Even if Sepp Blatter is unmoved by the arrests of FIFA officials, these events might nonetheless come to represent a watershed for football administration
FIFA, world football’s governing body, has been driven into potentially the worst crisis of its history. But, in reality, or fans, the recent events symbolise good news. On May 27, the Swiss police arrested seven FIFA officials after the U.S. Department of Justice announced the indictment of 14 people, nine of whom are current or former FIFA executives. These individuals, American authorities have claimed, were involved in a culture of “rampant, systematic, and deep-rooted” corruption that saw them take bribes in excess of U.S. $150 million over a period of 24 years. On the face of it, the arrests might even be seen as routine actions against white-collar offences. After all, why must the impeachment of a few sports executives on allegations of graft matter to the greater public? Such questions, however, have been rendered nugatory by the extent of impact that FIFA’s activities have. As seen in Brazil, which hosted the World Cup last year, where vast swathes of people were displaced from their favelas, and in Qatar, where hundreds of migrant labourers have died building stadia, FIFA’s decisions often have far-reaching implications.
According to the indictment, the offences involved might even have influenced South Africa’s right to host the 2010 World Cup, as well as Joseph “Sepp” Blatter’s re-election as the organisation’s president in 2011. As it happens, by the time this comment is published, Mr. Blatter might well have secured a fifth consecutive term as FIFA’s president. Yet, even if Mr. Blatter is unmoved by these developments, the arrests might nonetheless come to represent a watershed.
Road to a commercial behemoth
FIFA was instituted in Paris in 1904 as a modest group aimed at bettering the sport. It comprised only seven nations, and its ambitions were restricted to the institutionalisation of the rules of the game. As David Golblatt explicated in his seminal history of football, The Ball is Round, even when FIFA was reconstituted after the Second World War, it only had 54 members, of which more than half were from Europe and a fifth from South America. During the presidencies of Jules Rimet and Arthur Drewry, following the war, FIFA made steady growth in membership, but its primary purpose remained certainly limited. It was understaffed, underfinanced, and dominated primarily by Europeans still beset with colonial mindsets. Consequently, FIFA’s role, as Mr. Goldblatt wrote, was restricted to processing the “paperwork of accession,” and the re-establishment of the “World Cup as a functioning competition.” While some strides were made under the presidency of the Briton Stanely Rous, who took over the office in 1961, FIFA remained a supine and commercially weak enterprise. Yet, even if Mr. Rous’s tenure was marred by his decision to support apartheid South Africa’s participation in international football, the organisation had at least been exempt from any instance of financial corruption. But all of this changed in 1974.
The Brazilian lawyer João Havelange defeated Mr. Rous in a presidential campaign that had seen him travel across 86 countries in one year. Mr. Havelange’s drive not only promised Africa and Asia of the establishment of a new power base for global football, but also focussed on turning the sport’s profit-making potential into something tangible. On assuming presidency, Mr. Havelange scored his goals with remarkable alacrity. Together with Horst Dassler, the son of Adi Dassler, the founder of the sports goods corporation Adidas, whom he had met during his first days as president, Mr. Havelange amassed a number of business partners, turning FIFA into a commercial behemoth. By the time he retired in 1998, he had orchestrated a stunning revolution. The FIFA World Cup Finals now comprised 32 nations and, even as early as in 1987, the European rights to telecast the next three world cups had been sold for a whopping U.S. $440 million.
However, at the same time, FIFA also assumed a unique state of opaqueness. Its transactions were frequently dodgy, and allegations of graft began to abound. Any hope that Mr. Havelange’s successor would reorient FIFA for the better was quickly quashed when his protégé Mr. Blatter won the presidency in 1998. In fact, it is under Mr. Blatter’s control that the seeds of Mr. Havelange’s corruption have taken full effect. As journalist Andrew Jennings reported in his brilliant investigative book, FOUL!,FIFA’s activities have come to replicate those typical of organised crime. Loyalty is allegedly often purchased through the secret distribution of World Cup tickets, underground payments of kickbacks, and allotments of supposed developmental grants that often go wholly unaudited.
The organisation’s decision in 2010 to choose Russia and Qatar as hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively, was particularly telling. Bids made by England and the U.S. — both of whom were better equipped to host the tournaments according to FIFA’s own inspection teams — were overlooked in a verdict that appeared to brim with transgressions. In 2012, when the allegations that the bids were rigged were at their acme, after the Sunday Times had made several new revelations, FIFA appointed a former U.S. attorney, Michael J. Garcia, as a chief investigator of an ethics committee to investigate the awards. The crisis had been exacerbated by reports from Qatar that several hundreds of migrant labourers had died due to violations of human rights and labour laws. After spending 19 months scrutinising the bids, Mr. Garcia submitted a 350-page report. Happily for FIFA, the chair of the judicial branch of its ethics committee chose to suppress the report, releasing in its place a 42-page summary that Mr. Garcia described as “incomplete and erroneous.” In December 2014, Mr. Blatter flippantly dismissed Mr. Garcia’s report, claiming that it did not present sufficient evidence to charge either Russia or Qatar of any wrongdoing. The Swiss police have now, on the back of the American indictments, opened a separate investigation into Russia and Qatar’s successful bids.
The present actions represent the strongest blow to Mr. Blatter’s realm. Persons arrested include Jeffrey Webb, a FIFA vice-president, and Jack Warner, a former vice-president, who has been connected with innumerable scandals involving the distribution of tickets and the sale of T.V. rights in his two-decades with the organisation. And Mr. Blatter’s own fate, as one American law enforcement official put it, would “depend on where the investigation goes from here.”
The alternatives to Mr. Blatter, though, are no better. Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, European football’s governing body, has called for Mr. Blatter’s resignation. But Mr. Platini also voted in favour of Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup, amidst allegations of corruption. The problems, transcend the integrity of the select individuals who operate FIFA and run to the heart of the organisation’s structure — to the rules that permit it to operate not like a sports body, but like an extra-constitutional state, invulnerable to the laws of the nations, and accountable to none. In South Africa, in 2010, FIFA imposed not only the construction of “FIFA quality stadiums,” which have now turned into white elephants, but also the establishment of a number of “World Cup Courts,” which had jurisdiction over all kinds of crimes emanating out of the tournament, including petty theft, robbery and assault. These diktats typify FIFA’s despotic proclivities. Bringing to close Mr. Blatter’s dominion is crucial, but the buck mustn’t end there.
(Suhrith Parthasarthy is an advocate at the Madras High Court.)