Originally published by the Guardian 18 June 2015.
There has long been a simmering feeling that Fifa’s decadent façade is hiding a Pandora’s box of intrigue, shady deals and power-broking that might make up a Shakespearian tragedy.
And then last month we saw high-level Fifa officials being bundled into a van, covered by sheets, facing charges from the FBI. Sepp Blatter promptly won re-election for a fifth term, before later announcing he would be stepping down in December. For the first time in 17 years the Blatter dynasty is finally crumbling.
The task for the panel at a Guardian Live event in London was to try and make sense of what this all means for football.
Football’s Enron moment
Chair of the discussion Ian Prior, the Guardian’s head of sport, said the recent events could be seen as football’s Enron or Lehmann Brothers. The Guardian’s chief sports correspondent, Owen Gibson, was dining with Blatter’s PR man the day before the news broke and said the FBI raid blindsided everybody at Fifa.
“My interpretation is that [Blatter] was stuck within the bubble … he went through the congress believing he’d see off this crisis like he’d seen off every other one,” said Gibson. “He slowly realised the weight of what was set against him. He calculated that politically it was best for him to go now and try and maintain a modicum of control.”
David Goldblatt, author of The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football, regaled the audience with his candid portrayal of the lavish lifestyles lived by Fifa’s top brass, relishing in the undermining of their diamond-encrusted hubris: “They’ve been living the life, sealed and insulated from everything. It was a bit like the Scottish referendum, suddenly various elites had fear in their eyes … and there’s more to come. I can’t wait.”
Blatter the devil you know?
There were few tears shed in the room for Blatter’s imminent exit, but nevertheless an ominous note of warning for what might follow. “It’ll be hard to navigate without that moral black centre,” quipped Guardian columnist Marina Hyde. “We’ll miss Blatter definitely,” she said, adding that whoever replaces him will “just be some other arsehole … but they won’t have the majesty, obviously. It’ll be après moi le deluge”.
Gibson was similarly wary: “The big danger is that he does manage to circle the wagons and we see Fifa shipped off to somewhere in the Middle East to be run by a sheikh who will allow us nowhere near him.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” warned Goldblatt. “The king may be dead but what’s left behind is deeply unpleasant, look at who’s on offer and how they’re going to conduct the process.” He believes the problems with Fifa go far beyond corruption, and gave an impassioned diatribe on the bad governance across world football: “What is the legitimacy of these people to have any authority over football?” he asked.
“We’re dealing with an institution created in 1904 with a theory of sovereignty suitable for Rotary clubs but not for a global institution that holds in trust the singularly most significant globally popular cultural phenomenon,” he said.
“It’s the same for the Football Associations, on what does their legitimacy stand? You’ve got to look at the entire framework. It’s not just about shuffling the deck-chairs.”
An English obsession?
It has often been the party line of many Fifa officials to deride the allegations aimed at them as what Prior called “a peculiarly English obsession”. German football writer Rafael Honigstein was tasked with being the emissary for the views beyond British borders. He described the Fifa corruption as “not a story” for the majority of Europe – with the exception of Germany – and noted England’s interest in it only came about after the failed 2018 World Cup bid.
What followed was a frank postmortem of England’s shortcomings in that fateful campaign, including a cameo from the most notorious handbag in world sport – the Mulberry bag offered to the wife of Jack Warner, former Fifa vice president, by the FA as a foolhardy attempt at a bribe.
Gibson’s assessment was blunt: “We were offering handbags, Qatar were offering gas deals worth $20 million.” Honigstein described England’s bid as “too good … the better your bid is, the less money there is to fall off the wagon”.
Of course, the Americans were the other big losers in the last round of World Cup bidding. It perhaps then came as little surprise that it was the FBI who have rocked the foundations of Fifa’s house of cards. While Gibson acknowledged that it took the resources and reach of the FBI to carry it off, Hyde was a little concerned with another American intervention. “It’s gonna be like ‘Nam,” she said. “I’ve seen the movies. They just can’t get out of this thing. This is their foreign policy now and this is what always happens with their foreign policy: mission creep.”
Kicking on from here
So what happens to football now? There was a general feeling that root and branch reform was needed but doubt whether it might actually occur. Honigstein felt the most pragmatic way forward was to increase the level of oversight of football’s governing body, but said with the sport being “intrinsically corrupt” it’s hard to see how else you could set it up. It was mooted that there would have to be outside pressure, but no agreement on where that might come from.
Hyde was unequivocal in her belief that it was not a matter for government: “It always goes wrong when our politicians get involved in football”. Gibson meanwhile felt some international pressure was needed. Former sports minister, Richard Caborn, just one of a number of esteemed audience members, naturally felt politicians had a vital role to play: “Had it not been for the pressure of a politician you would not have had two non-executive directors on the FA or an independent chair”.
Hyde, Honigstein and Gibson all agreed that once the whistle for kick off is blown, the transgressions of football’s governance are always forgotten, just as they were at Brazil during the World Cup. “Once the tournament started and the tear gas had cleared, everyone was talking about James Rodriguez,” concluded Gibson. And perhaps that is the biggest obstacle to substantive change.