Once upon a time, FIFA was not corrupt, it was just a Eurocentric empire run for the good of a few countries in western Europe unwilling to open the doors of the World Cup to the rest of the world. Those were the 1960s, when Englishman Stanley Rous’ FIFA preferred to pander to the racist South African football association over finding ways to integrate the developing world into its halls of power. Or when Rous let games take place in the bloodstained torture chamber of the Pinochet regime in Chile.
I suppose those were the good ol’ days.
As Tim Vickery puts it in an important historical reminder of all that today, there is a reason much of the rest of the world is less up in arms about the Blatter era than the English press.
There was no pre-Havelange and Blatter garden of Eden — just a different FIFA with different defects. With its lack of historical context it is unclear whether the current hysteria in the English press is motivated by a genuine desire to carry the game forward on a global basis — or by nostalgia for when English rule was unchallenged.
The lack of accountability of the current FIFA is surely unsustainable, the quasi-feudal personal fiefdoms that develop inside the organization are disturbing and the fat-cat lifestyle of some of those at the top makes the stomach turn. But for all its flaws and problems, it is not hard to understand why much of the developing world prefers the post-Havelange FIFA to what came before.
Of course, from any objective standpoint of the good of world soccer, the fact that FIFA was f*cked up in the pre-Havelange era doesn’t make it any more right for it to be f*cked up in the post-Havelange era. Havelange and Blatter have made corruption and commercial exploitation a way of life in the sport’s global governing bodies. That may beat colonialist arrogance as a defining ruling trait, but not by a lot.
The cesspool of corruption that has followed the game’s drastic commercialisation under Havelange/Blatter is a great betrayal of the movement that overthrew Rous’ arrogant rule. The overthrow of Eurocentric rule in the 1970s was born of a genuine desire to spread the game around the world and allow more nations into the World Cup, a development that has allowed it to become a kaleidoscope of global talent on display.
Back then, there were administrators from the developing world who wanted to use their growing voice within the game to end discrimination and racism in sport, and to protect world soccer from the deleterious effects of rampant commercialism.
What would Ydnekatchew Tessema, the head of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in the 1970s and a true visionary of the game from Ethiopia, make of today’s farcial FIFA election? Or that each FIFA confederation (perhaps excluding UEFA) is run by a tainted leader?
It was Tessema who helped forge the coalition that ousted Rous in 1974 with the election of Havelange, but it was not with CAF being used as a tool of Havelange – rather, it was a necessary move by CAF to end the roadblock to African development Rous seemed insistent upon. As Paul Darby wrote in his excellent book Africa, Football and FIFA:
The fact that Tessema was in a position to threaten the withdrawal of African support for Havelange’s presidential challenge illustrates that CAF was not only gaining confidence to assert itself within world football politics but was also beginning to recognise the potential that its voting powers offered the African continent. Indeed, it is clear from African accounts of the 1974 FIFA Congress . . . that the African nations did not see themselves merely as pawns in a power struggle for the control of FIFA. Instead, they saw Havelange as the means through which to achieve a realignment of the distribution of power and privilege within world football which would more adequately reflect their growing stature.
Tessema led the push for Africa to receive more places at the World Cup by fighting for the principle that each nation should have one vote within the governing body, one that Rous had tried to circumvent. Rous was blunt about his belief developing nations did not deserve the same rights within the global game:
Many people are convinced that it is unrealistic, for example, that a country like England, where the game started and was first organised, or that experienced countries like Italy and France, who have been pillars of FIFA and influential in its problems and in world football affairs for so many years, should have no more than equal voting rights with any of the newly created countries of Africa and Asia.
Tessema was curt in his response to this patronising attitude.
Although we acknowledge the role played by certain continents in the creation of FIFA, its development and their moral, material and financial contributions, we estimate that democratic rule dictates that all rights and duties that form an international organisation should be the same for all. This is why in the framework of legitimacy, and by following a process consistent with the interests of world football and its unity, a progressive equilibrium of the representation in the heart of FIFA and its competition is required.
At the same time, Tessema was cautious about submitting to the tide of dollars flooding into the sport: Tessema fought against alcohol and tobacco sponsorship in African football, and warned against the consequences of young talent leaving African shores. In the mid-1980s, not long before his premature death from cancer, Tessema stated:
African football must make a choice! Either we keep our players in Africa with the will power of reaching one day the top of the international competitions and restore African people a dignity that they long for; or we let our best elements leave their countries, thus remaining the eternal suppliers of raw material to the premium countries, and renounce, in this way, to any ambition. When the rich countries take away from us, also by naturalisation, our best elements, we should not expect any chivalrous behaviour on their part to help African football.
It is sadly now the case that FIFA under the Havelange-Blatter regime has largely made African football a pawn for its own needs by submitting world football to the power of money for its own rapacious greed, with the corruption that has wrought around the world. That money is now the tool by which Blatter maintains his fiefdom, and that corrupt the successors of Tessema. There are no Tessemas today.
Nor is there any chivalry in the way FIFA operates. One example can be seen in the distribution of money from the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa – most of the money, of course, kept by FIFA itself.
Sepp Blatter explained that the money actually paid out was to be given to those who had developed young talent. “We are pleased that we can share the success of the 2010 FIFA World Cup with the clubs by providing them a share of the benefits of our flagship event, in particular to recognise their efforts in the development of young players.”
Those payments did not go to the countries from which these players developed and that desperately need it, but to the rich European clubs who poached them at young ages. The largest payments from FIFA after the 2010 World Cup went to clubs from England ($5,952,133.30), Germany ($4,740,666.70), Italy ($3,880,666.70), Spain ($3,699,066.70), France ($2,202,666.70) and the Netherlands ($1,858,266.70). The first African nation in the list is South Africa, with its clubs receiving $662,666.70.
FIFA uses its largesse to cement the support that earns Blatter 186 votes even after all the revelations of the past year, and indeed, past decade – the rest of the world is also bought off by dubious development programmes whose monies often end up in brown envelopes, as we wonder where the development actually is.
FIFA has certainly overseen a massive expansion of the game’s popularity worldwide since the Rous era, and part of that does explain the continued support for the Blatter regime as Vickery says. The English FA’s hypocrisy is hard to stomach, given their willingness to play FIFA’s game until their failed 2018 World Cup bid and the lonely fight against FIFA’s obvious corruption that Andrew Jennings was left to.
Still, that is no reason for the rest of the world to say that makes turning a blind eye to Blatter OK. FIFA has co-opted and corrupted the growth of world soccer for its own benefit rather than fostered it in a truly beneficial way for the grassroots of the sport – at least in the postwar era. The history of the treatment of women’s football (short shorts?!) or the struggle it took for African football to gain recognition in the halls of FIFA is evidence of that, nevermind the blatant bribery present and submission to the power of the dollar above all. The support for Blatter in the FIFA Congress is not high-minded, it is deeply self-interested.
And when we are left hoping for sponsors to save the world’s game from FIFA, remember this. The last few weeks have certainly dented FIFA and Blatter, but it’s hard to see where the movement to truly reform it for the good of the goddamn game will come from in this day and age.