FIFA: Corruption and crisis

Nathan J Bolton discusses the scandals that have rocked the FIFA authorities. This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.

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In 2011 after being re-elected as President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter asked, “crisis, what crisis?”. By 2015 despite just being re-elected for his fifth term, Blatter had resigned. At the time of writing, most of the FIFA executive committee, many FIFA vice-presidents and some heads of national or regional football associations have been indicted or are under arrest. The widespread corruption in FIFA, the global governing body of football, has been taken as a fact since that 2011 election where Blatter stood unopposed following the contentious decision that Russia and Qatar would host the football World Cup in 2018 and 2022 respectively.

After that election, Blatter continued to push away allegations using the courts system in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, and investigations through its own Ethics Committee. The most recent series of revelations began in 2014 when Michael Garcia, brought in by FIFA as an ethics investigator to compile a report into the World Cup bidding race, resigned. This followed FIFA’s decision to release a summary of his findings which Garcia felt had “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of facts and conclusions”.

Reports by investigative journalists of corruption, bribery, vote rigging and dishonesty have regularly surfaced, but it took the testimony of disgraced former North American Football Federation General Secretary, Chuck Blazer to herald this swoop by the FBI and American attorneys. The initial investigation centred on collusion between the North and South American football federations and sports marketing executives in respect to media and marketing rights for major tournaments. This broke the dam and released a torrent of scandals and allegations, including that FIFA bribed the Football Association of Ireland after a refereeing mistake cost them a place at the 2010 World Cup, and that German Chancellor Gerhard Shröder supplied arms to Saudi Arabia in return for support in Germany’s World Cup bid.

Even leaving aside the corruption allegations, confidence in the game has never been lower. In advance of the 2014 World Cup, FIFA oversaw the creation of new laws, exclusion zones and tax breaks for companies operating in Brazil, reminiscent of the period of military dictatorship. Brazil was rocked by huge protests in advance of that tournament.

The Qatar World Cup, set to take place in 2022, is widely regarded as emblematic of the corrosive effect of corruption in football. But it is the treatment and working conditions of the migrant construction workers, mostly from India, Nepal and Bangladesh building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup that have been highlighted and entered popular consciousness. The Qatari authorities have admitted that over 1,000 workers have been killed; the true number may be even higher.

In the UK, the 2014-15 football season has been rocked by a number of high profile incidents. In their own way these point to problems in the game but also in the current period: neoliberalism, racism and inequality. Ched Evans, a convicted rapist was released from prison after serving half his sentence and was linked with moving back to his previous club Sheffield United. Evans refused to admit his guilt despite his conviction and is fighting to ‘clear his name’. A petition of 150,000 people called for the club to not re-sign Evans, the club’s shirt sponsor threatened to not renew their association with the club, and a number of high profile patrons of the club resigned. Rarely have issues of sexual violence and justice for women been so widely discussed.

This season has also seen fans tackling the issues that have shut them out of the ‘peoples’ game’ – high ticket prices, surveillance, Sky TV rights and restrictive policing. At Liverpool, Newcastle and Crystal Palace among many others, banners were unfurled against rising ticket prices and the affront to football that is the £5 billion Sky broadcasting deal, at a time when grass roots football is in dire need of infrastructure and investment. At Blackpool, two thousand fans forced a game to be abandoned by occupying the centre circle in opposition to the club’s owners. At Bradford, fans voiced their anger when the FA tried to charge fans £2,000 to unfurl a banner in remembrance of the 56 fans who lost their lives in a fire at Valley Parade in 1985. In a short piece, I can’t do justice to the number of high profile and imaginative fan actions that have taken place in the last year. The point is that they represent an attempt to remodel the relationship between football and its fans, away from consumption to a model where it is fans themselves who shape and direct the game, not Sky TV, FIFA or rich executives.

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