Bonita Mersiades has always loved football. Therefore, it was natural that she began working for Football Federation Australian in the late 1990s and later for the Australian 2022 FIFA World Cup bid. But sometime along the way it became apparent to her that there were two Australian bids. One for the public – and then another one…
“The one for which I was largely responsible – where we positioned ourselves as the ‘fun, relaxed, safe and secure’ World Cup, the ‘no worries’ tournament where everything would work like clockwork and everybody would have a wonderful time. With all my heart, I believed it then and still do,” Bonita Mersiades explains to Sport Executive.
“But there was also the second one. The one that only a handful of people knew about; where meetings took place behind closed doors; where 10.5 million dollars was allocated for football development in Oceania, Asia and Africa; where visits were made to Russia, Qatar and China on our behalf; and where the support of Jack Warner, then the President of CONCACAF, was seen as critical to our chances. This is the world in which our international consultants were comfortable.”
Stop asking questions
That made Bonita Mersiades stop and think – about ethics and morality.
“I raised my concerns with my boss on many occasions. He told me either to stop asking questions, stop complaining, that I didn’t need to know or ‘there are things going on in this bid which you don’t want to know but you’ve got to stick with me’.”
“I also discussed the issues and my concerns with my husband. I was so worried at one stage that I gave him some documentation for safe-keeping in case I needed it at a later time.”
“There are a number of emotions that you deal with (in this situation, ed.). On the one hand I have always loved football, I enjoyed my job, I love my country and I would love to see Australia host the World Cup. On the other hand, I could see that there were things going on for which we ran a significant reputational risk – not just in terms of what was being done in our name, but the way it was being done and the people involved. I found it stressful; it was an intense and uncomfortable time; there were moments of great tension and sadness as well as a sense of helplessness and unfairness.”
“I was also bullied by one consultant, both in writing and in person.”
Bonita Mersiades was sacked, but before she spoke to her boss again
“Under pressure from the consultants, he decided it was better not to have me there at all.”
And then Bonita Mersiades spoke out.
“In Australia I was ostracised from most of the football community including most of my former colleagues. This is a community in which I had grown up as a lifelong fan and grassroots volunteer. In Australia, outside of the football community, some people knew and understood the issues I was raising; others didn’t care one way or the other. I had strong support always from my family – my husband, sons, brother – and those who knew me well, as they knew I wouldn’t say what I did without a good reason.”
They protect themselves
Bonita Mersiades also talked to FIFA’s Chairman of the investigatory chamber of the Ethics Committee, Michael J. Garcia, who was investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. His investigation resulted in a 42-pages summary by Hans Joachim Eckert, Chairman of the FIFA Ethics Committee’s adjudication chamber.
“In one way, I was not surprised by the Eckert summary report. It was typical of FIFA that they would, above all else, protect themselves and that is what the Eckert report did: it said that there was nothing wrong with their decision about Russia and Qatar, but they singled out two whistleblowers – both women – from 75 witnesses and attempted to discredit them. I saw it almost as a badge of honour. I knew I had dealt honestly with Mr. Garcia; I knew I had not told him anything that was not true or could not be backed-up.”
“The Eckert report, and subsequent actions by FIFA and their close associates including setting up a fake website in my name and falsely soliciting money in my name, told me that I was on the right track and they were under pressure. These things encouraged me, and others interested in pursuing the truth and advocating reform, to keep going.”
When the chips are down
So becoming a whistleblower can change one’s life.
“My life has changed. I went from having a job that I mostly enjoyed and in which I worked very hard to having no alternative employment other than casual work. When the President of the football association is one of the most powerful and richest men in the country, it is very difficult to find alternative employment. It seems people don’t like it when people tell the truth! This has had a big impact on my family and our future – but you adjust because you have to, and you get on with life.”
“As with anything in life when the ‘chips are down’ you learn who your real friends are, and that’s always a good thing. Some so-called friends have dropped away; but I have also found some very good and lifelong new friends. I am forever appreciative of my husband, who is a person with enormous integrity, and my sons.”
“But my aim was and is not to be a ‘public person’. I want to see FIFA as an organisation in which the forgotten stakeholders of the game – players and fans – as well as the other stakeholders, can have confidence and trust that the business behind the game is being conducted with the highest levels of transparency, accountability and probity. If I can be part of contributing to that outcome, that’s terrific. It is about being on the right side of history.”
Bonita Mersiades is today active in New FIFA Now.
Worked for the Football Federation Australia and the Australian 2022 FIFA World Cup bid as Head of Corporate and Public Affairs and as a member of the Senior Management Team. She left 24 January 2010.