It would be something of a stretch to suggest that the events the last thirty-six hours have been a surprise to most football supporters, but this doesn’t mean that they haven’t been something of a shock. For all that we felt about the dark heart at the centre of FIFA, it has long felt as if this particular organisation had slipped some distance beyond reproach. The constant trickle of both rumour and leaked truths about its inner workings coupled with its brazenness in its dealings with just about everybody, from the general public to governments, left the feeling that this was a global body whose power, put simply, could not be contained. If FIFA wanted tax breaks, it got tax breaks. If migrant workers died whilst building white elephant stadia for tournaments, the global audience for those tournaments increased nevertheless. FIFA, it rather felt for many years, would only reform if FIFA wanted to, on its own terms and to the exact extent to which either it desired or believed it could get away with, depending on your position. Over recent years, that desire has seemed largely non-existent.
There is a possibility now that change will be thrust upon world football’s governing body, though. At a press conference held last night, UEFA expressed it’s anger over recent events and called for tomorrow’s vote to elect a new head for the next four years to be postponed. There has been no word from Zurich at the time of writing that such a postponement will occur, and it seems inconceivable that Sepp Blatter, the individual upon whose desk ultimate responsibility for this train wreck ultimately rests, will surrender so much as an iota of power without a considerable fight. This time, however, the allegations made have come from a source that cannot be easily dismissed. This time, it feels as if there might be a genuine shift in the tectonic plates of world football. The problem with shifting tectonic plates, however, is that they can cause earthquakes, and if an earthquake does follow yesterday’s arrests in Zurich, none of us know what the new world order might look like.
To get to the bottom of the vulnerability that rests at the heart of FIFA, it’s important to remember exactly what it is. Like UEFA or indeed our own frequently maligned Football Association, FIFA is an artificial construct, no more than an alliance of confederations. And those confederations themselves are no more than an alliance of national football associations. Their power and control over the global game has, over the last few decades, remained as absolute as might have been possible as the game has grown in popularity and, probably somewhat more significantly, financial value. For all of its many faults, FIFA has proved itself adept at keeping some sort of order in a world of increasingly diverging interests. There has been no schism in association football in the same way as there has been in many other sports, such as boxing or, if we go back far enough, rugby. It feels difficult to believe, however, that those competing interests will not have been watching the events of the last couple of days with considerable interest.
To the extent to which there is a fault line in the politics world football, the divide between clubs and countries would seem to be at least capable of at less challenging the delicate equilibrium that makes up the football calendar. In the twenty-first century, professional football seems irrevocably headed towards becoming another branch of the light entertainment industry, and this shifting perception of the game might just be passing the whip hand to clubs. After all, it is the clubs who pay the wages of star players and who continue to hypnotise supporters with their “product.” Over recent years, it has felt increasingly as if the power structures that exist within football because clubs – and in particular the biggest clubs – allow it to. But these clubs are run by an assortment of individuals from the wild west end of the capitalism spectrum, and their typical modus operandum might well be considered to be an unholy trinity of imperialist acquisition urges, the ruthless pursuit of profit, and an aversion to external regulation. And these people are exactly the people who would be in pole position to take full advantage of cracks in the game’s administrative structure.
Such a putsch could take place covertly or openly. In the early to mid-1990s in England, the Premier League moved its people into positions of significant influence within the Football Association to the extent that it can sometimes feel surprising that it doesn’t now seem to exert completely partial influence over all of the FA’s affairs. A similar process could be considered to have taken place across Europe, with first the G14 and then it’s successor, the European Clubs Association, seeking to assert the will of the biggest clubs over UEFA policy. It’s difficult to believe that the idea of controlling and running international football and the laws of the game, as well as being able to rip up inconvenient rules and conventions that stymie the “free trade” of the biggest clubs wouldn’t appeal considerably to the biggest clubs, and a power vacuum at the heart of FIFA makes such an idea, if not likely, then considerably more plausible than it might otherwise have been for a very, very long time, if ever. If UEFA was to make a declaration of withdrawal from FIFA, then CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, may be left with little choice but to join them. Whether they would have any control over what decisions were made in such an eventuality is, of course, moot.
That “something needs to be done” about FIFA feels beyond any reasonable doubt. To presume that those who may offer to “come to the rescue” would be doing so for benign reasons, however, seems naive in the extreme. When we talk of reform of FIFA, there can occasionally be a tendency to assume that any sort of change would, by definition, be A Good Thing. In some areas, this viewpoint is not without merit. It seems, for example, scarcely credible that anybody else could have a worse record on the appalling treatment of migrant workers in Qatar since the 2022 World Cup was awarded to that particular country. It shouldn’t, however, be beyond the wit of those in a position to force reform through to do so in a manner that continues to value the best interests of all footballing nations and supporters. Conflicting interests can and should be accommodated. We should, however, tread carefully, because the stakes are high and, in professional football in the twenty-first century, there are always vultures circling. Reform of FIFA is desirable and is starting to look inevitable, but the potential for it come at a significant and damaging cost is real. The global politics of professional football don’t just need reform. They need the right sort of reform, and forgetting that could leave us repenting at leisure in a few years time.
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