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View From Abroad: Blatter wins but football loses

View From Abroad: Blatter wins but football loses

KILLER floods in Texas. The terrible suffering of Rohingyas in the seas of Southeast Asia. A rampant self-styled Islamic State. The Queen’s speech outlining the Conservative government’s legislative goals for the coming year. Important as all these stories are, they were pushed off the front pages and the news on radio and TV headlines in soccer-mad Britain by Fifa’s unfolding scandal.

The FBI investigations and the arrests of senior figures from the world football body in Switzerland, combined with the re-election of Sepp Blatter to the presidency of Fifa for the fifth time, has fascinated and sickened millions around the world. Across football playing nations in Europe, Blatter is widely reviled and despised.

But accused of permitting corruption on an industrial scale in Fifa — and, many allege, being party to it — Blatter has refused to budge despite loud calls for his resignation. Far from quitting, he has succeeded in getting re-elected an unprecedented fifth time. Most of his success can be attributed to his popularity among the African members of Fifa, in particular. Since his election in 1998, Fifa has financed the construction of some 700 football and administrative facilities, the majority in Africa. This has translated into solid support in the sport’s largest voting bloc.

Time and again, Fifa has managed to squirm out of embarrassing bribery scandals with an agility that a Pakistani politician would be proud of. TV rights for the World Cup, Fifa’s cash cow, are worth billions of dollars, as are the rights to place Cup logos on products. The exclusive right to market the World Cup went to the now defunct International Sport and Leisure that was charged with paying bribes worth $100 million to Fifa officials. While several people were named, Fifa officials were cleared by a Swiss court.

More corruption charges swirled around the award of the World Cup to Russia in 2018, and — incredibly — to Qatar in 2022. Again, heads of national football associations as well as Fifa officials were accused of corruption, but it was business as usual at the body’s opulent headquarters in Zurich that cost around $250 million. Blatter said at the time: “We will put Fifa’s ship back on the right course in clear, transparent waters.” But since then, the vessel has been leaking, and is now in the danger of sinking.

The danger to Fifa under Blatter comes from growing protests from Uefa, the European football body, demanding that Blatter step down. As he has said clearly, he has no intention of resigning, and there is now talk of a boycott of the next World Cup in Russia in 2018. But in Moscow, this will be viewed not so much as a rebuke to Fifa, but as a deliberate Western snub to Russia that has invested massively in new facilities and infrastructure.

Already, President Putin has reacted angrily to the FBI investigation into the alleged corruption in the North and Central American football association amounting to $150 million over several years. According to Putin, this is an attempt to project American meddling into other countries. A Washington-led boycott of the 2018 World Cup will add to the existing tension between the two states.

We now learn that even the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was not free from the taint of corruption. According to documents dug up by the investigative reporter Andrew Jennings, South Africa promised some $10 million in bribes to secure the Cup.

Another source of corruption, and one that has not yet made the headlines, is the way Fifa controls the construction and development of sites related to the World Cup. Its representatives insist on this tight supervision supposedly to achieve the high standards demanded by Fifa. But by being closely associated with the award and execution of construction contracts, these officials become party to multi-million dollar projects with a high likelihood of kickbacks.

One reason Fifa has attracted so many accusations of blatant corruption over the years is that it is accountable to nobody. Those contributing to the body’s swollen coffers like multinational corporations Adidas, Coca Cola, Visa and McDonald’s, as well as TV channels that win exclusive and lucrative broadcasting rights, are hardly likely to complain.

States like Qatar, too, are quite happy with a status quo that achieved the seemingly impossible task of awarding a tiny desert kingdom with the prestigious and high profile privilege of hosting the World Cup. At the time of the award in 2011, there was much amazement that turned into cynical charges of corruption. When people pointed to Qatar’s summers with temperatures soaring to 50 degrees, they were assured by the Qatari sponsors as well as Fifa that the wealthy state would create air-conditioned stadia. Later, Blatter announced that this was not feasible, and the tournament would have to be moved to winter, just when the European league tournaments are normally held.

Since then, a number of major media outlets have done stories about the treatment of Qatar’s workforce: labourers from Nepal, Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan have been routinely subjected to inhuman conditions. Their passports are held by their employers under the notorious kafala system that bars workers from changing jobs. Often, they are not paid for months. Of course, this treatment of Asian labour is hardly uncommon with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states being accused of a modern day version of slavery. Well over a thousand of those working on Qatar’s World Cup sites have died so far, with seven years to go till 2022.

Fifa has made vague promises that it would persuade Qatar to mend its ways, but as the recent arrest of a BBC team in the country after it had interviewed Asian workers showed, the sheikhs are more interested in their image than in the welfare of workers.

So will things change at Fifa? Probably not as long as Blatter is there, and he won’t leave willingly, given his $10 million annual package, and the respect he is given as he travels with all the aura and pomp of a head of state.

Published in Dawn, June 1st, 2015

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