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Honour for journalist who hunted FIFA

Andrew Jennings listens to questions from US Senators during a Senate hearing entitled "Examining the Governance and Integrity of International Soccer" on July 15, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. PHOTO/AFP

Andrew Jennings listens to questions from US Senators during a Senate hearing entitled “Examining the Governance and Integrity of International Soccer” on July 15, 2015 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. PHOTO/AFP

WASHINGTON, July 16- He says that he is the only reporter to ever be barred by FIFA president Sepp Blatter — and veteran investigative journalist Andrew Jennings wears it as a badge of honour.

No more so than on Wednesday when the grizzled Briton went before a US Senate subcommittee on Capitol Hill scrutinizing FIFA and the litany of corruption allegations convulsing football’s world governing body.

Jennings, who has made a long and fruitful career out of ruffling feathers, has spent 15 years pursuing Blatter and other high-ranking football administrators.

So he made no effort to hide his glee when US authorities in May charged 14 football officials and sports marketing executives over more than $150 million of bribes.

Blatter was not among them, but shortly afterwards the man synonymous with FIFA largesse said he would step down — not that Jennings thinks the Swiss has any intention of doing so.

Jennings, reveling in the opulence of his surroundings and with all eyes on him, did not miss the chance to twist the knife further into Blatter and Co. at Wednesday’s hearing.

The star witness — who had flown in from Britain — branded FIFA “sleazebags,” “low lifes” and “a smelly shell,” his broad British accent incongruous in a room full of Americans.

“Once upon a time FIFA officials walked down the street with their FIFA blazer, the FIFA logo. ‘I’m from FIFA. I’m important,’” said Jennings.

“Who would do that now? Who would dare do that now? None of them.”

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– ‘Not alone any more’ –

He may have helped bring FIFA close to its knees, but Jennings, an author who has also made documentaries for the BBC, had a long and varied journalism career before homing in on the beleaguered footballing body.

He has reported in war zones — Beirut, Chechnya and Central America — and gone “nose-to-nose” with mafioso in Palermo, as he put it to the subcommittee hearing.

Nor is FIFA the first major sports body he has successfully gone after, having helped expose corruption at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in the 1990s.

After that he had FIFA firmly in his sights and he described Wednesday how he had experienced attacks on his computers and legal threats, and how he met US special agents who wanted to know what evidence he had of alleged FIFA wrongdoing.

“I was not alone any more, the real people had arrived,” he said.

He handed over to them financial documents and other papers about Chuck Blazer, he said, at one point the most powerful man in North American football and a key Blatter ally.

Blazer is now disgraced, facing jail time and banned from football for life after admitting to US investigators that he took more than $11 million in bribes from 2005 to 2010.

– Making enemies –

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He may be in his seventies now, a grandfather and his hearing not what it once was, but Jennings shows scant sign of slowing down — or of being in the slightest bit concerned at making more enemies.

Also in his crosshairs Wednesday was the US Soccer Federation (“massive, massive deficiencies”) and its absent president Sunil Gulati, who is also a top FIFA executive.

“I note the absence of your FIFA delegate Mr Sunil Gulati,” Jennings said in the direction of US Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, another giving testimony, his tone rich in irony.

“That’s one crucial question today,” Jennings went on, his voice getting louder.

“Where is Sunil? Where is he?”

Jennings has gobbled up and spat out FIFA, but FIFA has consumed him too.

He may be very much an old-school journalist with his long sideburns and thirst for rooting through reams of documents, but he has embraced Twitter — his timeline full of FIFA references.

And as he went through airport-type security ahead of the subcommittee hearing he could not resist stopping to chat with the guards — about FIFA.

Ultimately, Jennings relishes digging for dirt.

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“I’m a document hound. If I’ve got your documents, I know all about you,” he recently told The Washington Post, after the FIFA scandal burst to the fore.

“This journalism business is easy, you know. You just find some disgraceful, disgustingly corrupt people and you work on it.”

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