Un punct de vedere alternativ, dinspre sudul global, asupra scandalului FIFA. De citit!
Rio de Janeiro: Forget the analogies about football being more important than life and religion. The Beautiful Game has always been all about politics among nations – on and off the pitch. And now, it’s reaching Cold War levels.
On Friday, as soon as Sepp Blatter was elected president of the international football federation (FIFA) for another term, he was surrounded by African delegates, who shook his hands, hugged and kissed him. Then came the Asians followed by Latin Americans. Earlier, when Blatter delivered his victory speech – a breathless jumble of platitudes — delegates from Africa, Asia and Latin America, Russia and Oceania gave him a standing ovation. For a man who had been declared dead by the Western media just 24 hours ago, it was an incredible resurrection.
At FIFA’s convention hall in Zurich, as Blatter was being feted by the big bosses of regional and national federations, his challenger Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan sat in the front row with a long face. Giving him company in sorrow was Michel Platini, the former French footballer and president of the European football federation (UEFA). After the Jordanian conceded defeat, Platini look shattered, trying to figure out what went wrong. A day earlier, the Frenchman had hailed Prince Ali as the great hope for football and an antidote to corruption because “he is a prince and he doesn’t need the money”. But few delegates, except UEFA members and their American partners, bought Platini’s theory.
This was FIFA’s bloodiest election ever. With the 209 members of the football body divided into two camps – Europe (minus Russia and Spain) and North America versus the rest of the world – it was clear that a winner would emerge only after some serious bloodletting. But just two days before the Blatter-Prince Ali face-off, the United States weighed in with full force as the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested seven high-ranking FIFA representatives on corruption charges following a raid on their Zurich hotel. Soon after the officials – all from Central and South America – were taken into custody, US attorney-general Loretta Lynch called them “criminals” and demanded that the World Cup allotted to Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) be cancelled.
But a day is a long time in football politics. Twenty-four hours after Lynch’s barbs against FIFA and Blatter, the Swiss football administrator was back in control. On Saturday morning, he blasted the US for “targeting” football’s world body and slammed Europe’s football bosses for a “hate” campaign.
Corruption is real, so is geopolitics
It’s an open secret that there is rampant corruption in football – at all levels. It’s no state secret that FIFA is run like the most private of private clubs with little public accountability. Though all football federations and officials had been aware of the American investigation into allegations of bribery, going back to 1991, nobody expected early morning raids and arrests. The raids were strategically timed, but if the purpose of the arrests was to make Blatter’s backers fall in line, it backfired. “It happened like an intelligence operation. Our phones were tapped. The police came to the hotel and picked these officials up as if they were being kidnapped,” says a Brazilian football federation (CBF) official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Why arrest them just 24 hours before the election? They were not running away. Why did the cops come with three American journalists in tow? FIFA is based in Switzerland. All its official business is done in Switzerland. How come the Americans suddenly jumped into it even as a Swiss probe in going on?” he asked.
As soon as news of the arrests spread among the delegates at the Zurich hotel, officials of various federations went into emergency meetings. “The Europeans did not have the courage to arrest anyone. So they called the Americans to force everyone to vote for Prince Ali. It was clear to us that they wanted to get rid of Blatter and put their stooge in his place,” says the Brazilian who was in Zurich, when the drama unfolded. “As things turned very ugly, even those of us who had doubts about Blatter’s leadership decided to vote for him?”
Blatter, even in his own words, is not perfect. Far from it. A smooth operator and great survivor, he has friends and enemies in equal numbers. But why has this Swiss man suddenly become a villain for Europe and the US? Has Blatter damaged the Beautiful Game more than his predecessors, who too had to bow out in disgrace, in his 17 years at the helm? Why are the Americans so interested in “cleaning up” a game that has been managed mostly by Europeans so far?
Blatter’s main crime may not be corruption. It could be his reluctance to play geopolitical games as demanded by Europeans and Americans that has suddenly made him a villain. Blatter’s problems with the US began in 2005 when he declined the then US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s demand for Iran be thrown out of the 2006 World Cup as part of sanctions against the Asian country. Things became worse when the Palestinians were allowed to join the global football association. “While Blatter has been trying to make football bigger and better by taking it to all parts of the world, the Europeans have been worried about losing control. For Americans, the game is an instrument of their politics and Blatter became a hurdle in it,” says the Brazilian official.
With 209 members, FIFA is bigger than the International Olympic Committee as well as the United Nations. But it has been dominated by Europeans for most of its history. Under Blatter, things changed dramatically as he took the World Cup to new regions, especially to emerging countries. “The past two editions of the World Cup have been played in South Africa and Brazil. The next one is in Russia. All three are BRICS countries. It’s obvious that the west is not very happy with this. All this talk about corruption is an attempt by Europe and America to bring the game back into their sphere of influence,” says Thiago Cassis, a reputed Brazilian football writer. “There is a lot of corruption in European football too. They do not talk about it. This whole game is not about tackling corruption, but regaining control.”
In the good old days of European domination, nobody could have imagined that the World Cup would one day go to Africa, as it did in 2010, or that three emerging countries would host the mega-event back-to-back. Now with China eyeing the 2026 tournament, which the US also wants to host, there is panic in the West as the emerging countries, with their growing economies and huge TV audiences, threaten to take the game away from them. Even India, which has been given the Under-17 World Cup in 2017, may make a bid for a future World Cup.
Enter the FBI
This change has happened because of Blatter’s efforts at making football a truly global sport. Under him, FIFA has invested millions of dollars in infrastructure and projects in Africa and Asia. Despite the western media dubbing this as Blatter’s way of “buying” influence and indulging in corruption, the delegates from these regions stood by him on Friday. They have seen some real change in their part of the world. “Blatter himself has always been a strong supporter of the African and Asian countries in football. He’s basically broken with the duopoly that Europe and Latin America traditionally had in the sport. He has made it more global and he has brought in people from these two vast regions, and they are grateful to him, and they support him,” Alexander Mercouris, international affairs editor for Russia Insider magazine, said in an interview just after the FIFA vote.
On Thursday, as the western media was providing running commentary on the “storm” in FIFA and baying for Blatter’s blood, 47 members of the Asian Football Confederation and the 54-member African Football Confederation declared their support for him. The South and Central American federations, some of whose members were not so sure about their support to Blatter, also decided to back him after the hotel raid. “Why did they arrest officials only from our federations and that too in Switzerland? Why didn’t they approach our governments through Interpol? Is it because they knew that extradition from South America to US is impossible?” asks a CBF official.