In the midst of an escalating financial scandal, FIFA admitted Thursday to giving Ireland $5 million in compensation for missing a place at the 2010 World Cup after Thierry Henry’s handball set up France’s winning goal.
FIFA disclosed the payment after the money was mentioned in a radio interview by Football Association of Ireland chief executive John Delaney. Neither FIFA nor the FAI had previously disclosed the agreement to stave off legal action following the contentious 2009 playoff game.
The revelation was made two days after FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced under pressure that he will resign, likely by March. Blatter, who has headed FIFA since 1998, was re-elected to a fifth term last Friday despite criminal investigations into FIFA that included U.S. criminal charges against executive committee members and arrests at the FIFA Congress in Zurich.
The loan highlights the lack of transparency that plunged FIFA into the biggest scandal of its 111-year history. Northern Ireland’s Jim Boyce, who retired as a FIFA vice president last week, called for an investigation into the Irish loan.
In November 2009, Ireland was furious that Henry’s handball in extra time enabled William Gallas to score and give France a 2-1 aggregate win and a place in the 32-nation field on South Africa. Swedish referee Martin Hansson was criticized heavily for not making a handball call.
FIFA rejected requests by the FAI that the game be replayed and Ireland be added to the field as an extra team. The compensation deal risks setting a precedent that other disgruntled teams could try to apply if in-game decisions go against them.
“While the referee’s decision is final, and the Football Association of Ireland ultimately accepted it as such, in January 2010 FIFA entered into an agreement with FAI in order to put an end to any claims against FIFA,” FIFA said in a statement. “FIFA granted FAI a loan of $5 million for the construction of a stadium in Ireland. At the same time, UEFA also granted the FAI funds for the same stadium.”
The 56,000 seat Aviva Stadium was built on the site of the Lansdowne Road national stadium and opened in 2010.
“The terms agreed between FIFA and the FAI were that the loan would be reimbursed if Ireland qualified for the 2014 FIFA World Cup,” the FIFA statement said. “Ireland did not so qualify. Because of this, and in view of the FAI’s financial situation, FIFA decided to write off the loan as per 31 December 2014.”
The FAI responded to the FIFA statement by calling the payment a “legal settlement agreement” rather than a loan and saying it was 5 million euros not 5 million dollars, as FIFA said.
“FIFA’s settlement with the Association has at no time influenced the FAI’s criticism of FIFA as demonstrated by our consistent criticisms of Sepp Blatter,” the Dublin-based governing body said. “Furthermore the settlement was made without any conditions other than confidentiality.”
FAI Chief Executive John Delaney, who faces heavy domestic criticism for his own 360,000 euro salary and the association’s error-prone record, earlier said the FAI could not discuss details of the FIFA payment as part of a confidentiality clause.
Speaking hours before FIFA’s statement, Delaney said he angrily confronted Blatter face to face in November 2009 at a meeting in Switzerland days after the second leg of the playoff.
Delaney said Ireland was threatening to sue FIFA unless it received compensation, either through an exceptional entry for its team into the 2010 competition or financial compensation. He said that while Blatter mocked the Irish demands in public, FIFA behind the scenes quickly offered a confidential financial settlement.
“We felt we had a legal case against FIFA,” Delaney on RTE radio on Thursday. “Also the way Blatter behaved, if you remember on stage, having a snigger and having a laugh at us. So that day when I went in and I told him how I felt about him, and there were some expletives used, we came to an agreement.”
The disclosure troubled Boyce, who served on FIFA’s executive committee from 2011 until last week.
“I’m absolutely astounded,” he said. “I have never heard anything as ridiculous in my life. If a payment of $5 million has been paid because of a handball and threatened legal action then I hope a full investigation will be carried out into this and any other such arbitrary payments.”