Wed, Jun 03, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Blatter’s anti-US fury echoes the new world political order

Support for soccer’s emerging powers in Africa has secured backing for embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter, while Russian President Vladimir Putin has also weighed in, dismissing the claims of corruption over the vast profits made from the game

By Owen Gibson  /  The Observer, ZURICH, Switzerland

Illustration: Mountain people

December 2010, the eve of the vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals. Speculation has reached fever pitch in the Baur au Lac lobby as royalty, heads of state and breathless soccer executives criss-cross the room to genuflect before the 22 voting members of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) executive committee.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who last week joined the chorus of criticism against FIFA president Sepp Blatter, is among those on bended knee to the likes of the now disgraced Jack Warner and Qatar’s Mohammed bin Hammam.

In his favorite corner of the lobby, Chuck Blazer, general secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACEF) — the gargantuan, garrulous US gastronome, who later inadvertently began toppling the FIFA house of cards — is spreadeagled on a chaise longue with a gaggle of flunkies, bid executives and journalists hanging on his every word.

As a Hogarthian tableau of how world soccer had become warped out of shape, it was hard to beat.

Rumors, which have since hardened, of huge trade deals and individual bribes swirled around the rarefied air of the five-star hotel. Of those who made the decision, almost half have departed with corruption allegations trailing in their wake. The 10 who remain are now under questioning from Swiss police over their role in the awarding of the 2018 edition of FIFA’s World Cup cash cow to Russia and the 2022 tournament to the gas-rich Gulf state of Qatar.

So it was appropriate that Zurich’s Baur au Lac lobby was again at the center of global attention on Wednesday last week, when seven senior FIFA executives were hauled from their beds by Swiss police and now face extradition to the US.

A SELECT COHORT

Among the 18 executives named in the jaw-dropping indictment released that day by the US Department of Justice were Warner, the Trinidadian former CONCACAF president and a veteran of ticketing and bribery scandals, who was one of Blatter’s closest allies when he was consolidating his grip on world soccer.

There too was Jeffrey Webb, Warner’s successor from the Cayman Islands, who had presented himself as a reformer and had been molded by Blatter as a possible heir apparent.

On Saturday morning, when Blatter was raging against a Western media conspiracy and claiming that the US charges were motivated by revenge over losing out to Qatar, Webb was still in a Zurich police cell as his family waited for news of his fight against extradition.

Also named was Blazer, who turned supergrass under pressure from the FBI over tax evasion charges. He secretly recorded his FIFA colleagues at the London 2012 Olympics to gather evidence, and later pleaded guilty to tax evasion, money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud.

Those looming tournaments in Russia and Qatar — awarded at the end of a convoluted, chaotic process riddled with corruption allegations — are symptomatic of a wider tectonic shift in world sport.

Using sporting events as political tools is nothing new (see the Berlin 1936 Olympics or the 1978 World Cup in Argentina), but since the World Cup and Olympics became hugely enriched by an influx of TV and sponsorship income the game has changed.

The Formula One calendar has tilted definitively toward countries prepared to pay handsomely for its glitz, while a string of Middle Eastern states have invested heavily in cascading tiers of sporting events as a means of projecting soft power.

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