FIFA scandal fuelled by corporate riches, political manoeuvres

Sepp Blatter.
Friday, June 12, 2015

The corruption scandal that has hit FIFA, culminating in the recent arrest of seven FIFA officials in Switzerland and the resignation of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, has focused attention on the world’s most powerful football (soccer) body.

You have to go back to FIFA's founding to understand the factors that have led to these events. It was formed in 1904 to oversee international competition among various European football associations.

Over time, it has expanded and now has 209 national associations. It is responsible for the organisation of major football tournaments, particularly the World Cup (since 1930) and the Women’s World Cup, which began in 1991.

In its earliest years, FIFA was run like an amateur club operating on a shoestring budget. As late as the early '70s it was still a cottage industry with few full-time staff.

This changed in 1974 when Joao Havelange, the head of the Brazilian Football Association, beat the incumbent Englishman Sir Stanley Rous in a fiercely contested election for the FIFA presidency.

Havelange won by mobilising the votes of football associations in the newly decolonised states of Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, whose members had been ignored by the Europeans who had previously dominated FIFA. As well as respect, he offered them more places at an expanded World Cup and more seats on FIFA's executive.

As world football has become increasingly commercialised, FIFA’s revenues have expanded. In 2013, it generated more than US$1.3 billion and had a net profit of $72 million. Its sponsors include giant multinationals such as McDonald's and Visa.

This vast rise in financial clout inevitably paved the way for corruption. During his time at FIFA, Havelange turned the system of exchange and patronage — fuelled by the spiralling value of the World Cup — into an art form.

There have been rumours over many years about the sleaze within the organisation. FIFA is run like the most private of clubs with little public accountability.

In 2010, a BBC Panorama documentary alleged that three senior FIFA officials were paid huge bribes by FIFA’s marketing partner, International Sports Leisure (ISL), between 1989 and 1999 that FIFA had failed to investigate. A former ISL executive voiced suspicions that ISL had only been awarded the contracts due to bribes.

The program alleged that FIFA required nations bidding to host the World Cup to implement special laws, including blanket tax exemption for FIFA and its sponsors, and limiting workers' rights. This bidding process was kept secret, but the Dutch government revealed them when it refused to agree to such terms when bidding.

With the latest revelations, it is alleged that South Africa paid leading FIFA executive Jack Warner — head of the Caribbean and Central American football association — a $10 million bribe to influence the vote for which nation would host the 2010 World Cup, eventually awarded to South Africa.

The latest developments in FIFA must be seen in the context of the support given by FIFA to making football a truly global sport. Under Blatter, FIFA has invested millions of dollars in infrastructure and projects in Africa and Asia. This explains the huge support he receives from these regions.

Of course, this is largely a corrupt process and the decision-makers know perfectly well that, after a World Cup, giant stadiums will end up as white elephants remaining unused.

With South Africa hosting the cup in 2010, Brazil last year and Russia and Qatar the next two, this means that 2006 host Germany was the last Western country to host the tournament. Britain and the and US were desperate to host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments respectively but were beaten to it.

It therefore seems they wanted to engineer a situation where this could be reversed. Hence the Swiss authorities, together with the FBI, made the dawn raids on top FIFA officials so as to put the organisation in a bad light.

The US tried to get the Latin American countries to play ball, but this latest move has alienated them and backfired badly.

There was a concerted campaign to pressure delegates to vote for the Jordanian candidate for FIFA's presidency, who was viewed as the more pliant pro-Western candidate.

The Western countries have also called for the “one nation, one vote” system to be scrapped as this gives more power to the less powerful nations. English Football Association chairperson Greg Dyke explicitly made this call.

With Russia still under Western economic sanctions, the US is keen to further squeeze Moscow and deny it a chance to showcase its soft power to a global television audience of a billion-plus people.

Besides, there is serious money at stake. The World Cup is the most lucrative sporting event in the world, eclipsing even the Olympics.

Last year's qualifying rounds and final tournament brought in $4.8 billion over four years, creating a positive image of Brazil for millions of foreign visitors. A similar boost for the Russian economy and its image in the world could negate the West’s efforts to isolate Russia in the international community.

Migrant workers are suffering horrendously building the facilities for the Qatar World Cup in 2022. They are mainly from South Asia and reports suggest hundreds have died from unsafe working conditions, mainly because of the extreme heat.

This is a huge scandal, which should be exposed by the labour movement. We should not be fooled by the crocodile tears of Western countries that have suddenly woken up to this when it suited their interests.

We should campaign for a democratic, transparent FIFA that truly represents the interests of the public. The machinations of Blatter and co should be exposed, but we cannot ignore the hypocrisy of the Western interests that have unseated them.

[Reprinted from Socialist Resistance.]

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