World Cup

Football for All

By

On the way home from Johannesburg, I picked up a copy of the Mail & Guardian, which calls itself “Africa’s Best Read.” Here’s the headline on the lead story that day: “Danny Jordaan’s brother cashes in on 2010.” The newspaper reported that a company controlled by Andrew Jordaan, brother of the head of the local organizing committee, is being paid around $15,000 a month by the World Cup’s official “hospitality-services” provider to serve as a “liaison” in one of the host cities. He also happened to own a share of a consortium that built one of the World Cup stadiums. Yes, indeed, the tournament seems to have been very hospitable to Jordaan frere.

If you want to focus on Arjen Robben’s flops or Diego Forlan’s locks, it’s a bad idea to ponder the business of the World Cup. The Institute for Security Studies, an African think tank, in April published a lengthy report about 2010 World Cup conflicts of interest involving FIFA as well as South African local authorities. Then, of course, there’s muckracker supreme Andrew Jennings, the English journalist who’s made a career of defrocking the blue blazers at FIFA and the IOC. I’m reading Jennings’s 2006 book Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals. The prose is breathless and the tone snarky, with the sentence composition and transitional sophistication of a romance novel. But through sheer aggregation of secret reports, vengeful sources and self-incriminating quotations, Jennings builds a portrait of FIFA as a house of privilege, arrogance and corruption, built not of bricks but mud.

FIFA is essentially a shell organization. Its revenue--more than $1 billion annually--comes from television rights, sponsorship payments and tickets for the World Cup and other events it organizes. FIFA takes the money generated by those events and reimburses the local organizers as it sees fit. Some of the organizations FIFA subcontracts to conduct its work have direct connections to FIFA senior executives, some to the dawn of the modern organization run by Brazilian boss Joao Havelange in the 1970s. Take, for instance, that FIFA “hospitality-services” provider. It’s called Match Services AG. One of its principals? A nephew of Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president who, during his 12-year reign, has been accused of bribery, fraud and cronyism. Indeed, contracts for relatives and friends might look like conflicts to most reasonable people but represent business as usual in the palm-greasing, back-scratching world of the sporteaucrats who run FIFA and other international sports organizations. 

This week’s about-face on instant replay was a classic demonstration of how FIFA thinks, speaks and operates. In March, Blatter issued a declaration on why FIFA didn’t support “technology in football.” The statement is rhetorically vapid and amateurishly argued. “No matter which technology is applied, at the end of the day a decision will have to be taken by a human being. This being the case, why remove the responsibility from the referee to give it to someone else?” In lands like FIFA, logic is secondary. What matters is the utterance, and then only the latest one. So while technology one day is an absolute Gallic impossibility, the next it is “obvious” that to not consider its use would be “nonsense.”

That’s FIFA, and that’s Blatter, master of the grandiose, empty phrase. Consider this from Blatter’s official biography: “Football is the quintessential team sport which, for the FIFA President, spells ‘basic education, character formation and fighting spirit, allied with respect and discipline.’ Reinforced by the message of fair play, this will all be instrumental in fostering better understanding among all people around the world. ... That is why his motto is ‘FOOTBALL FOR ALL, ALL FOR FOOTBALL.’ ”

Blatter--“one of the most versatile and experienced exponents of international sports diplomacy,” according to that biography--was first elected in 1998 amid allegations that FIFA members were bribed with Arab oil money to vote for him over Lennart Johansson, a straight-laced Swede. Blatter has survived scandals over patronage, misappropriation of funds and the collapse of FIFA’s closely connected marketing partner, ISL, which like many former FIFA and IOC business partners and executives, including Blatter, was spawned by the once-powerful Dassler family that founded Adidas. 

Now 74, Blatter recently announced plans to seek reelection next year because he’s not done with his mission to create “better human beings.” He’s begun lobbying the football sporteaucrats, hoping that FIFA largesse (like cash awards to national federations of $250,000 apiece, which may or may not be spent on soccer) will secure the support of the minnow nations whose individual votes can keep him in power four more years, and maybe four more after that.

The IOC had its comeuppance in Salt Lake City in 2002, and changed important practices. For all of its critics, and its continued connections-welcome business dealings, FIFA has managed to dodge the culture-overhauling scandal. So it trumpets its “Fair Play” doctrines and its “Say No To Racism” banners and its how-soccer-saves-the-world pretensions, speaking always in the self-righteous, imperious, clarity- and truth-dodging tones of the untouchable. Football for all, all for football. 

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