Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, the ambitious president of FIFA, must be pulling his few remaining hairs out of his head because his dreams of taking the so-called Beautiful Game to world sports domination are turning to nightmares. New squalid facts, claims and rumors are emerging every week suggesting that the game may be beautiful but some of its leading figures are too close to dark and shadowy criminal forces.
In Brazil, you might think there would be general rejoicing. Brazil is described as the spiritual home of soccer because of the exhilarating talent of its players. Brazil is the host of the World Cup that kicked off Thursday, and most pundits predict that Brazil will pick up its sixth World Cup championship when the final is played on July 13.
But the local mood in Brazil has been sour. From Copacabana beach and the fine houses of Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro to the favelas of many cities, people have been out on the streets demonstrating against government spending on ornate stadiums that will be hardly used when the World Cup teams have gone home. Brazil’s bill for hosting the tournament has soared to $11 billion, against an original cost of $1 billion.
“We want more funding for schools, hospitals, housing, transport — not the cup” is the typical rallying cry. They may have something in their claims. Why not have the fun of winning and the boost that it brings to the national mood and economy without shelling out money wastefully for your country to be overrun by foreigners?
It is a question that is going to keep being asked because Rio de Janeiro is the host for the Summer Olympics in two years time. But the World Cup is seen as especially wasteful because the tournament is spread over 12 cities, all of which have had money lavished on their stadiums. Spread the opportunities or spread the pain.
Brazil’s pain or gain is seen in Geneva, FIFA’s headquarters, as a local problem. FIFA itself has notoriously been accused of pocketing fat profits from television and commercial rights and giving only tokens of it to the host country, which has massive expenses to bear.
Last time round in South Africa, FIFA — an acronym for the association’s name in French, Fédération Internationale de Football Association — took in revenues of almost $2.5 billion and made profits of $631 million in the 2007-2010 World Cup cycle. This time round, FIFA is expecting revenues of more than $4 billion from Brazil.
But if money is the root of all evil, both seem to be spreading to soccer and FIFA. Two major newspapers have made dangerous allegations against FIFA.
A whistleblower leaked documents to The Sunday Times of the United Kingdom, claiming that $5 million in secret payments had been made to help Qatar win the right to host the 2022 World Cup. The person at the center of the storm was Mohammed bin Hammam, the Qatari former head of the Asian Football Confederation and a member of FIFA’s 24-person executive committee. The Qatar World Cup organizers claim that bin Hammam played no role in its bid.
Bin Hammam, a construction businessman, received his comeuppance in FIFA when he challenged Blatter for the presidency. Ironically he presented himself as the new broom who would clean out the dirty FIFA stables.
“I would call for more transparency in FIFA,” he claimed as he toured for the support of the 203 delegates who would choose the FIFA president.
Then in May 2011 just before the vote, bin Hammam stood down, and FIFA shortly afterward announced that he had been suspended because of claims that he had paid $1 million in bribes to delegates of the Caribbean Football Union in another scandal.
He protested his innocence and the court of arbitration for sport found there was not indisputable evidence that bin Hammam provided the money. It added that its ruling was not “any sort of affirmative finding of innocence. … It is more likely than not that Mr. Bin Hammam was the source of the monies.”
Qatar’s success in December 2010 in winning the right to host the 2022 cup has been mired in controversy because the tiny but rich country has little soccer history and has summertime temperatures — when the cup is scheduled to be held — that reach 50 degrees.
Blatter applauded the bid, claiming that Qatar’s hosting of the cup would help spread the influence of soccer round the world.
Subsequently Qatar has faced allegations of inhuman conditions facing the laborers working to build the infrastructure and the stadiums for the cup. Human rights groups claim that the conditions of the workers is modern-day slavery. In addition, Qatar’s ban on alcohol and its intolerance of gays and lesbians and other minorities have upset critics of its hosting of the cup.
Relatively sensible suggestions that the playing of matches should be moved from the hot summers to the relatively less hot winters also met opposition from powerful European soccer associations, which claimed that a winter cup would disrupt their schedules.
The leaked documents now threaten to cut Qatar out of its moment in the sun and to have FIFA re-run the bidding process. But FIFA may be reluctant. The terms of reference of FIFA’s own inquiry into the allegations of corruption in the bidding process for 2022 are narrowly drawn, and American lawyer Michael Garcia is only able to investigate whether FIFA officials broke the organization’s code of conduct. He has no remit to investigate former executives or officials.
The renewed claims against Qatar have stolen the limelight from allegations also made against Russia, which won the right to host the 2018 World Cup at the same meeting as Qatar won for 2022. Allegations against FIFA officials were made to the U.K. Parliament by David Triesman, the former head of England’s bid and the English Football Association. He named four long-standing FIFA executive committee members and claimed that they had engaged in “improper and unethical” conduct in the 2018 bidding.
The New York Times meanwhile went back to South Africa in 2010 and found evidence of suspicious deals and allegations of match-fixing, admittedly in exhibition games before the World Cup started, not in the actual World Cup itself. The suggestions were that the pre-cup matches had been infiltrated by notorious gambling syndicates. These betting gangs are not just concerned with the results of matches but deal in big money as to who scores the first goal at what minute of the game, or even when the first-corner kick takes place.
The charges in the New York Times came from FIFA’s own investigative reports, which have not been publicly released. Both controversies show that FIFA is no stranger to claims of corruption. It could hardly deny them since there has been a string of scandals and allegations, proved and unproved, that have claimed the scalps of leading figures in FIFA.
Back in 2006 a British journalist, Andrew Jennings wrote a book detailing allegations of an alleged international cash-for-contracts scandal after the collapse of FIFA’s marketing partner International Sports Leisure. The book also claimed there has been vote-rigging in Sepp Blatter’s struggle to remain in charge of FIFA. Other exposes by the BBC’s Panorama followed, with allegations of murky financial wheeling and dealing involving top figures in FIFA and its member associations over bids and deals and possibilities of goodies from the FIFA bandwagon.
The next stage in the FIFA drama will be whether Blatter, who is now 78, decides, as expected, to run for a fifth term as president. He had previously said he would step down after 16 years next year, but he seems to have given himself a new lease on life.
Whether the few hundred voters of FIFA will agree is another matter. The European soccer governing body, headed by former French player Michel Platini, is vehemently opposed to Blatter. The Daily Telegraph newspaper in the U.K. disclosed just before the teams headed to Brazil that Platini had a secret meeting with bin Hammam shortly before Qatar won the 2022 bid.
The drama swirling behind the FIFA scenes would be greeted with incredulity if the house of FIFA were turned into a steamy novel or soap opera. Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano scathingly wrote: “There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world.
Protesters aim to drag FIFA from the shadows into the light. If they are successful, it will leave a legacy that will last longer than the spectacle itself.”
In the run-up to Brazil, Galeano expressed sympathy with the street protestors: “As far as I’m concerned, the explosion of indignation in Brazil is justified. In its thirst for justice, it is similar to other demonstrations that in recent years have shaken many countries in many parts of the world. Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used anymore as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few. The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it. That is a fire police violence will never put out.”
Let the “Beautiful Game” wipe out some of the corruption off the field.
Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group.