Fifa, the Little Club That Became a Corporate Beast

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In various interviews with members of Fifa, the world governing body of football, Prof Alan Tomlinson has noticed a peculiar but telling reaction.

As the author of books such as Fifa and the Contest for World Football: Who Rules the People’s Game? and Great Balls of Fire: How Big Money is Hijacking World Football, the University of Brighton professor would pose a question citing a situation that most people in the world would perceive as a conflict of interest.

And in turn, he said in a telephone interview: “These people have looked at me as if I’m speaking a foreign language.”

Within the confines of the Switzerland-based operation, he said, “notions of conflict of interest barely arise,” let alone shock. Accepted democratic rules of merit, transparency and accountability do not apply and, just as pivotally, never have.

Such uncommon insulation helps explain how a recent spate of bribery allegations among Fifa executives could make such practices seem commonplace even as distant onlookers express alarm.

The roots of such unreal reality stretch back to May 21, 1904, to Fifa’s birth as a European sports club with all the advantages of insulation therein. As David Goldblatt’s BBC documentary from late May stated, the organisation went right on into the mid-20th century with a World Cup becoming globally adored but with a quaint tininess that under Swiss law “was no different from a village bowling society”.

As an example of its advantages because of its setting and set-up, “a sports club is exempt from taxes because it’s sort of an institution for the public health and the public well-being,” said Gunter Gebauer, sports philosophy professor at Free University of Berlin. Traditionally, it’s the kind of thing in which one participates, he said, “just for honour, not for money.”

“They don’t have democratic structures inside the club,” he said. As a result of their curious relationship to the society around them, “they are not controlled”.

Said Gebauer: “If an election is not correct, you can appeal to a court. But that is not the case with Fifa. They are closed to the authorities.”

This particular village bowling society in Zurich middled along into the 1970s with fewer than 10 full-time staff, as if unaware of its own television-fuelled potential.

And through the reign of president Joao Havelange from 1974 to 1998, even as corporate sponsorships and television rights adorned this village bowling society with gleaming skyscrapers and untold riches, it retained the operating format of the quaint little sports club.

When studied observers attempt to explain how Fifa operates today, they reach for terms such as “gang”, “cabal” and “mafia”, although it was not quite “mafia”. When Gebauer explained it to some Swiss newspapers, he said president Sepp Blatter, Havelange’s maligned successor, acted as would a “godfather”, which translating newspapers construed as “mafia”.

Whatever the word, scholars agree Fifa deserves its own category among governing entities, with the only possible accompaniment being similarly shielded international sports operations that answer to no one.

“They are an extraordinary organisation because they have this culture of self-serving, self-aggrandising,” Tomlinson said. ” … In some ways, they’re untouchable. And if you combine that with being in places like Monaco, or even more so like Switzerland, with close-to-secret bank accounts … then you can see how organisations have developed, expanded and how they’re not within any serious and accepted forms of transparency and accountability.”

Fifa operates, then, as Fifa wishes to operate. It operates “in what seems like a small gang format,” Tomlinson said, adding: “It’s extraordinary that a body like Fifa and some confederations continue to operate in the way that they do.”

For instance, underpinning the recent barrage, the renowned Mohamed bin Hammam, Qatari member of the 24-man executive committee, challenged Blatter for the presidency.

Leading up to the June 1 balloting among the 208 assembly members – one from each football nation – bin Hammam and fellow executive committee member Jack Warner of Trinidad became charged with using envelopes of US$40,000 (Dh147,000) in cash to bribe members of Concacaf (the North American, Central American and Caribbean delegation) for votes in bin Hammam’s favour.

They remain suspended as the case pends, but in the process, bin Hammam charged Blatter with bestowing US$1 million upon Concacaf last winter, a charge no one has denied. The idea that Blatter might be able to dispense $1m at will startled some on the outside yet apparently none on the inside.

As Gebauer said: “Somebody like Blatter can do what he wants to do. The only concern which is important for him is the executive committee and then the assembly.”

Noting again that Fifa is “a structure which is not democratically constituted,” Gebauer pegged Blatter as “a sort of godfather who organises the sort of printing machine of money. What he does is the distributing of money and that’s what gives him his power. … He is the president, and he has the possibility to spend money to a very large amount as he pleases. As he wants to do.

“He has no control about spending money, to a certain extent. So $1m is nothing to him. He has the right of privately using his money, without control. Nobody controls him. In the structure of Fifa, it is legal. But it’s unique in the world, I think.” Tomlinson recalls that in the days preceding Blatter, “it was quite common for monies in Fifa – bonuses, payouts – very, very normal for large sums of money to be carried around by essentially an organisational bagman who just carried large sums of cash between officials and persons in business.”

He recalls a conversation with one of the Champions League co-founders who said: “Fifa has become so corrupt that it no longer knows that it is corrupt.”

In that setting, it could seem normal “to combine your own business interests with what you claim to be representing on a national and international level as a football delegation,” he said, as when a Fifa committee member might profit from Fifa sponsorships within his own country.

And with each nation getting one vote, a framework that might look democratic but most decidedly isn’t – with some of the members hailing from countries immune to transparency or justice – monies doled to countries or regions tend to come under the heading of “football development”, especially for the less-fortunate, he said.

But in extensive research, Tomlinson never has found any “money train” and: “As far as I can see in Fifa, there’s no record of use, or ledger of how that money has used.” And: “I don’t think there’s anywhere in Fifa where people have to declare their interests and so on.”

And while he stresses that Fifa has members disinterested in corruption, he says that writing about the operation does sometimes prompt him to pluck out his copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince with keen attention upon passages such as, he says, “The wise prince prefers to be feared than loved,” and, “The wise prince doesn’t wound an enemy, he kills them.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “I can see the top levels of Fifa working as one of these kinds of absolutely ruthless, internally competitive dynasties.”

Within the framework, Blatter came along, as the eccentric little club became a corporate beast.

“Imagine that level of networking,” Tomlinson said. It has carried him all the way through his recent re-election to a fresh four-year term, quite apart from anything he does or misdoes.

“But what he has done,” Gebauer said, “is he has done a very good job as an administrator. So he took all the advantages which were possible for his administration.

“Very clever, a very good manager, I think, and he is an autocratic leader. It can be good for earning money and, I think, not good for democratic principles.”

While noting that Blatter has been “quite brilliant at achieving silence”, within the “family”, Tomlinson also noted that beneath Blatter, there operates committee members and employees used to perks, “hugely ambitious people wondering where they might move next, and currying favour with Blatter.”

Because those people join Blatter in a decided interest that Fifa does not change dramatically, it does not figure to change dramatically, and this is where everyone seems to agree, even – or especially – Diego Maradona.

When introduced as Al Wasl’s coach nine days ago, Maradona quickly recollected the spiteful heat of the 1986 World Cup and said: “It’s very easy to send people to play at 12 o’clock as it was down in Mexico and to be in the tribune drinking champagne and eating something nice.”

“Anyway,” he soon said, “everything is going to be the same,” with “dinosaurs that do not want to give up power” and who “are going to look after themselves, look after their backs. They are going to sit there until, I don’t know, they are 105 years old, 110 years old, and football will be the same. Let’s don’t make any illusions about it.”

The Salt Lake City moment many crave, a parallel to the bribery scandal that forced the International Olympic Committee to reform, can happen only under unusual, external pressure such as the courts’ and the FBI’s involvement in that case, Tomlinson said. That, or perhaps humanity could “invent a superinternational general body of powerful intervention,” he said – again, an unlikelihood.

Even after all this commotion, Gebauer said, the only repercussion would occur in stadiums and be potentially compelling but effectively irrelevant. “Perhaps,” he said, “Mr Blatter will have a hard time in public.”

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