Financial Incentives, Filthy Ambitions (Part 1)

4 Dec

In the first of a two-part World Cup bid special, Dispatches looks at the moral code of the game’s governing body.

What a week! On Monday, I found myself marvelling with child-like excitement at the sheer audacity and breathtaking ability displayed by Barcelona in their beautiful demolition of Real Madrid. I was reminded of how football, when played with such technical skill and outrageous joy, has the ability to be a transcendent and life-affirming pursuit. That’s how good Barcelona are. Such noble and let’s face it, somewhat naïve ideals were brought down to earth with a soul-destroying thud just over forty-eight hours later when FIFA’s executive committee served up two of the most transparently craven and cynical decisions, in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively. I’ve been grappling with an overbearing sense of ennui ever since. Because for some reason, despite all the evidence to suggest otherwise, I still foolishly believed that this game, no matter how hidden beneath the layers of high finance and political chicanery, contained a semblance of humanity and heart. So why do I keep continuing to care?

Before I carry on, let me make it clear that I have no particular axe to grind with regard to England’s failed bid to bring the World Cup to these shores. I am not English and do not prescribe to the jingoistic arrogance and bile emanating from the tabloid press crying conspiracy against England’s suitability. That said however, I do feel a sense of sadness towards those whose may never experience a World Cup on home soil in their lifetime. My real despair lies in the fact that decisions were taken by a cabal of bureaucrats and businessmen with little empathy for the game they pertain to govern; more motivated by back-room deals and the lining of cashmere-woven pockets.

FIFA is listed as a non-profit organisation. In other words, it is set up to run football for the benefit of all the participants who claim to have an interest in how the game is developed and administered. Without question, it is involved in all manner of charitable and humanitarian endeavours which seek to promote goodwill and grassroots football throughout the world but what makes it markedly different from other notable NPOs such as Amnesty International and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature is that within its possession lies the most lucrative and coveted sporting event on the planet. With that, it is able to hold countries to ransom in terms of how and why its jewel, the World Cup, can be played in a particular geographical region and as a consequence, FIFA’s executive committee can reap the rewards of finance, prestige and hospitality that come hand-in-hand with numerous prospective bids.

And all of this comes in a shroud of secrecy. If anybody has seen how heavily guarded FIFA’s headquarters are in Zurich over the last few days, it is hard not to draw a comparison to the inner-workings of an Ian Fleming novel. For a game that is so naked and transparent in how it is dissected and scrutinised by the media on the pitch, those who run it, do so within the shadowy corridors and boardrooms of a mock-MI5 set. FIFA board members’ salaries and bonuses are not subject to declaration, despite announcing revenues of $1 billion in 2009. Projected revenues for the years 2011 – 2014 are close to $4 billion with approximately $1 billion of this earmarked for ‘football governance’ and ‘operating expenses’ according to FIFA’s website. Which begs the question: when will we ever know what is in Sepp Blatter’s annual payslip? They don’t need to tell us because there’s nothing in law that requires them to do so. Added to this is the fact that the members of the Executive Committee, comprising now of only 22 men since two were suspended after alleged financial chicanery, can govern for as long as they feel like it. Unlike Barack Obama who has a fixed term of eight years to reside in the White House, should he so wish, Sepp Blatter can run and run and run again. Same faces, same prejudices, same political and financial concerns; just getting older.

So, who are these men who decide how the world’s game should be stage-managed? What is their link to football? Were they professional footballers (Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer being the exceptions)? As far as I can tell, they are just a collection of faceless businessmen and bureaucrats who have somehow climbed their way up the greasy ladder of football’s politics and are almost invincible when it comes to releasing their stranglehold on the game. It has been proven that various members of the Executive Committee have violated FIFA’s Code of Ethics on numerous occasions with regard to receiving financial gain from their involvement in the game. But sadly it is merely an internal code, a set of guidelines as it were, with the ethics at its heart being simply what one holds to be right morally. And moral feelings are up to the individual. Not everyone stands by the same degrees of honest conduct. They are not laws to abide by. It is even more telling that FIFA’s headquarters preside in Switzerland; a country in which bribery cases do not have to be tried in a court of law. Make of that what you will.

Those are some of the myriad problems and flaws that obstruct the credibility of the game we love. How can it be countered? Rather than sitting here grumbling about the situation, I can attempt to offer some suggestions but what is truly needed is a collective groundswell against what is clearer now than ever, a rotten core at the heart of football.

The game needs to be more representative in its governance. In other words, at future World Cup bids, each member country should be granted one vote to decide on the host country. There are 208 members of FIFA (more so than the United Nations), so is it really fair that just 22 men can decide the game’s future? If we use the UN model of its Security Council, why not replicate it by allowing those current 8 countries that have had the honour of winning the competition, a deciding vote if the results are inconclusive? After all, this is meant to be the world’s game. Should FIFA’s Executive Committee not be made up of former players, managers, prominent fans’ organisations, referees et al in order for a broader, more inclusive approach to be taken so as to re-connect with the true values of the game? Or to really hurt FIFA, maybe the world’s leading nations should break away, refuse to participate in the FIFA World Cup and set up a championship of their own. By holding FIFA to ransom, as they have done to us for so long, maybe the men in grey suits will finally sit up and take notice when financial meltdown is on the cards.

In the final analysis, a bid should be considered for its technical merits. If a country has met or even exceeded all the criteria with regard to stadia, infrastructure, cultural heritage and security than there should be no reason as to why it does not receive more than one vote as England so unfairly did. It is quite clear that England did fulfil these requirements but it is becoming increasingly apparent that political motivations and personal grudges took greater precedence over the hard and fast facts of England’s bid. If the criteria are clear for all to see, then perhaps we will all be spared the indignity of seeing a prime minister, a footballing icon and an heir to the throne render unto the bland and grubby court of Caesar in future years. If football retained any kind of heart and soul this week, it came in the shape of Eddie Afekafe, the Manchester community worker who spoke with such impassioned fervour about football’s true value at the presentation. If there were more people like Eddie on FIFA’s Executive Committee, fair play, in the truest sense, would no doubt be resolutely upheld. As it stands however, his words of honesty and integrity fell on deaf ears and FIFA’s reputation is once more under indefatiguable scrutiny. Orson Welles wryly commented in character once, “In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Isn’t it about time that Switzerland gave us something more?

Tomorrow: The Winning Bids – for better or for worse

Further Reading: Power and Passion put FIFA above the law

World Cup Dispatch: 9th July – Impressions of Africa


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