Their corruption and ours
Paul Demarty is shocked - shocked! - to discover financial impropriety at the top of world football
In the second season of The wire, prickly and vindictive police lieutenant Stan Valchek is incensed to discover that he has been outbid on donations to his local church by the local stevedores’ union. He does what any prickly, vindictive cop would: uses political clout to start an investigation into the local, which results ultimately in disaster for everyone other than him.
We find ourselves reminded of this little plotline by the current chaos engulfing world football’s governing body, Fifa, which has now claimed the career of its notorious president, Sepp Blatter; and the desperate attempts of the European football elite to strike a pious pose. Everyone has an opinion, from the English Football Association’s Greg Dyke to Uefa bureaucrat Michel Platini, sports ministers present (John Whittingdale) and past (David Mellor, still doing it in his Chelsea strip after all these years).
As the scandal broke, all cried with one voice: we cannot go on like this! Fifa must clean up its act, or have its act cleaned up by force of law! And above all: Sepp Blatter must go!
We shall leave aside the Dykes, Platinis and Mellors for the moment, and take this final opportunity to salute Teflon Sepp, who has been described somewhat unkindly as the “most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century”1: that success seemed to consist in greasing his way out of the sort of scandals in his immediate periphery that would sink any politician these days.
This is a man who suggested that women footballers should wear tighter shorts to promote their sport, and advised gay fans thinking of travelling to the 2018 World Cup in Russia “not to engage in sexual activity”, both statements that, were they made by any worthy in the northern European football establishment, would brutally truncate their career. Corruption allegations circled Blatter like hungry seagulls for as long as we can remember. Yet he survived as president for almost two decades.
Indeed, for all that the jig is up now, we must still admit there is something heroic about Blatter’s persistence. Two days before what was to be his inevitable coronation for a fifth term as Fifa president, the world was offered the spectacle of half his inner circle being carted out of a five-star hotel, to be extradited and face charges under the same laws that lock up mafia bosses. A shiver of excitement rippled through half the world: finally, finally, that man would get his due.
Yet it did not happen immediately: you would have to arrest a lot more than 14 people to deny Blatter his re-election, which he duly got. (Perhaps if it were definitively proven that he was cloned from Adolf Hitler’s DNA by Satan himself, it might have gone to a meaningful second round.) The question was merely whether he would press ahead with the election, despite heavy manners from the ‘international community’ not to do so. In hindsight, there was only one answer to that question: Sepp Blatter would retain his crown as the least embarrassable man alive.
In the end, even he could not ride this one out. With US jails filling up with extradited graspers, some of whom have already turned on Blatter, the danger remained that one of them would spill everything he knew, upon having the possibility of a 20-year stretch in one of America’s famously hospitable prisons waved in his face by a friendly FBI agent. Even before it got that far, it was alleged in US department of justice indictments that Blatter’s second in command, Fifa secretary general Jérôme Valcke, had turned a blind eye to $10 million worth of bribes to secure the 2010 South Africa World Cup (though Valcke has not been indicted or charged with anything).
At a press conference on June 2, Blatter finally resigned - but in a final one-fingered salute to his enemies, he intends to stay on as president until a special congress can be arranged to elect a successor, which could come as late as March 2016.
Gang of thieves
It should be obvious - and is obvious, to almost everyone who gives a damn about football - that all this is richly deserved. Corruption at the highest levels of Fifa is the worst kept secret in the world - even the Feds could work it out ... eventually. The world’s most popular sport is governed by a gang of thieves and carpetbaggers so shameless they would not even fit in as Tory councillors. Now it is governed by 14 less, as a result of US indictments, and the top man himself, thanks to the fallout. May many more follow.
And, ideally, may they follow from among the ranks of Blatter’s most directly interested detractors. We have come to this pass, ultimately, because of two fateful decisions half a decade ago: Fifa awarded the 2018 World Cup to Vladimir Putin, and the 2022 tournament to the Qatari monarchy. The former decision was at the expense of Britain; and the latter the United States.
Russia is a country with some footballing heritage and climatically suitable to a summer tournament, but Qatar is a different matter: its national team has never qualified for the World Cup, its largest football stadium prior to the award seated less than 30,000 people and temperatures top 40 degrees in summer. Taken together, the upcoming World Cups amounted to probable cause for two classes of troublemaker: British journalists and American prosecutors.
The former, especially the BBC and The Sunday Times, have exposed various corrupt activities this decade: the latter put a scare into former Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football secretary general Chuck Blazer over unpaid tax on $15 million of - ahem - ‘commissions’ received during his tenure. Blazer rolled over, and - it is rumoured - even wore a wire among his former colleagues at the 2012 Olympics. Blatter and his coterie tweaked the nose of the (prickly, vindictive) world policeman; thus, regrettably for them, the largely football-indifferent global hegemon began to take an interest.
We may, more or less safely now, say that the votes for Russia and Qatar were delivered not on the merits of their respective bids alone. Yet have any of them been in recent decades? Blatter succeeded his mentor, João Havelange, as Fifa president, who was not convicted of corruption only because the authorities caught up with him and his ally, Ricardo Teixeira, after the statute of limitations kicked in. Corruption is Fifa’s essential feature. It bribes, therefore it is.
We discover this now essentially because the inner circle of the Fifa executive committee were doing low business with the wrong people. Blatter built his power base primarily at the global periphery. His friends run football in Africa, Asia and Latin America - not Europe. By a no doubt miraculous coincidence, tranches of Fifa money appear in the local football economies in these regions, and in the pockets of their administrators. When the time came to re-elect Sepp, these people needed no persuasion. When it was suggested that they vote this way or the other on the matter of the World Cup, they remembered their friends.
However, the hypocrisy of Europe’s football establishment is staggering in scale. These people wanted to unite behind a Jordanian prince as the pure-as-the-driven-snow alternative to Blatter. Michel Platini argued that, since Ali Bin al-Hussein was independently wealthy, he would not be tempted by bribes! The sudden enthusiasm for a Platini bid for president, meanwhile, is glorious: this former great has descended to the lowest form of bureaucratic mediocrity, was formerly Blatter’s anointed successor, and is in hock to the elite clubs of Europe. The likelihood of his being squeaky-clean is vanishingly slim.
The same must be said of our own footballing authorities, who are allowing the domestic game to be strangled by finance capital; never mind the self-righteous ire of a Whittingdale, who joins a government presiding over a sell-off bonanza of school and community sports facilities. Between the two, elite football is turned into a playground for robber barons, while the ground for producing new players is rendered barren.
In the end, the whole sorry saga is about the destructive effect of capitalism on sport. Fifa cannot possibly be clean: there is simply too much money riding on its success. Mass protests in advance of the last World Cup highlight what elite sport has come to - eye-watering sums were diverted from the public purse to pay for shiny new stadia, and thousands of the dispossessed evicted in slum clearances to make room for them. In Qatar, the stakes are even clearer, with virtually enslaved migrant workers routinely expiring in the desert heat in service to the national sporting ego.
On these squalid foundations, the edifice of elite football is built: an increasingly bizarre phenomenon, too expensive to be treated officially as anything other than an art form, afflicted by a cultish obsession with ‘genius’ players and ‘strong man’ managers. Only after the death of Fifa, and all the corrupt associations it gathers together, can football be returned to its authentically popular roots.