“I am not certain, but it doesn’t smell good,” Sepp Blatter opined.
It was a particularly astute observation. Only, Blatter wasn’t referring to the skulduggery that has landed Fifa in the eye of its most turbulent storm during his 17-year tenure as president. Instead, he was questioning the timing of the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of the federations congress in Zurich. The arrests were part of an indictment led by the United States Department of Justice in which 14 individuals are under investigation for allegedly accepting bribes and kickbacks estimated at more than $150m over a 24-year period. Swiss federal prosecutors have also launched a criminal investigation into the awards of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar.
Blatter told Swiss television station, RTS, that he suspected the arrests were an attempt to “interfere with the congress” at which he had been re-elected for a fifth term as Fifa president.
“No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of Fifa,”
The 79-year-old continued “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognise that I did wrong. I fought for the last three or four years against all the corruption.”
US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, had said corruption in football was “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted”, yet in spite of this damming assessment, and widespread calls for Blatter’s resignation, his chutzpah was unwavering. “I am the president of everybody, I am the president of the whole Fifa” he triumphed, as obdurate in victory as he was in the face of adversity.
It is worth remembering plenty were happy to see the Swiss football administrator return to office. Blatter holds a strong base of support within many Football Associations outside Europe and North America. As this Bloomberg report details, his work directing power and funds away from Europe to the smaller and poorer countries, has ensured that while Blatter is regarded by many in the West as a cartoon villain, to the rest of the footballing world he is a saint.
Nevertheless, to those calling for reform and hoping that the arrests in Zurich would pave the way for the dawn of a new Blatter-free era, the 79-year-old’s re-election was disheartening. Particularly for FIFA’s most vocal critic, UEFA. Before the election, UEFA president Michel Platini had urged Blatter to resign, refusing to rule out the possibility of European teams boycotting the World Cup.
UEFA’s pre-election gambit aimed at swaying votes in favour of Blatter’s opponent, Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, has led them into a cul de sac, and Platini has since made it clear that he does not want a World Cup Boycott. That said, he remains under pressure, with calls for such an action having strengthened since Blatter’s re-election. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, has been particularity vocal in pledging enthusiastic support, claiming that a boycott would need to involve “10 large countries” to have an impact.
Dyke (left) said Platini (right) must unite Europe in a boycott
Speaking on BBC Radio 5 live’s sport week, Dyke said “There would certainly be us, there would certainly be the Dutch, there would certainly be the Germans who have been demanding change. The FA chairman also believes that most South American countries opposed Blatter in the election, but admitted “They [Fifa] would only take serious action if there’s enough [opposition willing to act].”
Danish Uefa ExCo member Allan Hansen is also said to be of a similar mindset and has proposed to stage a new competition featuring sides from Europe and South America. In reality however, there are no guarantees a boycott would achieve any tangible reform in a hurry.
Blatter has demonstrated his intransigence knows no bounds. The man himself said he intends to “leave through the front door and leave with a clean house.” After four terms in office, he is not about to relinquish power, at least not without a long fight.
In addition, Fifa’s World Cup qualifying draw is due to be held on July 25 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Despite the fulminations of Dyke and British politicians, it is hard to envisage circumstances in which significant numbers agree to withdraw their participation from the qualifying draw, especially in a time-scale of just under two months. Then of course their is the risk of missing out on the financial windfall that competing in the World Cup and its associated sponsorship brings.
On Saturday June 6, UEFA will meet in Berlin to discuss their next step. Talks of a boycott will be high on the agenda however it will not be a united ship. Spain, France and of course Russia are three of the 18 European countries who were said to have opposed UEFA’s reform mandate, voting for Sepp Blatter.
Minus the backing of UEFA president Michel Platini and with no guarantees that Europe’s pro-reformers can rely on the support of the South American contingent, the boycott campaign could be derailed before it’s even truly in motion. For example, could England rely on the backing of Argentina given the history of fraught diplomatic relations between the two? And that is where the real problem lies – in geo-politics.
With so many stakeholders involved, what is the true purpose of this boycott?
On face value, a UEFA-led protest against FIFA does not appear to be grounded in political pragmatism but rather moral objection. It would be propagated as a boycott against the unscrupulous and corruptive malpractices of Fifa. A means of enacting much needed change and jettisoning Sepp Blatter. However, would such a protest also be based upon the supposition that Russia are a guilty party in the chicanery of the bidding process. It could be a diplomatic minefield.
Some circles have described a World Cup boycott as “Soccer’s nuclear option”, a sure fire way to foment political tensions. Following the arrest of Fifa officials, Russian president Vladimir Putin was quick to wade into the debate, accusing the US of meddling outside its jurisdiction.
“It’s another clear attempt by the USA to spread its jurisdiction to other states. And I have no doubt – it’s a clear attempt not to allow Mr Blatter to be re-elected as president of Fifa, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organisations.”
Since his re-election, Sepp Blatter has also launched diatribes at his detractors. The Fifa president highlighted that both England and the US had lost their bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, claiming that, the attempt to unseat him was led by a spiteful media campaign in both countries.
Both are examples of the shrewd defence adopted by Putin and Blatter. In effect they are playing the role of spin doctors. It is no secret that political relations between Russia and the West have reached their most fractious since the Cold War years. Blatter’s line portrays the US and England as vindictive and irrational, willing to use all manner of subterfuge to prevent Russia and Qatar from holding a World Cup, in turn wresting the event for themselves. Putin is beating a similar drum. Ratcheting up an anti-imperialist rhetoric, suggesting that these attempts to destabilise Fifa and the World Cup are political revanchism, hidden under the guise of anti-corruption.
To some, his line of arguement will resonate. Especially given that calls to boycott the 2018 Russian world cup — as a means of protest against their role in the Ukrainian conflict — have already circulated within Western media and politicians. Only recently, 13 bipartisan US senators wrote to Blatter encouraging him to pull the plug on Russia 2018. Last year, the former deputy Prime Minister of Britain, Nick Clegg, affirmed that a boycott would be a “very potent political and symbolic action”, words that undoubtedly contributed to his inclusion on Russia’s blacklist.
The dangers of a politically charged boycott against Russia are well documented and UEFA will be anxious to distance themselves from such allegations. Unfortunately for Dyke and UEFA however, any withdrawal from the 2018 Russian World Cup would invariably be framed as such. In fact, the significant contribution of British and American politicians in particular, might prove detrimental to the legitimacy of a ‘moral’ boycott or the creation of a ‘Clean Cup’ – a separate competition designed for boycotting nations.
Let us, just for a minute, remove ourselves from our Western bubble. Were the 2018 and 2022 World Cup due to be held in England and the US, would there be the same level of public outrage regarding Fifa’s latest shenanigans? Would we be calling for reform with the same rancour? It all appears a little disingenuous.
Of course, many will argue that the corruption and opacity that we seek to expunge are the only reason the World Cups went to Russia and Qatar. Indeed, a boycott of the Qatari World Cup on humanitarian grounds is well founded given the tragic death of around 1,200 migrant workers, and the continuation of the oppressive Khafala employment system.
There is no doubt Fifa has become a kleptocracy in desperate need of radical rehabilitation. But the problem is, until the Swiss and US prosecutors place key figures behind bars and provide concrete evidence of bribery and corruption, the ground upon which an ‘ethical’ boycott of Russia 2018 would stand, remains shaky.
Admittedly, the indictments and investigations will likely take years to bear fruit. And in this instance, the phrase innocent until proven guilty might be worth heeding. Without robust evidence of Russian wrongdoing in the bidding process, a World Cup boycott could have far-reaching, geo-political consequences. The move would certainly scupper any progress that has been made in reaching a détente with Russia. In terms of the footballing community, it would also create disillusion and frustration among the players and fans of boycotting countries.
Therefore, such talks are neither prudent nor timely. Fifa needs a makeover, but at this moment in time, a boycott would cause more problems than it would solve.