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The Soccer Mafia

| June 3, 2015

fifa mafia ian buruma

FIFA’s false gold. (Andrea Contino)

By Ian Buruma

The only surprise about the arrest of seven FIFA officials in a Swiss hotel in the early morning of May 27 is that it happened at all. Most people assumed that these pampered men in expensive suits, governing the world’s soccer federation, were beyond the reach of the law. Whatever rumors flew or reports were made on bribes, kickbacks, vote-rigging, and other dodgy practices, FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter and his colleagues and associates always seemed to emerge without a scratch.


So far, 14 men, including nine current or former FIFA executives (but not Blatter), have been charged with a range of fraud and corruption offenses in the United States, where prosecutors accuse them, among other things, of pocketing $150 million in bribes and kickbacks. And Swiss federal prosecutors are looking into shady deals behind the decisions to award the World Cup competitions in 2018 and 2022 to Russia and Qatar, respectively.

There is, of course, a long tradition of racketeering in professional sports. American mobsters have had a major interest in boxing, for example. Even the once gentlemanly game of cricket has been tainted by the infiltration of gambling networks and other crooked dealers. FIFA is just the richest, most powerful, most global milk cow of all.

Some have likened FIFA to the Mafia, and Blatter, born in a small Swiss village, has been called “Don Blatterone.” This is not entirely fair. So far as we know, no murder contracts have ever been issued from FIFA’s head office in Zürich. But the organization’s secrecy, its intimidation of the rivals to those who run it, and its reliance on favors, bribes, and called debts do show disturbing parallels to the world of organized crime.

One could, of course, choose to see FIFA as a dysfunctional organization, rather than a criminal enterprise. But even in this more charitable scenario, much of the malfeasance is a direct result of the federation’s total lack of transparency. The entire operation is run by a close-knit group of men (women play no part in this murky business), all of whom are beholden to the boss.

This did not start under Blatter. It was his predecessor, the sinister Brazilian João Havelange, who turned FIFA into a corrupt and vastly rich empire by incorporating more and more developing countries, whose votes for the bosses were bought with all manner of lucrative marketing and media deals.

Huge amounts of corporate money from Coca-Cola and Adidas went sloshing through the system, all the way to the roomy pockets of Third World potentates and, allegedly, of Havelange himself. Coke was the main sponsor of the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, ruled in those days by a brutal military junta.

Blatter is not quite as uncouth as Havelange. Unlike the Brazilian, he does not openly associate with mobsters. But his power, too, relies on the votes of countries outside Western Europe, and their loyalty, too, is secured by the promise of TV rights and commercial franchises. In the case of Qatar, this meant the right to stage the World Cup in an utterly unsuitable climate, in stadiums hastily built under terrible conditions by underpaid foreign workers with few rights.

Complaints from slightly more fastidious Europeans are often met with accusations of neo-colonialist attitudes or even racism. Indeed, this is what makes Blatter a typical man of our times. He is a ruthless operator who presents himself as the champion of the developing world, protecting the interests of Africans, Asians, Arabs, and South Americans against the arrogant West.

Things have changed since the days when venal men from poor countries were paid off to further Western political or commercial interests. This still occurs, of course. But the really big money now, more often than not, is made outside the West, in China, the Persian Gulf, and even Russia.

Western businessmen, architects, artists, university presidents, and museum directors – or anyone who needs large amounts of cash to fund their expensive projects – now have to deal with non-Western autocrats. So do democratically elected politicians, of course. And some – think of Tony Blair – turn it into a post-government career.

Pandering to authoritarian regimes and opaque business interests is not a wholesome enterprise. The contemporary alliance of Western interests – in the arts and higher education no less than in sports – with rich, undemocratic powers involves compromises that might easily damage established reputations.

One way to deflect the attention is to borrow the old anti-imperialist rhetoric of the left. Dealing with despots and shady tycoons is no longer venal, but noble. Selling the franchise of a university or a museum to a Gulf state, building yet another enormous stadium in China, or making a fortune out of soccer favors to Russia or Qatar is progressive, anti-racist, and a triumph of global fraternity and universal values.

This is the most irritating aspect of Blatter’s FIFA. The corruption, the vote-buying, the absurd thirst of soccer bosses for international prestige, the puffed-out chests festooned with medals and decorations – all of that is par for the course. It is the hypocrisy that rankles.

To lament the shift in global power and influence away from the heartlands of Europe and the US is useless. And we cannot accurately predict this shift’s political consequences. But if the sorry story of FIFA is any indication, we can be sure that, whatever forms government might take, money still rules.

ian-burumaIan Buruma an Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and, most recently, Year Zero: A History of 1945. © Project Syndicate.

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