Terje Svendsen just recently took over as president of Norway’s national football federation NFF (Norges Fotballforbund) and he’s already getting kicked around. On Friday he and other athletic officials were called in to a meeting with the government minister in charge of sports and culture, to explain why they won’t release travel expense accounts and live up to their own goals of openness.
Government Minister Linda Hofstad Helleland wasn’t satisfied after meeting Svendsen and the president of Norway’s athletics federation Tom Tvedt, who also have been criticized for their salaries as sports bosses that are double the government ministers’, or even higher. “I didn’t get satisfactory answers as to which new initiatives Norwegian athletics officials will take to improve openness and ensure adequate insight,” Helleland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
She’s already calling for more meetings, after newspaper VG published more reports about how hard it is to gain insight into the finances of Norway’s heavily state-supported sports organizations. Helleland herself has noted that as much as 90 percent of the funding for sports in Norway is provided by taxpayers, and she doesn’t like the secrecy either.
“When we travel to Rio this summer (for the Olympics), everyone will be able to review my travel expense accounts, but not those of the athletics president,” Helleland told NRK. “I have registered that questions are being raised about that.”
Svendsen is ultimately responsible for how at least the football officials conduct themselves. After leading his first major and lengthy NFF board meeting this week, he decided to release the hotly contended travel expenses of Kjetil Siem, secretary general of NFF who reportedly earns around NOK 2.7 million a year (USD 321,000), nearly double the salary of Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Newspaper VG had been trying to unsuccessfully to get details for months and a “summary” was finally released: Siem’s airline tickets alone amounted to NOK 244,854 last year, and he was reimbursed for NOK 84,387 worth of hotel stays, NOK 24,616 worth of taxi fares and meals of more than NOK 100,000. All told: nearly half-a-million kroner for his international and domestic travels, on top of his salary. Siem himself wouldn’t comment.
Plenty of others are, and Svendsen seems to have walked into a hornets’ nest of trouble at NFF. He took over at one of the stormiest meetings of NFF delegates in years, where frustration and charges flew over power struggles, the “fat cats'” lack of openness, poor communication and how football funding and resources are directed to a much too large degree at the top officials like Siem, fellow football boss Nils Johan Semb and the men’s national team, whose own coach Per-Mathias Høgmo earns more than them all at NOK 3.4 million a year and didn’t manage to qualify the team for the European Championships. More criticism flew when the national team also failed to attract spectators to their large national stadium, Ullevaal, in Oslo this week. At least they did beat Finland.
Svendsen realizes he faces a major credibility problem, and that both he and his new colleagues need to justify their existence on an essentially public payroll. Helleland isn’t the only top politician raising questions and demanding answers. Ib Thomsen of the conservative Progress Party wants to make both NFF and the athletics federation (Norges idrettsforbund) subject to Norway’s public disclosure law, so that they can more easily be held accountable for the money they spend.
“When they manage such large sums of public funds, we have to be able to track them,” Thomsen told NRK on Friday. “That should be obvious. We criticize the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and (the international football federation) FIFA, but first we need to clean up here at home.” He claimed there was “far too much distance” between the grass-roots “waffle-bakers” and sellers and volunteers at local clubs and the “suit-clad good-old-boys at Ullevaal.” A certain amount of politics may well lie behind Thomsen’s and Helleland’s demands: They’re both on the conservative end of the scale, while athletics boss Tvedt, for example, has close ties to the Labour Party.
Svendsen, a former banker from Trøndelag who worked for local club Rosenborg for 25 years, has promised he’ll clean up. He said he wanted to spend his first 100 days visiting “Football Norway, listening and learning,” but others have said the challenges he faces must be addressed immediately. There are other issues as well, including controversy over a record early start of this year’s professional top-league football season after only a four-month break and all the FIFA fallout. Football’s reputation has been badly soiled.
“Now it’s important that we put moderation on the map,” Svendsen told newspaper Dagsavisen recently. “I view the criticism as a symptom that the distance between Ullevaal and the volunteer spirit at the local level has become too great. We’ll see how we can build some bridges.”