Tonight, if you care, you might get to watch some of the finest football ever played.
When Manchester United and Barcelona contest the final of the Champions League at Wembley, all of sport’s mock poetry and moral sense will stand a little closer, with luck, to reality. We will no doubt hear the cliche, “the beautiful game”.
There is a paradox in that, though. It falls from the fact that everyone who knows the slightest thing about the game of football knows that its beauty, these days, comes against the odds, and that its personality disorders would give Jekyll and Hyde a good game of mixed doubles. Football happens for some very ugly reasons.
The first and last of these is money. Customarily we blame stupid, naive and greedy young men for chasing – but who wouldn’t? – a million a month. Then we blame them for spending the cash with no thought for tomorrow, on all the things that hold the attention of stupid young men. Good taste is never one of those things.
That, though, is a myth, of sorts. The young men from the stereo-typical back-streets did not create Russian oligarchs, or Arab oil barons, or statelets burnishing their images. Juvenile scufflers did not bring sovereign wealth funds into being, or persuade a Rupert Murdoch – and when was he last at a game? – to invest billions in the right to show pictures of someone’s flat back four. Greedy celebs didn’t turn the chance to stage a World Cup into diplomacy by other means.
In this country the fact has yet to be addressed seriously, but it remains a fact. Football is now a major political, economic, and cultural fact of the 21st century. Vast sums are at stake. Relations between states are at risk. The number of jobs involved – in transport, tourism, media outlets, finance, policing and more – approaches the incalculable.
And we allow all of this to be “governed” by a self-selecting band, answerable to no one – a sleek group who could not spell probity in one of five dozen languages?
Imagine if we allowed the World Health Organisation to be conducted like Fifa. Imagine if Unesco, spectacularly corrupt in its time, treated its obligations in the manner of the world game’s governing body? Imagine, further, that the institution in question was able to say that its affairs were no one’s business but its own? I suggest that Interpol would head the list of cops arriving in Switzerland from all points of the compass.
The remarkable fact is that the Fifa suits have got away with it for so long. These are not “football men”, nor even the vaunted “football family”. Few have even kicked a ball, or run a junior club, or helped out with the local primary school league. Like their coevals in the International Olympic Movement, they spotted sport as an easier route to power, prestige and reward than mere politics could provide. Now, they turn on one another. Dog eats dog. It’s hardly a cause for astonishment.
When England failed in its attempt to win the right to stage the 2018 World Cup, a Scot could afford a wry smile – for all the old reasons – but reality stared us all in the face.
The suspension of two Fifa executive committee members who failed to be averse to inducements caused only a small ripple amid the larger scandal. The international governing body was compromised, top to bottom, and didn’t much care who knew it.
Contrary to certain views expressed below the Border, England had no special right to stage a World Cup. Nor should the spending of £12 million have made a difference. But when you assemble David Cameron, Prince William, David Beckham, £12m, a raft of voting commitments, and a chairman of the Football Association alleging a monumental stitch-up, heads should turn. Effectively, collectively, Fifa just shrugged.
In point of fact, the international association did better than that. So well did its members change the subject, the Football Association chair, Lord Triesman, lost his job. His “wild” and “unsubstantiated” allegations were mocked in all quarters, even in England. Anyone who asked whether the peer might just have had a point was treated as naive. Not this morning, though.
Next Wednesday, ludicrously, Fifa is due to hold presidential elections. Muhamed Bin Hammam, president of the Asian Football Confederation, is supposed to be standing against Joseph, “Sepp” Blatter, the incumbent for 13 long years. The former, in a remarkable coincidence, has been accused of pecuniary wrongs involving Jack Warner, the long-controversial Trinidad and Tobago executive. Now Bin Hammam forces Blatter, in turn, to face an “ethical” investigation for failing to mention alleged wrongs.
There are mafia movies with better plots and fewer dead men walking. As things stand, nevertheless, 10 of the 24 members of Fifa’s executive have been suspended, accused, or invited to explain their behaviour. An outsider might have thought that, on these grounds alone, Blatter’s claim to re-election would be deemed dubious. But that’s not how Fifa works.
The first step, always, is to blame “the media” for spoiling the party. In this, Blatter is adept.
Most people in English football know that the 2018 bid was lost because the Sunday Times unsportingly caught Fifa suits on tape as they solicited bribes.
Most understand, too, that the decision to grant the 2022 tournament to Qatar fell on the wrong side of a rational explanation. But only the filthy press disturb the football family’s peace by raising such matters.
The presidential elections should be abandoned, of course. Fifa itself should be dismantled.
That either outcome could be in doubt is a measure, however, of international football’s unearned power. Blatter conducts himself like a head of state. Warner can cause a Cameron or a Gordon Brown to pay court. The globe’s biggest clubs fail to care, often or much, as long as TV money is guaranteed. But Fifa’s behaviour, in political or economic terms, is now equivalent to the worst of rogue states.
It’s only a game, they say, and therefore we only make excuses. That won’t do any longer. An activity that fascinates billions of people, and generates billions in revenue – often for some deeply disreputable recipients – can no longer remain “self-governing”. The issue is bribery and the abuse of power within a global industry, as relevant to the rest of us as the antics of bankers or politicians.
The problem with Fifa reform is well-understood, however, not least by the power-brokers. Football’s global appeal depends on Europe, on the glamour of the game in England, Italy, or Spain. That’s where the real money is, too, self-evidently. People in China or Malaysia want to watch Manchester United and Barcelona. Fifa’s structures do not reflect that commercial reality. Should they?
Do we have white Europeans dictating their terms, as so often before, or allow the sort of trade in votes among developing countries that has created so many scandals? Qatar will not win the 2022 World Cup. Warner’s Trinidad and Tobago will never make progress in the tournament. Somehow, nevertheless, the future of the game has come to depend on such entities. Is that sustainable?
The dilemma will remain long after Blatter has gone. Whether an epithet such as “beautiful” will also endure is another matter entirely.
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