Tuesday 22 October 2019

Corruption is endemic in soccer-mad Argentina - just like it is in FIFA

Striker Diego Maradona with then-president Carlos Menem before a charity football match in Argentina in 1989
Striker Diego Maradona with then-president Carlos Menem before a charity football match in Argentina in 1989

David McWilliams

In Argentina, football is a religion. If the derby between Boca and River Plate is Easter Sunday Mass, then the Bombonera Stadium, Boca's home, is a Holy Trinity of the Vatican, Lourdes and Fatima - a sacred theatre of dreams, miracles and, depending on the score, extravagant benedictions.

A couple of weeks ago, I made my own personal Camino to this place of worship. A procession of the faithful moved slowly through the back streets towards the tabernacle, repeating incantations, bonded together by the low murmur of repetitive chanting. In the same way as medieval monastic orders, from Franciscans to Jesuits, distinguished themselves with different coloured habits - the outward signs of inner differences - Boca's devotees are a sea of yellow and blue.

Like all religions, this congregation is bonded together by their own sacred scriptures, myths and mysteries, passed down from father to son.

They have their Boca creed which they profess openly, each fan trying to out-do the next in the intensity of their devotion. Tears are not uncommon.

Nothing prepares you for the Buenos Aires derby, the noise, the colour and outlandish drama that this most dramatic of races brings to even the most innocuous challenges on the pitch.

We can only speculate as to the extent to which the collective hysteria of the derby contributes to making Buenos Aires the world capital of psychology; it has more shrinks per head than New York. Is it any wonder they are highly strung?

After all, the canon of Argentinian football deity is impressive.

Think about all the players who have worn the blue and white: Maradona, Messi, Batistuta, Caniggia, Passarella, Zanetti, Mascherano and Di Maria - this is a roll call of world talent.

These are all mesmerising players, but apart from being Argentinian footballers, what else do they have in common?

Look again at the surnames. Notice that all these giants of the beautiful game, in this Spanish-speaking country, have Italian names.

Indeed, come to think of it, so too does the Argentine Pope, Cardinal Bergoglio and that most infamous of locals (for those who remember Las Malivinas/Falklands War at least), General Leopoldo Galtieri.

Argentina feels like Italy in the South Atlantic.

Millions of Italians, the grandfathers and great grandfathers of Maradona, Messi and the Pope, moved from Italy to Latin America in the later part of the 19th century and with them they brought Italian ways.

In fact, some of my non-Italian Argentinean friends claim that the Italians brought with them the three things from the Old Country - fashion, football and corruption.

This may be a bit harsh; but wherever it came from, corruption and bribe paying is certainly endemic in Argentina. It is part of everyday life. If you want something done, you pay for it and the State is the corrupter-in-chief.

A friend suggested to me after the game that democratic Argentina was perfect for corruption because once you start buying votes; you have to buy them all.

He indicated that once in the system, corruption is amplified by democracy because the ballot boxes aren't rigged and every vote is equal, therefore, the corrupter has to set about corrupting everyone, not just the wealthy. This is how everyone becomes debased over time and how the whole system comes to tolerate being bribed.

I had never thought about it like this before. I preferred the old notion that in some way democracy was a bulwark against corruption.

However, the Argentines argued the opposite. Corruption, they argued, is like a weed in a garden. The garden can look green and verdant from afar, but up close it is choked. It is still alive and growing - but with weeds not flowers.

Argentina started being corrupt when it was already wealthy. This country was, in 1949, the fourth richest nation in the world in terms of GDP per head.

Argentina, he said, was therefore set up for corruption because it had the money. A bit like FIFA, he added.

As we chatted amongst football fans, the similarities between Argentina and FIFA became obvious.

There is a lot of money and resources in the country and loads of mouths to feed. If you can engineer the right outcome, you control a massive country. Therefore, there is a massive incentive at the top to pay everyone off and gain power.

This can be all orchestrated and made legitimate by a one-man-one vote, transparent ballot system that looks completely fair but can, in fact, be used as the perfect cover for corruption.

If you look at FIFA as a massive democracy where the one-man one vote system is sacrosanct, we can see the similarities.

Huge footballing countries like Argentina or Germany have the same votes as tiny countries where the game is hardly played. Therefore to get something through, the votes of tiny and, in many cases, poor countries are equal to powerhouses.

Obviously it is easier to slip a bung to a small guy or treat their delegates very well on junkets to influence the vote.

But what about the money - where does it come from?

FIFA gets its bread from the World Cup. This is a licence to print money.

We all know this and the TV companies, backed by massive advertisers and sponsors drive up the purse for each event. FIFA owns this franchise, meaning it becomes as rich as Croesus.

What's more, the man who runs it can identify the areas he wants to exploit and deploy capital at will, either to make things happen - or to make things go away.

Interestingly, the money is a massive subsidy from the footballing powerhouses to the little guys, through the grubby hands of the middle-man, FIFA.

Why is it a subsidy?

Well, because we all watch the World Cup to see Messi, Aguero, Neymar and the great European players.

We want to see the best players, playing for the best countries in the best competition in the world. This is the main event and FIFA is the promoter, financier and bagman all rolled into one.

So like once-rich Argentina, there's a lump of money and lots of poor countries that can be bought off very easily.

There is also a massive incentive for the guys at the top to stay in power.

When you stand back at look at it, if you wanted to create a corrupt system, you couldn't have gone about it better than the system FIFA and Sepp Blatter created.

As I walked back through the streets of La Boca and looked around at all the fans, our kit, our time, our money - one word comes to mind: suckers.

David Mc Williams hosts the Dalkey Book Festival this weekend www.dalkeybookfestival.org

Irish Independent

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