Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1250, (11 - 17 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The beautiful game has become ugly

FIFA has been shown the yellow card and its head might soon see red. Alaa Abdel-Ghani tracks the spectacular break down of the body that governs the world’s No 1 sport

Al-Ahram Weekly

When Joseph Blatter was re-elected on 29 May in the FIFA presidential vote, the term was for four years.

His term lasted exactly four days.

On 2 June Blatter said he will resign. Since then, worldwide conjecture has been rife as to what happened between Friday and Tuesday which forced Blatter into his sensational turnaround.

However, the reason is as clear as the organisation that Blatter heads is murky: just three days before the vote, seven top FIFA officials, including two vice-presidents, were arrested in Switzerland, among 14 new indictments in an FBI investigation which alleges they accepted bribes and kickbacks estimated at more than $150 million over a whopping 24-year period.

Blatter might have initially underestimated the anger of FIFA’s electorate over the scandal, him winning the presidency despite the scandal, the scope of the US government’s case and the growing discomfort of sponsors. He might have thought he could weather the storm, as he has done numerous times in 17 years as FIFA’s supremo in previous corruption cases which engulfed the organisation.

But this time was different. The FBI had entered the scene, arrests of big names had been made, the investigation was going to be widened, and under that sort of relentless pressure, Blatter folded. He probably put himself in the place of some of his besmirched colleagues, escorted at dawn from a five-star hotel in a police swoop behind the cover of a white sheet held in front of the cameras, being led to a Swiss prison.

That still might happen. Of four other people charged earlier, one of them, ex-FIFA official Chuck Blazer has become a whistleblower, admitting he took bribes related to South Africa’s 2010 bid. Jack Warner, another former vice-president, says he plans to spill the beans about all of FIFA’s dirty linen, including that of Blatter.

If Blazer and Warner tell all, Blatter might not last the six months he says he intends to stay until a new president is elected.

The situation is reminiscent of that of Hosni Mubarak who shortly after the eruption of the 2011 Revolution in Egypt, said he would step down as president but only after elections that were six months down the road. That decision did not go down well with the Tahrir crowd, just as Blatter’s decision has not placated his opposition. Mubarak was forced to leave after a few more days; the same might happen with Blatter.

This is what happens when you head an organisation that has no meaningful oversight and no requirement for transparent bookkeeping, and which is an autonomous body not affiliated to any government and consequently pretty much not accountable to anybody.

Even when FIFA decided to clean up its act a bit, instead of a good scrubbing it used only a broom. It hired an independent investigator, American lawyer Michael Garcia to investigate the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding processes. But Garcia’s two-year, 430-page report was not published, whittled down by FIFA, naturally bereft of all the meat, to a skeleton summary which Garcia called “‘incomplete and erroneous”. Garcia quit weeks later over FIFA’s handling of his inquiry. The way the entire report was managed, or purposely mismanaged, reopened the debate about the validity of the bidding process.

The result of FIFA’s oyster lockdown to outside eyes is a lengthening list of charges and accusations. The latest FBI case against FIFA is an alleged $10 million bribe which investigators say was paid to Warner and Blazer in return for voting in favour of South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup. And then there is Ireland which seems to have been given millions in a confidential payout after threatening legal action in the wake of Thierry Henry’s handball that led to the goal that ended Irelan’s chances of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. In other words, this was hush money. FIFA bought Ireland’s silence.

Now that Brazilian authorities and the FBI are also looking into the contracts signed in the run-up to the 2014 World Cup, the claims mean that the votes for the 1998, 2006, 2010, 2018 and 2022 tournaments are now under scrutiny in some way.

Of all the World Cups, the upcoming two have come under the closest scrutiny, especially that of Qatar. Five years ago, when FIFA officials voted to let the desert emirate of Qatar host the 2022 World Cup, charges that the super-wealthy Qataris bought the tournament came almost immediately. Qatar is one of the worst possible places to hold the summer event.

Temperatures routinely go above 50 degrees centigrade. Even worse, most of the work in the emirate is done by “guest” workers, and human rights advocates say at least 1,200 of them have died in brutal temperatures and tough working conditions as they build the venues.

The FIFA delegates who voted for Qatar knew the country was boiling in summer ­— before, during and after the vote -- yet voted for it all the same, despite warnings about safety hazards to players and fans issued by a FIFA committee. Qatar said it would air-condition its stadiums but of course it could not AC its streets, so FIFA decided to move the World Cup from summer to winter, an unprecedented shift which will create havoc for European domestic schedules.

It has just come out that Russia and Qatar could lose the right to host their respective 2018 and 2022 World Cups if evidence is found of corruption in the bidding process. Domenico Scala, head of FIFA’s auditing and compliance committee, said the awards could be annulled if Qatar and Russia received bribes. He said however that such evidence has not been provided so far. Scala’s comments are the first by a senior FIFA official to even open up the possibility of either Russia or Qatar being stripped of the right to host the football extravaganza.

So, if new information comes to light, if let’s say millions of dollars changed hands in the selection process, Russia or Qatar or both may end up losing their World Cups. Nobody, at least outside of FIFA, would ever accept that a country bribed its way to being a World Cup host.

But one tricky scenario might be if it is found that two, perhaps three bought votes from the 24 FIFA people who were voting, went to Qatar, Russia or both. It remains to be seen whether that would be enough to annul their World Cups.

Egypt was not left out of FIFA’s multifarious scheming. One of the bidders for 2010, Egypt now alleges that Warner asked for a $7 million bribe to vote for Egypt. On TV the other day, former Egypt sports minister Alieddine Hilal said Egypt’s FA president at the time Al-Dahshouri Harb met with Warner in the United Arab Emirates and had asked for the money. Helal said he and other officials on the 2010 bid committee have been silent for the 11 years since losing because — and this sounds reasonable — they did not have any proof and also because it would have looked like Egypt was blaming FIFA for its horrendous result. After all, Egypt got a big fat zero vote count for 2010, and a big fat humiliation to go with it.

What’s happening within FIFA is not so different from the 2002 Olympic Winter Games bid scandal which involved allegations of bribery used to win the rights to host the Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the early days of that scandal, an IOC spokesman said the group could not control all its members, who were spread throughout the world and visited bidding cities on their own, almost the exact same words used by Blatter to exonerate himself: “I can’t monitor everybody”. But this is where the similarities end. The allegations resulted in the expulsion of several IOC members, and the adoption of new IOC rules. The IOC has been quiet ever since.

Not so FIFA where it has long been an open secret that votes are bought and sold like in a weekend open fruit and vegetable market.  

Blatter was aided in no small margin by the little folks, retaining the loyalty of the many smaller countries in Africa and Asia, a bloc that is enough to counter his critics in Europe and elsewhere. He was very generous to Africa in particular, doling out annual grants and bonus payments for World Cups. He also used the lack of good governance in many of these countries, great places for corruption. Some of these countries so badly needed the money that many probably couldn’t care less if FIFA is indeed corrupt.

So Blatter lived to see another day but not before severe damage was inflicted upon him and the FIFA organisation he runs.

The sweeping charges levelled against his associates — racketeering stemming from an alleged widespread culture of bribery and kickbacks, in some cases over decades — should shake any president of any organisation. It did, even somebody like Blatter who had seemed impervious, even unreceptive, to all past allegations of FIFA mismanagement and fraud.

Blatter will probably not remain in FIFA for another six months. As the FBI and Swiss investigations are ongoing and further indictments are expected to follow, he could be gone way before then. Blatter should not stick around. He cannot oversee the new FIFA. In his victory speech, he portrayed himself as the man who can restore trust in an organisation that has been left battered and reeling from years of corruption accusations. But Blatter has been head of FIFA for 17 years, during which allegations of corruption, vote-buying and bribes swirled from day one. If he couldn’t fix the problems then, he won’t be able to fix them now.

Even before the FBI swoop, Blatter was losing his iron grip on FIFA. The tepid backing he received in the vote — 133 of a total 209 — was his worst result since he was first elected in 1998. Blatter triumphed handily in the end after his sole rival Prince Ali of Jordan bowed out before a second round could be held. But Prince Ali had bloodied Blatter’s nose and the dye had been cast.

It’s anybody’s guess who will replace Blatter. It could be Prince Ali or legendary Michel Platini, the head of UEFA which is the strongest if not the biggest FIFA bloc.

Whoever takes over, he has a Mount Everest to climb. As US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said, corruption at FIFA is “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted”. It will be tough for anybody to weed out FIFA’s seedy and greedy, but it is a fine place to start. There must be a campaign to uncover and punish the misdeeds of people who use soccer as a way to enrich themselves and their friends. For too long, FIFA has been allowed to play with massive amounts of money in patronage deals to make key people wealthy. Decisions are made on the basis of maximising personal gains while minimising the fallout.

For the good of the game, all this filth must be kicked out.

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