“Let’s all celebrate,” said Greg Dyke, the Football Association chairman, as the Fall of the House of Blatter gained momentum. Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, had finally quit; the American former football administrator Chuck Blazer was in the confessional, with Fifa’s ex-vice-president Jack Warner – Samson in the temple – threatening to pull the house down by naming all the guilty. Yes, it’s easy for those who care for the game to feel a sense of liberation but in reality there is little if anything to celebrate.
That Fifa has been shown to be a corrupt body is no surprise, nor are the questions over the awarding of past World Cups to Brazil, France and South Africa and future tournaments to Russia and Qatar. But amid all the perfidy, some of Fifa’s successes should be remembered. The decision to stage the 2010 competition in South Africa was derided in parts of the western media as misguided, given the country’s crime and transport challenges. Yet the event was a triumph. (Let’s not forget, too, that under the presidency of the Englishman Stanley Rous, apartheid South Africa was readmitted to Fifa in 1963.) Blatter’s consistent championing of new frontiers for the game – Africa and Asia in particular – enhanced football’s reputation and standing as the world game. His insistence on broadcasting the World Cup on free-to-air television, too, was a long-term benefit to the game and boosted its global following.
For all their righteous indignation about Fifa’s misdeeds under Blatter, the English football authorities were willing participants in the circus, bidding with the triple might of the nation’s royalty, David Beckham and the West Ham- (sorry, Aston Villa)-supporting Prime Minister for the right to stage the game’s premier international contest. When Panorama broadcast its exposé of Fifa’s activities, both the FA and David Cameron were forthright in their criticisms. And it was hard not to laugh at the belated strong words of condemnation from Britain’s favourite tattooed men’s underwear model, after he’d spent so much time attempting to woo the disgraced Jack Warner, making trips to Trinidad and issuing statements of support along the lines of describing him as “an uncle”. De Montfort University gave Blatter an honorary degree, and Boris Johnson described his visit to the UK as akin to one by a head of state.
In condemning Vladimir Putin’s support for Blatter and his dismissal of early claims of corruption as a western conspiracy, let us also not forget that a prominent player in Russia’s 2018 bid was Roman Abramovich, owner of the English champions, Chelsea. The season’s runners-up, Manchester City, have owners from the United Arab Emirates and supported Qatar’s 2022 bid. And among the owners of Football League clubs are the convicted money launderer Carson Yeung (Birmingham) and Massimo Cellino (Leeds United), who has two convictions for fraud. The “fit and proper” persons test for owners is largely seen as a joke within football, much like security at a church fete.
The English Professional Footballers’ Association derives the bulk of its income from a payout from TV rights deals, rather than directly from its members. The chief executive, Gordon Taylor, who also serves on Fifa’s football committee, is one of the best-paid trade union leaders in the world and has been in office since 1981 – even longer than Blatter. Clubs constantly moan about agents, yet they seem happy to employ them at vast cost and are yet to establish any kind of effective regulatory system.
In the rush to “celebrate” Blatter’s demise, the Tory minister for Murdoch, John Whittingdale, announced that England was ready to host the World Cup should Russia be stripped of the right to stage it, however unlikely that might be. Does he really think that the world would accept this? Has he any conception of how the established football superpowers are viewed by the developing nations?
A transparent and much-reformed Fifa can be a force for good in world football, but if England and the UK are to play a part, then first they have to put their own house in order. Without proper powers and authority given to its governing bodies, without its own government representation at cabinet level, this cannot be. For too long a minister for sport has been a joke appointment, outside the cabinet. The Premier League, with its billions and billionaires, should not exist above the rule of law. Only when it is properly regulated and accountable to those who empower it – the billions of people who follow their clubs with cash and devotion – can we truly start to play a meaningful role in the rebuilding process.
What the Fifa scandal has shown is that sport, but football in particular, is now at the centre of the world political and diplomatic stage, and is far too important to be left to the fringes of government. The east-west struggle to capture hearts and minds in the developing world is encapsulated in Fifa’s corruption. Ignored by mainstream politicians throughout the world, Blatter and his men built a power base apparently beyond the control and out of reach of any authority until, much as the IRS brought down Al Capone and his mob, the US attorney general finally called them to account.
On the field, as Saturday’s wonderful Champions League final confirmed, football can indeed be the beautiful game. Off the pitch, it’s a mess. Those who play and watch deserve better than the posturing of politicians who know little of the joys and heartaches of following a club or their national side in what should be the greatest celebration of all: a World Cup run by a respected global body.
Jon Holmes is the long-time agent of Gary Lineker