Wed, Jun 03, 2015 - Page 9 News List

The hypocrisy of the soccer mafia is what rankles the most

By Ian Buruma

The only surprise about the arrest of seven Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) officials in a Swiss hotel in the early morning of Wednesday last week is that it happened at all. Most people assumed that these pampered men in expensive suits, governing the world’s soccer federation, were beyond the reach of the law. Whatever rumors flew or reports were made on bribes, kickbacks, vote-rigging, and other dodgy practices, FIFA president Joseph “Sepp” Blatter and his colleagues and associates always seemed to emerge without a scratch.

So far, 14 men, including nine current or former FIFA executives, but not Blatter, have been charged with a range of fraud and corruption offenses in the US, where prosecutors accuse them, among other things, of pocketing US$150 million in bribes and kickbacks.

Swiss federal prosecutors are looking into shady deals behind the decisions to award the World Cup competitions in 2018 and 2022 to Russia and Qatar respectively.

There is, of course, a long tradition of racketeering in professional sports. US mobsters have had a major interest in boxing, for example. Even the once gentlemanly game of cricket has been tainted by the infiltration of gambling networks and other crooked dealers. FIFA is just the richest, most powerful, most global milk cow of all.

Some have likened FIFA to the mafia, and Blatter, born in a small Swiss village, has been called “Don Blatterone.” This is not entirely fair. So far as we know, no murder contracts have ever been issued from FIFA’s head office in Zurich. But the organization’s secrecy, its intimidation of the rivals to those who run it and its reliance on favors, bribes and called debts do show disturbing parallels to the world of organized crime.

One could, of course, choose to see FIFA as a dysfunctional organization, rather than a criminal enterprise, but even in this more charitable scenario. Much of the malfeasance is a direct result of the federation’s total lack of transparency. The entire operation is run by a close-knit group of men — women play no part in this murky business — all of whom are beholden to the boss.

This did not start under Blatter. It was his predecessor, the sinister Brazilian Joao Havelange, who turned FIFA into a corrupt and vastly rich empire by incorporating more developing countries, whose votes for the bosses were bought with all manner of lucrative marketing and media deals.

Huge amounts of corporate money from Coca-Cola and Adidas went sloshing through the system, all the way to the roomy pockets of Third World potentates and, allegedly, of Havelange himself. Coke was the main sponsor of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, ruled in those days by a brutal military junta.

Blatter is not quite as uncouth as Havelange. Unlike the Brazilian, he does not openly associate with mobsters.

However, his power, too, relies on the votes of countries outside Western Europe, and their loyalty, too, is secured by the promise of TV rights and commercial franchises.

In the case of Qatar, this meant the right to stage the World Cup in an utterly unsuitable climate, in stadiums hastily built under terrible conditions by underpaid foreign workers with few rights.

Complaints from slightly more fastidious Europeans are often met with accusations of neo-colonialist attitudes or even racism. Indeed, this is what makes Blatter a typical man of our times. He is a ruthless operator who presents himself as the champion of the developing world, protecting the interests of Africans, Asians, Arabs and South Americans against the arrogant West.

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