With Sepp Blatter on the ropes, Alan Tomlinson looks at how FIFA might reform itself
FIFA’s motto is: “For the good of the game.” The slogan is often parroted by the insiders in the FIFA elite, as they gloat from their luxury rooms in the world’s top hotels, or welcome you to their bunker-like FIFA House in the exclusive hillside suburb overlooking Lake Zurich, the Alpine summits across the water and the self-satisfied gloss of Zurich’s Banhofstrasse, with its top designer stores and morally dodgy banks. The FIFA elite is comfortable here. The wives of FIFA’s top brass like the lobbies and the stores. The FIFA men themselves like the loot and the secrecy.
It has been assumed for years that the elusive FIFA finances are rotten to the core, though it has never been easy to get to the heart of the multi-million dollar accounts. One well-placed observer of global sports politics has commented, albeit a mite melodramatically, that any independent researcher or journalist who really got hold of the details of IOC or FIFA finances might not survive in the best state to see them published. With FIFA, you’re welcomed so far and then it’s very arms-length indeed. With Sepp Blatter fighting for his survival as president after the collapse of FIFA’s marketing partner ISL and amid claims that he bribed FIFA delegates to get elected, the openness towards outsiders has hardly improved.
Even walking up to FIFA House feels like a criminal activity. I was the only pedestrian. There were no signposts pointing up the hill, only pointing from the top down. I made it to the exclusive Aurora Strasse, though – “FIFA House? There, on top of the mountain,” my city contact had gestured. It was a steep climb, too, in Zurich’s most sought-after neighbourhood – Tina Turner’s house is just a door or two along the road. Aurora was the Roman goddess of the morning. What is FIFA doing here, amid the aura of classicist allusions and the glitziness of this superstar and bankers’ hideout?
FIFA House itself lacks style, but has serious substance. It is bunker-like, as Keith Cooper, FIFA’s director of communications, put it to me. When the money rolled in on the back of the massive expansion of the World Cup’s commercial potential from the 1980s onwards, the quaint old Swiss chalet-style house occupied by FIFA was razed, and a modern square-metered and measured monster erected in its place.
Sepp Blatter was general secretary from the early 1980s through to 1998. He nodded me a cautious welcome as I was given a tour of FIFA House by Cooper. Media files, sponsor files and a number of the other most interesting documents were immediately branded as “classified, confidential”.
Blatter’s boss, his predecessor as president, was Dr João Havelange, who is still talked of in hushed tones – always as “the president”. I was told of how, when the phone goes in FIFA House and it’s Havelange on the line, the arched backs of the FIFA apparatchiks straighten and stiffen. The man is in South America; the FIFA secretariat is in central Europe. But when he’s on the phone, it’s like a royal visit. “Oui, Monsieur le Président,” was the reported general response to any such calls. No discussion, just the affirmative. FIFA House is like a court of the Ancien Régime. Running FIFA is a matter of mastering not the football rulebook, more Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Havelange’s achievement was to expand football across the globe by bringing the interests of world football closer than ever to business interests, fuelled by the ruthless ambitions of aspirant autocrats and international businessmen and politicians from newly independent countries of the developing world, and then from the heartlands of the developed economies, the US and Japan. Blatter has continued striking deals with such allies, particularly from small countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific region.
Everyone has had a bit more of the expanding action – in World Cup places, new tournaments for younger age categories, the women’s World Cup, the Olympics, the club championship. In the classic style of the Havelange/Blatter era, FIFA has kept everyone happy with increased expense accounts for its inner circle, regular (unmonitored and unaccounted for) payouts of a million dollars to every one of its 204 or so member football federations, reconciliation for troublesome mem- bers of the FIFA family.
But perhaps Blatter has gone an incentive or few too far in persuading those delegates to vote him in as president in 1998 and, with the collapse of long-standing financial partner ISL in 2001, lost credibility within the power base of the core committees. If the Cameroonian Issa Hayatou – or anyone else, for that matter, in 2004 or 2006, if not Seoul this June – were to topple the Havelange/Blatter dynasty, there would be a great opportunity to put the unthinkable on the agenda – the reform of FIFA.
What would that reform look like? FIFA could seek to gain some credibility in the eyes of a sceptical public by opening its books, coming out from behind the veil of Swiss secrecy and banking laws that have protected world sports organisations, as well as hoarders of Nazi gold, for half a century and more. It could ask those national federations that have accepted huge and regular handouts to say precisely where the money has gone. It could look to use the profits from bonanzas such as World Cup finals to develop the game at the grassroots. It could make moral interventions in the richest pastures of the world game, the European leagues. It could review the membership and composition of key committees, so that henchmen of the president don’t sell on media rights for FIFA events to their own cronies or even their own companies. It could give the executive committee proper and useful functions, such as setting the budget and advising and consulting on major contracts and genuine tenders. It could begin to act with integrity for the good of the game, rather than for the egos of the Fifacrats and the lifestyle of the hangers-on.
Led by the African, Asian and European members of the FIFA executive committee, some of the questions that could lead to such reform may well be put. But Blatter will have answers, and the audit committee appointed to look at FIFA’s finances represents all the complex and warring interests of the factions within FIFA. It is hard to see how FIFA might radically reform itself from within. There is too much at stake – everyone is an insider, a beneficiary, a club member. As in any corrupt dynasty, the courtiers are likely to perish with the Prince – Blatter won’t mind who goes down with him. He’ll have always known that “it is much safer for a prince to be feared than loved”.
It is this 16th century manual for survival that Sepp Blatter is likely to cling to, rather than the FIFA statutes, as the governing body of world football lumbers towards its centenary year between the 2002 World Cup and Germany 2006. It’s hardly likely that an organisation that tamely allowed Blatter to write himself a large cheque, for half as long again as his initial presidential tenure, would find the wherewithal to oust him.
There may be some whiter-than-white heir apparent around the corner, ready to take over when Blatter is willing to step down at the centenary party. Franz Beckenbauer, having won the World Cup as both player and coach, would make a popular figure in Germany, especially after his efforts to secure the 2006 tournament. But even Beckenbauer is not entirely an outsider. How did Germany get those last-minute votes to edge out South Africa for 2006? We may never know, but the answer may lie somewhere in the general direction of the Arabian Gulf.
Reforming FIFA might be an idealistic dream, a hopeless impracticality mired in the messy dynamics of global business and international politics. But football deserves better. The undoubted successes of the Havelange/Blatter era have been achieved at a high price, with deception, evasion and hypocrisy more normal than openness, honesty and transparency. For the good of the game, it is time for FIFA to stand up and be counted.
From WSC 183 May 2002. What was happening this month