Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of anti-Semitism.

King’s alumnus Lord David Triesman is a fascinating character. Having graduated from the University of Essex, he arrived at Cambridge in the autumn of 1969 to carry out a PhD in “essentially economics” over the next three years. Given the restrictions of a 30-minute conversation, we were forced to skip forward a few decades from there, through a life-long membership to the Labour Party, to 2008, when Lord Triesman was appointed as the first independent Chairman of the FA. His description of the two years that followed reveal a deeply flawed system of sporting politics. Ultimately, Lord Triesman found that it was an environment he was unable to operate effectively in. Here’s why.

Football has been a part of Lord Triesman’s life since childhood. Raised as a Spurs fan, he’s quite literally done it all: playing, coaching, refereeing and finally, governance. He tells me that he played in the school scheme run by Spurs, which offered places as apprenticeships. Despite not reaching such heights, he continued to play semi-professional football at Suffolk side, Bury Town, while he was at university in Cambridge. Later in life, having achieved his FA Gold Coaching badge, he coached the Camden U16s team and casually mentions that the side included one John Barnes. Yes, that John Barnes. He went on to describe him as already “a superb player”. Unsurprisingly, Lord Triesman has therefore been the patron of the Tottenham Hotspurs Foundation since 2004.

“It’s harder in football because the wealthy people control where all the money goes.”

Having established his love of the game, Lord Triesman went on to discuss the relevance of his political experience to his position as Chairman, which has allowed him a fascinating insight into the world of party politics and a unique comparison with sporting politics. He described his time in the FA as “very like running a party”, in that, as a politician, “you’re used to balancing out interests”. He continued to make a direct comparison between the powerful elite and the masses that provide the lifeblood to both politics and sport. However, it soon became clear to Lord Triesman that “it’s harder in football because the wealthy people control where all the money goes”. This proved to be a theme throughout his time at the top of the football pyramid.

The reason that the balancing of interests within the FA proved “much, much harder” than within a cabinet was because, “the only thing that really mattered to [representatives] was the interest of the organisation that had sent them”, whether that’s the Premier League, the EFL or the amateur leagues. And the dysfunctionality didn’t stop there. According to Lord Triesman, “the Premier League would say to the others: ‘this is what we want you to do and remember you get all your money from us’” and “it was often put as crudely as that”.

Lord Triesman believes there is a solution to this dysfunctional system of domestic sport governance. That is, to copy the French. He tells me that, in France, “they have sports laws created by the government, in which there is a kind of deal done”, which involves a significant degree of freedom for the sporting body, until mistakes or malpractice become evident. At this point, the government is legally permitted to intervene. Given that the role of FA Chairman is currently empty, Lord Triesman believes that this should be one of the priorities of whoever next fills the role. This clarification of relationships should, he argues, “make a profound difference”.

Our conversation then moved on to a defining period of Lord Triesman’s time at the top: the England World Cup 2018 bid. As we all know, that bid, held in 2010, was won by Russia. In the run up to the vote, Lord Triesman was forced to resign as FA Chairman, following a private discussion about the possibility of corruption within FIFA, that was recorded for the Mail. With a decade of hindsight, we all now know that Lord Triesman was onto something. Having resigned from the FA, he spoke to the UK government about the corruption he had witnessed, describing FIFA, as he did to me, as a “mafia family”. Eventually, in 2015, a significant number of high-ranking FIFA officials were prosecuted on the grounds of corruption. But Lord Triesman gave me an insight into what it was like to work in such an environment.

“They were a group of people who were using football to live like monarchs.”

“You realised you were with a group of people who bore no relationship to the rest of the world”, he explains, since “they were… using football to live like monarchs. And they had no concern about anybody else”. He explains that he “cannot remember an occasion where somebody said ‘hang on a moment, what will the fans want’”. The shocking thing was that they made no attempt to hide their corruption. “They all seemed to imagine that, because you were lucky enough to have found yourself in the middle of that gang, you would want the same thing” so “they were never particularly secretive about it”, he tells me. “If stuff was left, as it was frequently, in my [hotel] room, I’d just leave it there”, he recalled, and “I said to my colleagues in the FA who were on the international circuit: ‘You don’t want it either. It’s corruption and you don’t want it’”.

Lord Triesman went on to confess that he sadly “never thought we would win the bid” in 2010. “I would love to have thought it”, he said, “but Sepp Blatter had made it very clear to me that if England got it, it would be over his dead body”. This Anglophobic stance derived from the fact that, he apparently “hated the fact that we were called ‘The FA’”, rather than ‘the English FA’, on account of being the first football association, founded in 1863. Lord Triesman “also knew that we were never going to bribe people to get it”, unlike a number of other federations, which certainly reduced the likelihood of winning over the 22 voters.

Having spoken out, he was told that he was “insulting the football family”. Upon reflection, Lord Triesman said that “[he] cannot operate in that kind of world and [he doesn’t] believe any of us should”. Ultimately, he believes: “if the only way a system can work is in an atmosphere of deep corruption…, then there’s something so sick about it that we should shake it until it falls to pieces and start again”. However, he is optimistic that the shakedown of 2015 may have made up some ground.

“...there’s something so sick about it that we should shake it until it falls to pieces and start again.”

Shockingly, the corruption that Lord Triesman witnessed was perhaps not the worst of the tolerated behaviour at FIFA. In 2013, he revealed that he had been subjected to explicit anti-Semitism, particularly by Argentinian FA President Julio Grondona. It was publicly known that he had said on Argentinian television that “you couldn’t have Jews as referees because they were too lazy and would take bribes”. Furthermore, following a heated debate at a conference focussing on the introduction of goal-line technology, Grondona “straightforwardly” said to Lord Triesman that “it was a great pity that Hitler didn’t finish the job”. This man was the Vice-President of FIFA from 1988 to 2014.

As you can probably tell, Lord Triesman is a right-thinking man, who, during his relatively short career in football governance, was subjected to a significant degree of dysfunctionality, criminality and prejudice. The bottom line for Lord Triesman was that “[he] wasn’t prepared to live with things [he] thought were wrong”. Ultimately, it’s a shame that there were not more like him, since he envisions football, one day, to be in a better state. This is something that football fans around the world can surely agree on.