September 1, 2014
The elders of Zurich
For the Herald
Can morality be brought into football?
THE HAGUE — If you are fond of conspiracies, then here is one to savour. Up on a hill in the outskirts of Zurich, not far from the city zoo, an organization with tentacles extending into 209 states will soon press a button that instantly enslaves a great chunk of the human population. In the process, the nondescript members of this almighty cabal will assure themselves an income stream of US$1 billion a year. The money banked, another button will be pressed; 600 million slaves will emerge blinking from their final brainwashing through ritualized pagan bloodsport, and be allowed to return to their families.
Fortunately for FIFA, the liberated slaves will not be complaining about their time bound by the chains of the World Cup, starting Thursday. It is this single premise, that the grateful global millions will forgive every favour exchanged in Zurich airport or a Four Seasons hotel on behalf of a four-yearly dose of the same, which gives the International Federation of Association Football (Soccer) its acreage of financial privilege and unaccountable power. Sepp Blatter, president of FIFA, may have lent his onion-like visage to Brazilian caricatures of corporate pillage, but who is to say that he might not don a plastic beard and be greeted as Father Christmas should Brazil win?
This is the fickle side of football, where emotion always conquers reason, and anyone is worth anything so long as he scores. True, the Brazilian population appears to be resisting in a way never seen before the supposed honour and excitement of being World Cup host. One poll this week showed that 61 percent of Brazilians thought the event would be bad for the country because of the way it has drained resources from public services. At 11.3 billion dollars for the country’s infrastructure improvements — a third of which went on stadium development — the spending may considered a snip by the Wagnerian standards set in Vladimir Putin’s Sochi. But for a country where the most important public concern is poor healthcare, it still amounts to pain and suffering in the most visceral senses of the words.
Brazilian protesters’ suspicion that a corporate monster has emerged from Zurich zoo to pillage and reshape the land in exchange for a few colourful baubles taps all the relevant histories of oppression. It evokes European conquest — the exchange of native gold for a few bits of mirror. It is the global capitalist echo of the Berlin Olympics and the 1978 Argentine World Cup, opiates prescribed by their respective dictatorships.
More importantly, it coincides rather neatly with the available evidence. As FIFA’s executive committee met in Sao Paulo on Saturday, few outside the inner sanctum of 24 members — including Blatter’s number two, Julio Grondona from Argentina — could doubt that a price must eventually be paid for the scandals surrounding the success of Qatar’s World Cup bid for 2022, which according to a cache of emails obtained by The Sunday Times, involved millions of dollars dispensed in cash to an array of suitors from the bureaucratic paunch of world soccer.
On one side, this would appear to offer vindication for protesters, and the prospect of some curious turns of events once the tournament starts. Bad results for the Brazil team, mishaps, protests and the FIFA scandal could conceivably collide, forcing a search for culprits: what could be more alluring as half-time entertainment than a carioca Elliot Ness vaulting into the VIP seats and scattering the royalty? Although FIFA is incorporated as a Swiss non-profit organization, it has not been made subject to the country’s criminal law. However, that might change. The more immediate possibilities include an ongoing FBI investigation into corruption in world soccer, promising a quagmire of extradition proceedings. Corporate sponsors, notably Sony, have already got restless with the slow mastication of the FIFA oligarchy.
At any time, meanwhile, Michael García, the former New York attorney hired by Blatter to investigate the corruption charges, could for once come clean with news of his rummaging. The public deployment of García would most certainly be a daring gambit by the FIFA hierarches, and doubtless lead to a cathartic ritual of blood-letting on the executive committee. After all, according to Scott Horton, a fellow at the Columbia law school, “the one thing that could be predicted with utter confidence on the basis of García’s professional career is that he would zealously protect whoever appointed him and paid his bills.”
Yet it is always wise to be sceptical as to the possibility of bringing morality to soccer. I say this as a childhood supporter of Manchester City, a team that has been lifted from the gutter of English football and placed on its pedestal by a succession of owners starting with the Thai populist and former president Thaksin Shinawatra, and followed soon after by an Abu Dhabi investment group, which has sunk over a billion pounds in producing Premier League champions.
Of course, a loyal and lifelong supporter should complain at this quick fix. However, a little over a month ago I had the chance to visit the new Etihad Stadium for the first time, and watch Manchester City finish with the theoretical threat of West Bromwich Albion in the space of 20 minutes. The stadium was decked in giant photos of new City heroes, the three goals were all scored by Argentines, and the meat and potato pie on sale had, I am told, been improved through repeated experiments in a laboratory environment.
Everything about it was perfect. Everything within the moneyed glitter of the stadium represented the culmination of queasy, boyhood emotions, just as the World Cup as it stands now in all its corrupted majesty is rooted in the Wembley of the 1920s, when over a 100,000 people tried to attend a cup final in scenes of mayhem. The one thing that was lacking in the Etihad was the guttural bellow of the crowd.
It would be interesting to discover where those decibels have gone.