“We have fought colonialism and defeated it and we still fight imperialism and we will fight it whenever it manifests itself.” So claimed South Africa’s sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, recently. He was talking not of war or invasion but about the F.B.I.’s investigation into corruption involving FIFA, world soccer’s governing body. Other officials from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean have expressed similar sentiments.
Western commentators have equally viewed the FIFA scandal as a grand geopolitical confrontation. In The Financial Times, the journalist Simon Kuper compared FIFA’s departing president, Sepp Blatter, to Joseph Stalin and Fidel Castro. “Like Saddam Hussein, Mr. Blatter has now been removed by a crusading U.S.,” he wrote.
James Kirchick, a fellow at the think tank Foreign Policy Initiative, claimed that Mr. Blatter “resembles nothing more than one of the tinpot dictators America overthrows every decade or so” as it takes on “the burden of maintaining the liberal world order.”
How did a story about corruption in an international sporting organization turn into an overblown debate about colonialism, military intervention and liberal values? To answer that, we need to understand how both soccer and politics have changed in recent decades.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was founded in Paris in 1904, initially comprising only European nations. By World War II, FIFA had added a few South American members. After the war, there was a major expansion as many newly independent states from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean joined. Yet FIFA continued, in effect, to be governed as though it were an exclusive European club — until 1974, when João Havelange, a Brazilian, won election as FIFA’s president.
Mr. Havelange transformed the organization. He expanded the World Cup competition to teams from nations outside Europe and South America, and made the tournament a major money-spinning enterprise, with sponsorship from companies like Adidas and Coca-Cola. And he oversaw a huge increase in revenues from television rights.
Mr. Havelange was also dogged during his 24-year presidency by allegations of corruption. Andrew Jennings, a British investigative journalist, told a Brazilian Senate hearing in 2011 that Mr. Havelange may have amassed $50 million in bribes. When Mr. Blatter became president in 1998, he picked up where Mr. Havelange left off — using FIFA largess to consolidate a power base among African, Asian and Caribbean federations.
Branko Milanovic, an economist who specializes in development and inequality, believes that corruption is the price we must pay for a more inclusive world: FIFA could not have developed soccer in poor countries without corrupt practices. The choice, he claims, is either “a less unequal society with greater corruption, or an autocratic, elite-run society with less corruption.”
Really? After all, what makes many non-Western countries corrupt is precisely that they are run for the benefit of a small elite, with little democratic accountability. Nor is corruption unknown in the West — either in soccer or in finance. Witness the 2006 disgrace of the Italian soccer club Juventus for bribing referees and the 2012 Libor scandal, in which Barclays, UBS and other banks were fined millions of dollars for manipulating interest rates.
Greg Dyke, chairman of the England Football Association, has claimed that only the West can clean up the mess of FIFA because there is “a set of values which you find in Western Europe, and in America, and in Australia, that don’t apply everywhere.” Yet five years ago, when England was bidding to host the 2018 World Cup, the soccer authorities described British media investigations into FIFA corruption as “unpatriotic.” Even the prime minister, David Cameron, who last week demanded at an international summit meeting a global crackdown on the “cancer” of corruption, said he, too, was “frustrated” by the media scrutiny of FIFA. Only after England lost its bid, to Russia, did Britain’s leaders discover the need to crusade against corruption.
From Hitler’s propaganda exploitation of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games to the campaign in the 1970s to isolate apartheid South Africa, sport and politics have long been intertwined. In the past, however, the sporting arena was an extension of wider political struggles. The debate over FIFA suggests that sport today has come not to reflect politics, as in the past, but also, in some sense, to substitute for it.
In the global South, the movements that led the struggle against colonialism are often today the instigators of tyranny and injustice. Saber-rattling rhetoric against F.B.I. “imperialists” provides a useful make-believe conflict for leaders who have given up on the cause of creating a better world. Ironically, their arguments find a mirror image among Western politicians and commentators, who view the F.B.I. investigation as a necessary expression of American power.
“Only the U.S. could or would” challenge FIFA, suggested the Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman. Or as Kevin Glass, a policy director at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, tweeted: “World War I. World War II. Communism. FIFA. Just another in the line of things that America has to fix since everyone else cannot.” After the F.B.I. takedown of FIFA officials, Mr. Kirchick assured us that “the world is a much better place thanks to American hegemony.”
Such extravagant claims actually hint at a broader anxiety about American power. From Ukraine to the Islamic State, American hegemony is, in reality, being sorely tested. To imagine that an F.B.I. investigation bears comparison to resisting Hitler or challenging Communism — or even bringing down Saddam Hussein — reveals not the strength, but the weakness, of American power today.
Neither Mr. Blatter’s friends nor his foes seem willing to allow a corruption investigation to be simply that. The F.B.I. probe will no doubt expose many ugly truths about soccer’s finances. But the surreal debate over the FIFA scandal has already told us much about the state of contemporary geopolitics.
Kenan Malik is the author, most recently, of The Quest for a Moral Compass: A Global History of Ethics and a contributing opinion writer.