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Four days after his re-election, for a fifth term no less, as President of football’s world governing body FIFA, Sepp Blatter stepped down.
Or perhaps he only ‘stepped down’, since the election of a successor won’t take place until an extraordinary congress of the governing body, sometime early next year. Blatter may yet prove the Silvio Berlusconi of world sport – indeed he already has – and we should wonder whether this resignation is really the turning of the corner that many football fans, and a large minority of national football associations, hope for.
That he was re-elected at all, by 133 of 209 national football associations, is testament to his success in entrenching his own position. It seems that some within FIFA have used patronage and largess to make the life of smaller FAs very sweet, ‘sharing’ the proceeds of the game’s globalisation with direct payments to FAs or executives, sometimes masquerading as development cash. Press reports now suggest that FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke knew of or was responsible for a $10m payment to FIFA executive Jack Warner in exchange for his support for South Africa’s World Cup bid. The investigative wolves are drawing closer to Blatter’s door – but while the resignation might toss them a little red meat, the underlying issues could remain unaddressed. Reform can be such a weasel word.
But what are those underlying issues? Like peeling back the layers of a rotting onion, looking for sound flesh, first comes FIFA’s (ostensibly democratic) one-member-one-vote structure which, it seems, puts the World Cup up for sale to the highest bidder, and allows senior officials to entrench themselves by financial inducement.
Ah, here’s the second layer – money. Football has been remade as a global ‘business’ or ‘industry’, when it’s no such thing. An organisation like FIFA isn’t value generating, it’s rent-seeking. It has a gift – the World Cup – which it gives to countries prepared to make taxpayers provide the public infrastructure and stadia for bloated mega-events, while FIFA rakes in the revenue ($5.7 billion in the last four year World Cup cycle). The unchallenged myth of economic significance has allowed FIFA to drench itself in money, providing the ideal hotbed for corruption.
One wonders why states bother. Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world, so to talk about the need for economic development, which may have been meaningful in a county like South Africa, seems like a thin pretext. FIFA may indeed want to spread the gospel of football to all corners of the earth (thus increasing opportunities for profit generation) but what’s at stake for host countries is surely global prestige, legitimacy and the projection of soft-power – the third layer.
It’s tempting to say, who cares? If a government is so enamoured with the prospect of a World Cup that they’re prepared to bribe to get it, as well as fork out for the mega-stadia that will sit unused, burdening the public purse, in perpetuity, then so be it? No. The human costs, usually occluded by the orgy of commerce, merchandising, propaganda and yes, even some football, have become harder to ignore – first in South Africa, then in Brazil and now in Qatar. The sporting costs are small in comparison but not negligible – FIFA’s own bid assessors suggested that a tournament in the middle of a desert summer might not be the best idea (the dates were controversially shifted). However the original decision was made, it was not with a view to the quality of the football.
Whether corrupt or not, any institution that can deliver such a manifestly bad and ethically dubious decision needs a change of leadership and serious restructuring. Equally, it’s mistaken to think that a new President or reform of FIFA's internal processes will nullify the forces that have pulled football into the gutter. Beneath the ongoing saga of FIFA’s corruption, beneath the issues of structure, money and power, is our own obsession with the game. Who gave men like Sepp Blatter his power? We did, by making elite sport more than it should be, opening it to the distorting effects of geo-political and economic agendas. We need to remind football that is, quite literally, only a game.
Paul Bickley is Director of Political Programme for Theos, and co-author of Give us our Ball Back: Reclaiming Sport for the Common Good.
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