In wake of FIFA scan­dal, sport must guard against a Euro­pean takeover

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - Kevin B. Black­i­stone sports@wash­ Kevin B. Black­i­stone, vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at the Philip Mer­rill Col­lege of Jour­nal­ism at the Uni­ver­sity of Mary­land and ESPN pan­elist, writes sports com­men­tary for The Post.

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.

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