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The arrest of FIFA executives has turned the world of football upside down

The world is not divided in its opinion of Sepp Blatter. Few public figures attract as much loathing as the 79-year-old Machiavelli of football, an über-politician whose name recalls the Latin moniker of that creature that would, goes the story, survive a nuclear armageddon: blatta, the cockroach. He has sat contentedly at football’s top table for four terms and was elected for a fifth on May 29. Swatting away would-be usurpers, presiding over the growth of FIFA from a fusty, nearly bankrupt organization into a behemoth that turns well over $1 billion a year—and is now seen as a hotbed of corruption, a nest of thieves whom he allowed to steal and steal again, so long as they enabled him to stay in power. He did not encourage them (they needed no encouragement); he did not condone them; but he looked the other way far too often for us to believe in his innocence.

Then the FBI moved in, “the crooks and tarts” (to borrow from Philip Larkin) were taken to police stations in New York, Zurich, and Miami, and survive he did not. A few days after his re-election, caught in a flood of new allegations, he faced the media to tell them he’d resigned.

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Illustration by Sue Cole

But did he, the cockroach-like survivor, really resign? As I write this, some time after his supposed resignation, Blatter has not yet done so. When FIFA published his statement, the word resignation was nowhere to be found. At some point in the future, president Blatter would “lay down his mandate,” a phrase that made me think that the door, if it had been closed, wasn’t locked yet. Blatter will continue to look after FIFA’s “reform process” until the moment has come to ask the 209 federations that compose the organization to elect his successor, between mid-December 2015 and February 2016. Exactly when will be determined at an ExCo special meeting scheduled for Zurich on July 20.

To those who think the process should have been sped up, remember that, had João Havelange’s protégé and heir laid down his mandate with immediate effect, his position would have been taken by FIFA’s senior—oldest and longest-serving—vice president, the ruler of the African Football Confederation since 1988. That is the Cameroonian sultan Issa Hayatou, one of the three African dignitaries* that whistle-blower Phaedra Almajid said asked the Qatari bid committee for $1.5 million (payable to his federation, of course) in exchange for his vote in 2010. He’s a man who’d accepted a bribe of 100,000 swiss francs to facilitate the sale of the World Cup’s television rights to the now-defunct ISL company. Hardly a reformer, and hardly the kind of character to oversee the transformation of a corrupt institution. Part of a systemic problem, not of even a temporary solution.

It’s not as if credible candidates to the FIFA presidency abound, or as if the few who’ve put their names forward—Zico, Prince Ali bin Hussein, and there will be more—have presented anything resembling a genuine program of action, once the varnish of words such as “transparency” and “accountability” has been scraped away. The only prospective president to have done so, Jérôme Champagne, Blatter’s former aide and FIFA’s minister of foreign affairs until he was ousted by a palace coup in early 2010, was torpedoed by a UEFA offensive shortly before he was due to present the five letters of support needed to validate his candidacy last January.

Seen—wrongly, in my eyes—as a Blatter stooge, Champagne had sought to address the issues that have turned FIFA into a “monster” (Havelange’s word), starting with the catastrophic imbalance between the rich and the poor in world football, and identifying as one of the main causes of dysfunction within the organization the huge power wielded by the six continental confederations. This brought him in direct conflict with his archenemy Michel Platini, who, knowing he didn’t stand a chance to beat Blatter in an election, sent out the trio of Luís Figo, Michel van Praag, and Prince Ali, the stalking horses of UEFA. This we know because the loose-tongued chairman of the Norwegian FA, Yngve Hallén, let slip, live on TV in his home country, that the supposedly independent candidates had met with Platini before the May election. There it was decided that the Jordanian prince would carry on on his own.

He did better than expected, collecting 73 votes to Blatter’s 133; however, to think that, therefore, he’d stand a good chance to get a majority next time around would be misguided. The son of King Hussein of Jordan will not have the support of UEFA in the next ballot, nor will he be able to count on his own confederation, the AFC, which changed its statutes to make damn sure that the young reformer (as he undeniably is) would have to leave his position as one of Asia’s representatives in the FIFA executive committee. This is yet another illustration of how bewildering football politics can be, and how absurd it is to lay all the blame for the current mess at the door of Sepp Blatter’s office on Fifastrasse—or even to characterize it only as a FIFA problem when it reaches far beyond.

The FBI indictments that precipitated the current crisis had, in a number of cases, nothing to do with FIFA whatsoever. Not all the indictees played a role in FIFA. Many of the misdemeanors disclosed by the U.S. authorities related to corrupt arrangements between members of CONCACAF (the confederation responsible for the Caribbean and  North and Central America) and CONMEBOL (its equivalent for South America) on one hand, and media brokers on the other.

The competitions affected by this criminal money-go-round were the Gold Cup and the Copa América, tournaments which, while sanctioned by FIFA, are run by those two confederations. The suits in Zurich played no part in that conspiracy; the Webbs and Blazers and Leozs did their dirty deals on their own. They were neither aided nor abetted by Blatter. But this, of course, doesn’t fit the accepted script. It is worth wondering why, and worth going beyond blaming lazy journalism for the narrative that is now accepted as truth.

Illustration by Sue Coe

Illustration by Sue Coe

To single out Blatter for criticism amounts to whitewashing the rest, who can then present themselves as the knights in shining armor who can save FIFA. Saving FIFA from these people might be a better start. This goes too for some of the rats who’ve jumped ship recently, such as Interpol, which severed ties with football’s global governing body in June. Referring to the cascade of revelations that preceded and followed Blatter’s re-election in May, the agency’s general secretary, Jürgen Stock, gave the following explanation: “All external partners, whether public or private, must share the fundamental values and principles of the organization, as well as those of the wider law-enforcement community.”

Fine sentiments, but they haven’t prevented Interpol from holding onto some of the monies passed on by FIFA since a formal partnership between the two was established in 2011. Extraordinarily, FIFA’s grant, which would have totalled $20 million over 10 years, was still used by the policing body a full month after it had canceled its cooperation agreement—and to do what? To finance a seminar on ‘”integrity” in Guyana for the profit of football officials from that pure-as-the-driven-snow organization, CONCACAF. You couldn’t make it up, could you? But let’s remind ourselves that this is the same Interpol that woke up long after the starter’s gun had been fired to put Jack Warner et al. on its most-wanted list, the same Interpol that thought that accepting donations from Phillip Morris (¤15 million), various pharmaceutical mega-concerns, and, intriguingly, the 2022 Qatar World Cup Organizing Committee (¤700,000) was a good idea.

No one will deny that Blatter hasn’t exactly sought to root out corruption within FIFA as energetically as he should have during the 27 years of his reign. The rod he’s beaten with today was hewn in Zurich as well as in Asunción, Cairo, Miami—and Nyon. But to stay at that is to miss the point: Other individuals are just as or more culpable than the near-octogenarian. Some have been named and shamed; others will be, no doubt. They were not acting on behalf of Blatter, but off their own bat, with the complicity of their confederations (which are not members of FIFA—only individual federations are, bizarre as it may seem). Yet it is those nonmember confederations that pick the men—and now, women—who sit in the president’s cabinet, each pursuing their own different and often conflicting interests.

It thus becomes possible for UEFA, for instance, to act as if it were a victim—and to present itself as a model of good governance, when it is just as opaque as FIFA in many areas. A president elected unopposed? Tick. Rumors of vote-rigging? Tick. (Ask the Italians about the successful Poland-Ukraine bid for the 2012 Euro.) Shadowy characters on the executive committee? Tick, starting with vice president Marios Lefkaritis, a Cypriot of the family clan that sold a piece of land for tens of millions of dollars to a Qatari investment fund a few months after voting for the emirate in December 2010. Government influence on football administrators? Tick, tick, and tick again—isn’t UEFA Executive Committee member Vitaly Mutko the current minister of sport, tourism, and youth policy in Vladimir Putin’s government?

Those who pray for a complete meltdown of FIFA do not know what they wish for. If FIFA were to disintegrate, leaving football without a governing body, the vacuum would be filled not by well-intentioned “real football people’”—name one, to start with—but by the still-intact confederations, which would consolidate the stranglehold these bodies have over their continents, and lead to yet more conflict, without advancing the cause of “transparency” one inch.

Like it or not, it is indispensable for FIFA to survive. And my conviction is that it can, as long as we move away from the current default position (outrage, and little else) and seek ways to revitalize an organization that has done a lot of good over the past three decades. If you don’t believe me, ask people in Guam (165,000 inhabitants), whose national team has just thrashed India’s (representing a country with a population of 1.25 billion) in the Asian Nations Cup qualifiers. This would not have been possible had FIFA not released the funds to buy office space for Guam’s FA, train coaches, and build a national stadium that fulfilled international criteria.

If there is a side of the angels in this sorry business, it hasn’t been identified yet. The world we live in is not binary, but whoever doesn’t describe Blatter and FIFA in binary terms today exposes himself to the accusation of siding with the devil incarnate, as I know to my cost. When I dared suggest on a social network that Blatter, despite some awkward pronouncements on how skimpier outfits would help promote the women’s game, had been a sincere champion of its cause and a key figure in its rise over the past two decades, I got both barrels from dozens of latter-day FIFA specialists. They felt offended by my comments and deemed me an “apologist,” as well as a well-fed passenger on Blatter’s gravy train, something that would cause some amusement in Zurich, believe me. Truth is the most disposable of currencies and the first casualty of war—including media wars. What is left of FIFA is a body from which almost every drop of blood has been drained, a casualty in need of a full transfusion: But not a corpse, not yet. And this when the next World Cup is only three years away, and the one after that is the subject of such controversy that the prospect of it actually taking place where it is supposed to is receding every day.

So will we meet in Moscow? Probably. There is so little time left. A partial boycott is a possibility, since it’s hard to imagine Ukraine, Poland, or any of the Baltic states propping up the regime of a man they despise, but it won’t stop the jamboree. Doha? Far less likely.

Making predictions is risky at best. We have no idea what the FBI and the Swiss authorities will come up with in their investigations into the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. “It’ll take longer than 90 minutes,” said Michael Lauber, in what must be the only recorded instance of Switzerland’s state prosecutor attempting a joke. His staff, who’ve seized nine terabytes of data from FIFA’s HQ—the equivalent of 100,000,000 A4 pages—had identified 104 improper transactions related to the bidding process by mid-June, each involving multiple payments to persons unknown. The feds, who tend to be more generous toward the media, promise us gallons of juicy stuff in the months to come.

As I write this, I have no idea of what will hit next. Perhaps more details about the huge amounts of money paid by a Qatari entrepreneur, which ended up in Ricardo Teixeira’s secret Monaco account after the disgraced chief of Brazilian football had “facilitated” a Brazil-Argentina friendly in Doha (and shortly before Qatar was chosen as host of the 2022 World Cup)? We don’t know. What we do know is that the Qataris’ position is becoming more difficult to hold by the day. It wasn’t eased by Teixeira’s admission in mid-June of this year that a formal vote-swapping deal had been struck in 2010 between Qatar on one hand and Spain and Portugal and its South American supporters on the other, a flagrant violation of FIFA’s ethics code that would in itself justify holding a new ballot. Their attempt to gain “soft power” by getting the World Cup has backfired. Even the prettiest face shows its imperfections in too much light. Every time a new incriminating fact concerning FIFA surfaces, the Doha Stock Exchange shudders and loses a couple of points, giving hardliners another chance to blame it all on the “racist” West and weakening the reformers’ case.

More than four and a half years after Sepp Blatter opened his envelope in Zurich (and Bill Clinton reportedly smashed a mirror with his bare fist in anger), there’s been negligible progress in the Emirates’ addressing the now-notorious kafala system. Specially chartered Qatar Airways jumbo jets still discharge de facto indentured workers every day on the tarmac of Doha’s gleaming new Hamad International Airport. They are ferried in vans and buses to the construction sites where they toil for a pittance under a pitiless sun. Nobody’s fooled by the Qataris’ attempts at window dressing: the handful of model villages through which foreign journalists are driven in air-conditioned SUVs. The journalists escape their minders at the first opportunity and file more reports on the appalling conditions in which those “21st century slaves” live and far too often die.

Promises made and broken, disclosure without accountability, injustice without consequence—quintessential FIFA. And through it all, Sepp Blatter, like the cockroach, lives to see another day.

A feature article from issue 06. Subscriptions to Eight by Eight are available in our Shop.

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