Sepp Blatter’s legacy is a beautiful game that has sacrificed its working-class soul at the altar of shameless cronyism, says Shirsho Dasgupta.
“At Wembley, shouts from the 1966 World Cup, which England won, still resound, and if you listen very closely you can hear groans from 1953, when England fell to the Hungarians. Montevideo’s Centenario Stadium sighs with nostalgia for the glory days of Uruguayan soccer. The Maracanã is still crying over Brazil’s 1950 World Cup defeat. At the Bombonera in Buenos Aires, drums boom from half a century ago. From the depths of the Azteca Stadium, you can hear the ceremonial chants of the ancient Mexican ball game. The concrete terraces of Camp Nou in Barcelona speak Catalan, and the stands of San Mamés in Bilbao talk in Basque. In Milan, the ghost of Giuseppe Meazza scores goals that shake the stadium bearing his name. The final match of the 1974 World Cup, won by Germany, is played day after day and night after night at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. The King Fahd Stadium in Saudi Arabia has marble and gold boxes and carpeted stands, but it has no such memory or much of anything to say.”
—Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow
Fuelled by lucrative sponsorship deals struck during the 1970s, when then-President João Havelange enlisted Adidas and Coca-Cola as primary sponsors of FIFA tournaments, and with the unquestioning support of the Asian and African football associations, football’s world body has grown from strength to strength despite the countless scandals that have marred its reputation since the late 1990s.
With 209 member states, an unrepentant despot (now merely acting despot) who goes by the name of Sepp Blatter and his corrupt minions, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association had probably formed one of the biggest oligarchies in recent history. It is quite apt that FIFA’s executive committee boardroom in its £166m headquarters—Blatter always describes FIFA as a non-profit organisation—is supposedly inspired from the war room in Dr. Strangelove and the lairs of the villains of the early Bond films.
The furore over the 2018 and 2022 World Cup races is nothing new either. South Africa allegedly made a $10 million deal with then-Vice President Jack Warner to “fix” its bid to host the 2010 World Cup. If allegations made by the US officials investigating FIFA are true, England shouldn’t be surprised at the fact that it secured just two out of 22 votes (including its own) in the election to award the 2018 World Cup.
It is quite apt that FIFA’s executive committee boardroom in its £166m headquarters is supposedly inspired from the war room in Dr. Strangelove and the lairs of the villains of the early Bond films.
FIFA’s blatant misuse of the World Cup is worthy of appreciation from Gordon Gekko. In 2010, the BBC published a report on the astounding tax concessions the organisation demands of host nations, the most striking of which is that the entire event will be free of taxation. This essentially means that the host nation must pay for everything related to the tournament, from building new stadiums to player security, but a lion’s share of the income from the tournament goes to FIFA’s already bulging coffers. It is not at all surprising why so many Brazilians would protest against hosting a tournament that they so love.
This is not all. On the behest of FIFA, the South African legislature set up fast-track “World Cup courts” to deal with criminal offences related to or occurring in the “exclusive zones” of the World Cup. Punishing petty offences within 24 hours with heavy sentences, these were little more than kangaroo courts. For the 2014 World Cup, FIFA arm-twisted Brazil to reverse a law against the selling and consumption of alcohol in and around stadiums just so Budweiser, one of the tournament’s sponsors, could sell beer.
The human rights history of recent World Cups isn’t heartening either. It is well-known how matches of the 1994 World Cup were scheduled (despite protests from several football governing bodies) in the sweltering heat of American afternoons to ensure more television viewers around the world. Something similar will happen in Qatar in 2022, only it would be a lot hotter—temperatures will easily soar above 50°C. Making people play any outdoor sport in such conditions is nothing short of inhuman.
Moreover, in the build-up to the World Cup in Brazil, there were widespread reports of brutal suppression by government forces of protesters, especially in the favelas. The declaration that Qatar, widely denounced by human rights activists as a modern-day slave state, would host the 2022 World Cup, was controversial from the start. According to a report by the International Trade Union Confederation, the inhuman conditions under which the workers live and work in Qatar have already led to 1,200 worker deaths since the World Cup was awarded to the country in 2010. By 2022, 4,000 more are expected to die, a shocking 62 deaths for every World Cup match. Sure, it’s hard to pin-point how many of these deaths specifically occurred on World Cup-related construction sites, but surely every death is one too many. FIFA, of course, dismisses these reports and tries to pretend that it is not their fault. But if it can arm-twist countries to change tax legislation, it can easily pressurise them into reforming existing conditions. If the game of the working classes is causing worker deaths, I would argue that there is a moral imperative for its custodians to intervene.
The recent arrests and the ongoing investigation that forced Blatter to finally resign (three days after yet another successful re-election) almost played out like a classic Hollywood Western. The cavalry arriving right on time to save the fans from the dreaded Indians—the bad guys seemingly brought low by the long arm of the law.
Given the fact that he is still President, and given his track record, it is highly irregular of Blatter to dictate conditions for eligibility to contend future elections.
The problem, however, runs much deeper. In his resignation speech, Blatter said that he is “dedicated to putting into place the conditions for the election of a new President”, and went on to declare that he will not resign until his successor has been elected. Given the fact that he is still President, and given his track record, it is highly irregular of him to dictate conditions for eligibility to contend future elections.
As baffling as it might be for Europeans to understand Asian and African loyalties to Blatter, there is a reason for it. Unlike the European and South American football giants, smaller football federations depend upon financial grants from FIFA for their survival; by giving them a larger share of the pie (and not really asking questions about what they do with it), and increasing the size of the pie itself through record sponsorship and rights deals, Blatter and Havelange have been able to count on their loyalty in warding off all threats to their cumulative 41 years in charge of the beautiful game. Given the reputation the traditional footballing superpowers have of being insular and elitist—and the way the topmost tiers of European club football (mis)handle their finances—it would be no surprise if these federations prefer another crooked mandarin who offers ready cash over some idealist European footballing elite peddling dreams of reform.
What FIFA and its subsidiaries need right now is the flushing out of corrupt officials, followed by a complete reorganisation of how it manages affairs. The question is how, and by whom, these Augean Stables will be cleaned.