The mood of change

With uprisings across the Arab world dominating the world press, can change be sparked in football’s most powerful regime?

The popular uprisings in the Middle East are now receiving more coverage than football in the UK press. Even the Arsenal v Barcelona Champions League tie, apparently regarded by some pundits as the most momentous event in the history of the game, couldn’t keep the revolution in Libya off the front pages. So it’s surprising that no one has yet asked the keen Tweeter Jay Bothroyd for his views on the implosion of the Gaddafi regime.

After all, he did work with a member of the Colonel’s family quite recently. While Bothroyd was with Perugia in 2003-04 one of his team-mates was Al-Saadi Gaddafi, the third son of Libya’s “Brother Leader”. Gaddafi, who was already 30 when he signed for Perugia from Tripoli team Al-Ittihad, made just one first team appearance before failing a drugs test which led to a one-year ban. He then spent a further two seasons in Serie A with Udinese and Sampdoria, playing just ten minutes for the former.

Although he had been a regular for the Libyan national team for several years, it’s fair to assume that Gaddafi’s stay in Italy was not entirely prompted to his abilities as a footballer. At the time of his arrival at Perugia he held a 7.5 per cent stake in Juventus which was subsequently passed on to a Libyan corporation – it may be among the billions of dollars of family assets around the globe to be frozen while the regime disintegrates.

Football features prominently in the personal biographies of several of the Middle Eastern dynasties whose power is now being contested. The Al-Khalifa clan, who responded to public challenges to their rule in Bahrain by slaughtering crowds of protesters, have spent lavishly on the national team, which reached play-offs for the past two World Cups. Prince Ali of Jordan, where mass protests against the absolutist government predated those in Tunisia and Egypt, 
was elected as FIFA’s latest vice president in January.

Another holder of that title, Mohammed Bin Hammam of Qatar, argued that last year’s investigations into the World Cup bidding process by the British media simply wouldn’t happen in his region where, it was implied, the press know their place. At the end of February, however, the Qatari government announced long-deferred parliamentary elections, the emir having previously declared that his subjects were “not ready” for such a thing. Sadly, the United Arab Emirates – home of Man City’s owners and rumoured bidders for Man Utd – seem to be the least vulnerable of all the autocratic regimes in the Middle East. So if their ruling families’ recently acquired passion for investing in football is to be reined in, it will be via measures such as UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules rather than the popular will.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary spirit of 2011 has inspired a modest attempt to shake a durable autocracy based in old Europe. FIFA’s executive committee is a monument to nepotism and patronage, its members bound together by their association with president Sepp Blatter who has nonchalantly swatted away all challenges to his 13-year rule. Blatter is up for re-election in June and Bin Hammam has hinted that he may make a contest of it, although he can hardly present himself as a new broom.

One other candidature has been announced. Grant Wahl, a journalist with Sports Illustrated, will stand if he is nominated by one member country by the deadline of April 1. His campaign proposals include limiting the president’s time in office to two four-year terms, releasing all FIFA’s internal documents and conducting an independent investigation into corrupt practices within the organisation. It will be a surprise if Wahl gets his nomination, let alone any votes, and it would be crass to equate the reform of international football with the wave of democratic revolutions which have already cost thousands of lives in the Middle East.

But the aim is to at least draw attention to the fact that millions of football fans are thoroughly dissatisfied with the way FIFA goes about its business. Blatter will only be properly challenged if FIFA’s corporate sponsors, some of whom currently form part of his powerbase, can be convinced that backing the reformers will be to their advantage. It will be a slow process but all revolutions have to start somewhere.

From WSC 290 April 2011