Sat | Apr 4, 2020

Will FIFA ever learn?

Published:Monday | June 1, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Politics, said Charles Dudley Warner, makes for strange bedfellows. And if you're Sepp Blatter, it makes for pretty sordid ones, too.

The world marvels at how, time and again, the FIFA president emerges unscathed as corruption scandals consume the organisation he supposedly runs. Like an action-film hero, he seems to walk away serenely while buildings explode behind him. But while Mr Blatter's associates have sometimes behaved in ways that practically scream 'Come get me!' for their brazenness - asking for knighthoods, bank deposits that exceed the limits which trigger reporting, and in the case of one executive, reportedly keeping a toney Manhattan flat for his cats - no paper trail has ever led to the apparent mastermind of it all.

It may be that Mr Blatter is interested only in power, not money. He has used money to build his power, but left it to his supporters to decide how to spend their cash. By turning a blind eye, he could retain the plausible deniability he needs to retain his post, along with the fiction that he will clean out FIFA's Augean stables.


Blatter's rise


The narrative of Mr Blatter's rise is pretty straightforward. At one time, world football was run by a sort of aristocracy of the world football powerhouses. They took turns hosting the World Cup - one year in Latin America, the next in Europe. Only 16 teams took part. On one hand, because only the best teams attended, this delivered consistently excellent football.

On the other, it more or less locked most of the world out of the tournament. With most spots in the finals allocated to either Europe or South America, the rest of the planet was left to fight for the few scraps thrown from the table of the game's great lords. North and Central America, for instance, the federation in which we find ourselves, got one place. Effectively, Mexico got a World Cup pass, and the rest of us were thrown into the Azteca every four years to help get them ready.

The addition of all the new football federations that followed decolonisation in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean made new coalitions possible, though. For one thing, at FIFA's meetings, each country gets one vote. This meant that a president who spread FIFA's largesse could curry favour among delegates who hitherto looked like nerds at a cocktail reception. That's how that football powerhouse, Cayman Islands, could get a vice-presidency even though its entire population couldn't fill Old Trafford. Old Sepp remains secure on his throne for the simple reason that he has kept the masses of Third-World delegates happy. FIFA has gone from being an aristocracy to something of a democracy - one as messy as a Chicago precinct.


sponsorship money


But to give Mr Blatter his due, he hasn't just lined the pockets of men who mightn't otherwise have done more than run good hardware stores. By throwing money into poor countries, he has helped to build the game internationally. And as the popularity of the sport increases, so have the returns on its events. This virtuous cycle has kept the sponsorship money flowing in, enabling Mr Blatter to send it right back out.

But the aristocrats are growing antsy. They rode the gravy train for as long as it drove up the value of their clubs and filled their leagues with talent from non-traditional supply sources, particularly Africa. But if the quality of club football in the European leagues has unambiguously risen, it's less easy to make that case for what's on show at the World Cup: just think of one recent host semi-finalist which ended up looking like a pub team after a bad curry supper.

The old lords of UEFA are now threatening to pull Europe out of the World Cup. If they ever did, the World Cup would look like the Moscow Olympics, and Mr Blatter's revenue stream would collapse. He knows that, which is why he still has his big showdown ahead of him.

- John Rapley lectures at the Centre of Development Studies at the University of Cambridge. Email feedback to columns