Friday 28 October 2016

Blatter may be going but his way of doing business is entrenched in Fifa

Daniel Finkelstein

Published 04/06/2015 | 02:30

Sepp Blatter in 2007
Sepp Blatter in 2007
People read the local newspaper front pages showing pictures of FIFA's Sepp Blatter in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The disgraced Fifa president, like former US president Lyndon Johnson, personifies a way of doing business that's hard to stamp out.

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To understand Fifa and the resignation of Sepp Blatter, let's start in the Texas hill country.

If you lived there in the 1930s, you did the ironing with an iron. A six or seven pound wedge of iron. Washing was hard work, but nothing could ever be as hard as ironing. The effort of the pressing was one thing, but there was keeping the soot from the fire off the clothes, there was coping with the burns and the blisters. And worst of all, the heat. In summer, the heat while ironing was insufferable.

Just collecting the water for this domestic task, for washing and for cooking, was backbreaking.

And in the evening, when the light failed and they were at last at rest, there was little to lighten the load. No films, no television, little light to read by. Life without entertainment, without plumbing, without a refrigerator, life without anything much but hard work for little reward. All because the hill country of Texas had no electricity.

When you start Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, Texas congressman and senator, and 36th President of the United States, it is hard to understand why the author spends so much time describing wash day and the process of canning food so that it could be stored in homes without a fridge.

Yet as the books progress, you realise the biographer's purpose.

Johnson brought electricity to the hill country and nothing else about him mattered to the people who lived there.

Lyndon Johnson was a crook. This conclusion is inescapable. And his contemporaries knew he was a crook. He acquired the nickname "Landslide Lyndon" after winning his senate seat in 1948 with the help of the very late arrival of a few dubious ballots. He became rich with the help of some fairly rum wheeler-dealing with radio licences.

Yet to the people he helped, his misdemeanours didn't matter at all. Most of them, after all, hadn't even heard of them, being as they were completely cut off from the world. And if they had an inkling, what did they care? The man who literally brought light to their lives deserved to have a seat in the Senate and live in comfort. He deserved their trust.

Johnson had used some of his unethical corner-cutting to enrich himself and some - through leaning on government officials and ingratiating himself with business and money men - he had used to electrify the hill country. And good luck to him, as far as the hill farmers were concerned.

Whenever I hear a tale of government or institutional corruption, Caro's story of LBJ and the hill country comes back to me.

So it was yesterday when I learnt of Sepp Blatter's resignation as Fifa president.

Because it is naive to think that Mr Blatter's departure will lead easily to a clean Fifa.

Fifa is a very rich organisation and here's how it works. It takes money from television and commercial sponsorship and gives a large amount of it away to small football associations in poor countries who can't afford to build their own grounds or headquarters. The Zambians get, say, a €700k technical centre in the middle of nowhere and a large number of Zambian football administrators get jobs.

Yes, on the way, some of the money, ahem, ends up in the pockets of some people in Fifa and they use it to build swimming pools. But what's that to the football association in, as it were, the Texan hill country? It's nothing.

To the football associations getting this money, cleaning up Fifa is not a promise, it is a threat. How does it sound to them when it is declared by a load of rich democracies that the World Cup shouldn't go to obscure dictatorships that are too hot to play football in? They are such places. They actively favour the location of the World Cup in such places.

How does it sound to them when it is suggested that the World Cup location shouldn't be bought by some unaccountable leader for their own advantage? If it's not done like that, how will they get the World Cup?

How does it sound to them when it is suggested that money shouldn't be spent on football association staff holding jobs in countries with little football infrastructure? If Fifa doesn't pay them, who will?

How confident are they that a new "clean" Fifa leadership that doesn't rely on their votes will bring football money to the back of beyond?

I am as appalled and dismayed by what is happening in Fifa as any good western liberal. I am so boy scout, so strict about legal compliance, that growing up when cassettes existed I wouldn't make mix tapes for friends because it was copyright theft.

Yet we would be naive to think that the way Fifa has operated has only served the personal interests of Mr Blatter and will go away because he is going away.

It is not simply because some individuals have a personal interest in "Carry on Fifa". It is because whole countries and football associations do. They see the western liberal attack as favouring rules that help advanced nations and political democracies against them.

The Fifa way of doing business has power not just because people have been bought, but because there is real political support for it inside football. The Fifa leadership has used Fifa money to deliver facilities and competitions to countries who think they wouldn't get these things if Fifa was run by the FBI.

Understanding this is essential to bringing it to an end. Grandstanding and protest was not enough to depose Sepp Blatter because his broad base of support was robust enough to withstand waves of such protest. That's how strong their political interest in the status quo was.

Do we think that has now gone away? Blatter, yes. Blatterism, no.

Change requires an assault on the money - the sponsorship, the television cash, the tax status of Fifa - taking out of the hands of the present leadership their most potent weapon. And at the same time the poorer countries have to feel that they would gain in finance and power from change, not lose by it. Both of these things are easier to say than to do.

Corrupt, cynical, swaying under the assault of legal authorities, Fifa may be further from real change than we'd all like to think. (© Times of London)

Irish Independent

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