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Jim Boyce: 'I've never taken any cash that I wasn't entitled to'

Former Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce talks to Claire McNeilly about high-level corruption, the highs and lows of the Northern Ireland football team... and two brushes with death.

Published 07/12/2015

Former Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce stepped down from the organisation this year
Former Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce stepped down from the organisation this year
Jim Boyce with Fifa president Sepp Blatter

Q. You stepped down as Fifa vice-president in May, with the association apparently riddled with corruption. Looking back, are you proud to have achieved such high office with the organisation, or has its fall from grace left a bad taste?

A. Coming from Northern Ireland, it was a great honour for me to finish my football career as vice-president. There are many good people at Fifa but anyone, no matter who they are, who has been found guilty of any form of dishonesty or corruption should be dealt with in the strongest possible manner.

Q. The public impression is that yourself and Fifa's beleaguered president Sepp Blatter were good friends. Is that an accurate impression?

A. I have known Mr Blatter for 22 years and he has always treated me with respect. However, I feel that the greatest problem he faced was not dealing strongly enough or soon enough with individuals who brought Fifa into disrepute. The last time I met him I told him that, and he said: "Perhaps you're right, Jim."

Q. You became Fifa vice-president in 2011. Had you any idea at the time of the scale of Mr Blatter's, and indeed others', alleged corrupt activities?

A. I was aware at that time that various allegations were being made against some of the people on the executive committee of Fifa, and I've been proved correct. Since I was selected as vice-president almost half those people have gone and many of them have been guilty of some form of corruption. In 2011, Fifa appointed an independent ethics committee, and in my opinion it has dealt very severely with those who were charged with any form of impropriety.

Q. You were one of the Fifa officials who called for the publication of the Garcia Report into allegations of corruption surrounding the Russia and Qatar World Cup bids. Do you believe it will ever be published in full?

A. I believe that the new executive committee at Fifa and the new president should do everything in their power to fully re-establish Fifa's reputation, which I feel will only happen if the Garcia Report is finally published in full.

Q. You're regarded as one of the straightest, most incorruptible men in football, but surely you must have been approached with incentives to help influence, say, a decision by the Fifa referees' committee, of which you were chairman?

A. Honestly, no. And when I was appointed chairman of the referees' committee the one thing I tried to ensure was that the best referees would be appointed to take charge of the major games in the World Cup. It is a fact that at the recent World Cup in Brazil the standard of refereeing was regarded as the highest ever. No team went home from that World Cup because of adverse refereeing decisions.

Q. Eyebrows were raised last year when you were named as one of the Fifa officials who accepted a £16,400 watch from the Brazilian Football Confederation at the World Cup. This was deemed as inappropriate by the Fifa ethics committee, and you promptly returned it. How did it feel being caught up in that controversy?

A. I was totally disgusted because no one told me that there was a watch of that value in a goodie bag. I initially denied I'd received it, and no one was more amazed than my wife and I when we found it in a bag in the garage. I immediately confirmed that I had found the watch. It had a green, white and yellow plastic strap. It was the ugliest thing. You wouldn't have worn it. In no way could anyone who received that watch be classified in any way as being corrupt. This was given as a gift by the sponsors of the Brazilian team. It couldn't be interpreted as any form of bribe because Brazil had already been awarded the hosting of the World Cup. The story was very hurtful. There's a difference between corruption and someone unwittingly accepting a gift.

Q. You don't normally lose your temper, but you certainly let fly at a German journalist in Zurich earlier this year in an incident that was captured on video and went viral online. How did that come about?

A. I was coming out of a Fifa banquet and this journalist asked me how much money I was paid for my vote for Qatar. I stopped and asked him to repeat the question, which he did. I said: "Don't you ever dare accuse me of accepting money. I have never taken any money in my life that I wasn't entitled to." What annoyed me most was that the YouTube video didn't contain the accusation, just my reaction. They misrepresented the situation.

Q. There was also that rather public spat with former Irish FA chief executive Howard Wells at Windsor Park eight years ago. You two never really got on, did you?

A. I can't say that we didn't get on, but there were times when we disagreed, and I always tried to sort out a problem without it becoming public. What annoyed me on that particular occasion? I wanted a request - the song Is This The Way To Amarillo - played over the Tannoy at Windsor Park as a way of thanking the Northern Ireland fans for their support during my 12 years as Irish FA president, a term that, at that time, had just ended. I was astounded to hear that Mr Wells said it shouldn't happen. On this particular night I'd had enough and I told Mr Wells never to treat me like that again. Having said that, I still feel he did a lot of good for Northern Ireland football.

Q. For many years there was talk of a national stadium for Northern Ireland, incorporating GAA, football and rugby. Is it a source of regret that it didn't happen, or are you relieved?

A. I was criticised for many years because people had the impression I wanted the IFA to move to the proposed new stadium at the Maze. It was made abundantly clear to me by DCAL that there was no other venue in Northern Ireland that money would be put into other than the Maze. I wanted Northern Ireland to have a stadium they could be proud of when people visited the country because at that time Windsor Park was in need of massive repair. I still feel that it would have been a big step forward for sport in this country had the multi-sports stadium idea been realised, but I'm now delighted that after many years the money has been put into Windsor Park, and I look forward to see the stadium fully completed next October.

Q. You were chairman of Cliftonville FC - a team whose fan base is mostly nationalist or republican - for many years, yet you were badly injured by a bomb planted by republicans in the early Seventies. Surely you must have felt bitter after that?

A. I'm lucky to be alive today. I was blown across the road. My leg was broken in three places and I was off work for a year. Bitterness has never played any part in my life whatsoever. To this day I still can't understand why people committed the acts that they did during the Troubles. It happened on my second wedding anniversary, and we were planning to go out and celebrate that night. I was going into work at Bedford House. The caretaker, who was standing at the front door, asked me if I heard the bomb that had just gone off at the Unionist headquarters at Glengall Street, and my words were: "I wonder what'll be next?" And the only reason I'm alive today was because a massive bomb had gone off on the Malone Road two weeks earlier. Following that, they put up a steel shutter at Bedford House between the car park and the entrance. I honestly believe that if that steel shutter had not been put up I wouldn't be alive to tell the story today.

Q. As Irish FA president you oversaw some great moments, not least the victory over England at Windsor in 2005. Presumably, however, the death threats which led to Neil Lennon's retirement from international football were the low point?

A. Without a shadow of doubt. I haven't told anyone else this before, but the night before Neil Lennon received that death threat I went to see the team in the Hilton Hotel in Templepatrick, where they were staying. Neil was sitting with his parents, and I'd heard he'd been made captain of the team the following evening. I went over to congratulate him and he said: "I'm absolutely delighted. What an honour it is to be captain." You can imagine my horror when on my way to Windsor I received a call to tell me what had happened. Following that many of the Northern Ireland supporters sent messages of full support to Neil Lennon as they were absolutely disgusted by what had happened.

Q. Post-Lennon, Northern Ireland fans are now regarded as among the best, and best-behaved, in the football world. How do you think they managed that?

A. I have to pay tribute to the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs and also Michael Boyd, who was a community relations officer for the IFA at that time. I remember one night addressing fans at a meeting and telling them that the dreadful sectarian chanting would have to stop because the team consisted of players from both religions. After the meeting five leading Northern Ireland supporters shook my hand and said: "Boycie, fair play to you. At least you came here this evening. We will sort this out. It will take time, but we will sort it out." To their eternal credit they have done so. I was delighted when they were recognised by Uefa a few years back as being the best fans in Europe. And I'm delighted for them that they have now got to a major final after so many years.

Q. One of the most high-profile players from Northern Ireland, the midfielder James McClean, doesn't play for Northern Ireland, and Darron Gibson is another who opted for the Republic. What can be done to try and persuade young players from a nationalist background that the Northern Ireland team is the best option?

A. If a player doesn't want to play for Northern Ireland, that's entirely up to him. But with the great success that Michael O'Neill is now bringing Northern Ireland, this drain of young nationalist players to the South appears to have ceased. In my opinion there is absolutely no reason why someone who was born in Northern Ireland should not be honoured to play for the country of their birth. Shortly after (the Northern Ireland-born) Martin O'Neill took over as Republic manager I told him I had no problem if someone from Northern Ireland said they wanted to play for his team. But I do have a problem with players who have come through the Northern Ireland system from youth team onwards who are then approached to go and join the Republic. Martin said: "I can assure you I will certainly not in any way encourage what has happened."

Q. Many fans are divided over the idea of a joint reception to celebrate both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland making it to the Euro finals. Where do you stand on that?

A. I believe that politics and sport shouldn't mix. The people who have done more to put this country on the map are many people involved in the sport, and I think when politicians speak regarding such issues they should be very careful about the type of leadership they're giving to the community.

Q. As IFA president, and then Fifa vice-president, who spent a lot of time travelling the world and being away from home, does your wife deserve a medal?

A. Yes. Probably the best day of my life was in October 1962 when I met Hazel when we both worked for Nationwide Building Society. Thankfully, we have had a very happy marriage, with two daughters and three grandchildren - nearly four. I'm now delighted that we, for the rest of our lives, can enjoy doing what we enjoy doing and spending a lot of time together.

Q. What does retirement mean for Jim Boyce? Media commentator?

A. Now I can do what I really want with the rest of my life, rather than what I have to do, I want to spend time with Hazel and the rest of my family. If I was asked to do something in the field of media commentating, it's probably something I would enjoy doing.

Q. Have you booked a ticket to France 2016 yet?

A. I'm waiting to hear the draw later this week but, if God spares me, I certainly will be delighted to see the Northern Ireland team in the finals, and I certainly would hope to be there for the games.

Q. Is there any particular stand-out moment in your life?

A. There are probably three. The happiest day, from a family point of view, was when I married Hazel. From a sporting point of view, being chairman of Cliftonville when we won the first Irish League title in 78 years. The third one is coming from a small country like Northern Ireland and being vice-president of Fifa for four years.

Q. Is it true you had a major health problem?

A. I was seriously ill five years ago and had to have a major operation for a condition called hyperparathyroidism (too much calcium in the body, affecting kidneys, lungs and heart). They told me if they hadn't operated I probably would have died.

Q. You've travelled all over the world for work. Is not being able to speak other languages a big regret?

A. Yes. Sepp Blatter, for example, speaks seven languages. The best advice I could give to any young person is to study other languages. My seven-year-old granddaughter Sophia has one Spanish class at primary school every week, and I'm absolutely delighted for her.

Q. How do you really feel about the massive salaries professional footballers get these days?

A. Everybody in life is entitled to earn a good living, but some of the wages that are being paid not only to the players, but also some of the managers, are obscene.

Q. What do you think of the current Northern Ireland team?

A. Michael O'Neill and his management team deserve the highest credit. The team now reminds me of Billy Bingham's team during the Eighties, when they qualified for the Spain and Mexico World Cups. They remind me of a club team because the camaraderie and friendship that they have together is perfectly obvious, and I'm convinced that we haven't seen the best of them yet. They can go to France and surprise people. I wouldn't be amazed if they reached the knockout stages of the Euros.

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