Follow the Money
How Nicaragua's national stadium highlights the problems with Fifa's Goal project
A national football stadium is more than concrete and grass, it's a home and a source of pride. In 2004, Fifa agreed to help the Nicaraguan Soccer Federation (Fenifut) build a noble home: a 20,000-seater stadium. After a lot of delays, the stadium opened in 2011 to the delight of local fans. But the buzz soon faded. Fans glanced at the 2,000-seater ground and asked, "We waited seven years for this? How did this happen?" The answers cast an ominous shadow over Fenifut and Fifa's flagship Goal program.
Fifa as an organisation probably lacks your respect. After recent scandals it commissioned a report into its corporate governance. Mark Pieth, a professor of law at the University of Basel, published a 39-page report in September 2011. His section on the Goal program was damning.
The report's "development section" noted that Fifa sent a "substantial volume of funds" to associations through the Goal program. In fact, 26% of Fifa's total expenditure went to assist associations. How that money changes hands, though, raises questions. The statutes show that Goal is run by at least six people, all of whom are appointed by the president himself rather than a committee. No term limits. No elections. Power is concentrated and indefinite. Why is that a problem? The Pieth report understates the obvious: "Associations may be influenced in the use of their statutory rights within Fifa." Basically, Goal dollars can buy support for other things and the unelected appointees on the Goal committee will probably cater to the President's whims.
The case of Nicaragua's stadium is telling. On 10 November 2004, the Fifa president Sepp Blatter appeared in Managua, Nicaragua, to lay the first stone of the new stadium's construction. However, according to Fifa's website, Goal did not approve the Nicaragua stadium project until 17 February 2005. Fifa boasts that Goal did "intensive research" before saying yes. The available time line indicates otherwise.
Another problem with Goal is the chasm between Goal's reports and the reality on the ground. Fifa claims that on 4 December 2007, Goal approved a second project to increase the Nicaraguan stadium's capacity from 2,000 to 6,540 seats — even though the stadium was still to open. In the first report, Fifa's website proudly shows walls of concrete and a recently razed hillside; in the second it displays a blank white page where pictures should be. On 14 April 2011, Sepp Blatter visited Nicaragua to attend the stadium's ribbon cutting ceremony. The first official game was played on 6 October 2011. Three years after US$400,000 was sent to triple the capacity, the 4,000 additional seats had not materialised.
These inconsistencies point to two possible conclusions: the Goal bureau just does as the president bids, as the Pieth report implies; or the Goal bureau cares little for admitting sidesteps, problems, or delays: transparency and accountability are not priorities. Neither are symptoms of healthy corporate governance.
Of course, excuses for the delay in building the Nicaraguan stadium abound. First, construction always progresses slowly. London's Wembley stadium took seven years to complete. Before every World Cup, Fifa barks at the host country to speed up the building of infrastructure. Second, the global economy nosedived in September 2008. However, decades earlier and with no support from Fifa, Nicaragua's richer neighbour, Costa Rica, built the much larger Estadio Ricardo Saprissa in six years. Despite the global woes, Nicaragua's economy has grown at a steady 5% per year. Neither explanation feels satisfactory.
A look at the original stadium estimates and expenditures raises even more questions. In 2004, Julio Rocha, the president of Fenifut predicted that the stadium would cost $20 million, seat 20,000, and be built in five years. Seven years later, the secretary of Fenifut, Florencio Leyva, claimed that to complete the stadium would cost at least $20 million more. The problem, according to him, was that the government and local municipality had not paid enough of the promised funds. In 2011, the Central American Football Association (UNCAF) website totalled the investments. The local university, UNAN, had donated $5 million in land and $15,000 in costs. Club Nexaca of Mexico donated stadium plans reportedly worth $750,000. The City of Managua had put in $40,000 worth of labour. Fenifut had spent about $25,000. The Nicaraguan government had contributed about $670,000 to the installation of the playing surface and seating. Fifa had donated a total of $800,000. The total was well short of the $20 million allegedly needed.
Even those numbers are disputed. In July 2011, La Prensa, a well-respected Nicaraguan daily, attempted to obtain documentation of where and how all the money was spent. Despite the best efforts of the journalists Anne Pérez and Oscar González, both the local government and Fenifut rebuffed their inquiries. Fifa's own website for Goal only includes a few paragraphs, the date of a project's approval, the amount sent and a pie chart of how the money should be invested. Unlike many non-profit-making organisations that rely on audited statements to show how much money goes to services as opposed to the organisation itself, Fifa discloses no such reports, nor does Fenifut. Nobody knows exactly where or how the money was spent for Nicaragua's stadium.
In February 2012, La Prensa reported that Fenifut had opened a luxurious two-storey building in Managua that cost $300,000. Fifa's website shows no Goal program approval for Nicaraguan expenditure on headquarters but Mauricio Caballeros, the regional director for Goal, turned up at the opening. Fenifut has not said how it obtained financing for the building but their website proudly displays dozens of pictures of their new home. The contrast with the barren concrete that forms the national stadium is clear.
So, what do Nicaraguan fans think? Sadly, Nicaragua as a country does not protect freedom of expression. The Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the country low in terms of the protection of free speech, journalists have fled the country due to death threats and defamation is a criminal offence with a hefty fine and possible jail time. Fenifut, meanwhile, has had the same president since 1990. The independent and excellent Nicaragua football website Futbolica has been critical of Rocha at times. The result? For games at the national stadium, Futbolica reporters have been shut out of the press box and left outside in the pouring rain.
Still, the anonymity of the internet offers an insight into Nicaragauan fans' angst. In the comments of an April 2011 La Prensa article, a fan by the name of Billy referred to Fenifut as a "pack of thieves." Another commenter, Leticia, compared Rocha to Walter Porras, the former head of the Tax Authority who was accused of rampant corruption and mysteriously disappeared in April 2011. Another commenter, Javier, called Fenifut a body of "titanic ineptitude". Many commenters point out with a tint of jealousy that Costa Rica built a nice stadium with little fuss. Some express hope that Fifa will hold Fenifut accountable. Others are embarrassed that Fenifut invited Fifa to arrive for the inauguration of an unfinished stadium. All are frustrated. Few are hopeful.
Nicaraguan fans rightly wonder when the national stadium will be completed. Globally, fans ask when Fifa will be run with transparency and integrity? Everybody can agree with the aim of Fifa's Goal program: to help developing federations with worthwhile projects. However, the Nicaraguan national stadium ordeal is a textbook example of poor corporate governance. A stadium opened, but well short of expectations. Nobody knows the truth, but it's hard not to suspect the worst.