May 28th 2015

The Soccer Mafia

by Ian Buruma

 


Ian Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit. 


“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.”

NEW YORK – 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.

Once 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.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
www.project-syndicate.org

For Amazon please click the picture.



 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jul 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "When it comes to the Chinese economy, I have been a congenital optimist for over 25 years. But now I have serious doubts. The Chinese government has taken dead aim at its dynamic technology sector, the engine of China’s New Economy. Its recent actions are symptomatic of a deeper problem: the state’s efforts to control the energy of animal spirits." ---- "... the Chinese economy, no less than others, still requires a foundation of trust – trust in the consistency of leadership priorities, in transparent governance, and in wise regulatory oversight – to flourish. --- Modern China lacks this foundation of trust ."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "It seems that they are, as the last 18 months have seen a remarkable expansion of the central banks’ fields of activity, largely driven by their own ambitions. So they have moved into the climate change arena, arguing that financial stability may be put at risk by rising temperatures, and that central banks, as bond purchasers and as banking supervisors, can and should be proactive in raising the cost of credit for corporations without a credible transition plan. That is a promising new line of business, which is likely to grow. ---- Central banks are also trying to move into social engineering, specifically the policy response to rising income and wealth inequality, another hot button topic with high political salience."
Jul 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "The EU’s ambitious unilateral climate strategy will transform Europe into a trade fortress, encourage green protectionism worldwide, and give other regions the opportunity to develop using cheaper energy. And without China, India, and the United States on board, other countries will be careful not to follow the EU in its self-appointed role as the world’s green guinea pig. If Europe is not careful, it will risk finding itself in a climate club of one. "
Jul 9th 2021
EXTRACT: ".... ruminants belch and fart methane, an extremely potent greenhouse gas. As a result, rearing beef cattle brings about, on average, six times the contribution to global warming as non-ruminant animals (for example, pigs) producing the same quantity of protein. ..... if projected to 2050 [beef production], would use 87% of the total quantity of emissions that is compatible with the Paris climate agreement’s objective of staying below a 2° Celsius increase in temperature."
Jul 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " .... while China’s leaders never mention it, they are just as embittered over Russia’s theft of Chinese territory in the nineteenth century as they are over the West’s imperial predations. With Western imperialism having been largely rolled back, it is Russia’s continued occupation of historic Chinese territory that stands out the most to ordinary Chinese observers. For example, the city of Vladivostok, with its vast naval base, has been a part of Russia only since 1860, when the tsars built a military harbor there. Before that, the city was known by the Manchu name of Haishenwai." ---- "There is also a demographic argument for Putin to consider: the six million Russians spread along the Siberian border face 90 million Chinese on the other side. And many of these Chinese regularly cross the border into Russia to trade (and a good number to stay)."
Jul 7th 2021
EXTRACTS: "According to a new analysis by researchers at Brown University, America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan cost it nearly $2.3 trillion. Now, Afghanistan’s neighbors – Pakistan, Iran, China, India, and the Central Asian countries – are wondering just how much it will cost them to maintain security after the United States is gone." ----- "After clandestinely supporting the Taliban as a means to undermine the US war effort, Russia now fears broader destabilization in Central Asia and beyond." ---- "Similarly, after having made nice with the Taliban, China also now fears the greater regional instability that the US withdrawal may incite. In addition to disrupting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Eurasia-spanning Belt and Road Initiative, a revitalized Taliban could re-energize the Islamist extremist threat in China’s western Xinjiang province."
Jul 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "When former Fed Chair Paul Volcker hiked rates to tackle inflation in 1980-82, the result was a severe double-dip recession in the United States and a debt crisis and lost decade for Latin America. But now that global debt ratios are almost three times higher than in the early 1970s, any anti-inflationary policy would lead to a depression, rather than a severe recession. ---- Under these conditions, central banks will be damned if they do and damned if they don’t, and many governments will be semi-insolvent and thus unable to bail out banks, corporations, and households. The doom loop of sovereigns and banks in the eurozone after the global financial crisis will be repeated worldwide, sucking in households, corporations, and shadow banks as well. ---- As matters stand, this slow-motion train wreck looks unavoidable."
Jun 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "Xi Jinping’s call for friendship gives us an opportunity to examine Chinese politics on both the domestic and international stage. On the face of it, it suggests the possibility of rapprochement between the rich liberal democracies represented by the G7 and the authoritarian Chinese state. However, despite appearances of a call for a closer relationship, there is more than one way of being friends – and Xi’s idea might be somewhat different to what many in countries attending the G7 might expect."
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "