nick Dorrington
Nicolás Leoz, who this week resigned as head of CONMEBOL and as part of the FIFA Executive Committee for “health and personal” reasons, has been characterised in the English-language press as another venal South American football administrator of the ilk of Julio Grondona and Ricardo Teixeira, a buffoonish, power hungry money grabber whose first question was not what can I do for you? but what can you do for me?
It is an image facilitated by Lord Triesman, head of England’s failed bid for the 2018 World Cup, who in 2011 told a parliamentary committee that Leoz, a member of the Executive Committee since 1998, had made two ridiculous requests in exchange for his vote: a honorary knighthood from the crown and the renaming of the FA Cup in his honour.
It is certainly difficult to summarise Leoz’s time in charge of CONMEBOL without making reference to a sizable list of alleged improprieties. But it would also be fair to say that he was behind a number of positive developments during his 27-year term that mean his legacy, although somewhat tarnished, is likely to be cherished more fondly than those of the aforementioned Grondona and Teixeira, the long-serving heads of the Argentine and Brazilian federations.
When Leoz was appointed CONMEBOL president in 1986 he inherited an organisation without a permanent base and with just $5,000 to its name. A law graduate and former sports journalist, history teacher and company director, his audition for the role had come via his presidency of the Asociación Paraguaya de Fútbol. Not only had he overseen Paraguay’s qualification for the 1986 World Cup, but he had also brought order to the association, putting in place a well designed business and sporting structure.
He applied similar principles to his new position, strengthening the financial state of the federation through sales of marketing and television rights and income from sponsorships; instituting new statutes, ratified in 1990; and green lighting the building of a headquarters in Luque, to the south of the Paraguayan capital of Asunción, opened in 1998. But perhaps the key decision of his reign was to lend his support to a change in the format of the continent’s World Cup qualifiers. Before the 1998 qualification process, the 10 countries had been split into three groups, meaning that, aside from the Copa America, the smaller nations generally had just four to six competitive matches in each World Cup cycle.
The new format saw all 10 placed into one large group, guaranteeing each country 18 competitive matches per cycle. The increased television revenues allowed the lesser nations to both attract and afford better quality coaches, with figures like the Colombian Hernán Darío Gómez, who took Ecuador to their first World Cup in 2002, and the Argentine José Pastoriza, who laid the foundations for much of Venezuela’s future success, helping improve standards in the continent’s less heralded nations.
This progress is illustrated by a clear upturn in the FIFA World Rankings of the CONMEBOL nations. When the first rankings were published in 1992, only Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay were in the top 25, while Venezuela were ranked a lowly 125th. Fast forward to the present and in the most recently published rankings (April 2013) six South American nations can be found in the top 25, with only Bolivia outside of the top 50. Venezuela have jumped an incredible 89 places to 36th. Collectively, the 10 nations have improved by 288 places since 1992.
But while Leoz can clearly take a large amount of credit from his positive work as head of the federation, it should also be noted that he and his closest confidantes have for too long monopolised the continent’s football policy. Leoz, Grondona and Teixeira were for a long time the only three South American members of the FIFA Executive Committee and along with CONMEBOL secretary Eduardo Deluca and vice-president Eugenio Figueredo have been charged with establishing a watertight, change resistant, axis of power.
Leoz has also been accused of taking bribes totalling upwards of $700,000 from now defunct FIFA-affiliated marketing firm ISL during the 1990s. Teixeira and his father-in-law, former FIFA president João Havelange, were, in 2012, found guilty of taking bribes from ISL relating to the award of marketing and broadcast rights for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups. The recently released findings of a FIFA internal investigation confirmed that “not inconsiderable amounts” were paid to the trio.
No further action will be taken in light of that report, as Leoz and Havelenge have now joined Teixeira in resigning from their positions within FIFA. The cabal that has long ruled CONMEBOL is finally being broken up. Deluca resigned in 2011, Teixeira in 2012 and with Leoz the latest to go, only Grondona (due to leave his post in 2015) and Figueredo remain.
Teixeira’s resignation as head of the Brazilian federation saw him replaced with vice-president José Maria Marin, whose short reign to date has been riddled with controversy. Stolen medals, incentivised dinners and accusations that he enjoyed a close relationship with the brutal military dictatorship of Brazil’s near-past have done little to suggest he is likely to be a harbinger of change. “It makes me sad to see [the CBF] being passed from one crook to another,” congressman and former national team striker Romario recently lamented.
The situation looks little better for CONMEBOL. Figueredo is not thought of particularly fondly in his native Uruguay, where he presided over the country’s federation from 1997 to 2006. Indeed, the president of Liverpool of Montevideo, José Luis Palma, publicly denounced him as a liar during a press conference towards the end of his reign. Vice president to Leoz from 1993 to 1997 and since 2006, he will assume the presidency until the end of the current mandate and also take Leoz’s place on the FIFA General Committee.
It is therefore unlikely that significant change will occur until the next set of presidential elections in 2015. It is hoped that younger candidates such as Luis Bedoya (51), who turned Dimayor, the organisers of the Colombian league, into a profitable operation before assuming control of the Colombian football federation, or Harold Mayne-Nicholls (52), who was behind the appointment of Marcelo Bielsa as Chilean national team coach, would bring a more modern approach to the organisation.
Leoz will certainly go down in history as one of CONMEBOL’s most successful presidents, having brought financial stability to the federation and facilitated on-field improvement in the continent’s national teams. But with his reign concluded and the majority of the old guard who have stood loyally at his side also on the way out, CONMEBOL can perhaps now look to a future where institutional success can be allied to institutional transparency.