Thursday, May 28, 2015

The real stakes behind the FIFA scandal

When the arrests of FIFA officials, leading probably to the overhaul of the entire organization, were announced a couple of days ago, many well-meaning and reasonable people were delighted: these guys are crooks and it is good that finally somebody strong enough was able to stand in their way and stop them in their misdeeds. My argument here will be to show that while this reaction is understandable it either does not know or ignores much broader implications of what the “cleaning” of FIFA’s  Augean stables really means and may entail.

Now, to be quite clear, I will not discuss here two points.

1) I will not discuss whether the indicted officials are corrupt or not, or whether FIFA is corrupt. I take it that they are. 

2) I will not discuss what motivated US authorities to suddenly come up with the indictment. I believe that there are political motives behind the move but whether I am right or wrong does not affect my argument. 

To understand what FIFA is, one has to go back into history. Not unlike the International Olympic  Committee, FIFA was founded by aristocratic European white men. It was ruled as you would expect Rhodesia to have been ruled while it was a colony: through a combination of discrimination, benevolence and autocracy, from the first World Cup in 1930 to the late 1960s. While after World War II practically all countries participated, the pegging order was unmistakable: rich European countries first, then several Latin American countries that wrested some power because they were soccer giants, and then the rest was just an indistinguishable mass. 

The “aristocrats” called all the shots. I remember how in the first World Cup I watched live (on TV, obviously), in 1966, in England, Stanley Rous, then the president of FIFA, single-handedly decided to change the venue of the semi-final match between England and Portugal 24 hours before it was to be played. England did not want to move away from Wembley. As simple as that. That’s the way FIFA was ruled in its uncorrupt incarnation. 

The election of Joao Havelange, the head of the Brazilian federation, in 1974 was a geopolitical earthquake and the reflection of the changing relations of power between the Third World and the “old” Europe. In effect, non-European countries, after decolonization, were much more conscious of their  power, in soccer especially, and Havelange was their candidate. 

When Havelange became the head of FIFA, as he describes in his memoirs,  the secretariat had 8 people and they lived hand-to-mouth. But then the veritable bonanza of soccer revenues occurred, and by the time Havelange left in 1998, FIFA’s revenues were running into billions of dollars. Havelange introduced or allowed corruption and was later involved in several separate financial scandals in Brazil. 

So, while to understand the first phase of FIFA, you have to think of how colonies were run, to understand the second phase, or rather the third, the Blatter phase, you have to think of how newly independent countries with an entrenched elite and sudden inflow of natural resource money are run by populist leaders. 

That’s where Sepp Blatter’s comes in. Like every populist who wants to create a more inclusive society and displace the old elite, Blatter had to create his own constituency. He created it by spreading the new soccer wealth to the associations in Africa, Asia, and South and Central America. But the conduits for this wealth redistribution were local caciques who would support Blatter and the top nomenklatura of FIFA only if their federations got some money and they themselves were allowed to keep some too. 

Thus the decentralization of power, especially to the African nations, and the spread of the game to the rest of the world occurred together with increasing corruption within FIFA. Indeed, like in many populist regimes, the only way to change the power relations is to try to create a new elite from the hitherto disenfranchised populace that supports the new leader if he plies it with cheap bread and wine. But it is wrong to believe that the whole story is one of corruption only: corruption is an integral part of a political machinery that delivers benefits throughout: new training facilities for the youth in Africa, new stadiums, better dressing rooms, nicer jerseys. And indeed it is the decentralization that allowed FIFA to hold World Cups in Japan and South Korea, and against everybody’s prediction, to hold a very successful one in South Africa. The World Cups in Russia, and more importantly in an Arab country, Qatar were just a continuation of this trend.

What is the alternative to this corrupt FIFA? The return to the rule of the few as before the 1970s. And to see how that would look just compare what the corrupt FIFA is doing to popularize sport across the globe and spread the wealth, and what a “clean” organization like the World Tennis Association does: organize top competitions, year in year out, in the same four venues, all in rich countries, with basically the same players and with an audience composed of only global top 1% or rather 1% of the top 1%. No effort to spread the game, to be inclusive or people-friendly.

Or differently, compare FIFA with its UEFA nemesis that runs a very successful Champions’ League in Europe which practically excludes all small counties and clubs. Indeed the stadiums are full, money is plentiful, the soccer pitches are perfect but it is boring to watch every year the same 4 or 5 teams be always  on the top. 

So, the clean FIFA will get rid of African and Asian influence, host World Cups in impeccable stadiums in Germany and the US, become ever more commercialized and ignore ¾ of the poor world. It will make soccer lose its soul. “Everything will be ordered, and the stains of human passions will be lost amid the chromium gleam” (Jacques Ellul). 

Well-meaning people often think that on our menu is both a more inclusive and less corrupt society. But unfortunately, our choices in real life are more likely to be either a more inclusive and less unequal society with greater corruption, or an autocratic, elite-run society with less corruption simply because those in power are already rich and powerful enough. The situation  is the same with FIFA: dirty devolution of power or (seemingly) clean oligarchy.  

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