06/2/15

“They Always Say Time Changes Things…?” Is It Really Goodbye To Blatter’s FIFA?

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“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.”

They say a lot can change in just 10 minutes of football, well try 24-hours. Sepp Blatter saved his greatest act of chicanery till last. Having duped us into believing he would unabashedly continue his 17-year reign as Fifa president, at an official Fifa press conference on Tuesday, Blatter announced he would resign. Jaws dropped unanimously. Not many could have predicted this latest twist in the Fifa saga.

Last week, the arrest of seven Fifa officials on bribery and corruption charges plunged Fifa into crisis. Calls for Blatter to resign were vociferous. Yet, he was his usual ebullient and obstinate self, vowing to restore trust and “find a way to fix things.” But as new evidence placed Blatter’s top deputy, Jérôme Valcke, at the centre of this storm, the 79-year-old’s position became increasingly  precarious. Then came his shock press conference.

“It is my deep care for Fifa and its interests, which I hold very dear, that has led me to take this decision” a weary looking Blatter told the world.

There has been much speculation surrounding Blatter’s sudden U-turn. The pressure heaped upon Fifa by its sponsors may well have been a factor, with Visa, Coke and MCDonald’s all welcoming Blatter’s decision to resign. But perhaps more significantly, reports in the US media just hours after Blatter’s announcement alleged that he was also the subject of a corruption inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The news of his departure has been greeted with rapture, at least within the West. England’s Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, triumphed that Blatter’s decision is “brilliant for world football” while potential Fifa president candidate, Luis Figo, said “Change is finally coming. Let’s find a solution to start a new era of transparency and democracy in Fifa.”

In reality however, the fight to clean up Fifa has just begun. First of all, Blatter hasn’t actually officially resigned yet.

“While I have a mandate from the membership of Fifa, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football” Blatter continued, “Therefore, I have decided to lay down my mandate at an extraordinary elective Congress. I will continue to exercise my functions as Fifa President until that election.”

While the Swiss football administrator has been duplicitous before, it’s unthinkable that he would renege on this pledge. That is not to say that Blatter won’t go without resistance and exerting influence. The very fact he has resigned, rather than allowing himself to be ignominiously toppled, demonstrates his desire to cling to power for as long as humanly possible. The next Fifa congress at which a new president will be elected is expected to take place between December 2015 and March 2016. Blatter will still posses considerable clout, particularly when it comes to influencing the next Fifa election. His support in continents such as Africa and Asia will not dissipate and as such, one begins to realise just how long and arduous the road to reforming Fifa could prove.

Blatter was the face of Fifa’s corruption but he wasn’t the body and soul. Deceit and avarice have been engrained in Fifa over years, cementing a culture of corruption and patronage in which Fifa’s hegemony stand to profit. Fifa is a Machiavellian type organisation, one built upon the premise that deviance is the most effective means through which to cling onto power. Sociologist, Ellis Cashmore, explained this phenomenon by citing a fellow academic, an Italian scholar named Vilfredo Pareto. Responding to the question of whether a change in Fifa leadership would make a difference, Cashmore replied:

“There are always cliques that rise to the top and engineer ways of staying there. He [Pareto] called it the Circulation of Elites. If he were around today, he’d probably conclude that, in a largscale organization like Fifa, which has reserves of about $15 billion, it really doesn’t matter who’s in charge: the people in positions of power will try to feather their own nest — make money for themselves.”

Another interesting facet of Blatter’s resignation is the significant pressure it will heap on Qatar’s highly scrutinised 2022 World Cup bid. While it has been mooted that the Russian World Cup could also be moved, these calls often carry more than a whiff of political posturing, especially in the UK and the US. However, from an ethical standpoint, the humanitarian grounds for boycotting Qatar are well founded. Were the allegations of a corrupt bidding process to be corroborated, the case for a boycott would be compelling.

Undoubtedly, Blatter’s imminent resignation is a step in the right direction, however this is neither a time for triumphalism nor complacency. The first step will be ensuring that the candidates for the next Fifa election are batting on a level playing field.

As renowned and controversial artist, Andy Warhol, once said: “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”

06/1/15

World Cup Boycott: “It Doesn’t Smell Good”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

@LH_Ramon25

12/14/13

An Anglo-Italian Perspective

 England v Italy - UEFA EURO 2012 Quarter Final

It has been a week since the World Cup draw and the dust has settled on what was a fascinating event. Last week I discussed the social and political implications of the World Cup in Brazil however the prospect of Italy – England has forced my hand to write something a little more light hearted and certainly closer to home.

When Sir Geoff Hurst picked up that little plastic ball on Friday the 6th of December at Costa do Sauipe a wry smile came to my face. It just had to be, Italy versus England.

It is a tie which should provide me with the ultimate internal conflict, something akin to your alter egos, sitting on each shoulder, whispering sweet nothings in your ear. “Italia, tifa Italia – Italy support Italy, no its got to be England you should support England” (the conversation would go something like that). Hailing from England with an Italian father who like many on the peninsula has a vehement passion for football I should be experiencing an International schism. Not the case. For reasons little known to my self, apart from the fact my mother isn’t the biggest of football fans, I have always had a stalwart attachment to the Azzurri. Call me unpatriotic, question my ‘love for my country’, apparently something politicians do these days to besmirch a journalists reputation, however it does not make an iota of difference to me.

That said the point of this article is not to discuss the mundane topic of my own allegiances but to compare and contrast two nations whose footballing history makes them behemoths of the World Cup arena.

Whether its Forza Italia or Come on England I will be juxtaposing the media reaction surrounding these two European heavyweights of Brazil’s World Cup Group D.

Press Reaction 

England

It is safe to say the English media quaked at what was undoubtedly a cruel draw. Not only were England condemned to face  Italy and Uruguay (two nations in the top 10 of the FIFA rankings) but they would also have to play their opener in the sweltering heat of the Brazilian Jungle.

Greg Dyke's reaction to the bad news (Photo from The Guardian)

Greg Dyke’s – Chairman of the FA reacts to the draw (Photo from The Guardian)

For much of the press, Greg Dyke’s reaction to the draw said it all. He was caught on Camera pulling his finger across his throat. In typically English fashion this already signaled doom. For Matt Dickinson of The Times the gesture “perfectly captured the story of England’s anguish” while The Guardian described the group as “probably as treacherous as anything Hodgson could have dared imagined”.

It was not just the quality of the group, which also included a potential banana skin in Costa Rica, but also the location of England’s first game – Manaus. The stadium lies in the heart of the Amazon Jungle where temperatures can soar above 30c and humidity can be as high as 80%. The Sun duly published a double spread headed “Amazon Pain Forrest”. The only consolation if you can call it that is that England will be playing Italy, another side who will be unaccustomed to the perilous conditions.

Generally the media reaction in England epitomised the country’s tendency to veer towards cynicism and pessimism regarding their prospects in major events. Events which are frequently anticipated with a catalogue of woe and a sheepish expectation of failure.  It is in stark contrast to the jingoistic, conquer all attitude of the English during the height of the British Empire, although that said there were some who tried their best to rally this type of sentiment. Steve McManaman appeared positively buoyant after the draw speaking on ESPN “I think we’ll be very happy with that. We know how the Italians play. I don’t think there is any problem there”.

No doubt as the World Cup draws closer and closer, whether it be the fans or the press, there will be some sort of wave of enthusiasm that sweeps England and suddenly you may start hearing “well why not, why can’t England go all the way, at least the Semi’s”.

Italy

In Italy the press reaction to the draw was at times just as sceptical but manifested in a totally different manner. La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the head line “Italy Pays the Price” with the overview reading “After Blatter, Zidane gave us another ‘headbutt’ by picking us Uruguay, England and Costa Rica”.

Apart from the fact that the analogy in this headline could be construed as slightly inappropriate and disrespectful to one of the games biggest names, its real agenda lies in one of the Italian media’s favourite tough luck stories. Corruption and scandal. Anyone who knows Italy well will be familiar with the peninsula’s love for a conspiracy theory. So when it was announced that one of the European teams from pot 4 was going to be moved into pot 2 and face the possibility of being drawn with another of the strong European sides, everybody in Italy ‘knew’ the Azzurri were going to be that team.

Among the Italian media there was a continuation of this theme. The Corriere dello Sport  went with the headline “Scandolo”  – “Shameful World Cup draw gives us England and Uruguay, while France get an extremely easy group despite being a long way back in the FIFA rankings”. The headline tells you all you need to know. While it reveals a similar candid level of uncertainty among the press surrounding Italy’s chances of success, it is above all because the world and its wife are ‘against’ them.

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Totti given his second yellow vs South Korea by referee Byron Moreno in controversial circumstances (Photo from espnfc.com

This however should not come as shock. In 2002 after Italy were dumped out of the World Cup by hosts South Korea (in what must be said were controversial circumstances) Pietro Calabrese editor of La Gazzetta and a doyen of the Calcio journalist world wrote “We were knocked out in order to level out some problems between us and the bosses of FIFA and UEFA…Italy has no weight…Shame on them…Shame on the World Cup”. Having read this episode in John Foot’s book: Calcio the author goes onto describe other incidents in which the press became embroiled with such stories. So while the media focused on the cruel draw dealt to Italy, much of the comment was centred around conspiracy.

Tutto Sport opened with a rather less controversial headline – “Italy scare Cavani and Rooney”. This was one of the more positive press reactions to the draw yet the paper were quick to highlight Prandelli’s comments regarding Costa Rica. “Prandelli surprised everyone ‘I fear Costa Rica and the climate'”. This is the last team you might expect the Italian coach to highlight but given Italy’s past failure to get out of a group full of minnows (1966 & 2010 immediately spring to mind) the media were picking up on what  is sometimes Italy’s Achilles heel – complacency against the ‘smaller’ teams.

There is a saying the country gets the press it deserves and in this case the media speaks volumes for Italy and England. While the English press wallowed in the nation’s misfortune the Italian press were quick to apportion some of the blame on FIFA and the system. In one case its bad luck and in the other– its wilful conspiracy.

11/19/13

‘They Work Football and We Play Football’: England’s Conundrum

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There is a certain omnipotence which surrounds this German national side, even when facing their second string. This is what England will be up against on Tuesday night, the fringe players, the rearguard of Joachim Löw’s side. But this counts for nothing when you consider the abundance of talent at Löw’s disposal. Roman Weidenfeller, Marcel Schmelzer, Marco Reus and Sven Bender are four of the expected changes, players who were part of a spellbinding and dazzling Dortmund side who lost in last years Champions League final. Then there is Julian Draxler,  another of Germany’s bright young stars in their golden generation. And it was Mr. Draxler who was speaking to the BBC ahead of Tuesday’s clash at Wembley.

What is the difference between the styles of Germany and England he was asked. After a brief description of Germany’s playing style his conclusion was succinct:

“…they work football and we play football”.

He may have hit the nail on the head. England’s style can be workman like, at times arduous on the eye and joyless. The best teams in the world always look like they are having fun. Draxler’s analogy reminds me of comments made by one of England’s young talents – Jack Wilshere.

It was around the time of the Adnan Januzaj saga, “Only English people should play for England”, should we naturalise players who have come here solely for footballing purposes? Who qualifies as ‘English’? Et cetera et cetera. Perhaps without realising the Arsenal young gun had conflated a number of contemporary issues in society. But it was one comment in particular which instantly grabbed my attention.

“We have great characters. You think of Spain and you think technical but you think of England and you think they are brave and they tackle hard”.  

My immediate thoughts were why on earth are you endorsing such archaic attitudes . Then I reassessed. In a week where England had two crucial World Cup qualifiers they were being attacked left, right and centre. Gregg Dyke had announced the new FA commission tasked with improving the fortunes of the England team. His comments regarding England’s chances at the world cup (or lack of) and the failure of young English players in domestic football were necessary yet untimely. Wilshere’s comments were a valiant defence of both the current national side and English traditions. It was a statement with jingoistic sentiments.

Being brave, having character and tackling hard are all useful traits for a footballer, however these traits alone aren’t going to win you European and World Cup medals. Lest we forget it is the Xavi’s and Iniesta’s of this world that have been picking up the International honours of late – two players certainly not renowned for their hard tackling and tough demeanor. And this is where England’s quandary lies. But what is the solution? I am neither talking about a whole sale importation of a foreign style nor a whole sale rejection of existing traditions but a fusion of anglo-continental styles.

Wayne Rooney is a case in point; he has combined English grit and ruggedness with ingenuity and class. A balance needs to be struck and this doesn’t just come down to harping on about improving technique (as important as it is). In an article by Didi Hamann for The Independent, he spoke of the desire in England to find the new Gascoigne, the new Rooney, the new hero that can reignite England’s dream of success. It is a culture that hinders the overall cohesion of the team.

Hamann recently mocked the English hysteria surrounding Andros Townsend and he makes a valid point. Indeed his sudden rise to prominence has seen him become England’s next hero ‘pulling the sword out the stone’.  If the hopes of a team are projected onto one or two individuals then the team will struggle to take collective responsibility and will inevitably suffer as a consequence. The individual is perpetually the hero or villain of the piece. Thus the future not only lies in  ‘technique’ but also in the sculpting of attitudes. But this is a job for the future and Wilshere was talking about the here and now.

The team won’t change over night and Brazil is edging ever closer. England will play a German team at Wembley who have combined talent, passion and intensity with a technically entertaining brand of football. It is a model to which the English aspire. England have characters on the pitch who tackle hard and work hard, they always have done. This is the root of Draxler’s comment. As we all know England have a number of talented individuals and collectively they still have the potential to perform. It is the first time in a while England will approach a world cup with scant expectation of success. I say embrace this. In the words of Julian Draxler England need to go to Brazil and “play football”.