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Op-Ed: Fifa cannot reform itself

Op-Ed: Fifa cannot reform itself

Slowly but surely, evidence is mounting against Sepp Blatter and his cronies. The net is closing in on him, but Fifa cannot be reformed from the inside. It needs a clean sweep, an independent fumigation which will mean starting everything over from scratch. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

On Monday night, the BBC Panorama programmed aired a documentary, “Fifa, Sepp Blatter and Me”. Presented by veteran investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings, the programmed revealed a stunning piece of information. Since even before the raids in Zurich earlier this year, the Federal Bureau of Investigations of the United States have been on Blatter’s case over alleged dodgy dealings. These dealing stretch back as far as the 1990s. Panorama alleges that Blatter was aware of a $100 million bribery case involving FIFA’s former sports marketing firm International Sport and Leisure (ISL). That money was paid to Fifa officials throughout the 1990s and, in return, ISL received the TV and marketing rights for FIFA tournaments.

Former FIFA president João Havelange, the man who handpicked Blatter to succeed him and former FIFA executive Ricardo Teixeira were just two of the high-ranking Fifa officials who benefitted from the bribe, but Blatter always denied he had any knowledge of their dodgy doings. Havelange resigned from his role as honorary president in 2013. Teixeira had stepped down from his role as head of the Brazilian Football Confederation in 2012, after had already voted in the infamous 2022 World Cup Draw, where Qatar was named hosts.

Swiss court documents released in 2011 also showed that Havelange and Teixeira collectively received around $42 million in bribes. Blatter has always insisted that he knew nothing, but that has now been called into question. On the Panorama episode Jennings claims to have seen a letter obtained by the FBI which directly implicated the now suspended president. The letter, written by Havelange says: “I emphasise that Mr Blatter had full knowledge of all activities’ and was ‘always apprised’ of them.”

The FBI, who have been on the case for a long time, say that they are “among other things the prosecutor is investigating Havelange’s statements implicating Blatter.”

The fact that such a letter exists is hardly a surprise, but the fact that it has taken so long to surface is what is galling. Even more galling is that it was unearthed through a badgering journalist, rather than Fifa’s ethics committee which has failed, time and time, again to implement the reforms it has promised, simply because they are, actually, powerless. They can ban and banish until the cows come home, but the whole organisation is so damn rotten that that it is only a matter of time that a stink will creep up somewhere, and that is why independence is so important. Remember, it was a journalist – Andrew Jennings, an independent entity – who for years, tirelessly and thanklessly perused the criminals who so snuggly sit in Fifa’s upper echelons.

Jennings, for some, might come across as a comical caricature of an aging journalist with an obsession. He admits himself that he is “getting on a bit”, but that does not change the fact that the work he has done to date has been immeasurably valuable in understanding Fifa’s rabbit hole. Jennings comes across as a fragile soul, but has proven time and time again that he is everything but. His persistent badgering of Fifa’s elite and his relentless digging has helped pick away at the seams of rot. Sadly, though, what this whole sordid saga has shown, and what was underscored by Panorama, is that Fifa simply cannot be trusted to reform itself. Yes, there might be good eggs here and there, but the organisation is simply too big to police everyone, even if there would be a good will and genuine intent.

For too long, those in powerful positions were allowed to get away with despicable corruption and cronyism. They thought that they were the true untouchables. With time, this may change. A new president should help, to an extent, but a regime change cannot flush all the rats from their hiding places. Fifa needs to be fumigated through independence.

That a presidential election – no matter how well intentioned – is even allowed to go ahead next year pretty much sums up just how deluded Fifa are about what they can and cannot achieve. The current acting president, Issa Hayatou, has not only been accused of corruption, but he himself changed the constitution of African Football to ensure he remains in charge of it. These are the kinds of people in charge of the sport and they exist in all corners of the globe, and will continue to do so until radical change is brought. Sadly, fans are indirectly complicit in this sordid saga, and Fifa knows it. They have grown so big and powerful because of the fans of the game. Football is the biggest sport in the world, fuelled by the billions of followers who lap up every second of it.

We love and lust for football because it is the beautiful game in an imaginary world run by ugly people. Football offers a distraction from reality, inspiration from the ordinary and cutting ourselves off from the mainline would mean giving up something we love, so we stay, despite all its faults. Such is the nature of an abusive relationship, which is exactly what our relationship with Fifa has become. DM

Photo: FIFA President Joseph Blatter (C) chats with Confederation of African Football, CAF, President Issa Hayatou (L) and UEFA Pesident Michel Platini during the second day session of the 62nd FIFA Congress in Budapest, Hungary, 25 May 2012. EPA/Laszlo Beliczay.

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