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Democratize FIFA now

Don’t blame the global south for corrupting football’s organizing body

The crimes for which several powerful FIFA officials were arrested in Zurich this week will sound familiar to anybody who followed great Scottish investigative journalist Andrew Jennings’ series of high-profile muckraking scoops starting in 2006. Jennings shared what he knew with the FBI, and without his work, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. Department of Justice would ever have grown interested in soccer in the first place. For that, all soccer fans are in his debt.

And yet there is a taint of Eurocentrism in Jennings’ tone. He has uncovered FIFA’s slimy network of back-handers and greased palms right across the world — corruption sans frontieres — but can’t shake old colonialist notions of who is corrupt, and who isn’t. Reflecting on the possibility of FIFA being reformed in light of the FBI bust, Jennings told the BBC on Wednesday: “Frankly if the next World Cup is Guinea Bissau vs Tanzania, that will say it all.” For him, a specifically African World Cup epitomizes corruption.

FIFA’s current format means a vote from Cameroon or Peru weighs as heavily as one from England or the United States. This is as it should be. But if soccer belongs to everybody, so too does greed and criminality. And FIFA’s skulduggery only resonates as part of a wider cultural story that’s full of assumptions about who should have influence, and who shouldn’t.

Take Sepp Blatter. Many critiques of FIFA and its Swiss president reveal a dichotomy between West and non-West, wherein the West is assumed to be the site of probity and integrity, while everyone else is under suspicion. Underpinning this assumption is the idea that the true custodians of the game are Westerners, and that the West has been unfairly marginalized under Blatter — despite the fact that three of the last six World Cup tournaments have been hosted in Europe or the USA.

There are precious few clean hands in football. Anyone who follows European or American soccer can readily recite a lengthy list of shyster administrators and rogue officials that have plagued the game at all levels — from the Calciopoli matchfixing scandal in Italy, to Glasgow Rangers’ bankruptcy (and the tax convictions of its new chairman), to Aaron Davidson, head of the North American Soccer League, who was indicted for bribery on Wednesday.

Somehow, despite the evidence, the myth persists that chicanery obtains to some regions and not to others.

The undemocratic, byzantine structures of FIFA are ideal conditions for Western parasites such as football execs Blazer and Blatter.

For example, consider two pieces of journalism that came out before the arrests: First, the widely shared ESPN E:60 documentary featured an interview with the Qatari whistleblower now under protection by the Federal Bureau of Investigations who claimed to have witnessed $10 million bribes being handed out ahead of the vote that awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The gulf nation has been rightly criticized for the appalling exploitation of workers building the vast facilities for 2022, to the point of shocking loss of life. Second, respected football writer Simon Kuper wrote an piece for the Financial Times that fretted “Western countries are powerless to change FIFA.” Both called out the organization’s degeneracy, but it isn’t clear if the problem they point to is really about corruption, or about FIFA being one of the few global organizations where powerful Western countries can’t call all the shots.

In the ESPN segment, reporter Jeremy Schaap didn't even mention the USA’s very own vividly disgraced former executive Chuck Blazer by name, preferring a story about corruption in the Gulf and Africa taking the World Cup away from its rightful owners — England and the USA.

Blazer is the FBI’s key informant, and likely the reason why we now know that South Africa may have secured the 2010 World Cup in part by paying bribes of $10 million to Trinidadian scoundrel Jack Warner (although the money actually came from FIFA). But Blazer, a former suburban “soccer dad,” could face up to twenty years in jail after he admitted taking bribes totaling at least $750,000. And the South Africans aren’t alone in smoothing the bidding process with kick-backs; the USA’s hosting of next year’s Copa America was facilitated by bribes totaling $110 million, according to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

The point is that the undemocratic, byzantine structures of FIFA are ideal conditions for Western parasites such as football execs Blazer and Blatter, not just for Qatar’s Mohammed bin Hamman, Camaroon’s Issa Hayatou and Argentina’s Julio Grondona.

In 1974, the Brazilian Joao Havelange defeated Rous by marshaling an alliance of non-Western nations, many of them emerging from colonial rule, whose interests had hitherto received scant representation within FIFA. It is that same bloc that first elected Blatter in 1998, and which he will rely on if indeed FIFA presses ahead with this week’s scheduled election.

Blatter’s last serious challenger for the FIFA presidency was the Swede Lennart Johansson, then president of Europe’s governing body UEFA, who ran against him 17 years ago. Johansson was lionized in ESPN’s recent film (one gets the impression there’d be none of this corruption if he had become FIFA President), which failed to mention that one reason he lost that election was that he was perceived as a racist.

A Swedish newspaper published an interview with Johansson in 1996 in which he was quoted as saying: “When I got to South Africa the whole room was full of blackies and it’s dark when they sit down all together. What’s more it’s no fun when they’re angry. I thought if this lot get in a bad mood it won’t be so funny.”

It turns out that the good old days were actually pretty bad old days. Those who want Blatter out and FIFA reformed have to deal with that history and that reality, and accept that a global organization where Europe and America has disproportionate influence would also be corrupt.

FIFA is widely believed to have morphed into a de facto slush fund for its executive committee, marketers and advertisers. The implication is that it is beyond saving, and must be abandoned.

But giving up on FIFA is not the right thing to do. If not for structures like FIFA, African and Asian nations would still be playing each other for a single place at the World Cup, and the tournament would circulate only around European nations every four years with an occasional detour to South America.

Yes, FIFA must be radically reformed, but with a new democratic constitution subjecting it to intensive oversight and limiting the amount of money sloshing around. The focus on individual malfeasance mustn’t obscure the bigger problem, namely that FIFA has turned the sport into a cash cow to the detriment of the public interest.  We need a FIFA that no longer requires extravagant infrastructure projects from host nations as part of the gravy train business model for hosting continental competitions and, especially, the World Cup.

It’s telling that the main demonstrations of popular opposition to FIFA to date have come from outside Europe. In 2013, ordinary Brazilians took to the streets of Rio de Janeiro to protest FIFA rules that meant their public finances as host nation were plundered for extortionate infrastructure projects, while corporations and national elites stood ready to cream off the profits of the tournament itself. It was the very same critique which thousands of South Africans had made in 2010, chanting “Get out, FIFA mafia!” and waving placards saying “Fick Fufa” on the streets of Durban.

Those protests showed that disgust at what the FBI called FIFA’s “hijacking” of soccer cuts across regional interests and runs deep into popular consciousness around the world. That truly global sense of moral outrage at what FIFA has done to the beautiful game must be the grounds for a new dispensation that truly serves everyone who loves football.

Elliot Ross is a doctoral student in literature at Columbia University. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, Guernica, The Columbia Journalism Review and the now shuttered Nigerian newspaper Next. He is a regular contributor to Africa Is a Country.

Sean Jacobs, a native of Cape Town, South Africa, teaches at the New School. He founded the blog Africa Is a Country

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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