How should we understand the FIFA scandal?

The scandal which has broken at FIFA over the last few weeks –culminating in the arrest of seven FIFA officials in Switzerland and the resignation of its president Sepp Blatter – has focused attention on the world’s most powerful football body. Tony Traub examines some of the issues behind the headline

To understand the factors which have led to these events, we have to go back to the formation of the organisation. It was formed in 1904 to oversee international competition among various European football associations. Over time, it has expanded in size and now has 209 national associations. It is responsible for the organisation of major football tournaments, particularly the World Cup (since 1930) and the Women’s World Cup which commenced in 1991.

In its earliest years, FIFA was run like an amateur club operating on a shoestring budget. As late as the early 70s it was still a cottage industry with few full-time staff. This changed in 1974 when Joao Havelange, the head of the Brazilian FA, beat the incumbent Englishman Sir Stanley Rous in a fiercely contested election for the FIFA presidency. Havalange won by mobilising the votes of football associations in the newly colonised states of Africa, the Caribbean and Asia whose members had been ignored by the Europeans who had previously dominated FIFA. As well as offering them respect, he offered them more places at an expanded World Cup and more seats on the FIFA executive.

As world football has become increasingly commercialised, FIFA’s revenues have expanded. In 2013 it generated over $1.3 billion dollars and had a net profit of $72mn. Its sponsors include major international companies such as McDonalds and Visa.

It was inevitable that this vast increase in the financial clout of FIFA would pave the way for corruption. During his time at FIFA, Havalange turned the system of exchange and patronage (fuelled by the spiralling value of the World Cup) into an art form.

In fact there have been rumours over a number of years about the sleaze within the organisation. FIFA is run like the most private of clubs with little public accountability. In 2010 a Panorama documentary alleged that three senior FIFA officials had been paid huge bribes by FIFA’s marketing partner International Sports Leisure (ISL) between 1989 and 1999 which FIFA had failed to investigate. A former ISL executive voiced suspicions that ISL had only been awarded the contracts because of the bribes.

The programme also alleged that FIFA required bidding nations to implement special laws for the World Cup, including blanket tax exemption for FIFA and its sponsors, and limitation of worker’s rights. This bidding process was kept secret but the Dutch government revealed them as it refused to agree to the terms when bidding. With the latest revelations, it is alleged that South Africa paid one of the leading FIFA executives Jack Warner (head of the Caribbean and Central American football association) $10mn (disguised as a grant to the Caribbean) to influence the vote for the World Cup in 2010.

The latest developments in FIFA must be seen in the context of the support given by FIFA to making football a truly global sport. Under Blatter, FIFA has invested millions of dollars in infrastructure and projects in Africa and Asia. This explains the huge support he receives from these regions. Of course this is largely a corrupt process and the decision-makers know perfectly well that after a World Cup, giant stadiums will end up as white elephants remaining unused.

South Africa hosted the World Cup in 2010 and Brazil last year. Russia is scheduled to hold it in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. This means that Germany in 2006 was the last Western country to host the tournament. The UK and US were desperate to host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments respectively but were beaten to it.

It therefore seems that they wanted to engineer a situation where this could be reversed. Hence the Swiss authorities (together with the FBI and some journalists) made the dawn raids on top FIFA officials so as to put the organisation in a bad light. The US was attempting to get the Latin American countries to play ball but this latest move has alienated them and backfired badly.

There was a concerted campaign to pressure delegates to vote for the Jordanian candidate for the Presidency who was viewed as the more pliant pro-Western candidate. The Western countries were also calling for the one nation one vote system to be scrapped as this gives more power to the less powerful nations (Greg Dyke, chairman of the English FA, explicitly made this call).

With Russia still under Western economic sanctions following the Crimean takeover, the US is keen to further squeeze Moscow and deny it a chance to showcase its soft-power to a global television audience of a billion-plus people.

Besides, there is serious money at stake. The World Cup is the most lucrative sporting event in the world, eclipsing even the Olympics. The 2014 qualifying rounds and final tournament brought in $4.8bn over four years creating a positive image of the country for millions of foreign visitors. A similar boost for the Russian economy and its image in the world could negate the West’s efforts to isolate Russia in the international community.
Migrant workers are suffering horrendously building the facilities for the Qatar World Cup. They are mainly from South Asia and reports suggest hundreds have died from the unsafe working conditions, mainly because of the extreme heat. This is a huge scandal which should be exposed by the labour movement. We should not be fooled by the crocodile tears of the Western countries which have suddenly woken up to this when it suited their interests.

Socialists should campaign for a democratic, transparent FIFA which truly represents the interests of the public. The machinations of Blatter & co should be exposed but we cannot ignore the hypocrisy of the Western interests which have unseated the former.

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