FIFA’s sins laid bare

July 14, 2017
Former FIFA boss Sepp Blatter was sacked for ethics violations.

The Fall of the House of FIFA
David Conn
Yellow Jersey Press, 2017
328 pages

In no breast did the prodigious financial corruption of world football’s administrative elite beat more vigorously than that of Chuck Blazer, the head of football in the North and Central American and Caribbean regional body.

Chuck was not called American soccer’s “Mr Big” for nothing. His bottomless appetite for high-calorie nosh gave him a gargantuan girth, which was matched financially in size by his tax-sheltered bank accounts. These bulged with millions of dollars received through fraud, embezzlement, bribes, perks, gifts and inducements.

Not only could he afford to rent an entire floor of luxury apartments in the prestigious Trump Tower in Manhattan, but he preserved one of them solely for the use of his cats.

The cat story is just one of the juicy tidbits from The Fall of the House of FIFA by Guardian sports journalist (and Manchester City fan), David Conn. It adds to what is by now a widely-known story of how global football’s governing body, FIFA, has personally enriched its leading lights. Private fortunes have been made via bribes and material inducements to vote for FIFA’s top office-holders and World Cup venues, and kickbacks to award broadcast and sponsorship rights.

FIFA’s off-field corruption scandals have led to criminal indictments, arrests or investigations involving 27 of FIFA’s most senior global administrators. Six other FIFA officials (including the FIFA boss of four decades, Sepp Blatter) have been sacked for ethics violations.

The FBI has declared FIFA to be a “racketeering-influenced criminal organisation”, like the Mafia.

The rot started at the top. Blatter had, like a true Godfather, kept a “clean-hands” image. He turned a blind eye to the graft of his lieutenants to guarantee, at election time, his own prestigious position. In return for the top spot, he kept the FIFA financial gravy train well-fuelled for its executive passengers.

Blatter was also able to eschew personal corruption, such as cash bribes in brown envelopes, because of the dizzying scale of the FIFA president’s multi-million dollar annual salary and bonuses, and four-yearly World Cup “performance pay” reward.

The final act of FIFA’s unravelling was prompted by the credulity-stretching decision in 2010 to award the 2022 World Cup to the tiny desert state of Qatar to be held in the sweltering summer. Russia, which won the 2018 World Cup hosting rights at the same time, thoughtfully decided to destroy all computers and other documentary traces that might contain evidence of huge corruption concerning its bid.

The “reform” broom of new FIFA President Gianni Infantino looks to have many gaps, however. He enjoys the perks of the job and its reduced but still generous remuneration, while he has compromised the independence of FIFA’s refurbished oversight committees.

When Infantino came under early suspicion for ethical misbehaviour as president, FIFA’s new ethics body cleared him — rather unsurprisingly for a committee whose members can be sacked by the very people they are investigating.

Unfortunately, Conn spends most of his book simply navigating the intricate maze of FIFA corruption. Too rarely does he lift his eyes to take in the bigger picture — how capitalist globalisation has infected the world game by monetising sport, making profit its main guiding principle.

This system rewards an unaccountable stratum of top administrators — and grossly overpaid elite players and coaches — while starving football’s mass grassroots. The problem with FIFA, like that of capitalism, is the familiar one of too much money and not enough democracy.

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