Time to Hit Fifa’s Fiefdom, Colltalers
By now, everyone knows how soccer aficionados get carried away with the game, from the players’ theatrics on the pitch to the fans’ fervor on the stands to the seemingly endless shouts of ‘goaaaaaaallll’ everywhere. That’s our excuse for such a hyperbolic title, anyway, and we’re running with it.
But along with everything already expected from the World Cup taking place in Brazil, there’s the renewed discussion about who owns the game and why, or rather, how come an opaque entity such as Fifa came to control it and has managed to reap profits from it on the scale of a small nation.
Such discussion has reached a feverish pitch this past week when the international federation that acts as a regulator and monopoly of global football quietly cleared the way for its president, 78-year-old Joseph Blatter, to stand for another term, his fifth, and possibly beyond that.
Thus, just as its supremacy over all things soccer has remained unchallenged for over a century, Fifa’s also showing that it’ll keep doing its business behind closed doors just like any secretive and unaccountable corporation, which in fact it has become. But perhaps change is on the horizon.
In fact, serious allegations have been raised against Fifa this time around, including claims of match fixing, corruption in the way it grants nations the rights to host its cash cow, the World Cup, and even the way it ignores public outcry against its methods, as it’s been the case of the protests against it in Brazil, favoring instead a collection of deep pocket sponsor corporations and acting only according to its own monetary interests.
Fifa stands to make $23 billion in Brazil, according to Forbes, from revenue generated by TV ads, billboards and sponsorships. It’s a staggering leap compared to the $3,65 billion it made four years ago, in South Africa, according to its own figures. As the magazine puts it, that’s equivalent to the seventh largest business in the world, behind oil giant BP and ahead of Japanese Toyota. That much money can only attract even more greed.
That’s arguably the worst part, that the majority of national federations has supported this system in exchange for a piece of the pie, which can be colossal and served throughout the year. Not coincidentally, such federations are also private and unaccountable, so whoever is not part of the club, is out of luck. That naturally means Brazilian taxpayers, who will spend a gargantuan $13 billion footing the bill to organize the event.
The two most unsettling corruption charges against Fifa concern a possible link with a match-fixing ring, that may have influenced results in international friendly games leading to the 2010 cup in Africa, and the granting of the 2022 edition of the tournament to Qatar.
In both cases, a pattern of secrecy and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering typical of Fifa threaten to spill over the perceived integrity of the game itself, which imperfections aside, has enjoyed an enviable image of wholesomeness all over the world.
A recent New York Times story, based on Fifa’s own confidential probe, uncovered how a Singapore-based company, linked to a match-rigging syndicate, manipulated the score of a few international matches, through the infiltration of at least one corrupt referee in Fifa’s assignment roster.
The games-fixing scheme, which represented big payouts to bettors, showed how high-level international sports events, such as the World Cup, can be vulnerable to corruption, specially if they are controlled solely by a self-appointment governing body, insulated from public scrutiny.
The investigation, which Fifa was forced to disclose after the story was published, also revealed a bit of the inner workings of the organization, which relies upon an ample network of connections, not always morally sound, to expand its horizons, i.e., revenue streams.
In the U.S., for instance, that became a textbook for future reference with the notorious Chuck Blazer, a.k.a., Mr. Ten Percent, a member of Fifa’s executive committee that created the current Major League Soccer. He’s credited for the many ways that the MLS has succeed and profited when previous leagues failed, and his involvement also extended to the confederation that runs soccer from the Caribbean to Canada, Concacaf.
Found guilty of bilking the entity and taxpayers, Blazer was fired in 2011 and banned from both the MLS and Concacaf. But the whole episode illustrated with accuracy Fifa’s M.O., even though its involvement with his hiring was proven to be circunstancial.
The other stunning set of revelations concern the bidding process that led Fifa to grant the 2022 World Cup edition to Qatar, an enclave of billionaires, smacked in the middle of the desert and ruled by a dictatorial monarchy, with no recognizable club or national soccer team to speak of.
The Sunday Times reported that Fifa may have sold the bid for $5 million, paid by a Qatari official who’s a former president of the Asia Football Association, and who was also part of the 24-member committee that chose his own country. The Qatar bid caused surprise around the world because it defeated well funded bids by Australia and three former hosts of the cup, the U.S., Japan and South Korea.
This past week, Fifa’s internal probe was concluded but the results are to be made public only in six weeks, which is convenient because by then, with the competition in Brazil finished, furor over the allegations may have subsided a bit. Or not.
The inquiry, which many see as a Fifa’s attempt to save face before increased pressure for transparency, has produced its highest profile casualty so far: Franz Beckenbauer, a member of that same executive committee, which incidentally also granted the 2018 World Cup to Russia.
He was suspended for 90 days for refusing to respond to Fifa’s inquires. Beckenbauer, a football great who won the cup twice for Germany, as a player and as a coach, said in a public statement that he ‘wouldn’t be able to contribute anything to clear the matter.’
The choice of Qatar has been unfortunate for other reasons too. Besides registering temperatures that exceed 122 degrees Fahrenheit, which is completely impossible for the practice of outdoor football as Fifa’s own rules require, there were terrible accusations of slavery and brutal working conditions for the crews already at work on the stadiums for the tournament, long before bribing allegations had surfaced.
It’s as if claims of slavery and unsafe conditions in Brazil had been multiplied tenfold, almost a full decade before the competition is slated to begin. Reportedly, workers, mostly from Nepal and India, labor up to 19 hours a day, are not properly fed, live in squalor accommodations, and have their passports confiscated as soon as they enter the country. Even more serious, government data cites over 300 deaths in the past two years.
An international union confederation estimates that there’s a potential to 4,000 migrant workers to be killed until 2022. Such terrifying estimates have been corroborated by many global labor organizations for over a year, but since they don’t involve million-dollar figures, they have been consistently ignored by media and even those reporting on street protests against Fifa in Brazil and elsewhere.
They’re also a separate issue, more related to Qatar’s authoritarian (and wealthy) regime than with Fifa. But as an organization that purports to represent, and is sustained by, the billions worldwide who’re following the games in Brazil, it is in fact its moral responsibility to take factors such as extremely harsh social conditions and corrupt rulers with whom it does business, into consideration, even when its bottom line may be affected.
After all, no one has elected Fifa, or has even been consulted as to whether the commoditization of a particularly popular sport should be the domain of a single, private, multinational enterprise. Going back to the hyperbolic and over inflamed football jargon, Fifa is being given a Yellow Card, for all it’s worth, and that can be turned to Red, if it remains unwilling to offer transparency and consider the needs of those that it treats as patrons.
Best of luck to your team. WC