Sepp Blatter has been re-elected for an unprecedented fifth term as FIFA president. Of course, the Teflon-like Swiss leader’s re-election amid calls for his resignation and a firestorm of criticism for corruption at the heart of the global game is not exactly news. With the support across Asia, Africa and the Americas, the result was widely predicted.
It’s a great story, but nothing new. It is merely the continuation of an all-too-familiar late-modern tale of key figures among the global sporting administrative elite on the take, with their slippery, unashamed leader claiming a familiar (and successful) “few bad apples” defence.
And yet this feels like a wholly destructive narrative, one which seems to have been running for decades in football’s case. There is also light as well as shade in this intriguing tale.
A different story
It is true that watching some of UEFA’s hangdog delegates filing in to vote in the election for FIFA president was a little like recalling the critical abstainer’s view of political plebiscites: no matter how sensibly you vote, the government still gets in. But media interviewers latching on to FIFA delegates from Asia and Africa soon discovered a very different story.
Why was there a need for change, they asked? Why get rid of a man, Sepp Blatter, who has listened to our problems, funded the development of the sport in our marginal locations, and brought World Cups to new continents? Why indeed?
This is an important and powerful rejoinder to a Eurocentric view of football: that the key interests of the international game should naturally revolve largely around the fortunes of the dominant European leagues, their global ambitions and burgeoning television markets. This is also old fashioned thinking.
Indeed, when the British grammar school boy Sir Stanley Rous was ousted as FIFA president in 1974, replaced by the Brazilian entrepreneur Joao Havelange, who promised an expanded World Cup and to give a voice and junior international tournaments to the minnow nations, the easy dominance of Europe in the international game was effectively up. Havelange used sponsors’ money to fund his new regime, a critical ideological shift. Those cosy gentleman’s agreements would soon be gone too that world cups would be hosted in South America and Western Europe on an alternate basis.
Of the first 16 world cups up to 1998, nine were held in Western European countries. In the new century, as things stand, only one of the first six FIFA world cup finals is due to be hosted in Western Europe – an extraordinary power shift on the back of new democratic voting rights for FIFA’s 209 member associations – and amid criticisms of some shady dealing.
FIFA’s official rationale, of course, is that this new direction counters the power of the strong in its civic mission to spread the rewards and grow the game around the globe. This looks like a laudable goal to those who support Blatter and African and Asian national teams have had their successes since, even as domestic leagues have been ransacked for their best players.
Old vs new markets
Havelange’s chosen successor, Blatter, has also carefully minded the interests of FIFA’s new family of corporate sponsors in their own concerns to open up new markets and cement their ties with iconic national football brands. The ten-year link-up between Nike and Team Brazil is only part of this story, with a key allegation in the US indictment against FIFA officials that bribes were paid to secure sponsorship rights to the Brazilian national team.
More than this, Blatter has carefully nurtured his power base among a host of previously ill-considered national federations and in opposition to the perceived arrogance and growing economic strength of the Europeans and their all-conquering elite clubs. Blatter saw, for example, how the FA in England had been neutered by the Premier League and took careful note not to make the same mistakes.
The outcome has been this murky, largely unaccountable international democratic forum in which, on the one hand, smaller nations vie desperately for favour and development funds (and FIFA has actually done something to redirect some of the game’s riches to its poorer outposts). And, on the other hand, we have effectively a personal fiefdom, directed and sustained by corporate interests. Blatter’s great success, of course, has been in sealing himself off from federation corruption stories and convincing his allies that his successor would inevitably mean a move back to old-style European sporting colonialism. Checkmate.
Blatter has survived (again) but he has also been hit potentially below the waterline this time. Even a new generation of FIFA recruits – Jeffrey Webb for example – is implicated now, and the president looks even more like a lame duck leader as a result. Even though UEFA leader and personal friend of Blatter, Michel Platini, seems reluctant to press the European case to the hilt right now, the possibility in the short term of a Western European breakaway or boycott of FIFA cannot be wholly discounted.
Meanwhile, Russia and Qatar are already looking like soiled commodities. And who would the TV and sponsors’ money follow anyway: a “world” event shaped around the European elite, or a stained FIFA World Cup without its key players? Go figure.