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‘I chase bad men!’ How the late Andrew Jennings changed investigative sport journalism

One of my most vivid memories of Andrew Jennings came on our second meeting, after a media conference at the Trinidad Hilton in the build-up to the 2001 Fifa Under-17 World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago.

It was an elegant event, attended by then Fifa president Sepp Blatter, with every local sport reporter of note present. Jennings had not yet distinguished himself in football, but he caught the attention of the room with some spicy questions to the head table during the Q&A session.

Photo: Investigative journalist Andrew Jennings at a Play The Game conference.
(Copyright Thomas Soendergaard/ Play The Game)

Refreshments in hand, curious local reporters surrounded the short, plump, grey-haired Brit to learn more about his mission on the island. Jennings put up with barely a few minutes of chit-chat before he leaned purposefully towards the group, as if to share a secret.

Instinctively, his local ‘hosts’ reciprocated by leaning towards him.

“Let’s get those crooked fuckers,” hissed Jennings, in a fierce whisper.

Eyebrows shot up and, to a man, everyone seemed to remember somewhere else in the room they needed to be. In less than a minute, I was the only one left in his company.

Jennings, smiling, leaned forward again.

“I find it better not to waste time separating the wheat from the chaff,” he told me, with a wink and a wry smile.

It epitomised Jennings: funny, mischievous, clever and confrontational. He was a man who understood his purpose.

Photo: Andrew Jennings sports a provocative jersey presented to him by friends in South Africa, where he uncovered corruption related to that country’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup.

I’d met him a few days earlier, when he sought me out—on the recommendation of an undisclosed third party. He was investigating corruption in Fifa and, naturally, he found that there was ample evidence of it in the Caribbean. So he was searching for someone in the region he could trust.

I was 24 years old and had already been a journalist for five years. Within my first year on the job, I wrote a critical piece on the administration of the Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF)—steered by then Fifa vice-president Jack Warner—for the Trinidad Guardian newspaper, and I never changed course.

But Jennings was something else entirely. He was an investigative journalist; and he became my mentor in that field. (His wife, Clare Sambrook, the investigative journalist, editor and author, certainly gave me some valuable writing tips too.)

Over the last four or five years, Jennings’ production had decreased markedly. And on Saturday, following a ‘brief and sudden illness’, he passed away at the age of 78.

Photo: Andrew Jennings, 78, passed away on 8 January 2022.

His departure will be mourned by those whom his efforts touched.

Already, my German colleague, Jens Weinreich, has started work on a magazine dedicated to Jennings’ legacy. It promises to be a collector’s item.

I know personally of Jennings’ interactions with Brazil striker Romario, Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, and West Indies batsman Sir Viv Richards. There are no doubt hundreds of others—some more illustrious, most less so—who reached out to the veteran journalist and found someone keen to empathise and make their challenges his.

A lot will be said of Jennings’ excellent work over the years. That is as it should be. His first sport book ‘The Lords of the Rings: Power, Money and Drugs in the Modern Olympics’, which he co-authored with Vyv Simson in 1992, shook up the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and was listed by the New York Times as one of the best sport reads of the century.

He wrote two more books on the IOC and three on Fifa, in addition to producing dozens of documentaries and giving maybe hundreds of lectures.

Photo: British investigative journalist Andrew Jennings (left) and former Brazil World Cup winner Romario.

Jennings zeroed in on how money meant to further the sport was funnelled away by corrupt officials; he shone a light on the way conscientious administrators, managers and coaches were bullied and purged, and athletes, fans and governments were abused and cheated.

It is hard to overstate the real value of journalism of that sort.

For the fan-in-the-street, the abiding image may well be of a feisty, grey-haired man picking fights with powerful sport officials. But Jennings could never have amassed the multitude of well-placed contacts he did without whistleblowers feeling absolutely certain that his concern about the sport was genuine and his discretion regarding their identities was unimpeachable.

For me, though, Jennings’ most important qualities were his empathy, honesty, tenaciousness and generosity.

As we collaborated for years, eventually sharing sources, I can say with complete certainty that some of the persons who trusted Jennings with inside information held very high positions within Fifa and its confederations. And they often remained his confidants for years.

Photo: Investigative journalist Andrew Jennings doorsteps Fifa president Sepp Blatter in Zurich.

There were administrators and athletes on every continent who believed in Jennings. He never took that responsibility lightly; he worked tirelessly to create a better world for them.

Here on the two-island republic in 2006, Warner started a narrative that Jennings was an English irritant who was trying to stir up trouble so as to unsettle the Soca Warriors before the two nations faced each other at the Germany World Cup.

I could not stop laughing at that. In truth, Jennings could barely tell the difference between Dave Beckham and Peter Crouch! He was not a football fan and knew very little about the game. 

Jennings entered this field because he was challenged—and financed—to replicate his eye-raising IOC work on Fifa. His interest was solely in the moral and fiduciary responsibility of administrators to the young men and women who played ‘the beautiful game’.

It meant that, unlike most sport reporters, Jennings could not be bribed or threatened with non-access to tournaments. 

Photo: Trinidad and Tobago captain Dwight Yorke (right) greets England captain David Beckham during the Germany 2006 World Cup.
(Copyright AFP 2015)

Truth be told, there were many journalists in Jennings’ own country who gave him a wide berth, just like the reporters who, over two decades ago, had hurried away from him at the Trinidad Hilton.

Even within the BBC, Jennings confided to me, his counterparts on the sport desk often bemoaned the fact that his investigations ‘would make it harder for us’—by angering the powers who grant perks like foreign trips and access to celebrity players.

Had the England FA been able to get away with deporting Jennings during its cringe-worthy bid to host the 2006 World Cup, it would have done so in a heartbeat.

Jennings did not have many friends within the profession, but he kept those he thought were the right ones close. And, long before Facebook and the rise of social media, he created a network of investigative sport journalists across the globe that has eventually outlasted him.

One of my most memorable investigative pieces, an uncovering of the Simpaul’s Travel World Cup ticket racket for the Trinidad Express, was in December 2005. Warner had had then TTFF president Oliver Camps divert the country’s entire allocation of 2006 World Cup tickets to his family-owned business, which he then sold in packages at extortionate rates with the tagline ‘Ticket or Leave It’.

Photo: Then FIFA vice-president Jack Warner (right) and his son Daryan calmly respond to a question from then Trinidad Express reporter Lasana Liburd on the Simpaul Travel 2006 World Cup ticket scandal.

In a rare fallout, Fifa intervened and Warner’s ticket monopoly was forcibly broken up, allowing thousands of Trinidad and Tobago football fans to head to the Germany tournament at more reasonable prices.

Infuriated, Warner retaliated. He had his then loyalists in the media routinely attack me verbally or in writing—with the especially vocal Andre Baptiste and Anil Roberts leading the sustained charge.

When I made a formal application to cover the Germany 2006 World Cup,  I received a curt four-word response from then TTFF media director Dave Lamy.

“You must be joking!”

I knew there was a high likelihood that I would be denied access to the World Cup on account of the Ticket or Leave it exposé on Warner’s crooked capers. I accepted it stoically, resigned to my fate.

Jennings would not hear of it.

Photo: A Trinidad and Tobago supporter energetically displays her sign ahead of the Group B World Cup match between Paraguay and Trinidad and Tobago at Kaiserslautern’s Fritz-Walter Stadium on 20 June 2006.
(Copyright AFP 2014/Roberto Schmidt)

He began a public campaign on my behalf and encouraged his European colleagues to join him. In a nutshell, he argued that ‘the brave Trinidad and Tobago journalist who exposed corruption in his island is being victimised while Fifa looks the other way’.

Within a few weeks, Jennings reached out and advised me to email then Fifa communications manager Andreas Herren. And, in a flash, I had my accreditation, the only journalist at the World Cup accredited directly by Fifa rather than through the offices of their home country’s association.

With notable exceptions being Andy Johnson and the now deceased threesome of George John, Keith Smith and Cordielle Streete, at a time when Covid-19 was not even on the horizon, many Trinidad and Tobago journalists were practising ‘social distancing’ from me, some even attacking me outright.

But although he was under no obligation to do so, Jennings fought tooth and nail for my benefit.

I am comfortable thinking that his loyalty and friendship were reciprocated over the years.

Photo: Andrew Jennings (right) and Lasana Liburd (centre) at the 2011 Play the Game Conference in Dortmund, Germany.

In 2002, Jennings and I covered a Concacaf Congress at an expensive hotel in South Beach, Miami, when a faulty dial-up connection on the laptop provided by my employers, the Trinidad Express newspaper, saddled me with a substantial phone bill.

Jennings paid it in full and then waited months to be reimbursed. Apparently the CCN powers-that-be joked, at an internal meeting, that I might have been calling a girlfriend and ignored the bill.

I stormed the then CEO’s office to make clear my displeasure about their tardiness. Not long afterwards, Jennings got his money. So the Brit knew I had his back as well.

During my stay in England and Scotland between 2003 and 2006, I often visited Jennings and his family for four or five days at a time on their rented farmhouse in Penrith, England.

Andrew and Clare had been city slickers who had decided to uproot themselves and move to the quiet countryside, where their closest neighbour was a mile away and they could let their children, Henry and Rosie (she was called Lilly back then), run for hours in the backyard without fear of an unnatural occurrence.

Photo: Andrew Jennings (right) and his son Henry at their farm in Penrith in 2004.
Photo: Enjoying a snap with young Rosie Jennings at the Chamber Commons farmhouse in 2003 or 2004.
I was 27 or 28 at the time.
(via Clare Sambrook)

This was where Jennings refuelled mentally between frequent work trips or did the bulk of his writing.

When the mood was right, we would take long walks to the Lake District or enjoy staring straight across the Pennines in the direction of Leeds and Newcastle. I remember his immense pride in having me try the organic tomatoes he grew himself.

He told me how he responded when young Henry asked what he did for a living.

“I chase bad men,” he told his son.

He had a way of stripping any matter down to its bare bones, its true essence. It was how he worked and how he lived.

Photo: At the 2011 Play The Game Conference, Andrew Jennings confronts Fifa communications manager Walter Di Gregorio, like him, an invited guest at the event.
(Copyright Time Harden/ Play The Game)

One of Jennings’ most impressive tools was the ‘doorstep’ interview, where he would seemingly materialise out of nowhere with a tricky question. He would patiently research his target, secure their potential schedule, and stake out the potential locations beforehand—like a hit man in an action movie.

Jennings converted the surprise interview into an art form.

‘Where would the target be furthest from an escape route? Where is the best hiding spot from a cameraman? How can we separate them from their entourage? Which direction is the light coming from? 

‘What is just the right opening question—not too convoluted for viewers to grasp, or so simple as to be easily brushed off?’

(Notably, Jennings never intruded on Warner at his home, for much the same reasons explained by Noble Philip in a recent column, although I once took him there so he could get a better feel for the controversial administrator. His wife, Clare, later explained to me the importance of such simple details—how the state of one’s car, watch, or home could sometimes reveal something intimate about the character in a story.)

Warner, of course, was ‘doorstepped’ by Jennings on at least three occasions. The Trinidadian’s furious responses—in particular, “go ask your mother”—became viral hits.

On learning of the great man’s passing, former Sunday Times journalist James Corbett posted this comment to a WhatsApp group of global investigative journalists:

“Imagine being doorstepped by Andrew Jennings at the gates of heaven.”

Indeed. 

If there is any justice in the afterlife, maybe the greedy fat cats of sport have not seen the last of Jennings just yet.

Photo: Investigative journalist Andrew Jennings at a Play The Game Conference.
(Copyright Thomas Soendergaard/ Play The Game)

Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read an excellent review of Andrew Jennings’ legacy by Play The Game. 

 

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About Lasana Liburd

Lasana Liburd
Lasana Liburd is the managing director and chief editor at Wired868.com and a journalist with over 20 years experience at several Trinidad and Tobago and international publications including Play the Game, World Soccer, UK Guardian and the Trinidad Express.

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  1. Thank you for this memorial, Lasana, and thank you for carrying on the legacy.