Corporate exploitation of 'the people's game'

Issue 

Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals

By Andrew Jennings

HarperSport, 2006

386 pages, $32.95 (pb)

Sepp Blatter's bad odour was escaping publicly in 2002. The president of FIFA, the world's largest sports organisation, copped a barrage of boos and heckling from the 65,000-strong crowd at his opening speech at the 2002 soccer World Cup in Seoul. Swiss crowds joined in the act in 2003, as did the crowd at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium for the English League Cup final in 2004, along with Chinese soccer fans at Beijing's Workers' Stadium at the opening ceremony of the Asian Cup.

The soccer fans knew their man, as Andrew Jennings, an investigative journalist for England's Daily Mail, shows in his book on the fraud, corruption and self-enrichment of Joseph S. Blatter and his cronies at the top of the governing body of world soccer. FIFA stages the World Cup — selling the television and marketing rights — and seriously big money is up for grabs.

The biggest heist involved International Sport and Leisure (ISL), the recipient of US$2.3 billion worth of FIFA business, including winning the television and marketing rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cups through a crooked tendering process and a secret bribe of 1 million Swiss francs that mistakenly arrived in FIFA's bank account, from where Blatter moved it to the private account of the intended FIFA bureaucrat. For years, ISL had paid bribes to key people in sport, including FIFA officials, who put their signatures to lucrative marketing and television contracts with ISL.

The rise of Blatter consolidated the corporate world's takeover of international soccer. In 1974, the Brazilian businessman Joao Havelange defeated patrician Englishman Stanley Rous for FIFA president by promising African and Asian soccer associations more World Cup slots in a less Eurocentric finals system. Havelange also rode to power on Adidas money that bought him votes from national soccer association delegates who were the recipients of Adidas soccer "development" money and, in some cases, wads of cash in plain envelopes.

The reward for Adidas was an advertising bonanza and soon Coca-Cola, McDonald's and other sponsors (retagged as "partners") hopped on the bandwagon, with inducements and kickbacks freely flowing to their FIFA benefactors who controlled access to the marvellous marketing medium of international soccer.

Blatter's election campaign for president in 1998, when an ageing Havelange stood down, set in motion a gravy train to woo voters. Gifts of office equipment, and one alleged cheque for US$50,000 to one regional African official, were offered as sweeteners. Blatter's bribe bag was injected with cash from an astronomically rich Qatari billionaire and FIFA executive, and, as Blatter put it in his quaintly understated way, a few other "minor sponsors".

There was also a bumper vote-buying season during the 2002 FIFA presidential election. The vice-president of African football was offered US$100,000 (half in cash, the rest in soccer equipment for his country) to change his vote to Blatter and influence a dozen others against voting for Blatter's African challenger. It is believed, reports Jennings, that 18 African national soccer officials sold their country's votes to Blatter.

Blatter had also wooed African votes by promising that an African country would win the hosting venue for the 2006 World Cup. It was a masterly ruse — publicly letting everyone believe that he was backing South Africa but privately letting Germany know it would win. When the Oceania region representative, New Zealand's Charlie Dempsey, conveniently went missing on the day of the vote, Germany snuck through 12-11. For his services to Blatter, Dempsey was made an honorary life member of FIFA, with its perks of first class air travel, tickets and hospitality at all future World Cups.

The perks from administering the wealthiest sport in the world are lush. The plummest seats are on FIFA's 24-member executive committee. Every member has a private expenses account, with no requirement to produce expense claims documentation. Blatter's first order of business after his fraudulent election in 1998 was to replenish his expense account. Into this went the costs of champagne, shoes, personal laundry, Cartier and Longines watches, tickets for an England-Poland game, a handmade suit and jewellery. This "golden goose" expense account also laid for Blatter family and friends.

To top up the bucket of swill, Blatter also receives a six-figure "loyalty bonus" every year for the rest of his tenure. His total salary remains an official FIFA secret. Jennings estimates it in the order of 4 million Swiss francs, not counting an allowance for his rooftop apartment of 8000 francs a month, a top-of-the-line Mercedes and a pension of unknown largesse. Blatter is also in line for a payout of 24 million francs should he ever be sacked.

Blatter has been careful to mix purges of his rivals with buying the gratitude of the rest of FIFA's bureaucrats by introducing a US$50,000 salary for all executive committee members, the tax tab picked up by FIFA. In 2005, Blatter replenished the trough, doubling the tax-free salary to US$100,000 a year. Travel allowance for their expensive tastes while on FIFA business is US$500 a day. This is the language understood by business people, like the vice-president of the US Soccer Federation, one of those US entrepreneurs who rose to the top echelons of world soccer having never played the game, but spotting a "lucrative business opportunity" in the commercialisation of sport.

FIFA insiders also struck a rich seam of wealth in the FIFA goldmine by placing vast orders for World Cup tickets that are then sold for resale to touts, scalpers, brokers and package tour operators. A substantial proportion of the islands of Antigua and Barbuda (with a population of just 70,000, on an average wage of just US$170 a week) suddenly seemed to want to travel to France for the 1998 World Cup when the general secretary of the Antigua & Barbuda Football Association placed an order for 2964 tickets for that tournament.

The general secretary had earlier demonstrated his financial integrity when that country's US$1 million FIFA grant was skimmed to finance a new airconditioner for his house, a salary of US$1000 a week (five times the average wage of Antiguans) and various allowances and travel junkets while laying off staff and suspending the national men's and youth teams because of the diversion of the money that should have been theirs.

When Trinidad and Tobago qualified for the 2006 World Cup, that country's soccer general secretary, the Blatterite FIFA vice-president and millionaire Jack Warner, joined the ticket scam action, clearing a profit of US$3200, or 60%, on each ticket-travel package sold by his travel agency's monopoly of tickets. Warner was also chair of the FIFA youth committee that gave the Under-17 World Youth Championship for 2001 to Trinidad, a happy decision for the Warner family group of companies that had the fast food and beverage contract, the software contract, the travel contract and the accommodation contract.

And all the while, Blatter dreams of a two-yearly World Cup — twice the frequency, twice the television fees, twice the corporate sponsorship, twice the perks — that is, when the former president of the "World Society of Friends of Suspenders" (who regretted "women replacing suspender belts with pantyhose") isn't blurting out to the press his desire to see women soccer players wearing tighter, more buttock-defining shorts.

But FIFA is not easily embarrassed, whether by the voyeuristic fetishes of its president or a history of cosying up to tyrants under the guise of "keeping politics out of sport". FIFA presidents have enjoyed the company of Brazil's and Argentina's murderous military juntas of past decades, and the dictator of Nigeria where, as the regime hanged the writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa, and eight other dissidents, Blatter awarded that country the rights to host the 1997 World Youth Soccer Championship. FIFA does business wherever it's found.

Jennings's book is a volatile mix of the demonstrated, alleged and plausibly speculative, whose damning potential causes Blatter and his FIFA acolytes to slam down telephones, deploy solicitors and post beefy security guards to prevent Jennings attending press conferences. The off-field corporate and bureaucratic exploiters of "the people's game" deserve every bit as much attention as the exploits of the Kewells and Zidanes on the field.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.