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Corruption, Murder, and the Beautiful Game

On FIFA's scandalous history

On December 2, 2010, FIFA president Sepp Blatter stood before a giant blue screen at his organization’s headquarters in Zurich and announced the two countries that had won the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. After hours of presentations and last-ditch lobbying efforts from Prince William, David Beckham, Morgan Freeman, and Bill Clinton, FIFA’s 24-man executive committee — down to 22 after two members were caught trying to sell their votes to undercover journalists — had elected Russia and Qatar to follow Brazil as the next hosts of soccer’s biggest tournament.

On the face of it, the choices were surprising. FIFA’s inspection team had evaluated all nine bids1 and rated Russia and Qatar as the riskiest of the lot. Russia presented major infrastructure problems. Qatar got so hot in the summer that the inspectors deemed a World Cup there a “potential health risk for players, officials, the FIFA family and spectators.” Nevertheless, Blatter, a winking, bald-pated 75-year-old from FIFA’s home country of Switzerland, looked overjoyed as he read out the results. “I am a happy president,” he gushed.

FIFA has a longstanding reputation for corruption, and even before the executive committee convened, there was widespread concern that the voting would be rigged. Alarming details had been leaking out for months. In October, Sunday Times reporters posing as American lobbyists had secretly videotaped two ExCo members, Tahiti’s Reynald Temarii and Nigeria’s Amos Adamu, demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars for their votes. They each claimed that the money would be used for development projects — a soccer academy in Auckland, New Zealand, four artificial fields in Nigeria — but wanted the money to be paid to them directly. Three days before the vote, the BBC’s Panorama program broadcast an investigation into FIFA corruption that accused three current ExCo members of taking bribes in the 1990s.

In the weeks after the vote, the suspicion intensified. It was noted among the losing nations that the committee had handed the World Cup to two oil-rich countries with troubling, arguably outright authoritarian governments. In doing so, it had voted down bids — including those from the United States, England, and Japan — that outperformed the winning nations in both tournament-readiness and revenue potential. England’s bid, one of the most highly praised by the inspection team, received a paltry two votes. Multiple newspapers reported that the delegates from CONCACAF, the governing body of North American soccer, had voted against the country from their own confederation, the United States.

FIFA had faced this sort of suspicion before. Both Blatter’s election as president in 1998 and his first reelection campaign were dogged by allegations of bribery. The old boys on the ExCo — it has never had a female member — had long been rumored to buy votes, manipulate TV deals, get fat on corporate kickbacks. Sometimes there were more than rumors. In 2006, Jack Warner, the head of CONCACAF, was censured by FIFA’s Ethics Committee when an Ernst & Young audit found that he’d made a million-dollar profit selling World Cup tickets in Trinidad.

None of this had ever really fazed FIFA. But the rumblings about Russia and Qatar persisted for months, and they came at the worst possible time for Blatter. His third term as president was up in June, and he faced an unexpected challenger in the election: Mohammed bin Hammam, the Qatari head of the Asian soccer confederation and a key mover behind Qatar’s successful World Cup bid. Bin Hammam had once been known as a Blatter loyalist; now, somewhat breathtakingly, he was capitalizing on the widespread mistrust of Blatter by running for the presidency on an anticorruption platform.

By May 22, when the allegations followed Blatter on a trip to South Africa, the normally merry president was reduced to pounding his hand on a table and exhorting journalists to “stop please to say FIFA is corrupt. FIFA is not corrupt! Definitely not.” Three days later, however, under pressure from bin Hammam, FIFA surprised the soccer world by launching a major corruption investigation. Its target: bin Hammam himself, whom a curiously timed report had accused of trying to buy the votes of Caribbean officials for $40,000 each. Bin Hammam insisted he was innocent. “If there is even the slightest justice in the world,” he declaimed, “these allegations will vanish in the wind.”

They didn’t. On May 29, bin Hammam was suspended from FIFA. On June 1, Sepp Blatter was reelected as an unopposed candidate. In his column for insideworldfootball.com, Blatter painted a colorful picture of what he insisted had definitely not happened:

“To now assume that the present ordeal of my opponent were to fill me with some sort of perverse satisfaction or that this entire matter was somehow masterminded by me is ludicrous and completely reprehensible.”

Should it matter to soccer fans if FIFA is corrupt? By almost any measure the game is thriving, with more fans in more corners of the world, every day. If the combined audience for just the final two rounds of the 2010 World Cup were a country, it would be, by far, the most populous nation on earth. Most of these fans seem to be enjoying themselves, so if a cabal of scheming old men in Zurich happens to be pulling strings behind the scenes, why should the rest of us worry?

It’s easy to see FIFA as unimportant in part because, as the Blatter-bin Hammam wrangle illustrates, there’s something deeply silly about many of the organization’s Machiavellian twists. One of the common misconceptions about FIFA corruption is that it flourishes because the organization is rolling in money. In fact, if FIFA were a corporation, its revenue of just more than $1 billion a year wouldn’t get it within a Tim Howard goal kick of the Fortune 500. In 2010, ExxonMobil raked in $284.6 billion; Blockbuster Video, the 500th company on the list, had revenues more than four times the average for world soccer’s governing body. By the global scale on which it operates, FIFA is at best a medium-sized outfit. And it’s the organization’s middlingness, combined with its exposure to much larger economic powers, that determines the peculiar character of its scandals.

FIFA executives tend to be vain bureaucrats and unctuous politicians rather than cutthroat businessmen. From an economic standpoint, their only real purpose is to control the point of access to the World Cup, from which the organization derives 87 percent of its income. FIFA’s top executives are thus in a position to be courted around the clock by massive corporations, which want to secure one of the competition’s prized sponsorships, and by governments, which want the prestige of hosting the tournament. It’s easy to imagine how a sports administrator’s ego would unfurl under these conditions; the majestic, indomitable beard of Chuck Blazer, the American functionary who wrote the report accusing bin Hammam,2 provides a useful visual aid. As a result, the FIFA corruption stories that become public — and there are presumably many that don’t — tend to be silly, tawdry, or decadent rather than chilling or deeply outrageous. They’re just a bit of glitzy filth, the mildew of globalization.

The best recent example of this is the case of Lord Triesman, the former chairman of the English Football Association and head of England’s 2018 bid. In May 2010, Triesman was ousted from both roles after a former aide secretly taped him saying that Spain and Russia were trying to bribe World Cup referees. A year later, as bin Hammam and Blatter were plotting against each other in Zurich, Triesman appeared in London, testifying before a parliamentary committee about the failure of England’s bid. The location was significant. Under Europe’s stringent libel laws, making accusations, even against public figures, can lead to heavy penalties. Speak under parliamentary privilege, however, and you’re immune from legal action.

Triesman thus had the perfect stage from which to take revenge on FIFA. He cheerfully obliged, offering up a series of anecdotes that were hilarious, unsubstantiated, and off-putting, all in about equal measures. In one, Jack Warner demanded to be bribed with, among other things, £500,000 under the guise of buying World Cup TV rights “to lift the spirits of the people of Haiti.”3 Ricardo Teixeira, the head of the Brazilian Football Confederation, was more blunt, interrupting Triesman’s pleasantries with a snort: “You come and tell me what you have for me.”

Best of all was Triesman’s meeting with Nicolás Leoz, the six-term president of the South American soccer confederation. “I was guided from the table,” Triesman said, “to a display cabinet, in which there was a large book.” In the book were facsimiles of the honors Leoz had been given by various countries — knighthoods, photos of streets that had been named after him, and so on. Leoz told Triesman through an interpreter that “he believed the appropriate way of recognizing his achievements in world football were not by money, he didn’t need money, he already was personally a very wealthy man.” Instead, Triesman continued, “I was shown the facsimile of his Légion d’honneur.4 I was then told, through the translator but directly after he had spoken, that he believed that a knighthood from the United Kingdom would be appropriate. And it was put to me that as a former Foreign Office minister, I must know how these things are organized and could probably achieve it. … I said that it was completely impossible, that we didn’t operate in the United Kingdom like that. Mr. Leoz shrugged his shoulders and turned and walked away.”

Did any of this really happen? It almost doesn’t matter. Triesman’s portrait of FIFA as a rogues’ gallery of parasites accorded deeply with what everyone already sensed about the organization. On the other hand, his portrait of himself as a lion of British rectitude, shocked and outraged by each hint of impropriety, was so absurdly implausible that even if Triesman’s accusations against FIFA weren’t true, FIFA could still be regarded with suspicion simply for consorting with men like Triesman.5 The whole narrative sank into a soft bottom of rottenness. Like a scene in a comic novel, it felt detached from reality — something that sounded like the truth told in a way that sounded like lying.

The pivotal moment in the history of FIFA corruption came in the summer of 1974. That year, West Germany upset Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands at the World Cup; the Jules Rimet trophy, which was actually held by the winners, was retired in favor of the FIFA World Cup trophy, which was awarded only in replica; and João Havelange, the tall, grim-faced head of the Brazilian Sports Confederation, was elected as FIFA’s seventh president.

Under Havelange’s predecessor, the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous, FIFA was not notably corrupt, only racist and Eurocentric. Rous, who was born during the reign of Queen Victoria, championed values of amateurism; as a young man, he had served as a referee. As president, he alienated FIFA’s non-European contingent by resisting efforts to expand the World Cup — in the 1966 tournament, there was one spot reserved for Asia and Africa combined — and by supporting apartheid South Africa’s right to a place in world soccer.6 Rous’ FIFA was hopelessly outmoded, an artifact of the game’s colonialist past.

João Havelange had two insights that, taken together, transformed and modernized FIFA. The first was that the countries Rous had neglected could form a viable power base. Havelange toured Africa with the immensely popular Brazilian national team, promised development funds to smaller nations, and lavished attention on regions that had previously been crowded out by traditional soccer giants. Behind the scenes he reportedly went much further; one insider at the time reported that Havelange defeated Rous with “small, brown envelopes going into big, black hands.”

Havelange’s second insight was that the commercial potential of soccer had barely begun to be tapped. The 1970 World Cup, the first to be broadcast live and in color throughout the developed world, hinted at spectacular possibilities, but Rous’ antique FIFA had done little to exploit them. At his first dinner as president, Havelange encountered the German businessman Horst Dassler, the son of the founder of adidas. Dassler, an aggressive, manipulative entrepreneur who was then serving as the CEO of adidas France, had thought a great deal about how to capitalize on the explosion in the popularity of televised sport. Over a series of meetings, Havelange, Dassler, and Dassler’s partner, Patrick Nally, devised what eventually became the template for modern sports sponsorship. As the soccer historian David Goldblatt writes in The Ball is Round, the plan had four components:

First, only the very largest multinational companies, whose advertising budgets could bear the load and whose global reach matched the TV audience on offer, should be approached as sponsors. Second, sponsorship and advertising would be segmented by product type: There could be only one soft drink, one beer, one microelectronics firm, or one financial services company that could be the official World Cup product or supplier. Third, FIFA would have total control over all forms of TV rights, advertising, stadium space, etc. Any and all existing deals in a host country would have to go. Fourth, FIFA itself would not handle the details of the sponsorship and TV deals. Marketing and TV rights would be handed over for a guaranteed sum of money to an intermediary who would sell them on.

To cover the last part, the selling of TV rights and sponsorships, Dassler created a marketing company called ISL, short for International Sports and Leisure, and established an office across the street from FIFA headquarters in Zurich.

The combined effect of Havelange’s two insights was to covert FIFA into a sort of hydraulic cash-flow machine. Dassler and Nally brokered deals with huge companies — Coca-Cola was the first to sign on, in 1975. The money flowed into ISL, which paid FIFA a fixed fee for the rights. To enjoy exclusive access to the rights, ISL also made off-the-books payments worth tens of millions of dollars to FIFA executives.7 To preserve the power structure, FIFA ExCo members funneled resources — and ISL money — to the regional confederations that supported them. The people at the top made deals with big companies, then filtered cash to the people at the bottom in return for the votes that let them make the deals.

Havelange reigned at FIFA for 24 years and kept the machine working through sheer grandiose force of personality. (Late in his career, when the Swiss were competing with the French in the race to host the 1998 World Cup, they nominated Havelange for the Nobel Peace Prize and they still lost.) When he announced his retirement in 1998, the race to succeed him pitted Lennart Johansson, the Swedish president of UEFA, against the oleaginous Blatter, who was then FIFA’s secretary general. Johansson had a reputation for incorruptibility — it was thought he might open the books. Blatter was Havelange’s protégé. Blatter won, 111-80.

When asked after the election about rumors of improprieties in the vote, Blatter — always snifflier and more preening than his mentor — openly teased the questioner: “The match is over, the players have already gone to the changing rooms; I will not respond to this question.” The investigative journalist Andrew Jennings records in his book Foul! that Havelange’s allies in Qatar were rumored to have paid $50,000 each to delegates who agreed to vote for Blatter. In a savory twist, the Qatari bribes that secured Blatter’s election were dealt out by the candidate’s loyal friend, future anticorruption advocate Mohammed bin Hammam.

Mbombela Stadium

Swiss law, that wonderfully flexible instrument, didn’t formally prohibit bribery until 2000, and even then nonprofit sporting entities were made exempt. FIFA’s ethics code does include a bribery provision, Article 11.1, which states unambiguously that “officials may not accept bribes” — but then FIFA operated without a written code of ethics until October 2004. It’s possible, amazingly, that the worst behavior of the Havelange and Blatter eras was neither illegal nor expressly proscribed by FIFA policy.

Which raises the question again: If FIFA corruption is simply a closed system, detached from reality, a mechanism for assigning World Cup sponsorship rights, and none of the actions it entails are illegal, then where’s the harm? Surely we aren’t expected to weep when one multibillion-dollar company loses an advertising opportunity because another multibillion-dollar company is better at cheating. So as long as the games are good, why does it matter if FIFA is corrupt?

One of the most striking venues constructed for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was Mbombela Stadium, in the Mpumalanga province in the northeast of the country. Seating just shy of 41,000 people, the stadium rises out of open land, a silver disc ringed by jutting roof supports designed to look like colossal orange giraffes. This was where tiny New Zealand held Italy, the defending champion, to a draw in one of the most memorable matches of the tournament. All in all, Mbombela hosted four World Cup games.

The cost to construct the stadium that hosted those four games was initially estimated at about $80 million; the final tally was closer to $140 million. Construction was funded by public revenues — by taxes. Two schools were bulldozed to make room for the stadium. Parents and children from the nearby village staged protests; as the New York Times reported last March, police “dispersed them with rubber bullets.” Local politicians in Nelspruit, the provincial capital, began turning up evidence of massive graft surrounding the project. In 2008, Jimmy Mohlala, the head of the local council, came forward with evidence that an official named Jacob Dladla had conspired with the stadium’s contractors to effectively steal public funds. The ANC held a meeting to consider the allegations, the outcome of which was that they left the accused, Dladla, unpunished and demanded Mohlala’s resignation. “The ANC has its reasons for taking its decision, which will be communicated to the public in due time,” the party spokesman said.

Mohlala persisted, refusing to resign and announcing that he planned to file charges against a company called Lefika Emerging Equity, which had won the contract to manage the stadium project. Lefika was co-owned by Bobby Motaung, the heir of the South African soccer dynasty that also controls the powerful Kaizer Chiefs team; its CEO, Chris Grib, had fled the country in 2008 after being implicated in a tax-evasion case. Mohlala claimed to have evidence that Lefika had forged a government document and committed bank fraud.

Then, on January 4, 2009, two men wearing ski masks showed up at Mohlala’s house. According to some sources, they started an argument about parking their car. Then they drew guns and shot Mohlala’s 19-year-old son in the ankle, shot Mohlala in the shoulder, and fled. Mohlala died on the way to the hospital.

The Mpumalanga police continually promised an arrest that never seemed to come. They also deflected any speculation that the shooting was World Cup-related. “We don’t talk about politics,” Captain Leonard Hlathi said, declaring “out of order” the assertion that the killing might have been a political reprisal.8 South African newspapers, however, printed what they claimed were hit lists containing the names of people the contractors and their allies planned to assassinate. There were interviews with a Mozambican assassin who described himself as a “cleaner.” In January 2010, another man on the hit lists, Sammy Mpatlanyane, was shot to death in his bed. The local mayor received a text message warning him not to go forward with his evidence “or you will go to your place in a coffin.” According to the BBC, at least four men were eventually murdered in connection with Mbombela Stadium fraud. Three more have died mysteriously, “possibly after being poisoned.”

FIFA has been silent about all this. The past four World Cups to be awarded, representing 16 years of FIFA’s work and tens of billions of dollars in revenue, have charted a line straight down the Democracy Index, from South Africa (30th place) to Brazil (47th) to Russia (107th) to Qatar (137th), where political power is hereditary and homosexuality is a crime. FIFA demands a byzantine range of legal and tax immunities, for itself and its sponsors, from countries that want to stage its marquee tournament; South Africa, where more than half the population is below the poverty line, collected no tax on the $3.5 billion the soccer group inhaled from the event. It’s not that liberal democracies are unwilling to make similar concessions. But when you’re accustomed to being bribed, exempted, accommodated, and indulged — when you never want to pick up the check — in some ways the worse the partner, the better.

FIFA corruption matters, in other words, not because the integrity of the ExCo makes much difference to the average American or European fan, but because FIFA isn’t a closed system. Its decisions, however farcical in themselves, open the door for better or worse things to happen elsewhere. Old men fluttering about knighthoods in Asunción lead to exploitation and murder in South Africa. “Society is full of devils,” Blatter once said, “and these devils, you find them in football.” For all that they act like minor Dickens villains, FIFA executives are not sequestered in a novel; they impact the real world.

Preparations, as always, are moving ahead for the next World Cup. Brazil 2014 will be a comprehensive spectacle, soccer’s triumphant return to the country where Nike thinks it began, and the fireworks displays will drop showers of money on FIFA. The man in charge of the preparations, Ricardo Teixeira, is a stocky 64-year-old Brazilian with a mobster’s neck-wattle and a plutocrat’s blunt eyes. He is also João Havelange’s former son-in-law. Teixeira was married to Havelange’s daughter Lúcia for nearly 30 years; they divorced in 1997, the year before Havelange retired. He was named in both Lord Triesman’s testimony and the BBC Panorama investigation as one of the corrupt eminences of the ExCo, a charge to which he responded, with characteristic subtlety, by vowing to make English soccer’s life “hell” as long as he sat on the committee.

Teixeira’s helming of the World Cup organizing committee has drawn considerable ire in Brazil, where he is widely loathed. At the qualifying draw in Rio earlier this month, which establishes the matches teams will play to earn entry to the World Cup itself, protesters marched outside carrying signs that read “FORA RICARDO TEIXEIRA”: Ricardo Teixeira Out. “Thousands of the city’s residents are being removed from their homes,” the protestors said in a statement; the government is clearing favelas to make room for tourist-friendly construction. Inside, Sepp Blatter took the podium:

“Football is the beating heart of Brazil, this multicultural country of joy and celebration, blessed with natural beauty and a booming economy. Brazil holds a special place in the world of football, producing and reproducing stars and talents who, unfortunately or fortunately, are enriching all the world of football.”

Beauty and money, production and reproduction, fortune and misfortune and riches. There are signs that the old Havelange coalition is starting to break apart, that Blatter’s grip on FIFA is weakening. Bin Hammam turned on him; proposed changes to Swiss law might threaten FIFA’s tax status; the press is forever getting closer to the box of dirty secrets. The domestic clubs, who increasingly hold the real power in soccer, are correspondingly restless; Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the great German striker who now heads the European Clubs Forum, has said that “I don’t accept any longer that we should be guided by people who are not serious and clean.” Havelange, now 95, is being investigated by the International Olympic Committee for accepting a seven-figure bribe. Blatter’s strongest reform effort to date — appointing Henry Kissinger and Placido Domingo as anticorruption consultants — has met with widespread derision. If nothing else, the average age of the ExCo is 64 — surely one of the main reasons FIFA broke its own tradition by awarding two World Cups at once last year. Some sort of change must be coming.

But Blatter has withstood crises before, including the sudden collapse of ISL in 2001, which revealed yawning holes in FIFA’s books. Somehow or other, he always seems to emerge at the end, smiling above the rubble and purring that it would be reprehensible to assume he masterminded all this. This may be because he understands better than anyone, Havelange included, that while FIFA might influence the real world, it is never finally judged there. Reform movements and protests are local and particular. FIFA’s plane is abstract and global, the bright, hard everywhere of logos and sponsored theme music. To thrive, Blatter doesn’t have to make the World Cup a force for good. He just has to make it look good on TV.

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland. You can find him on Twitter at @runofplay.


Previously from Brian Phillips:
On the Border: A look at the soccer rivalry between the United States and Mexico
Brian Phillips on Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Pete Sampras and the dead kings of Wimbledon
Brian Phillips on Roger Federer’s Loss
The long autumn of Roger Federer

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Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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