- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

ZURICH (AP) - Within weeks of becoming a FIFA vice president, Jim Boyce was on a plane when he grasped the low regard in which soccer’s leaders are held and the constant suspicion that they are corrupt.

While lifting his bag into the overhead locker in the ninth row of a modest plane between Belfast and London, Boyce was hassled by a man behind him.

“Mr. Boyce, I thought with all the brown envelopes you get at FIFA you’d be in the front row,” Boyce recalled the man saying to him.

Four years later, the memory of that incident still infuriates Boyce as he prepares to end his spell on the inside of one of the most maligned institutions in world sport.

“It was one of the most hurtful things I think that ever happened to me,” Boyce said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I did not say anything to him.”

The plain-speaking Northern Irishman has rarely been at a loss for words during his stint as the British representative on the FIFA executive committee, which ends Friday.

When Sepp Blatter has retreated into the shadows at times of controversy - on or off the field - Boyce has often been the closest soccer fans got to hearing from FIFA’s inner sanctum.

There has been much for FIFA to answer for in the last five years.

The fallout from the executive committee’s 2010 vote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cups hosts continues to cast a shadow over FIFA, with the full investigation into allegations of vote-buying yet to be published.

And Boyce gained a seat on the executive committee right after the 2011 presidential election, which led to Mohamed bin Hammam, Blatter’s only challenger, withdrawing from the ballot amid a bribery scandal.

“Of course I did think FIFA was in danger in 2011,” Boyce recalled. “When I became a vice president, FIFA was getting an enormous amount of bad publicity. A lot of it was probably deserved.”

But FIFA survived its biggest corruption scandals, with Blatter still at the helm. The 79-year-old Swiss reneged on a pledge to stand aside in 2015 and will seek to extend his 17-year reign on Friday. Blatter is favored to beat Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan to gain a fifth, four-year term.

“It’s healthy there’s going to be an election. I think it will be difficult to dislodge him … I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t re-elected by a very large majority,” Boyce said. “He is married to FIFA. I think FIFA is his life.”

Boyce had his own brush with an ethics controversy after last year’s World Cup in Brazil when luxury watches worth 25,000 Swiss francs ($26,300) were in gift bags for team and FIFA executives from the host nation.

Boyce only discovered the watch in a brown pouch after being contacted by a journalist and then rummaging through his bags from the World Cup which were in a garage at his home near Belfast. FIFA’s ethics investigators in September ordered the watch to be returned and Boyce complied, though the finger of suspicion still lingered.

“The publicity that was generated personally hurt me and hurt my family because people thought I was a criminal,” Boyce recalled. “I genuinely didn’t know the watch was there. If they were giving me a valuable watch, you’d think they’d tell me. It wasn’t given to me to try to bribe me to get me to vote for something.”

Boyce’s power will end on Friday when the British vice presidency and the $200,000 annual pay goes to former Manchester United chief executive David Gill. And Boyce will no longer have to face what he describes as “snide remarks” about his willingness to be so vocal in public.

“Too many people in my opinion want positions but aren’t prepared to stand up and be counted and answer questions,” Boyce said.

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Rob Harris can be followed at twitter.com/RobHarris

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