I generally don’t watch soccer. I think it’s boring. Then again, I am American so my exposure to soccer is somewhat limited to moms in minivans, the U.S. Women’s National Team and that whole flinging-your-jersey-like-you-just-don’t-care thing, and something I used to do during Recess when I was a kid. Having said all that, I still know who Pele is (whether or not that’s a testament to my limited knowledge of soccer or his fame is debatable) and I most certainly know about the corrupt organization that manages the most profitable sports event in the world – FIFA and the World Cup. Excuse me. The World Cup.
According to a New York Times article, the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter – the most powerful sports official on the planet – fired back confidently at a reporter when asked if he would resign amid all the allegations of corruption, “Why would I step down? That would mean I recognize that I did wrong.” In an impromptu announcement, just days later, and mostly to an empty room, he declared his resignation as FIFA’s president. This stunning announcement and apparent about-face by Mr. Blatter came on the heels of a police raid by Swiss authorities on a five-star hotel where seven high-ranking soccer officials were arrested and held for extradition to the U.S. on corruption charges. Before resigning, Mr. Blatter had been FIFA president for seventeen years and had been working for the organization in various capacities for over forty years.
Even a soccer-dud like me knows that Blatter’s resignation is HUGE. It’s big news because everyone in the whole world has known of FIFA’s antics for decades, but this is the first time anybody is doing anything about it. Let’s just consider some recent developments in FIFA history – to whet your appetite for the brazenly corrupt. According to ESPN Magazine’s June 8 issue, South Africa spent nearly $2.7 billion to host the ‘Cup back in 2010. Brazil spent a whopping $15 billion in 2014. It gets better: Russia, set to host in 2018, has already spent $20 billion and the event is still three years away! The tiny nation of Qatar “won” the bid to host the ‘Cup in 2022 and they are already projecting that it will cost them upwards of $200 billion. That’s “billion” with a “b.” Ostensibly, the money goes to building infrastructure like highways, parking lots, and – of course – stadiums. The real kicker, is that all of those billions of dollars are literally wasted because many of those stadiums will never host another event.
Speaking of Qatar and its “winning” bid, a former member of that nation’s World Cup media team, Phaedra Almajid, accuses Qatari officials of bribing FIFA officials for the bid. He claims that he was “there in the room” when Qatari officials offered three different members of FIFA $1.5 million each for their respective votes. This is old news, by the way. In 2010, two reporters from the Sunday Times of London went undercover to expose possible corruption amongst FIFA officials. What they found out was that, apparently, it takes more than money to buy FIFA votes because Michel Zen-Ruffinen (then FIFA general secretary) stated quite brazenly that a few of them “could [be bought] with the ladies.” Oh, and let’s not forget what lengths the Russian delegates went to to garner votes for 2018. Apparently, someone stole a couple of paintings – a Picasso and a very valuable landscape – from Russia’s state art reserves and they somehow, magically, found their way into the hands of the French representative to FIFA and the president of UEFA, Michel Platini.
“That’s all great and all, Paul, but why should I care?” By the numbers, in Qatar, as reported by ESPN Magazine: 1,200 – the estimated number of workers who have died working on World Cup projects between 2010 and March 2014; 4,000 – the estimated number of workers who will die between now and the beginning of the 2022 World Cup at the current rate of deaths; 13 – the number of months some workers have waited to be paid for their work ($9.50 per day – can you say “slave state”?); 12 – the number of workers assigned to a room in some places; 8 – the number of Western journalists arrested by Qatari officials for reporting these atrocious figures. Now, I’m not a practicing Hindu, but those numbers say “bad karma” to me in big block letters.
Perhaps karma is the best way to describe what has happened to Sepp Blatter. As powerful as he was and as untouchable as he thought he was, there is no escaping, apparently, what one has sown. It will be interesting to see what new leadership brings to FIFA in the coming years. Will the new president usher in a new era for the most recognizable and most powerful sports authority on the planet or have soccer fans merely traded in the devil they know for a wholly unknown monster yet to be revealed? Only time can tell.