This is sports reporting at its best: clever, honest, and impactful. Surprisingly--for some--this was written by a woman.
Of course, nothing will change in the world of football/soccer. At least they do not get away without someone noticing, even if most don't care....
”Crisis? What crisis?“
Those are the words of FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, in response to a provocative question by an English journalist at a recent press conference.
One man’s business-as-usual is another man’s crisis. FIFA is accused of thriving on bribery and corruption by people that do not understand how the world of sport politics works. Bribery is merely a synonym for subventions used to win votes. It is not unlike lobbying or pork in US politics. Many cannot understand why they are criticized for practices similar to those of the world’s greatest democracy.
Many sport functionaries are wealthy men (of course, some acquired that wealth through sport), so those alleged “envelopes of cash” do not entice them to act against their own desires. But, some are from countries where corruption is the accepted norm. No amount of sniping by the English press will daunt them from doing what they always do. I have dealt with such men.
As a signal of willingness to change, the president announced that future World Cup venues will be chosen by all members and not just the executive committee. To the less-informed, this might indicate an elimination of the chance to corrupt the vote. It is the same system used by the IOC, who regularly faces similar criticisms. I recall being in a room with IOC members just prior to the secret vote on a venue for the lucrative Olympic Games. Envelopes of cash were being offered to susceptible members (the likes of Princess Anne would never be approached with such an inducement) to entice them to make up his or her mind or to change his or her vote. There are plenty of stories about certain members promising all candidate cities to vote for them in return for an attractive inducement, because the secret vote protected them from having their dishonesty discovered. With FIFA’s recent change, bidding cities for the World Cup competition will have to stock up on envelopes as part of the standard bidding package...
Sport has changed.
When I was growing up, weather was rarely a factor. We played soccer (football was something different, because I had yet to discover the wider world) in any weather and on any surface. Only blinding snow could hinder a game of hockey on a pond; my mother often had to drag me home after it was too dark to see the puck. I don’t recall ever feeling the cold, about which she complained. We had too much fun to notice conditions. Later, I attended a private school that could not afford an indoor rink, which meant that we often had to shovel snow before being able to practice. Although we felt sorry for even-poorer schools that had to play soccer on a converted pasture, we felt superior to the rich kids that enjoyed cushy conditions on their covered ice rink. Pasture or ice softened by the sun: the game went on. Now, kids play on indoor ice. Soccer can only be played on manicured fields. I wonder if kids experience the same joy....
What made me think of this? Once again, news from FIFA congress has tried to raise the specter of scandal. Despite a long-standing and stated objective to share the game with all regions (and not play out the competition in the same countries, like England, US, and Germany), many still cannot understand the choice of Qatar as a site for a World Cup competition. It is too small. It is too new to the game. It is too hot. Coddled players can play only under perfect conditions. What happened to the original purpose of the game: to play anywhere, anytime, and under any conditions? Kids play the “beautiful game” in such heat? Why can’t the stars—those worshipped by such kids—compete under the same conditions?
Sport has changed...and not always for the better...
Stop the presses.
Wire services are reporting that Prince William wants FIFA to postpone the vote for president, joining the call of the English Football Association. Of course, this is BIG news in the UK, but will be ignored elsewhere.
There have also been reports of “concern” voiced by sponsors, which the press takes as a sign of the imminent demise of FIFA. Sponsors will not abandon FIFA out of grave fear of a competitor jumping into the void. Words of concern are only that: words. Each is considering its own brand, not FIFA. All know that the game, where they receive exposure, has nothing to do with politics in Zurich.
I am amazed at how little the press understands the world of sport politics and sport sponsoring. FIFA is made up of more than 200 individual country federations, each with one vote. Each federation is run by a mini egomaniac, who rules his fiefdom with an iron hand similar in manner to the FIFA president. The English have one vote. Few, if any, will heed their call to abstain from voting, because many, if not most, dislike English arrogance (they claim to have invented the game and to being its true home), whining (about losing the 2018 bid), and demanding transparency (few federations want this).
The English press has dreams of Zurich turning into Cairo, with the dictator toppled from his throne by their urging. Sadly, they will have to pack up their gear and return home once Mr. Blatter is re-elected and their bubble is burst.
Fans don’t care about what goes on in Zurich. They look no further than places like Bernabao, San Siro, Stanford Bridge, or even a local park, where a ball is kicked on Sunday mornings.
Many seem to think that football (soccer to some less-enlightened) is the most significant human endeavor, which explains why stories about FIFA (football’s governing body...for the even less-enlightened) are dominating news media this week around the globe (except in the United States, of course). For those who live in a parallel universe, FIFA (or rather members of its executive committee and its president) have been accused (once again!) of bribery and corruption. The UK press have been leading the charge to expose the “rot” (their word) and unseat the leader (who they particularly hate and accuse of driving “the Game” into disrupt), partly because they feel miffed about England not being awarded the lucrative 2018 World Cup competition. They cannot understand how Russia could have beaten them: it has to be corruption and bribery. As always, it’s about money.
The chief villain is FIFA president Sepp Blatter, a 70+ Swiss lawyer, who has reigned supreme for 14 years. Before that, he was Secretary General, so he knows where he buried all the bodies for his “equally corrupt” predecessor. Many in the press accuse him of being an autocratic ruler, which does not play well in democracies (whose governments apply many of the same tactics). But, because the president is voted by a secret ballot of like-minded cronies, the press calls foul. Blanket press coverage is due to the fact that the presidential election is taking place this week...and there is only one candidate. There was one challenger, but he was accused...you guessed it...of corruption and bribery and been forced to withdraw.
Yesterday, poor Mr. Blatter was forced to face the hostile press and answer questions, which he is rarely required to do. He was clearly angry about having to even speak with people that are clearly beneath him in life’s peeking order. I can imagine that his heroes are people like Mobuto, Gaddafi, and Assad, who never have to endure a hostile press conference or answer unwanted questions. He surely prefers fawning sycophants, who bow, scrape, and ask no questions: men more interested in pleasing the boss than helping the sport.
But, that is not my point. I have dealt with many sport federation presidents and functionaries. Mr. Blatter is merely one example of the ilk. (I have met him and have friends that know him well. He is a nice man). I never felt that these men were corrupt or even greedy. Sure, they made money and lived well on other’s money, but they were driven by something else: ego. Many were short men (at the time, all were men), which explains their drive to dominate the circle in which they moved. They needed to have a huge ego massaged by holding an office and enjoying the trappings it provided. Of course, the larger federations have money (FIFA has the most), which these men control and use to stay in power. It is not unlike US politicians using pork to enhance and maintain their standing and hold onto office. They enjoy giving away other people’s money to benefit themselves. Money and power...
UK press moaning about “the Game” being dragged into disrupt is unfounded. Nothing will hurt the sport. Fans are interested only in what happens on the field. In between games, some might read an article about the politics, but only if there is nothing in the newspaper about players or a game. The media excitement this week is a tempest in a teapot, to use an English metaphor for an English media storm, which will die done once Mr. Blatter is unanimously re-elected by people that he has supported with generous FIFA “financial support”. Nothing will change, and stories will disappear from news media. He controls the money, so he can buy the votes. Once elected, he will return to doing what all sport federation presidents do best: maintaining his powerful position using funds generated by the sport.
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.