So the world got what it wanted: the head, or at least the impending resignation, of Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. Now what?
After the stunning announcement last Wednesday from the Department of Justice and the FBI of the arrest of 14 FIFA executives and marketing people—only the beginning, we were told—the 79-year-old Blatter appeared to be next. Instead, he easily won re-election at the FIFA Congress two days later and once again, despite the vitriol hurled at him, especially within Europe, appeared to be the ultimate survivor. But in a hasty press conference at FIFA headquarters 6 p.m. Swiss time on Tuesday (which was uncharacteristically 45 minutes late), he announced he was resigning, until another election is organized. Who knows what can and will happen between now and whenever that is? Something like a piece of Dario Fo’s absurdist theater.
“FIFA needs a profound restructuring,” said Blatter, the elfin country boy from southwestern Switzerland who developed into a masterful politician and has been president since 1998.
Yes, FIFA has been a corrupt organization, without term-limits, known for conflicts of interest, bribes, kickbacks, and nepotism. Fans, observers, journalists, and governments all kind of knew. Most of us, though, care about what happens on the field and get more worked up about cheating on the pitch—you call that a penalty?—than behind the scenes.
FIFA and its officials understood this. Over the last 18 years, while we oohed-and-ahhed at the pyrotechnics of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Cristiano Ronaldo and bought replica jerseys from such sterling companies like Nike and Adidas, FIFA was allegedly burning in the form of wire transfers into American banks (apparently the new Swiss banks).
What’s incredible is that soccer, already the world’s most popular sport when Blatter took over, has only gained in popularity since, including in stubborn holdouts like the U.S. and China. His chief allies were in Asia and Africa, where he was well-liked and where the World Cup was held in 2002 (South Korea and Japan) and 2010 (South Africa). Don’t believe all of the recent media hysteria: FIFA and Blatter have done some good.
Around much of the globe, FIFA's institutional corruption had always been met with a collective that’s-the-way-of-the-world shrug. FIFA is a large, international organization, and the corruption was vast, far-flung, and difficult to prove. It would take a lot of time, money, and persistence from investigators. It was not a few old men in Zurich; it was not three men in a room. FIFA had partners in crime, in governments, sponsors, and maybe in the media.
FIFA, a “non-profit” organization, seemed to operate on the understanding that everyone could be bought. (Even well-regarded actors like Tim Roth, Sam Neill, and Gerard Depardieu took roles in the recent United Passions, a movie about FIFA, paid for by FIFA, which opens in the U.S.—and how’s this for timing—on Friday.)
But Americans took the whattaya-gonna-do? and turned it into can-do. Which is great. Who wants corruption? But how do you fix this without a top-to-bottom reformation, and within each region’s confederation and each nation’s federation? There’s a lot of stench to go around, and the headwinds are still to come.
There surely are some honest folk in FIFA, but they’re hard to see at the moment. Blatter’s most-recent opponent, who he defeated rather easily on Friday, was a Jordanian Prince, Ali Bib Al Hussein, the son of King Hussein. He’s already announced that he will run again, whether royalty is a good idea for what’s supposed to be a democratic organization or not. Michel Platini—the great ex-player, who once celebrated a goal a couple of hours after 39 people were killed in Brussels’ Heysel Stadium in the 1985 European Cup Final—is the head of UFEA (the Union of European Football Associations) and has been mentioned in the past as a potential Blatter successor. But he voted for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup.
What’s needed is a fresh start, possibly FIFA’s equivalent of Bart Giamatti, the Yale University president who became Major League Baseball commissioner and set out to clean up the game. The late Uruguayan writer and thinker Eduardo Galeano, author of, among many a political text, Soccer in Sun and Shadow, would have been ideal, even on an interim, symbolic level, just to show the world that FIFA has been enlightened. But a figure like this is a pipe dream—and anyway, Blatter is still in charge. The next president, meanwhile, could be another operator from the inside, with an acute sense of shifting geopolitics (which Blatter was blessed with) and ties to god knows what. The neu-FIFA might look like the old FIFA. It could get worse before it gets better—or it might not get better after Blatter’s resignation announcement, which some appear to be celebrating as some kind of Liberation Day. History, too, depending on who writes it, may end up being somewhat gentler to Blatter than most are now.
Andrew Jennings, the British journalist, was the first to report in-depth on the corruption with his 2006 book Foul: The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote-Rigging, and Ticket Scandals. The doo-doo really hit the fan in 2010 when the 2018 and 2022 tournaments were awarded to Russia and Qatar to the outrage of much of the world, especially England and the U.S., who felt they were entitled to the tournaments. The FBI investigation began the following year.
Domenico Scala, the independent chairman of the audit and compliance committee said at today’s press conference: “Now is the time for FIFA to move forward. There is significant work to be done in order to regain the trust of the public and to fundamentally reform the way in which people see FIFA. These steps will ensure that the organization cannot be used by those seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the game.”
Thing is, everyone is trying to make a buck on this game, the media too. Everyone, it seems, has an angle. There’s a lot of piousness and grandstanding and hypocrisy to go around. Here in the U.S., as well.
Fans most likely want to put this behind them—Dr. Evil has been revealed—and get on with nutmegs and through balls and bicycle kicks. But soccer is equal parts messy and Messi. The UEFA Champions League—Europe’s Super Bowl for club teams—will be played this Saturday in Berlin. It will feature Juventus (at the heart of a match-fixing scandal in Italy just 10 years ago) and Barcelona, the favorite team of writers and intellectuals the world over, whose sponsor, emblazoned across its famous blaugrana jersey, is Qatar Airways. It had long been UNICEF.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that FIFA "doesn’t pay Swiss taxes." It does pay taxes, just not as much as businesses do.