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Sepp Blatter's FIFA, Ugly Side Of The Beautiful Game

A Latin American call for the global soccer chief to step aside amidst ongoing corruption investigations. Yet even a Blatter-less FIFA would still have a long road to rectitude.

Red card for Sepp Blatter, at last?
Red card for Sepp Blatter, at last?

SANTIAGO — About three billion people, almost half the world's population, will be watching at least one match in the World Cup that began last week in Brazil. Soccer is by far the world's most popular sport, and a passion shared by people from Argentina to England, Israel to Afghanistan.

Some might even view the World Cup, quite reasonably, as globalization at its best.

Given the attention soccer commands across the world, and the money it moves — The Economist magazine estimated that every World Cup match this year will generate business worth almost $1 billion — the happenings in the sport's governing body are a disgrace.

The most recent scandal was revealed in Britain's Sunday Times, days before the World Cup began. The paper obtained documents purportedly showing that bribes led FIFA to select Qatar as the seat of the 2022 World Cup. It was a contested decision from the start, considering Qatar's summer temperatures, which exceed 40 °C (104 °F), and the risk of a terrorist attack cited in a security report FIFA itself had commissioned.

According to the Sunday Times, a former member of the FIFA executive committee and Qatari national, Muhammad bin Hammam, paid other board members $5 million to ensure Qatar would be chosen for 2022. FIFA had previously expelled bin Hammam for misconduct.

It is not the first time FIFA is suspected of corruption. Rumors have abounded of referees being bribed to fix the results of friendly matches before the 2010 Cup. The body's former vice-president Jack Warner resigned amid charges of stealing FIFA funds. There have been enough cases of corruption or unethical conduct to involve almost half the body's current directors.

All this has happened since Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, a now 78-year-old from Switzerland, became President in 1998. Blatter recently managed to have the FIFA board reject a motion to set age and term limits for an elected president. He then proceeded to present his candidacy for a fifth consecutive term, in elections due in 2015.

Blatter has not been linked to any proven illegal action. But he has at best done everything to overlook scandals and leave unpunished the people involved in evident cases of corruption. After the Sunday Times claimed that the majority of bribed directors were African representatives, Blatter dismissed the allegations regarding Qatar 2022 as a piece of Western racism against African nations.

Blatter is a public relations disaster for global soccer. He has made comments on women that would have had him fired as CEO of any firm. He once broke a minute's silence for Nelson Mandela after 11 seconds, and earnestly claimed days ago that soccer would soon be played on other planets.

Corporate pressure

It doesn't say much for FIFA that Blatter's rival as its next president is Michel Platini, one of the directors who backed Qatar for 2022. It is not difficult to see why FIFA is reluctant to change. South Africa invested $3 billion in sporting infrastructures for the 2010 Cup, and received $300 million from ticket sales and tourism. FIFA itself earned $3.5 billion from broadcasting and sponsorship fees.

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U.S. President Barack Obama and Sepp Blatter — Photo: Pete Souza

FIFA's inner workings would have had heads rolling in any other institution, and Blatter should have resigned long ago. But even if he did so now, as several European representatives are demanding, the problem would remain.

Organized as a non-profit body in Switzerland, FIFA is accountable to nobody. No government or group of states can govern or regulate it. Soccer associations across the world receive money from FIFA, which makes it difficult for any of them to stand up to it.

Paradoxically, the challenge to FIFA is coming from certain global firms sponsoring the World Cup. So far, Adidas, BP, Budweiser, Coca Cola, Sony and Visa have urged FIFA to do everything to clarify the Qatar controversy and similar charges relating to Russia in 2018.

Their calls are commendable, but will change little. Efficient regulation of FIFA requires concerted action by member states, starting with Switzerland, where the body is based. As a non-profit organization, FIFA pays no taxes. Switzerland could threaten to end its exemption if it does not clean up its act.

If bribery allegations over Qatar are proven, Blatter and FIFA will have sabotaged soccer's chance to become truly global by winning mass interest in the U.S., which was Qatar's rival to host the 2022 Cup.

In any case, a first step in reforming FIFA would be to force Blatter to go, and Latin American states should join their European counterparts to demand his resignation. If he is toppled during this World Cup, the winners will be all member states — and soccer itself.

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