In wake of FIFA scandal, sport must guard against a European takeover
The 39th FIFA Congress in 1974 was just another regularly scheduled biennial event. It was not what the international soccer body called an “extraordinary” meeting of its legislature, which then, 70 years into its existence, had been called only twice.
But in the aftermath of the Justice Department’s corruption investigation of FIFA— which last month resulted in the arrests of nine current and former FIFA officials and on Tuesday brought largely despised FIFA president Sepp Blatter to resign— what happened at that FIFA Congress 41 years ago was more extraordinary than any.
It was the origin of what now is really a proxy fight to control FIFA that is disguised by those legislators engaged in it— and confused by much media and many fans supporting it— as a reform movement.
“I think much of the reason for the contempt towards Blatter— and this isn’t a recent phenomenon; this has been ongoing for a number of years— is rooted in the fact that [the Union of European Football Associations] effectively lost power and control of FIFA, and the world game more generally, in 1974, when Joao Havelange came to power,” Paul Darby, author of “Africa, Football and FIFA: Politics, Colonialism and Resistance,” explained to me Thursday from his office at the University of Ulster, where he is a professor.
“Havelange came to power with a manifesto that was about democratizing the world game and extending the riches of the game, things that I think were incredibly admirable and appropriate for an organization like FIFA to promote,” said Darby, who has written extensively on soccer’s politics. “Because, after all, they are the international football federation, and previous to Havelange’s emergence, FIFA effectively was run almost as a private European club.”
FIFA does not need to be returned to European ownership. But that is the loudest rejoinder heard in response to decades of corruption, highlighted by bribery, which just came to a head. Call it reactionary. And call it disingenuous given reports that FIFA whistleblower Chuck Blazer said he took bribes not only for Africa’s first World Cup in 2010 in South Africa but for France’s World Cup in 1998, too.
Yet there was a call almost immediately from Europe to change the one-country one-vote structure of the FIFA legislature because it gave small emerging soccer countries, like many in Africa and the Caribbean, as much voting power as more populous old world countries like England.
UEFA members whispered after the Justice Department leveled its charges that they would boycott future World Cups if Blatter didn’t step down. Statistician Nate Silver even argued that the countries with the biggest TV audiences for FIFA’s World Cup, which produce so much of FIFA’s riches, should break away from FIFA and start a new international soccer league — in other words, take their ball and go home because they can’t have everything as they prefer.
It was that sort of post-colonial thinking that led Ghana’s independence leader and first president Kwame Nkrumah to have his embryonic nation and other African countries boycott the 1966World Cup in England. FIFA was unfair and undemocratic. The boycott resulted in FIFA giving Africa and Asia each a berth to the World Cup rather than having them play a European team in a play-in game.
This is the paradox of boasting that your sport is the world’s sport. You must include everyone for that statement to be true.
Havelange realized that in part because, as a former Olympic athlete from Brazil, he was FIFA’s first non-European president. He was wealthy, but as the son of what was a developing country at the time, he understood such a country’s needs. As a result, he was able to court the growing legion of FIFA governors from newly independent Third World countries, as well as from Second World countries with down payments on First World privilege, and win election.
Ever since, European FIFA members fretted about the grip they lost on what they considered their game. As Artemio Franchi, who presided over UEFA in the ’70s after running the Italian Football Federation, explained in 1979: “With ever more states gaining their independence and with existing countries splitting up into separate states, processes which are to be observed above all in the so called Third World, the number of national football associations inevitably continues to grow. And there is nothing to stop these emerging football countries from joining the enlarged FIFA family. This is the uncomfortable truth.”
Three-and-a-half decades later, that European sentiment found in the corruption charges leveled by the United States its best chance to roll back the influence of the rest of the world in determining the future of soccer, which Havelange bequeathed to his successor, Blatter, and Blatter spread, one way or another. That future under Havelange and Blatter included the one thing the rest of the world needed if soccer was going to live up to its boast as the people’s sport: investment where the world’s population was expected to grow the most, in less-developed countries, especially in Africa. Those were the exact places that the pre-1974 FIFA mostly ignored.
But Europe has been happy to pluck athletic talent from former colonies to spice up its own teams like it used to harvest raw minerals to boost its economy.
There are many aspects of FIFA that need to be fixed, and many of them have to do specifically with Blatter. This issue of bribery, which is much of the rest of the world’s unlicensed lobbying, is one. Blatter dealt with racism in soccer in a dismissive manner and demonstrated a chauvinistic and sexist approach to promoting women’s soccer.
Then there is the matter of the horrific stories out of Qatar about migrant workers laboring and dying under a work system that is akin to slavery to build facilities for the 2022World Cup there. There should be more outrage for that than whether Qatar, not unlike the U.S. did with the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics or the Atlanta Summer Games, got its event in part via ill-gotten gains.
None of this means, however, that FIFA needs to go back to the future.