Sepp Blatter has finally announced his intention to resign as FIFA president amid an unprecedented corruption scandal at the top of global football. Whilst a welcome development, people should not get too elated by a sudden change in leadership, for FIFA’s history has proved that is an institution characterised by corrupt practices, insincerity, self-serving leaders and dubious morals.
Blatter has led FIFA for the last 17 years, during which time the sport has increased further in popularity and generated almost unthinkable revenues for its stars, its sponsors and its organisers. The Swiss’ reign, however, has been marked by a determination to lock down the support of the world’s poorer footballing nations, namely those from Asia and Africa. He has seemingly achieved this in two ways:
1) By expanding global competitions (including the World Cup) to increase the participation of smaller nations on the biggest stage, thereby earning their undying gratitude;
2) By turning a blind-eye to blatant vote rigging and the purchase of influence amongst the smaller nations by his many cronies.
Blatter’s predecessor, Brazilian Joao Havelange, was also no stranger to controversy. He was accused of accepting massive bribes to give preferential marketing and television rights to certain companies for global events. During his tenure on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), it was alleged that he accepted gifts including gold and diamonds to give favour to Amsterdam’s bid to host the 1992 games.
Havelange, like Blatter, remained unchallenged at the top for some time, serving as FIFA president between 1974 and 1998. Such lengthy incumbencies are never healthy, whatever the organisation, and is the reason why many countries put limits on their leaders’ terms in office.
In its 111-year history, FIFA has only had eight presidents. Given that three of these only served a combined total of nine years, it shows the degree to which individuals at the top of the game have been able to secure long-term, almost unchallenged power bases. This is further shown by the fact that its three longest-serving leaders – Havelange, Blatter and Jules Rimet (the founder of the World Cup) – all resigned rather than were unseated. With so much money at stake in the game today, votes are there to be bought, and the influence that a single person can wield in terms of making crucial commercial and economic decisions is staggering, with accountability almost nil.
Before Havelange came Sir Stanley Rous, an Englishman. Whilst no corruption charges were levelled against him, and he proved a capable administrator, Rous courted his own controversy. He was a firm supporter of the Apartheid-era South African football team and tried everything in his power to preserve their FIFA membership, despite being fully aware of the discrimination inherent within the political system of that country. Even after he was replaced by Havelange he continued his lobbying for the Apartheid team, despite most international organisations having completely disassociated themselves with South Africa.
Even Rimet (1921-1954 term) – one of football’s most revered historical figures – was happy to award the 1934 World Cup to Italy, despite knowing the fascist excesses perpetrated by the Mussolini regime.
Whoever succeeds Blatter has an unenviable task, unless they intend to behave in the same self-serving manner that he and Havalange did. Global football’s governing body needs extensive reform, a fully accountable committee to investigate corrupt practices and federations, and a new voting system whereby the richer, established football nations get greater say. One federation, one vote is fine in principle. But such democratic intentions increase, rather than reduce, the potential for corruption.
Until a federation can prove itself sufficiently trustworthy to exercise its rights in a legitimate manner, they should be frozen out. Whether the new leader will dare upset the cosy backscratching and immorality that for too long has come to define FIFA remains to be seen.