3 June ~ This may not be a popular time to do so, but someone needs to put in a good word for FIFA. The debacle of the World Cup bidding process and Sepp Blatter's re-election have indeed been shocking, though surely not surprising to anyone who has followed the way the organisation works over the past decades. But there are at least three good reasons to temper justified anger with some humility, particularly from an English point of view. First, the alternative to the oligarchy created by Blatter and his predecessor, João Havelange, is not necessarily one with the "greater transparency and accountability" FA chairman David Bernstein and others have apparently always wanted (or at least since the World Cup decision).
Until Havelange ousted Sir Stanley Rous as president in 1974, FIFA was run by those now protesting loudest – as an old boys' club for white, western countries. Despite wandering in and out of FIFA on grounds of snobbery and amateurism until the Second World War, England supplied three of its first six presidents, who ruled for nearly half its first 70 years. So hidebound was it that in 1966 African and Asian countries boycotted the World Cup over the failure to open up qualification spots and Rous's pusillanimous attitude to Rhodesia and South Africa.
Today's fans may gag at FIFA's pious humbug of international fair play, "the football family" and "the good of the game", but it wasn't until the British and French were kicked out of its ruling councils that the world governing body at least took the "world" part of that title seriously. It may not have been for altruistic reasons – Havelange built his powerbase on those who felt rejected by Rous's paternalism – but it was the key moment that eventually allowed Africa, Asia, north America and Australasia to become serious players in world football.
Second, that globalisation has been a huge success. Expanding the World Cup from 16 countries to 32 (bitterly opposed by most of the British media at the time) has given countries from Togo to Trinidad a realistic stake in it. Broadly, taking the tournament to the US, Japan/Korea and South Africa has been a triumph – exactly the kind of progress a world governing body should be expected to make. Of course, a desirable outcome does not necessarily reflect an honourable process, which is why the current crisis was prompted by the choice of Qatar for 2022. Previously dubious dealings over World Cup hosts had delivered at least defensible results – this time both the process and the result were indefensible.
The argument that 2022 represents another geographical landmark for the World Cup is laughably inadequate when applied to Qatar, but the principle is right. And FIFA's progressive side is not limited to geographical spread. It has done commendable work to expand age-group tournaments (also much to the benefit of smaller and poorer countries) and the women's game. By all means, question the motives and the practices involved in those decisions, but at least acknowledge the facts. If there's a good reason to deplore this summer's women's World Cup and men's Under-20 World Cup I'd like to know what it is (apart from the fact that Jack Warner was involved in choosing the venue for the latter).
Third, calls for transparency and accountability tend to overlook the nature of FIFA's constituent parts. Most of the more than 200 nations it controls are neither democratic nor transparent. More to the point, it does not deal with governments, but with national football associations. If the FA believes it is so urgent for FIFA to reform itself, maybe it should look at the state of its own governance first. It may not be corrupt in the crude "$40,000 in an envelope" sense, but it is hardly a model of ethical or even competent administration. And if that is true of England, how much more so is it of associations in much smaller countries, operating in a much less open political environment.
Yes, we should hope and demand better from FIFA, but we should not expect it to be like Switzerland just because Blatter is Swiss. Like the UN, it has to balance the admirable ambition of allowing all countries access to the world stage with the reality that many bring questionable baggage with them. Needless to say, FIFA must challenge corruption rather than reinforcing it in the post-Blatter era (when that finally arrives). But if it does so, it should be able to trumpet its real achievements with slogans that even fans feeling sullied by recent events can get behind. Mike Ticher