Uncle Sam’s dubious goal
Following a series of arrests of high-level Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) officials at a luxury hotel in Zurich, Diego Maradona, the former Argentinian star, declared: “They called me mad but thankfully today the truth is out and I am enjoying it.”
And an editorial in the Times of South Africa summed up the reaction across many parts of the world: “The parasites in FIFA who skimmed off millions — and the influence-peddlers who tempted them — should be shown no mercy. The Americans will have done the world a huge favor if their actions finally force FIFA to clean up its act.”
On the opposing side, the highest-level intervention came from Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, who questioned both the timing and the ethics of the anti-FIFA action. “No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence,” he said, “this American attack two days before the elections of FIFA. It doesn’t smell right.
“The Americans were candidates for the World Cup of 2022 and they lost. The English were the candidates for 2018 and they lost, so it was really the English media and the American movement.”
Just another instance, in his view, of the West intervening in realms where its supremacy is threatened.
The arrests in Zurich were based on the indictment by the US of 14 FIFA officials on corruption charges, and they came two days before the federation was scheduled to pick its president for the next four years. The incumbent since 1998, Swiss administrator Sepp Blatter, widely perceived as presiding over a culture of deeply ingrained corruption, was expected to easily be reelected. However, under immense pressure he stepped down on Tuesday and said a special congress would be called as soon as possible to elect a successor.
The US claims it chose this particular juncture to go in for the kill, so to speak, because so many of the potential culprits were gathered in one place — and the Swiss authorities were willing to cooperate.
That makes sense at one level, but it is certainly conceivable that an attempt to thwart Blatter’s reelection was among the ideas behind the raids, with American journalists alerted in advance to what was about to unfold.
In the event, Blatter scored an easy triumph last Friday when his only opponent, Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, despite European, American and Australian backing, deemed it sensible to withdraw his candidacy after receiving 73 votes out of 209 in the first round.
Blatter was believed to have effectively locked in a substantial proportion of votes on account of FIFA’s generosity in recent decades in funding football facilities in Third World countries that previously were ignored by the sport’s Eurocentric hierarchy.
From a somewhat different perspective, it can of course be seen as vested interests among the FIFA executive doling out millions in order to remain in a position where they can rake in tens of millions as kickbacks for highly lucrative sponsorship and broadcasting rights, as well as payback for picking venues for the World Cup and other tournaments.
The American initiative in striking out against FIFA has tended to be seen as one international intervention where global opinion is largely behind the US. Washington’s motivation is nonetheless open to question. As a sporting nation, its relevance in the world of what it calls soccer is marginal. Many of the indictments are evidently based on transactions in the American banking system, which ostensibly suffices as a reasonable cause for legal action. On the other hand, such action has conspicuously been lacking in respect of corruption within that banking system.
Nor is it entirely clear exactly what triggered the investigation. It is widely assumed it had something to do with the thwarting of the American bid for the 2022 World Cup. And, yes, it also isn’t hard to see, given the present state of relations between Russia and the West, how the venue for the 2018 Cup may also provide cause for consternation.
Making Blatter and FIFA answerable for their transgressions deserves to be recognized as a welcome gesture, but without losing sight of the fact that a great many international sporting organizations follow a broadly similar path — and tend to get away with it. The political component in the FIFA affair should not be ignored. Should it eventually lead to a cleaner and leaner FIFA — and that too would be welcome. But Uncle Sam’s reincarnation as a white knight also deserves close scrutiny and a healthy dose of skepticism.
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