Red cards in football
The eye of a storm is a small circle of tranquility amid turmoil and turbulence. The man at the helm managed to stay afloat in that pocket of safety as storm after storm battered his ship for 17 years. That was how Sepp Blatter, leader of the world’s most popular sport, remained unscathed while those around him fell by the wayside, buffeted by scandals of corruption, racism and politics.
After a tumultuous week for the International Football Federation, known worldwide by its French acronym Fifa, the perfect storm finally caught up with Blatter, who abandoned ship just when everyone thought he had weathered yet another tempest.
The dramatic events of the past days on both sides of the Atlantic seem to confirm that football, from the boardroom in Zurich to the playing pitch in Bacolod, is rotten to the core. The convulsions started when US prosecutors announced the indictment of 14 persons, mostly high-ranking Fifa officials, for corruption and bribery in the selection of South Africa as host of the 2010 World Cup. This was followed by the arrest of seven of the indicted officials, including two vice presidents and one former vice president, in a roundup by Swiss authorities at a Zurich hotel as Fifa was preparing for a congress that would elect Blatter, who was not indicted, to a fifth term as president.
Amid calls for him to resign and while some of his aides and colleagues were being clapped behind bars or hunted by the Interpol, Blatter was reelected, unopposed in the final balloting. Four days later, in the most bizarre turn of events, he announced that he was finally quitting.
Apparently, the noose was tightening around Blatter’s neck. US authorities had announced a new round of investigations, this time to include him and involving the selection process that picked Russia and Qatar as hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively. Apparently, he took himself out of the game sensing that he was about to be shown the red card.
Blatter, a 79-year-old Swiss national, stepped down in the same way he rose to power—under a cloud. Allegations of corruption, bribery and impropriety attended the 1998 Fifa Congress where he was first elected. During his 17 years as president, Fifa was rocked by allegations of corruption, and officials were accused of taking bribes in the selection of venues for the World Cup and other Fifa-sanctioned events. Millions of dollars—the estimate is $150 million in 24 years—were believed to have changed hands in the selection process alone. That’s probably loose change considering that football is a billion-dollar enterprise, with money also coming from sponsorships, ticketing and broadcasting contracts.
The man who is credited with taking football to every corner of the globe managed to stay on top with a power base consisting of Asian and African federations. They are the main beneficiaries of Fifa’s largesse—euphemistically called development funds—out of its billion-dollar kitty. (The Philippine Football Federation is a beneficiary of such funds; it now boasts of new headquarters in Pasig and a practice pitch in Carmona, Cavite.)
The same cancer afflicts Philippine sports and other international sports organizations where politics and money mix. One local sports official was barred from leaving the country to attend the Fifa congress in Zurich last week because he himself was facing graft charges, including a case involving the handling of funds to finance the football games in Bacolod City in the Southeast Asian Games in 2005.
The International Olympic Committee, the self-proclaimed guardian of everything that is noble in sports, is not immune to corruption either. Bribery allegations hounded the selection of Salt Lake City as host of the 2002 Winter Olympics—and who knows which of the recent and future Olympic hosts had bribed IOC selectors to favor their bids? The local arm of the IOC, the Philippine Olympic Committee, using government funds through the Philippine Sports Commission, has been accused of subverting the elections of national sports associations in an effort to maintain control and to perpetuate its leaders in power.
Despite loud calls for structural reforms in Fifa, sports will always be vulnerable to corruption by dictators like Blatter. As BBC sportswriter Tom Fordyce writes, “Sport and scandal are familiar companions. Where there is money there is greed. Where there is greed there will be cheating. Where there is power there will be temptation.”
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