Empire games

Guy Oliver thinks the English-speaking world should take a more mature attitude towards football’s governing body

England has become the Millwall of world football. No one likes us and, judging by the coverage in the press and the posts on the internet, we really don’t care. To read the comments on the BBC website since the Sunday Times first “exposed” corruption in the FIFA executive committee last November is to enter a delusional fantasy land that only the English could have dreamt up.

The re-election of Sepp Blatter as FIFA president for another four years has been greeted with howls of derision in this country, but the harsh reality is that it shows just how out of touch the English are when it comes to world football. When the dust settles, England and its handful of allies in the Anglophone world – notably the US and Australia – will feel even more isolated, having orchestrated a vicious campaign against FIFA. Many of its 208 member nations feel that this was motivated by sour grapes following the World Cup bidding process and without much basis in fact.

The English have always been deeply suspicious of FIFA. We refused to join when it was set up in 1904 and declined to take part in the first three World Cups, leaving the French to set the agenda for international football with the creation of the World Cup, European Championship and European Cup – another tournament we refused to enter at first.

In contrast, across most of the world FIFA is viewed as a powerful force for good, with all member nations sharing in the revenues made from the World Cup and its sponsors. This has enabled even the poorest nations to fund a national team, to organise league and cup tournaments, and to develop women’s football. Sepp Blatter has been instrumental in this process as well as in the creation of hundreds of technical centres which have helped to improve the standards of players, referees, administrators and coaches worldwide.

In Niamey, the capital of the drought-ridden sub-Saharan country of Niger, something extraordinary happened in October last year. Despite political problems and the fact that most of the population survive on less than a dollar a day, the Niger national team beat defending champions Egypt 1-0 in the qualifiers for next year’s African Cup of Nations. This result was made possible because of the investment FIFA has made in the footballing infrastructure of the country. Niger is not the only example of this development, but, instead of being viewed as a positive thing, we view the money Blatter has steered towards these countries as a callous attempt to cling onto power.

And we wonder why 172 nations blocked the FA’s attempts to get the FIFA presidential election stopped? The rest of the world is just as keen to rid FIFA of corruption as we are, but do they think FIFA is rotten to the core? No. They appreciate what FIFA does for them and they view the machinations of the English game, along with the English press, as the actions of a bully trying to spread its influence and power over weaker and more vulnerable nations. We are deeply unpopular and if there is one thing that has made this worse it was the hugely aggressive stance taken by the Premier League with its Game 39 plans.

If you need one reason as to why England lost the 2018 World Cup bid, the 39th game idea tops the list. The best way to describe the negative impact of the proposal is to imagine that you are Julio Grondona, president of the Argentine FA, a FIFA vice-president and owner of one of the clubs in Argentina’s top division.

Is he honestly going to welcome a game between, say, Manchester City and Aston Villa being played in Buenos Aires? How can he regard it as anything other than poaching by greedy English clubs out to undermine local teams? The Premier League showed a staggering disregard for the local football culture in Argentina and we wonder why Grondona didn’t vote for us. For Buenos Aires read Tokyo, Seoul, Doha, Asunción, Bangkok and Mexico City – all with representatives on the executive committee. Indeed, I’d say we did pretty well to get two votes on December 2.

Let’s hope that FIFA does enact meaningful change to stop the threat of corruption. As a nation, however, we have to engage with the rest of the world and stop sniping from the sidelines. And if we make allegations of corruption, we must back them up with real evidence. Most of all, let’s stop this talk about pulling out of FIFA. None of the major powers would be remotely interested in joining us – as Ángel María Villar, the head of the Spanish federation made perfectly clear during the FIFA Congress. On the other hand, with just the US, Scotland and Australia standing in our way, we might even win a World Cup again one day.

From WSC 293 July 2011