The dirty business behind the beautiful game has seen the Fifa chief construct an impregnable fortress of self-interest, writes Martyn McLaughlin
On a balmy June evening in 2009, Sepp Blatter, the president of Fifa, arrived by private jet at Owen Roberts International Airport in Grand Cayman for an evening of pomp and ceremony befitting the status of a man who enjoys all the power of a world leader without any of the accountability.
Cutting the ribbon at the first ever headquarters of the Cayman Islands Football Association, the smell of fresh paint lingering in the summer air, he was hailed as the “father of our football family” by Jeffrey Webb, the association’s president, who recalled the “humble beginnings” of football in the tax haven, when he and his cohorts would work “with no phones, no fax, no physical address”.
A refreshment or three later, Blatter watched on as construction workers busied themselves in a nearby field, part of a 16-acre site earmarked as a centre of excellence where local footballers would one day train on top-grade pitches and in state-of-the-art gymnasiums. “Cayman has not yet qualified for the World Cup,” Blatter told dignitaries. “But I’m sure that one day you will make it. We can help.”
Six years on, the rumbling whirr of JCBs can still be heard at Georgetown over the clinking of champagne flutes. After a number of disastrous attempts to lay the turf on an area prone to flooding from swamp water and salt contamination, officials in the Caymans are starting from scratch, with plans to put down an artificial surface.
According to Fifa’s own records, some £1,612,794 has been funnelled into the Cayman enterprise via its Goal programme since the turn of the millennium. Not a single pitch has been created and no gyms are in sight. All this in a British overseas territory where the national football team has contested just 75 fixtures in its history, losing 49 of them and conceding 189 goals in the process. Still, there is some progress in the Caribbean. Webb, a banker to trade, is now a vice-president of Fifa.
From allegations surrounding corruption, ticket scams, cash for votes and kickbacks, there are countless more damning and disagreeable examples of the folly that has typified Sepp Blatter’s 17-year stewardship of world football’s governing body. But the Cayman episode best demonstrates the naked politicking that is sure to sweep the most reviled figure in sport back into power.
On Friday in Zurich, the Swiss will doubtless be re-elected as Fifa’s president for a fifth term. A triumvirate of challengers has fallen away to leave Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan as the sole pretender to Blatter’s throne. Few observers of Fifa’s machinations anticipate an upset.
The 79-year-old’s reign has been an unedifying spectacle that has sullied football, but as a case study in manoeuvring and opportunism, the manner in which he has assumed absolute control over the organisation exerts a morbid fascination.
The mechanics of the presidential election appear uncomplicated. Each of the 209 members of Fifa have one vote in the congress, meaning that East Timor, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Curaçao have as important a say as traditional footballing powerhouses like Brazil, Germany and Italy. On the face of it, the arrangement looks fair and democratic; the least worst alternative to considerations of population and sporting ability. In practice, however, it is a construct of Blatter’s design that preserves the status quo.
Since the former watch company executive came to a position of authority in Fifa in 1975 with his appointment as technical director, its membership has spiralled from 141 nations to 209, an increase of nearly 50 per cent. Fifa now boasts 16 more members than the United Nations, a statistic that doubtless appeals to Blatter’s quasi-statesman pretensions.
The influx has included the likes of New Caledonia, a French territory in the Pacific; the US Virgin Islands, an organised, unincorporated United States territory in the Lesser Antilles; and Liechtenstein, another tax haven which, despite having no professional football league and a population of just 35,000, has received nearly £1.5m from Fifa over the past five years.
Their incorporation in the ever-expanding Fifa family is indicative of Blatter’s masterplan: he has become his own kingmaker by enfranchising areas that were once isolated from the global game (we in Scotland continue to await word of his patronage).
Regions which have enjoyed the greatest upsurge of influence include North America, Central America, the Caribbean and Oceania. Together with Africa and Asia, they are the new power base, at least in terms of Fifa polity: it is a bloc eager to please – and vote for – the man who has given them cold hard cash; the Goal programme has distributed about £200m worldwide since 1999, predominantly across smaller nations with no footballing pedigree.
Little wonder that Blatter’s visit to the Dominican Republic last month prompted an excitable outburst from Osiris Guzman, the president of the nation’s federation, who compared Fifa’s kingpin to figures such as Jesus, Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King jnr.
His reverence for Blatter is not uncommon. Already, Issa Hayatou, president of the Confederation of African Football, has said every one of the continent’s 54 Fifa members will vote for Blatter. On Friday, it would be possible for the Swiss to carry the necessary two-thirds majority for his re-election without receiving a single vote from Europe or South America.
This is the ultimate aim of Blatter’s work. It is not to spread the gospel of football around the world and encourage participation in the poorest of areas, but simply to create an impregnable fortress that will protect self-interest. He is at the helm of a transnational corporation that plays pork-barrel politics and functions like a modern autocracy.
As long as the money continues to swirl around, the dirty business surrounding the beautiful game will go on. Age will finally wrest him from power, but Blatter has already identified a successor – Jeffrey Webb from the Cayman Islands. Maybe that pitch will get finished after all.