PtG Comment 06.06.2011

The Titanic challenge of Joseph S. Blatter

Comment: The FIFA reforms introduced by its re-elected president Blatter may end up increasing corruption rather than stopping it, and there is a real risk of split in the so-called FIFA family

“I am the captain on the ship and we are weathering the storm”, promised the 75-year old Joseph S. Blatter hours before being re-elected to his fourth term as President of FIFA and its around 300 million football-playing members. The image of a captain and his ship was varied and quoted by the media over and over again during the FIFA congress last week, coinciding with the fact that the congress opened on the very same day, Tuesday the 31st May, which marked the 100 years of launching the great ship Titanic from a dock in Northern Ireland.

Immediately after his re-election Blatter reassured the world that the ship was now in still water. Does he know the lesson learned from Titanic: Icebergs don’t care. If the course of the ship is wrong, they win, no matter the state of the sea.

Sepp Blatter’s declared determination to set a reform course for FIFA, to navigate with full transparency and to refuse corrupt football leaders to travel as blind passengers, sounded so very convincing. The only thing you could hold against his promises is that he has made them innumerable times before without visible consequences.

From interview to interview, from speech to speech, from media release to media release over the past ten years, the captain of world football has swayed between promising reform, transparency, democracy, a corruption free FIFA – and rejecting change by insisting that FIFA was as transparent, democratic and corruption-free as you could possible expect.

  • The ISL scandal that contains 140 million Swiss Francs paid as bribes to FIFA-leaders and other sports leaders who are still enjoying prestigious positions.
  • The accusations of mismanagement raised against Blatter by his former secretary general and a minority big enough to form a football team in his own Executive Committee.
  • The trickery and touting by FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, who has survived every act of personal greed until very recently making the fatal mistake to conspire against the captain himself.
  • The various ways of influencing decisions of where to host World Cups by offering personal advantages and money on the bank to FIFA executives.

It has with a few exceptions all been brushed aside as unfounded allegations, as remote history, as inventions by the media – especially the English – by a captain who has had confidence that his ship would never sink as long as he defined the state of the sea.

After the past weeks astonishing mutiny with waves of allegations sent in all directions by those who were Blatter’s closest financial and political backers, the captain now admits that his ship is taking water. In the best of all worlds, the measures he promised at the congress will repair the leak. But FIFA’s world is not among the best, and some of his concreted measures may increase corruption rather than stopping it.

Appointing a possible war criminal

Take for instance Blatter’s high profiled vow to introduce a committee composed by prestigious international leaders to monitor governance at FIFA. As if it had been exposed to incoming sea water, it shrank when it came to the congress: The “Solution Committee” could draw on external expertise, but is now to be composed by wise men from the inside of FIFA.

Not only is it tempting to suggest that this is a contradiction in terms, it is definitely not helping the end purpose of the committee: To convince the public outside FIFA that football’s governance is watched by independently thinking, interest-free experts. When Blatter at the press conference after his re-election leaked the name of one of the prestigious international profiles he had talked to about a role as a watchdog of FIFA’s credibility, the ship took more water in. He pointed to the former – very former, he left office in 1977, two years after Blatter entered FIFA as a technical director – secretary of state of the United States of America, Dr. Henry Kissinger.

At the age of 88, Kissinger will surely be able to make Blatter and his entourage look like invigorated young men, but he is hardly seen elsewhere as a guardian angel of ethics, transparency and democracy.

Though Kissinger controversially was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for a ceasefire that did not last, he played a leading role in shaping the US military campaigns in the Vietnam War and was responsible for bombing neighbouring Cambodia to ashes. Also he was one of the architects of overthrowing democracy and introducing a brutal military regime in Chile in 1973.

If appointed to work for FIFA, Blatter should observe that Kissinger cannot travel to a great number of the 208 member countries, because they will not guarantee him against being brought to trial for war crimes. One of these countries is the next World Cup host Brazil, so here it is fortunate for Kissinger that FIFA demands criminal impunity for all its officials during a World Cup. 

Will corruption diminish or grow

By suggesting Kissinger, Blatter tries to copy the International Olympic Committee who named him an honorary member in their efforts to repair the damage after the corruption scandal linked to the allocation of the Olympic Winter Games 2002 to Salt Lake City. But it was not namedropping that brought the IOC back on a reasonably safe track; it was thorough reform and the will to implement it.

Also Blatter’s other reform initiatives seem to skate on the surface rather than bringing real change. In the light of the past corruption scandals in the bidding process for the World Cups 2018 and 2022, the FIFA congress followed Blatter’s advice to take future decisions out of the hands of the 24-strong Executive Committee that has worked as a greenhouse for bribes.

In the future, which is a distant future because no decisions will be made for the next 6-7 years, the FIFA congress will vote on which country that shall host the jewel in FIFA’s crown. The role of the ExCo is reduced to creating a shortlist. This is probably the best step taken by this year’s congress, but only time can tell if it will diminish or increase the open and the secret budgets of the World Cup bidders.

Will it be cheaper and more transparent when the bidders set out to influence 208 members rather than 24? Have the 208 football presidents plus their secretary generals plus their political and technical consultants secured a pass for luxurious treatment and endless flattering from the most powerful countries in the world? It will all depend on FIFA’s ability to set up strict regulations and will to carry them through. Please bear with those of us who would like to see it before we believe it.

Investigation with a narrow approach

Splitting the Ethics Committee in two chambers may bring more legal safety to those who are under scrutiny, a step that may turn up as justified to avoid that the committee appears as a tool for the sitting president like in the past days where a rival for the presidency conveniently was sidelined.

It is less clear that the 208 members are the right ones to choose the members of the ethical committee as the congress just decided. It will create a space political wheeling and dealing and not necessarily bring the most independent and ethical spirits to the chairs of the committee.

Why not let outsiders like Transparency International or stakeholders like organisations for players and clubs select the majority in the ethical committee?

Even Blatter’s last move, the hiring of the Freeh Group International Europe led by ex-FBI director to look into the corruption allegations of the now suspended ExCo members Mohamed Bin Hammam and Jack Warner, seems to express continuity rather than change.

Firstly, no independent group is steering the work of the consultancy firm. It will work under the “direct supervision" of a FIFA Ethics Committee member, Robert Torres, a judge from Guam. Though the unknown Torres may be the fairest and wisest and most straight-lined person on earth, one person alone cannot ensure the integrity of the investigation and the political consequences of its findings.

Secondly, the ex-FBI director is only asked to look into the most recent dog fight involving two men who until recently were Blatter’s staunchest supporters. No-one will look at the wide spectrum of scandals that most likely involves those who have lead FIFA and continues to do so for more than a generation, from the ISL contracts-for-bribes system and to the latest allegations of vote buying of future World Cup hosts. Why not? Isn’t it important to clean the ship once and for all?

Sceptical tax-payers

The turmoil at the top of FIFA may have come to a temporary halt, but the changes have not brought about what FIFA first and foremost needs: Instruments and mechanisms that give the public insight into FIFA’s politics and administration – the only way to restore worldwide credibility.

When Blatter’s allies over and again point fingers at England, its football leaders, its politicians and its media for being the reason for the tarnished image of FIFA, they are completely out of sync with international reality.

There is another pattern: The scepticism is explicit in all countries with reasonably functioning democracies, tax collection systems and channels of public information and debate. Sport in general and football in particular benefits from huge public support on the grass-root level, to elite sport development, to bidding campaigns and to construction of stadia and infrastructure. Tax payers feel disgusted by seeing their generosity answered by FIFA with greed, corruption, systematic lies and constant manipulation of facts. This sentiment of course affects – and should do so – responsible football leaders. If the English FA feels it is time to stand up and defend its image at home rather than among the 208 fellow football associations, it is understandable.

Risking split in the family

But also elsewhere in the vast football community discontent is growing. The European Club Association has voiced demands for democracy and transparency with almost the same vigour as Play the Game has been doing for years. The owners of the big European clubs have invested billions of dollars in contributing to the continental success of professional football and the value of brands such as Champions League.

They are not idealists, they are business people putting fortunes at risk in order to make more fortunes, and they are not happy by the random way a handful of FIFA officials manage their assets. For instance, quite a few FIFA leaders have earned money personally through arranging friendly matches in which stars paid by other people perform at the risk of injury or fatigue.

Moreover, FIFA’s big sponsors have aired their dissatisfaction recently. They do not like their global brands dragged through the muddy waters at FIFA’s top. After all, if FIFA had chosen to place its headquarters in most other European countries than Switzerland, it business practices could easily have qualified it as a criminal organisation. No multinational company wants to be stained by these practices.

It was precisely an alliance between big business and big politics – the North American sponsors and the US Congress spearheaded by Senator John McCain - that in 1999 forced the IOC to introduce the reforms that eventually saved the organisation from shipwreck. All the more reason for the media, the politicians and a few national football leaders to keep up the pressure on FIFA to open up for public investigation into its past and present, and to start building better democratic structures and control measures for the future.

Captain Blatter has chosen to continue a dangerous course in an ocean studded with icebergs. Do not be surprised if you soon hear somebody yelling: “All hands abandon ship!”