For all the simple “good versus bad” narrative that we have heard over the last few days, weeks, months and years on the subject of FIFA and its machinations, it would be understandable if some with a more casual interest in it all were confused than anything else by the question of how the politics of global football came to be in this condition in the first place. What we understand about the re-election of Sepp Blatter as the president of the organisation is that he was largely voted back into place by the combined federations of Africa and Asia, both of which have benefited to varying degrees as a result of his stewardship, with UEFA – though not all of UEFA; it has been suggested that as many as eighteen UEFA members, including France, Spain and Russia, voted for him in last week’s exercise in FIFA’s take on democracy – voting against him. And this sort of split certainly isn’t one that’s going to be fixed by the small matter of the president’s resignation earlier this evening.
The identities of the opposing factions within FIFA make it easy enough to see the reasons for the current divisions. The division of the rewards that have been generated by the vast increase in revenues that the commercialisation have seldom been equitably divided throughout the game’s history, and especially not in terms of . The first World Cup finals were held eighty-five years ago, but only twice has the tournament been held outside Europe or the Americas, but on both occasions that the finals have been awarded outside this limited geographical window this has been under the watch of Joao Havelange or his protege. Around 70% of FIFA’s annual profits are put back into the game through staging tournaments and investing in projects, whilst hundreds of millions of dollars each year find their way back to national associations around the world. As noted in the Guardian last week, “Sepp Blatter – the only man that attends to Africa’s problems” was a fairly common perception of the man in many parts of the world, and whilst Blatter’s departure and promises of reform are to be considered a step in the right direction, the historical grievances behind the divides within FIFA are very, very real indeed.
Many of the divisions between the developing world and the rest have a historical basis, and it’s important to consider this when trying to understand the current machinations of FIFA. When Joao Havelange took the presidency of the organisation in 1974, it was done with the support of African and Asian members who had previously been treated appallingly by a governing body which didn’t seem to have come to terms with the new order of the post-colonial world. Three significant stand-offs seemed to best summarise pre-1974 FIFA. The Confederation of African Football had expelled the South African national team in 1958 over its refusal to field a mixed-race team, but upon his election to the FIFA presidency in 1961, Sir Stanley Rous allowed its re-admittance before a strong Asian and African turnout at its annual conference held at the Tokyo Olympic games of 1964. Rous’s behaviour over what was clearly a sensitive subject was belligerent and ill-thought out, and it would sow the seeds of his eventual removal, a little over a decade later.
The second incident that would shape the way that international football is governed today came at the time of qualifying for the 1966 World Cup finals, when the entire continents of Asia and Africa were awarded just one place between them, to be determined by a play-off match. The entire confederations of Africa and Asia decided to boycott the competition en masse, with the only exceptions to this being Australia and North Korea, who played off the for the sole place in the finals. As the ties of colonialism started to vanish into the history books, a feeling grew that the developing world should be given a greater degree of control and privilege in terms of its engagement with the game’s governing body, and this feeling would come to be personified through Ydnekatchew Tessema, the Ethiopian head of the CAF, who joined FIFA’s Executive Committee in 1966. Under his watch, Africa was finally given a qualifying place to itself in time for the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, but this could clearly only be a stepping stone for further representation for the developing world in what was supposed to be a defining, inclusive global event.
If there was to be a final nail in the coffin for Stanley Rous and “old” FIFA, this came in the autumn of 1973 when the USSR were drawn for a World Cup finals play-off match against Chile, to be played over two legs in Moscow and Santiago. In 1970 Salvador Allende had become the first democratically elected Marxist President in Latin America when he was voted in as the president of Chile, but his spell in charge of the country turned out to be short-lived and three years later a coup launched by the military under the leadership of Augusto Pinochet ended in the mass detainment and execution of political opponents in the Estadio Nacional de Chile in Santiago, which was to be the venue for the second leg of the play-off.
The USSR and Chile played out a goalless first match in Moscow, but the Soviets requested that the venue for the second leg be changed due to the Estadio Nacional’s very recent use as an internment camp. FIFA suggested an alternate venue in Viña del Mar, but the Chilean authorities refused this. Instead, FIFA sent a delegation to Santiago to examine the stadium, and they subsequently confirmed that, “the report that we will submit to our authorities will be a reflection of what we have seen: total calm.” Whether the Chileans successfully covered their tracks or whether the committee simply turned a blind eye to what was happening will never be known. The USSR refused to travel, and it was Chile who made the trip to West Germany for the following year’s World Cup finals.
By the time of FIFA’s next presidential elections in 1974, the fault lines were clearly marked. The belligerent tone towards the developing world held by the organisation under Rous had led to a clamour for change, and when Joao Havelange ran against him that year, it was after having carefully sought the support of Tessera and the votes of the CAF. With Rous still seen to be pushing for South Africa to be allowed to return to the international fold, the 1974 vote was about a far greater principle than which of two men would be put in charge of the administration of world football. Instead, these were two opposing worldviews – one steeped in colonialism masked as apoliticism, the other seeking greater influence, involvement and, yes, financial recompense – clashing heads, and the reformists won the day.
Havelange was voted into his place by the developing world, and over the course of the forty-one years since then he and Blatter have maintained their positions of power by continuing to court these votes. Even now, whilst the corruption that seems to be endemic within FIFA seems obvious, we should remember that those who voted for Sepp Blatter and will vote again once FIFA reconvenes to choose his successor do not do so entirely because they are corrupt or stupid. They do so, at least some of the time, because this particular lineage has benefited them, and because they do not trust Europeans to not claw back the majority of control and influence of the global game from them. And, as last Friday’s vote in Zurich seem to underlined that these preconceptions are as strong as ever.
When viewed through the eyes of others, the behaviour of much of the European press and the attitude of UEFA take on a somewhat different complexion to the narratives that have been established in this country. The British press in particular, and whether this is true or not is irrelevant when the ballots are counted, is often regarded as cloaking a nostalgia for an era when Britannia ruled the waves in what has come to be regarded as a preoccupation with FIFA corruption, whilst it only requires a cursory look at the state of European club football to understand that a culture of inequality is endemic throughout. Having spent four decades finally building an identity within the global game, allowing UEFA to dictate the future direction of FIFA’s policies would be regarded by many, with varying degrees of justification, to be a retrograde step for their own self-preservation and continued development.
None of this is to say that the entire culture of FIFA doesn’t seem to be so rotten that it stinks to high heaven, of course. If FIFA’s modern band of reformists do wish for international football’s governing body be reformed from within, these concerns over the past behaviour and future intentions of those would seek to assume power in their place will need to be addressed. If FIFA is to be revitalised, if its past is to be truly put behind it, then the next president of the confederation has to be above approach and the entire organisation has to shake out every single last one of those that have fattened their bank accounts. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. Over the coming months, we will find out the extent to which FIFA knows its own history.
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