FIFA President Joseph Blatter greets the Yemeni soccer team
The latest few twists in the ongoing FIFA corruption scandal demonstrate just how good the organisation has become at muddying water. About a week ago, soccer’s governing body decided to suppress a report it commissioned into alleged corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process, respectively won by Russia and Qatar. Now a massive campaign has begun in Europe to boycott the Cup unless FIFA comes clean.
The ruckus was sparked when, instead of releasing the original 430-page report from the 18-month corruption probe headed by Michael Garcia, an American lawyer and former Interpol sleuth, FIFA put out a 40-odd page summary slapped together in-house. Since then, all sorts of strange things have been happening.
Almost immediately, Garcia labelled the summary “materially incomplete and erroneous” and referred the FIFA official who put it together to the organisation’s internal ethics board … where that same official happens to work as a judge. And the only two whistleblowers cited in the abridged document — one is Australian — both complain that FIFA reneged on a confidentiality deal and has now blown their cover. One of them called the released summary “crude, cynical and fundamentally erroneous”.
But whatever relation it has to reality, the document certainly follows the usual script: it admits that some strange things happened but not to the point of altering the outcomes of votes. Also that money changed hands but it was the work of a few bad apples, who have already been booted from the organisation. Predictably, it includes a few token recommendations for modest regulatory changes ostensibly designed to ensure nothing like this ever happens in the future.
One nice touch was to shaft the few loser nations that shouted loudest about the tainted bid. In the summary, England is portrayed as a snivelling collaborationist tripping over its own feet in child-like eagerness to fulfil the wish of every corrupt official and now crying foul because it didn’t work. Australia is shown as an amateur, relying on football development programs and lobbyists with inside connections to curry favour. Here the summary makes masterful use of the passive voice: some Australian development funds “appear to have been comingled, at least in part, with personal funds” of a FIFA executive. That a more extensive co-mingling of funds might have worked better is left unsaid.
All this is standard cynic’s playbook stuff, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The whole wearisome farce ensures that no one will ever know what actually happened and so much the better for FIFA. A few officials were obviously so greedy and careless they couldn’t be saved, but those the report names were all booted for wrongdoing some time back so no new heads had to roll. And the timing of that is convenient for FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who would have faced a challenge for the top job from the bloc of now scapegoated dodgy officials. To think that just a few months ago a cabal of FIFA chiefs were conspiring to fire Garcia and shut down the investigation. This is much neater.
“Football doesn’t need FIFA, and you certainly wouldn’t keep its members around just for the company.”
The national football bodies are bleating now, but it’s not like their report cards are pristine. England was clearly pathetic in its breathless acquiescence of the most blatant corruption. And Australia does cynically throw cash at micronations to try and buy votes. But while they might complain they’ve got no choice but play to FIFA’s rules, they come off as pretty willing dance partners in this distasteful tango.
So far pretty much everyone gets to keep their job, and the show can go on. No doubt sometime next year FIFA will be waxing lyrical to stakeholders about its grand reforms and how nothing like this sorry episode will ever happen again. Of course nothing did happen, but you can never be too careful, right? The stakeholders will nod and take notes and go home and report how FIFA is changing and the public will forget and keep watching TV and buying tickets and Ronaldo shirts, and FIFA will keep raking in its millions and everyone can happily keep on dancing.
But what this really should signal is the death of the FIFA system. Even without the full report, the truth about world football governance is clear. The symptoms of its ugly disease are everywhere: one FIFA official asked England’s bid team for a knighthood, another simply said “come and tell me what you’ve got for me”. Leaked emails have subject lines like “A private jet”, “The Presidential Suite”, “A $20,000 gift”, “$100,000 cash for Kuala Lumpur junket”, “A lesson in Machiavellian expertise”, then later, “We are fucked”. It’d be almost funny if it weren’t so tedious and unsophisticated.
Newsflash: FIFA are a grubby bunch. They conflate being showered in expensive gifts and treated to meals in fancy restaurants with commanding respect. They have come to believe in their own superiority despite the flagrant dearth of evidence. They feel that a little extra on the side is their due, that public service isn’t incompatible with hoovering up as much loot as possible for you and your family.
And who can blame them? There’s all this money kicking around and not much to do. FIFA is a multibillion-dollar outfit with not much on its plate. All its committees and processes and panels are the kind of inward-focused make-work bullshit any organisation spews out when it has nothing better on. All FIFA does is take money and every four years choose where the World Cup will be. Its development programs are notoriously poorly focused and poorly delivered. Its day-to-day rules enforcement could be the responsibility of national leagues, like in many other sports. And its roll-out of rules to stop oil billionaires from killing competition by spending millions to attract all the best players to their teams is a joke.
Football doesn’t need FIFA, and you certainly wouldn’t keep its members around just for the company. Some groups, including big names like England’s former football governance chief and the head of Germany’s national football league, are now calling for boycotts and breakaways, but even that doesn’t go far enough.
Much better would be to scrap them altogether and rotate responsibility for administering the sport through the various national associations and governing bodies. A nation could assume the rotating presidency for a four-year cycle when they’re hosting a World Cup then hand it on to the next guys at the end of the tournament. This year FIFA flogged off the TV rights to the Brazil World Cup for close to $4 billion. Why isn’t it the host country that sells the rights instead? It might go some way to recouping the billions shelled out on huge new stadia and other crap that will turn to rust and dust as soon as the fans go home.
And why not open up voting on World Cup bids to all of the world’s 209 football associations? Each one could have an equal vote like at the UN General Assembly. It wouldn’t be perfect, but right now a catshit-juggling warthog could do a better job of running the world’s favourite sport than the jokers and charlatans we’ve got in charge. Kick this mob out.